20 May 2011 edit
Encounters with new concepts are almost always eventually rewarding, but in the short term I’ve found they can be downright demoralizing if you’re not aware of the bigger picture. The first step to being better at a thing is realizing you could be better at that thing, and initially that realization tends to involve being overwhelmed with all you don’t know. The first JSConf , in 2009, was exactly this for me. I showed up eager to learn but feeling pretty cocky about my skills. I left brutally aware of the smallness of my knowledge, and it was a transformational experience: getting good at a thing involves seeking out opportunities to feel small.
One of the most helpful things in my learning has been having access to smart people who are willing to answer my questions and help me when I get stuck. Meeting these people and maintaining relationships with them is hard work, and it generally involves interacting with them in real life, not just on the internet, but the dividends of this investment are unfathomable.
To that end, attend conferences. Talk to the speakers and ask them questions. Write them emails afterwards saying that it was nice to meet them. Subscribe to their blogs. Pay attention to what they’re doing and evangelize their good work.
Remember, too, that local meetups can be good exposure to new ideas too, even if on a smaller scale. The added bonus of local meetups is that the people you’ll meet there are … local! It’s easy to maintain relationships with them and share in learning with them in real life.
(An aside: If your company won’t pay for you to attend any conferences, make clear how short-sighted your company’s decision is and start looking for a new job, because your company does not deserve you. Then, if you can, cough up the money and go anyway. As a self-employed consultant, I still managed to find something like $10,000 to spend on travel- and conference-related expenses last year, and I consider every penny of it to be money spent on being better at what I do. When I hear about big companies that won’t fork over even a fraction of that for an employee who is raising their hand and saying “help me be better at what I do!”, I rage.)
Make a point of following the bug tracker and repository for an active open-source project. Read the bug reports. Try the test cases. Understand the commits. I admit that I have never been able to make myself do this for extended periods of time, but I try to drop in on certain projects now and then because it exposes me to arbitrary code and concepts that I might not otherwise run into.
Read the source for your favorite library, and refer to it when you need to know how a method works. Consult the documentation when there’s some part of the source you don’t understand. When choosing tools and plugins, read the source, and see whether there are things you’d do differently.
Eavesdrop on communities, and participate when you have something helpful to add. Lurk on a mailing list or a forum or in an IRC channel, help other people solve problems. If you’re not a help vampire — if you give more than you take — the “elders” of a community will notice, and you will be rewarded with their willingness to help you when it matters.