You'll Learn It When You Need to Learn It

When I was in college, my major was Product Design & Engineering - an interdisciplinary mash-up that brought together mechanical engineering and architecture-style design studios.

No surprise: I loved the design studios.

There was very little direction which meant that there was room to be creative, follow independent trains of thought and build some really cool things.


One of the studio projects I’m most proud of is called The Arc, a portable device for photographers that makes it easy to store and manage their photos safely while on the move.

A year before The Arc, I was taking Calculus II. I’d always had trouble with trigonometry and there, it was being extended into the realm of Polar Coordinates. It wasn't a pretty semester.


Back buried in code on the Arc, though, I was having trouble. The name came in part from the interface we’d designed which placed buttons in arcs around the corners of a touchscreen to match the range of motion a user's thumbs had.

But, how the hell was I going to get icons programmatically rotating around an arc and shrinking the further away they got from an arbitrary point along that curved path?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="The Arc with Curved Navigation - Click to Demo "][/caption]

As I began deconstructing the problem, it hit me that there needs to be some mathematical system to track points along circular space. Some sort of ... polar coordinate system!

Suddenly, Polar Coordinates became not the subject in math that I have a test for on Thursday but an extremely powerful tool that solved a real and really difficult problem I had.

What happened over the next few hours seemed like magic to me. I learned and applied in a day what I couldn’t in 5 months before - 5 years if you include trigonometry.

I felt so much gratitude for the mathematicians before me, whose own problems lead them to polar coordinates, for sharing their knowledge.


I'm quite confident that anything you've learned and applied over the years is something that you absolutely needed in order to satisfy a personal goal, even if small.

When a concept is required to overcome a real problem that you want to solve, learning even the most difficult things, even the things that “Oh, I’m just not good at.”, suddenly become incredibly clear.

The key message then, is that if our goal is to learn effectively we need to cut ourselves free from the nonsense that doesn't draw out this passionate urge to problem solve.

We need to have projects that excite us and be aware of when we’re being drawn into personal missions, allowing ourselves to ruthlessly pursue the knowledge we need to accomplish them. To leverage those moments as much as possible.


The way I picked up polar coordinates was genuine learning. It can’t be faked, it was exciting, it was emotional.

How the hell can Math be emotional?!

Because it was a part of a real, personal mission. Because I needed it.

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