martedì 21 ottobre 2014

Dimentica i libri: come imparare veramente ciò che vuoi

Two weeks ago I asked on a programming forum an opinion about which books should I read next in order to expand my programming skills. That forum is visited by some of best programming minds in the world, so I was really interested in that answer. Surprisingly, here’s what I got (link):

Then you have it backwards. You should be building, not reading.

Slow way: Read book —> apply what you learn
Fast way: Write code —> Get stuck —> Find a book

I know this is not intuitive, but trust me, it works much better. We all love the feeling of cracking open a fresh new book (or pdf) and bathing ourselves in all this newfound knowledge. But this method is not very efficient. Much of what you read you will never use and much of what you need you will never read about, no matter what the book is.

Better to pick a project and just start building it. Come up for air every once in a while and consult whatever book fills in what you need to know to build your project. True learning comes from building, not reading. This method takes the best of both worlds and gets you to your stated goal much quicker.

Now, that was not the kind of answer that I was expecting, but I’m glad I got it. It served me as a wake up call for something that I should have known already.

In short, forget about the books.

How I thought learning was like

For some reasons, at some point many years ago I began reading lots of books. Somehow I thought that if I would have read a lot of books then I would have become an expert automatically, which is of course untrue.

The problem is, most of the books that I read were irrelevant to what I was doing at the time I was reading them, so even if they could have been useful for me at one point, by that time I would have forgot almost everything and so I would have needed to read them again. Now, that’s a waste of time.

I remember reading books about direct sales, even though I’ve never been in sales. Were those books unuseful? No, I learned a lot in those books, the problem is that I forgot everything, simply because I couldn’t apply the concept at the time.

Tim Ferris in his famous four hour work-week book says that we consume too much information, and that we should go through an information diet by getting rid of news and other crap. His point is difficult to ignore if you think about it. The truth is that most of us spend too much time consuming information instead of actually creating something, reading books is no exception.

Here’s the slow way to learn something:

The flaw in this method is that most times you’re not learning something that you need.

How to learn

Guess how a book is written the first time? Let’s say that there’s some new technology and someone decides to write a book about it. How do they do if there is no book available for them? The answer is, of course, they experiment, they build something in order to learn the new technology.

This is so obvious once you think about it, but sometime we are too deep inside our mental loops that it’s hard to see the whole picture. Or maybe it’s just me. In order to learn something, build something. Here’s the faster way to learn:

Let’s examine how this work:

  • First, you start from something that you care about. The main difference between reading a book and working on a project is that when you’re reading a book without a goal you have little or no interest in it. On the contrary, if you are creating something that you care about then you’ll have all the motivation to learn and to remember all the relevant information that you can find.
  • Work until you get stuck. Most of the times you can accomplish a lot with the knowledge that you have around a subject. Start with what you already know and work until you find a problem that you don’t know how to solve.
  • Ask for help. Now, and only now that you have a real necessity should you go back to the books. But before that, know that most of the times you can find what you’re looking for directly online for free, or in form of an ebook. Imagine how many hours you’ll have saved at this point already.
  • Go back to step 2. When you’re ready to go you can go back to step 2 and continue to work on your project until you get stuck again.

If everyone would be doing this, would publishers stop selling books? Of course no, you would still need them, we would just be using them in a different way.

The main advantage of this method is that at the end of the day you’ll have something to show. Plus, you’ll also have learned something, something that you have used in the real world.

You can still read books

The purpose of this post was not to convince you to stop reading books. On the contrary, I still encourage everyone read as much books as they can, just don’t expect to learn much that way.

If you have the time, reading a book before going to bed is still a good idea. I still read some personal development or philosophy books, as they provide me with ideas and provocative thoughts. Even my programming books are fun to read as a form of entertainment.

Just remember that true learning comes from doing, not reading about it.

To quote a wise man:

When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow & exclude people. So create. ~ _why.


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