Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book review - Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware


I know it's a bit strange to start with a conclusion but I just want to come out and say it, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt is one of the most interesting and useful books I have ever read. Never before has a book given me so many things to think about, so many new ideas and so many useful tips. 

Let me put that into perspective. There is so much information in this book that was new to me I feel like I've learned a huge amount. Not only that, it also explains some of my own behaviour. It's absolutely fascinating. So much of this book strikes a chord with me I will re-read large amounts of it in the weeks, months and years to come. Saying that, I'm not under any illusion it will be like this for everyone, if you have read similar books, or come across many of the techniques and ideas already then it probably won't be quite as useful. 

What's in it?

Because there is so much content in packed into two hundred and fifty ish pages I'll just include the parts that were most interesting to me. The second chapter talks about the stages between novice and expert referencing the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. The next few chapters detail how your brain works, including which areas of the brain are responsible for which skills, how to use your brain more effectively by using more of it, and common brain bugs (otherwise known as cognitive biases). Chapter six and seven are all about learning more effectively; setting goals, managing skills, working together, reading techniques, mind maps, dealing with failure and the effects of pressure on learning and thinking. Managing focus is the subject of chapter eight. It covers how to increase focus, managing knowledge, dealing with interruptions, optimising your working environment and staying sharp. Finally, the last chapter has some tips on what to do next. It really does cover a lot of ground.

Each chapter is divided into a number of sections, after each section are a number of "Next Actions". These consist of a number of bullet points which encourage you either think about or act upon the previous section. I find these particularly useful as I can easily fall into the habit of simply reading and not thinking enough. 

Why is it useful?

Let's start with the brain. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning explains how your brain works using various computer metaphors. It describes how your brain is split into the left and right sides, each is responsible for different types of thinking. The left deals with things like logic and language, and the right deals with things like spatial awareness, non-linear thinking, and non-rational thinking. The right side of your brain is asynchronous, you can't control it directly. Have you ever tried to remember the name of a band, song, film, actor, author, book and regardless of have much you try, you simply cannot remember? Then some time in the future, at the least likely moment, in the shower, doing the washing up, driving to work, whatever, it leaps into your mind from seemingly nowhere. I think this must have happened to everybody as some point, but I never knew why. Now I do, that's the right side of your brain. What I find particularly fascinating about this is the possibilities this opens up. Often it's unused and under valved so the techniques suggested by Andy Hunt to get more from the right side of you brain are potentially invaluable. It's certainly something I will try and explore.

The brain learning (as my wife would say) doesn't stop there. Another interesting subject covered is cognitive biases. These are known bugs in how people think. An example of this is the confirmation bias, which is the natural tendency to seek out arguments, facts or opinions that match your own. I think having knowledge of these common faults can make you more aware of your own thoughts, where they have come from and why you are having them, and then question yourself. Is that what I want to think? Is there another side to it? Is there more to it? What is the context? But it's not only the way you think that is important. Often other people's thought processes differ drastically from your own. Sometimes it can be difficult to work with colleagues who are very different from yourself. Chapter five includes an introduction to the Myers Briggs type indicator. This is a model which assigns various 'types' to a person based on their personality. The idea is to gain some insight your own personality type and the personality type of others, which hopefully makes it easier to make to understand and therefore interact with personality types that are different from your own. 

The process of learning is something that can be taken for granted after you leave education. Often not a lot of thought goes into it. I'm certainly guilty of that. It's no good randomly reading a few books or blogs, there is more to consider. What should you learn? What subjects are more important? Why? What kind of learning works for me? How can you make it stick? When should I learn? What do I want to achieve? All of these are valid questions which should be considered so you get the most from whatever you learn. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning discusses all of these questions and offers various techniques and suggestions on how to get the most from whatever you learn

Concentration is another issue which I've thought about. Or rather the lack of it. There is a whole chapter dedicated to managing focus. It's pretty important. Everyone has difficulty concentrating now and again so any suggestions on how to increase focus are invaluable. Andy Hunt to the rescue again. He suggests mediation can be very beneficial and suggests various ways to maximise your focus by managing interruptions, distractions and context.

I've only scratched the surface of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. I'm not convinced I've done a good job of summarising the content of the book, but I hope I've done just enough to pique the interest of anyone who reads this blog. If I have, go and buy it now :-)

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