Posted on: 2011-02-03

Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

I have just completed reading Andy Hunt‘s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. I had previously sifted through it and had reading it in my todo-list for a while – today, I finally checked that box. This post is a brief summary of my key takeaways from the book, but the TL;DR version of this whole post is: if you’re a knowledge worker, you need to read this book.


The book covers a lot of ground: from the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (wikipedia page) to learning methodologies and techniques, to bits of neuroscience, productivity, meditation and maintaining a knowledge base. I read it in a couple of sittings because I was already familiar with some of the material, but some of this stuff requires time to actually sink in – I recommend you take a bit of time to read the book and apply some of your new found ways.

A few key takeaways:

I definitely don’t want to spoil for you what I believe is a fantastic read (it is definitely worth your money), but below are some of my key takeaways from the book, straight from my notes:

  • Always consider Dreyfus. Rules for novices (who need recipes and clear guides) do not apply to experts and vice-versa. Dealing with both in the same environment requires particular care. Novices are usually confident, while experts will show more self-doubt and are more cautious when things don’t act they way they should.
  • Applying formal methods to processes isn’t always a good idea. This applies to many things, from agile development to learning methodologies, meditation, and even newer concepts like the Lean Startup. Don’t get stuck on rules and methodologies.
  • Learning by synthesis is more effective than most other methods. Nicholas Negroponte suggests that to learn about a frog you shouldn’t dissect it but actually build one (“The better way to learn about a frog is to build one. That is, task the students with building a being that has froglike characteristics.”).
  • Being positive facilitates learning, creativity and thinking. It actually brings more of the brain’s hardware online. Your surroundings matter (and so does who you work/live with). “Attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, emotions – they are all contagious.”
  • You should manage your knowledge portfolio the same way you’d manage a financial investment portfolio. Have a plan, diversify, make regular, active investments.
  • Your goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable and time-boxed). Make them very specific, attainable and set (reasonable) deadlines.
  • “For whatever reasons of cognitive or neuroscience, once you make it OK to fail, you won’t.” – I suspect (and hope) you knew this already. It leave this note here for extra validation.
  • Work on your exocortex. Keep tools, and methods to organize knowledge outside your brain. Wikis, GTD tools and the right work environment all help. More on tools and methods in future posts.
  • Always keep a beginner’s mind.

There is a whole lot more I could write about this book, and the notes above certainly don’t do it justice. I am planning on distilling more of my thoughts in future posts, just as I want to talk about some of the other books I’ve read recently. I hope these notes help you somehow, however. If nothing else, I hope they make you want to grab the book – you may buy it over at The Pragmatic Bookshelf and