Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

I was planning on reading Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware for a while, but kept putting it off, thinking it wasn’t really central to what I’m interested in, what I’m doing.  I was wrong.

People have different skill levels, from novice to expert.  One sign of expertise is the ability to intuit solutions not available through linear thinking.  Intuition happens on the right side of the brain, so we need to use the right side more effectively.  Rather than “left brain” and “right brain”, he calls them “L-mode” and “R-mode”, for “linear” and “rich”, to emphasize that it’s not literally two halves of your brain working differently, but two different modes of thinking.  Most of the book is about using R-mode more, and using L-mode appropriately, to fact-check your R-mode.

It draws on psychology, neurobiology, cognition studies, managing, teaching, the arts, product design, and math.  The bibliography is ten pages long, and I’ve got a bunch of them highlighted for my next evening at the bookstore.

The most valuable changes I’ve made since finishing the book are:

– Be ready when your R-mode strikes. Since “querying” the R-mode can take a long time, we run it asynchronously, and we never know when the results will come in.  (This explains the “ah-ha!” moments in the shower, on the drive home, and when you’re falling asleep.)  So keep a notebook handy for writing things down.  I’m writing in a notebook almost daily (I’ve joined the cult of moleskine), writing down ideas as they come up.  It’s also a tider home for all the scraps of paper that have lived in my wallet for years, ideas scrawled and smudged into them.  And I’m on my 4th or 5th pocket mod.

– Maintain your ‘exo-cortex,’ your external memory. I wrote a mini-wiki engine with Sinatra, and so far, I’ve used it for everything from clojure, to saving quotes, to robot rights.  I wrote it for practice, but it’s nice to have a searchable, non-linear notebook.

The book mentions Gerald Weinberg’s fieldstone method of writing: to build a stone wall, you gradually gather stones from the field as you clear it, and pile them up.  When you have enough, build your wall.  Both the wiki and the notebook serve this purpose.

– Map out your thinking, and doodle. Drawing pictures engages your R-mode, making it more active, helping you make connections, and understand more clearly.  Besides, it’s fun. This is my 3rd time learning emacs, and it’s finally sticking — I think it’s mostly because I drew up a cheat-sheet, pictorially explaining each command’s effect.  I also map out my learning and career goals this way.

emacs cheat sheet

One of my favorite parts is, after you’ve mapped something out, and the drawing looks like a pile of yarn, re-draw it on a clean sheet, fixing up all the awkward placements and messy bits.  The benefit of this second version is in its creation — by considering how to re-organize it, you’re thinking more about the problem, in ways you might not have before.  This works for note-taking, too.

– Take advantage of your brain’s plasticity. You can change how your brain works by believing it works differently: make it smarter, more creative, cheerier.  This is a pretty incredible claim, but he cites two books I’d like to check out.  It sounds impossible, but I’ve seen it work on me, to some extent.  My biggest problem is continuing to believe it works.

Some things I have yet to try:

– Take a walk.  A meditative walk, like around a labyrinth.

– Write morning pages: for three weeks, as soon as you wake, write down three pages of text.  It doesn’t have to be anything specific.  The idea is, right after we wake, our R-mode is more active, so the gems will be more accessible, and they’ll pop out onto the page.  I’m more curious to see what I come up with.

– I have to get better at setting SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed.  I’ve never been much for this kind of discipline — I made a few, but didn’t stick to them, and haven’t gotten into the habit yet.  But like the book says, change is hard:

Change is always harder than it looks — that’s a physical reality, not just an aphorism. An old, ingrained habit makes the equivalent of a neural highway in your brain. These old habits don’t go away. You can make new neural highways alongside, going a different route and making short-cuts, but the old highways remain. They are always there for you to revert to—to fall back on. Practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes permanent.

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One thought on “Book Review: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning

  1. Good review Dan. I have this book but haven’t read it yet. I am traveling later this week and plan to take the book with me, it sounds really interesting and useful.

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