Remembering what you learned


Have you had instances where you wanted learn something, but it completely eludes you?

I’ve had some of them. One instance was when I tried to learn JavaScript. Another was when I wanted to learn Node and Express.

In each of these cases, no matter how hard I tried, I can’t seem to make the knowledge click on a deeper level. I read books, articles, and tutorials, but the knowledge I gained simply vanishes into thin air the very next moment.

Should I give up? I would ask myself occasionally. Am I just stupid?

But I never gave up on learning JavaScript, nor Node and Express. After spending god knows how many hours trying, I could magically remember the knowledge.

For a long time, I wondered why this pattern kept going on. I finally understand now.

I didn’t believe myself

I didn’t believe I could learn to code deep down inside because I don’t have a CS degree. This belief stayed with me as I tried to learn JavaScript. It surfaced again when I tried to learn Node, Express and MongoDB.

Because I didn’t believe I could learn, my mind would blank out the moment I can’t understand the material I was reading. I’ll get confused. I’ll hear myself say “this is too hard”.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should get a formal CS degree in order to understand this damn coding thing. But I’d get depressed. I don’t have the time nor money to put myself through four more years of education.

Some time later, after countless hours feeling stupid about the subject, things would suddenly click for me. Usually, it’s when I said “fuck it”.

Fuck it

One day, when I was still lousy with JavaScript, I found myself under immense pressure to make a jQuery plugin. I didn’t know enough about JavaScript to build one. But I was in a situation I can’t refuse. I had to deliver in four days.

I said “fuck it”, got down to work and built a plugin in four days. It was something I deemed impossible previously, given my sucky JavaScript.

Another time, I found myself having to teach people how to use Express, Node and MongoDB in a class. I had three hours to learn enough of it. I had been learning these things for a year already, but I can’t seem to get it.

With only three hours, I decided to fuck it the extra questions I had. What mattered then, was getting it to work.

Three hours later, I was teaching Express, Node and MongoDB.

The magic

There’s something magical about this “fuck it” moment.

In this moment, you let go of all limiting fears and beliefs you’ve held on to over the years. You only care about getting it to work. Everything else flies out of the window.

That’s magical. Because once you release your fears and beliefs, you gain the ability to immerse yourself in what you’re trying to do.

You start paying attention. You start doing the work.


Once you start paying attention, you read materials carefully. You pick up cues you missed previously. Cues that contain the vital information to make everything click.

When I tried to learn React for the first time, I thought it’ll be easy. It wasn’t. The documentation was written in a way that didn’t agree with my brain. I was thrown off instantly and I felt React was beyond my reach.

Some time later, I came back to React. This time, I braced myself to go through each step of the documentation carefully. To my surprised, things were easier than I thought they would be. I understood stuff (like lifecycle stages) that I couldn’t before.

These cues you need to make things click can come in any form.

Sometimes, all you need is a phase to tell you what it does. If you already know Photoshop, you probably know what GIMP is when you hear the label “Poor Man’s Photoshop” without going all out to learn it.

Sometimes, you need an analogy to understand a concept. These concepts may be found through your teacher or in the text. You may also concoct them yourself.

If you manage to craft your own analogies, you’ll learn and remember even better, because our brain learn by linking what we’re learning to what we already know.

Sometimes, the look and feel of things can get ingrained in your brain too. For example, arrow functions are easy for me to recognize because I’ve already committed its syntax to my brain. I’ve seen too many of it.

function nameOfFunction() {
  /* do something */
const arrowFunction = _ => {
  /* do something */

Sometimes, colors help with memory too. When you code, make sure to use a good syntax highlighter, because you’ll immediately know that things are off when the color looks off.

Finally, one cool trick that helps with learning is to type every letter by hand when you learn to code. Do not copy-paste anything.

This method forces you to pay attention to what you’re typing, spotting any mistakes along the way. You’d also remember what you’ve typed, engaging your muscle memory as you learn, which helps you reproduce your code later.

Yes, it’s a lot of work

Learning is hard work. There are no real shortcuts to learning, except to let your brain simmer in the information as you collect cues for building associations.

The only shortcut is to buy books and courses so you learn from a source that’s smarter and more coherent than you.

But even if you go through courses and books, you still need to be patient. You need to observe. You need to do the work and let your brain simmer in the cues.

The good news is, if you discard (or temporarily suspend) your fears and beliefs, and you pay attention, you would learn quickly. You would also remember most of what you learned.

Once you’ve learned it, the most importing thing afterwards is to use it.

Use it

Humans can hold roughly seven things in the short-term memory at once. When you learn, it’s best for you to use the thing right away, so you trigger a better chance of recall.

That’s why the “typing letter by letter” trick works; you use it while you’re learning it.

After going through your materials, you should test what you learned a second time. Maybe a third time if you can manage it. When you do so, try your hardest not to refer to the material. Doing so helps you create associations which leads to better recall later too.

There’s no need to be 100% right. You can always check you work when you’re done, then correct as necessary. Make sure to correct afterwards though! You don’t want to remember the wrong things.

As you use the stuff you learned, you’ll slowly store them into your long-term memory. JavaScript then becomes a skill you would never forget, like riding a bicycle.

Wrapping up

So, let go of your fears and beliefs. If you can’t, at least try to temporarily suspend them and pay attention to what you’re learning.

Then, use what you’ve learned you slowly but surely put them into your memory.

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