Learn by Making a Mess

Let me tell you a story…

My senior year of college, I found took a course titled “Web Authoring.” The goals of the class were simple: design and code a website from scratch that will showcase your chosen content in the most favorable and accessible way. There was no presumption of previous coding knowledge; the class was officially a part of the English department. Instead, we were walked through the basics week by week.

The best day of this class was when we were going over HTML and text formatting. Now, this class was not going to test our knowledge of HTML. Our final project was a working site; no one cared how much we had to reference our notes to accomplish the task. So already the teaching style was very different from any IT classroom I’d been in. As our professor went over different HTML tags, we began to hit the more… esoteric ones, the ones CSS was developed to replace.

After going over the list of tags, our professor turned to the class and announced a contest. To make sure we knew what we were doing, he asked us to make the gaudiest websites ever seen, throwing whatever sort of crazy formatting we wanted onto our pages in an attempt to outdo our classmates. There was no need for any more motivation than that; we attacked our super basic websites with some of the worst design choices known to man and we loved every minute of it.

A messy background with the text "Now, you all got that out of your systems? Good. Never do any of that again."

When we were done and the best of the worst was elected, our professor gave us all a stern look. “Now, you all got that out of your systems? Good. Never do any of that again.” We all laughed, naturally. We went on to make final projects that looked MUCH better than those initial concepts. But I never forgot that day where we were allowed free reign to just make a mess of things in order to learn.

When it comes to creating something, many of us are perfectionists.

Perfectionism is a common issue for many people. We want to follow the step-by-step instructions and know we can do it right. We know we’ve succeeded when the thing does what we want it to perfectly with no mistakes. Yet making mistakes and learning through failure is often something that leads us to success.

Being a perfectionist can keep you stuck on the first step of your projects. You might tell yourself that you can’t start until you know everything required to move forwards. Or that you can’t start until you’ve decided what tools will be right to the job. We only think of our work as being ready when the initial plan is perfect. But the truth is, no one is going to see your initial drafts and sketches. They want to see the results.

Sometimes, you just need to dive in and make a mess.

When I want to learn something new, I don’t sit down to do it properly as part of some big project. I start with a sandbox environment where I can try out whatever I am learning and “kick the tires” before delving into anything big. You learn what works and what doesn’t along the way. You see what you can do and what the limits of the medium are.

Sometimes, if you have an idea and don’t know where to begin, making that initial mess will teach you something that does work. You take that concept and use it in your actual project. Finding these nuggets of knowledge is half the fun. Sometimes you learn from doing this yourself, while sometimes you learn from examining the messes others have made. Either way, you are absorbing information and learning what is possible before you even begin the real project.

If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never finish.

We have this instinctive need, it seems, to move with intent towards our goal and only our goal, without time for detours or experimentation. Instead, make this experimentation a part of your process. We let kids do this sort of natural learning all the time; why not do it as adults too?

So, shout out to that professor for giving me not just some cool coding knowledge, but for teaching me I can make something beautiful by making something absolutely awful first.

This post was originally published January 23, 2020 on this site. It has since been reworked and edited.

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