The internet is Good Thing. This is a given. Even people with the most serious misgivings about online interaction rarely believe that the internet has made things worse for us.
It’s not perfect of course. The anonymity of various platforms and the lack of face-to-face contact allows people to troll and swear and abuse and generally behave in ways they would never dare in a real-life encounter.
This is nothing new. You only have to look at the way people act in cars to realise that any kind of barrier to human communication allows individuals to be more aggressive, less empathetic and less tolerant of others.
The downsides of the internet are well-documented, but this is not another article about trolling, online abuse, FOMO, or the pressures of comparing your life to social media fakery.
Instead I want to point out how using the internet as a learning resource can be a double-edged sword.
You might be asking how it’s possible that anything bad could come from learning? The democratisation of information and the way the internet allows people to learn almost anything is its most noble and altruistic aspect. In other words, learning is the internet at its finest.
But that can also create a problem. With the wealth of information available, it’s easy to become stuck in a learning cycle and cast yourself in the role of eternal student — never trusting your own judgement and never feeling like you know enough to try things for yourself.
This happened to me recently when I was considering developing an online course. I have taught the material to individuals hundreds of times over the years and it was originally developed as a result of watching people struggle with the same things over and again.
I’ve never created an online course before, so I did what everybody does when we don’t know exactly what to do — I asked the internet. Soon I was wading through blog after blog and opening articles faster than I could read them. It wasn’t long before I had a couple of dozen tabs open in my browser.
So much of the information seemed useful, intelligent, plausible, genuine and well-meaning even, but the scale of it was overwhelming. So many caveats and warnings. So many ways I could waste my time and money. So many free PDFs with exercises I absolutely needed to conduct or my course risked disappearing without trace.
After a couple of hours down the rabbit hole I was feeling anxious, restless, insecure and ignorant. I closed the laptop and tried to push the whole idea out of my mind. Suddenly I had a huge list of pitfalls and risk factors to worry about — things which I hadn’t even considered before I started reading.
All the information I had consumed had only made it less likely that I would create something.
This is the danger of internet learning. There’s so much information, and so many people willing to teach you that it makes you think you have to have all the answers. It sells the promise of stepwise perfection and discourages learning by doing.
But here’s the thing: Nobody who achieves anything ever does so without making mistakes. The internet is teeming with experts offering to show you the exact steps to take and promising to eliminate costly errors you might have made otherwise. Yet nobody simply follows a blueprint laid out by somebody else and soars smoothly to success.
Trying to learn how to do something online can create a perception that there is one ‘right way’ to do things — and doing anything differently will lead directly to failure.
What’s worse, if you’re not already proficient at some level in what you’re researching, you have no basis to judge whether all the advice and instruction available is either useful or true. A slick website and social media presence are no guarantees of the quality of the advice or the products being offered.
I’m a good enough musician to know that, even with the best teachers in the world, every student ultimately finds his/her own way. No matter what teachers say, students will inevitably experiment, try things out for themselves, make mistakes, develop bad habits, go down blind alleys — maybe even stagnating or hindering their own progress in the short term. That’s how learning is done.
I used to say to students that a good teacher can help, but any teacher can only act as a guide on a journey the student must make alone. Though the journey can last a lifetime, with persistence over time they will develop mastery; not in spite of, but because of their mistakes.
The danger of looking constantly to the internet for answers is that you never allow yourself to make those mistakes. The anxiety created by information overload can cause procrastination — telling yourself you need more information, a better plan, a more bulletproof approach before you can try anything out.
Don’t let the internet turn you into an eternal student. Don’t be an endless consumer of content, terrified of acting on your own initiative. Don’t be like so many people who understand the theory of everything but never put it into practice.
Remember that doing is how things get done.
Research is not doing, planning is not doing, reading every word ever written online about the subject is not doing. It is hiding, and it’s a vicious circle that will only keep you small and stuck.
Have a go, make mistakes, get it wrong, risk your ego, keep trying, keep working, keep moving forward. Use the internet as a tool and guide, but don’t let it ever prevent you from acting.
Barry Dallman is a musician, writer and eternal student of the creative process. He is fascinated by the process of personal change and the challenges creative people face in committing to truly meaningful work. He's documenting his own creative struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to pursue what really matters to them.
Why don't we do what we really want to do? Why do we sacrifice our lives to our art - and then hold back from making it? What does it take to make us do the work we were born to do? Why is it so hard to be yourself?
These are the questions I'm trying to answer.
After years of fear and procrastination, I'm on a mission to show my work, fight the little voice that wants to stop me and share what I learn along the way. I'd love you to join me.