20. Februar 2021

Thoughts on 'Pragmatic Thinking & Learning' by Andy Hunt

Having been influenced by the ‘The Pragmatic Programmer’ a long time ago, I recently re-read another book from one of the authors, called ‘Pragmatic Thinking & Learning’. The book caught my interest since thinking and learning are absolutely essential in my line of work, and learning is a great enjoyment outside of work for me. Let’s review what the book is good for.

The Pragmatic Programmer has been a book that influenced me early on in my trajectory towards becoming a software engineer. It was only logical to go and check out other books by the same authors. That’s how I must have discovered and read the book Pragmatic Thinking & Learning by Andy Hunt for the first time. Possibly a decade later, I have re-read the book.

Why read a book on thinking and learning? There are many reasons. But let me state just one. As a software engineer by profession, and as a student of Informatics, information is my currency. It takes time, effort and skill to obtain information. It takes time, effort and skill to trade information and turn it into something else, let’s say software. For example, programming software is nothing else than putting information into a representation that a computer can interpret and work with. The software itself then deals with processing information. Talking to colleagues is about exchanging information. Obtaining information is not enough, it’s necessary to think hard about making sense out of various pieces of information, often imperfect, incomplete, and you have to learn enough skills to be able to put this information to good use. In short, thinking and learning are my bread and butter. I simply cannot afford not to think and learn about thinking and learning.

What is the book about? The book accompanies readers on their journey progressing from novice to expert. The frame for the book is the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. This model roughly sorts─for a particular skill set─people into different categories: novices who need recipes, advanced beginner who don’t really want the big picture yet, competent people who are able to identify and solve problems more independently, proficient people who are able to reflect and self-correct, and the very few experts who draw from their intuition and experience, and see the whole context. The book then provides a model on the brain before going on, and using that model then recommends readers on how to use their brains best for learning and thinking, whether it is about learning deliberately with goals in mind, describing how to be able to put intuition to use, or how not to lose focus.

How is the book written? While it references some scientific sources, I don’t consider the book to be even within the realm of popular science. Instead, and as the author writes, the book is using “construct theory”, i.e. theories used because they turn out to be useful. What I like is that the author is just coming across as open-minded and aware that some of the things that work for him might not work for readers─try it out is the consistent message. What I liked about the book is that the book is written mostly using humble examples of the author’s own life and work. Unlike some other books I have seen, Andy Hunt does not fall for the formulaic pattern of filling pages with success stories à la “important-person-X-achieved-incredible-success-of-kind-Y-after-applying-method-Z”. Instead, the pragmatic message is “try it out, see whether it works” which is why the title “pragmatic” is aptly chosen.

What did I get out of the book? I cannot say what you would get out of reading the book (cause it depends!). But I can say what I took out of it by giving two examples. First, the utility of a whiteboard to reveal and organize hidden ideas and thoughts. Second, a principle to learn more effectively when reading.

First, one of the downsides of working from home instead of the office is that I am no longer being able to draw sketches on an actual whiteboard. There’s something awesome about just drawing and writing on a whiteboard. I know that I can always erase everything near-instantly. More importantly, I am not distracted by having to make choices like choosing between dozens of shapes in a drawing program. I do not want to spend my (unfortunately) limited brain capacity on layout rather than content. These drawing programs are great for other use cases─but the book talks about the “tool trap” and how formal methods can inhibit creativity, and that rings very true to me. Furthermore, getting up from my desk and not looking into a monitor often allows me to defocus before I can focus on thinking something through. The collaborative aspect of working with others at an actual whiteboard is something that I cannot simply replace, but the book made me realize─without mentioning it explicitly, though the author is a great fan of mindmaps─that I should at least install a whiteboard at home. And I have: a great investment so far. The whiteboard allows me to just map out my thoughts without the feeling of “having to edit them” straight away.

Second, book also taught me about the SQ3R formula for learning from textbooks. S stands for survey, Q for question, R for read, R for recite, and R fo review. Too often in the past, I had been content with reading (parts or the whole) textbooks, without paying due attention to the initial survey, setting up questions, and finding ways to recite and review the material. You might notice here that this blog post is part of the “R for recite” and “R for review” stages when applying the SQ3R to the book ‘Pragmatic Thinking & Learning’.

Conclusion: I enjoy having the book on my bookshelf, in combination with other popular science books on psychology, how the brain functions, and similar topics. Whether Andy Hunt’s book is worth reading for you really depends on what you are looking for. But nowadays, it’s easy enough to preview contents of a book, so I will just leave that decision with you. If I have inspired you on the topic alone, I consider that already a success. That’s it, I’m off, thinking and learning about the next thing.