Julie Ng

Julie Ng

Learning vs. Understanding

Goodbye Email. But why? You’ve been so good to me. I got to travel and speak at conferences. 95% of the traffic to this website goes to email articles. I still get inquiries for email development, although I have a job. So why? The answer lies in recognizing the difference between “learning” and “understanding”.

Going back to the question why, I was bored. But I didn’t realize it then. I now know that I enjoyed building tools to make developing responsive email faster and easier was more interesting than writing code itself. Creating bulletproof email just requires discipline. Once you’ve memorized the rules and quirks of various email clients, it’s just a matter of stubbornly working out small layout bugs for pixel perfection.

It was more challenging to understand how HTML and CSS come together to create an automated workflow for email.

Memory vs. Philosophy

That realization came last week while re-reading my favorite book of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo. I am reading it in German for the first time and last week I marked a quote, where Edmond Dantès (the count) is skeptical that the scholarly Abbé Faria could pass all his knowledge onto him in just 2 years, to which the Abbé replies:

Learning does not make one learned: there are those who have knowledge and those who have understanding. The first requires memory, the second philosophy.

— The Count of Monte Cristo

I “learned” responsive email development. It became memory and second nature to write HTML in a convoluted but bulletproof way. Because I didn’t need to think anymore, I became bored. But learning shouldn’t end there. The Abbé continues:

Philosophy cannot be taught. Philosophy is the union of all acquired knowledge and the genius that applies it.

— The Count of Monte Cristo

That’s why I built the antwort gem and the Email Layout Calculator. Making connections to improve workflows and efficiency with technology is “understanding”.

There’s a similar saying about being able to see the forest from the trees. Everyone knows that quote and I like it too. But it doesn’t tell you how to see forest. You cannot just pluck someone out and show him the forest, which is incredibly frustrating. But the Abbé has the answer. Don’t try to. You need to just try it and learn from your own experiences to see the forest.

So what’s next?

When I write code at work, it’s usually JavaScript. That’s what I am learning and committing to memory. Of course I’ve written JavaScript before, but only because there is no other choice for an the web as an interactive medium.

I still find JavaScript flawed in many ways. But since switching to the TypeScript superset of JavaScript and picking up concepts like Observables and Reactive Programming, JavaScript and I have started to become friends.

This is the start of a new understanding for me. Let’s see how far this goes.