Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, by Andy Hunt

Saturday January 16, 2021

This 2008 book contained things both familiar and novel to me, with a focus on creativity. One thing it describes is the fieldstone method, which I think is close to my recent style of collecting ideas. I'm trying the morning pages technique the book also describes, and I think the inner game idea of teaching awareness could be good. The book is an artifact of Hunt's experience, drawing together and organizing ideas he'd encountered. Good stuff!


Chapter 1: Introduction

On page 2:

"Because of this complex interaction of many interested parties and forces and the constant evolution of change, it seems to me that the two most important modern skills are these:

"The learning is always up to you." (page 3)

Chapter 2: Journey from novice to expert

Event theories vs. construct theories is kind of an interesting division... See e.g. Events and Constructs. (Seems like psychologists think about this distinction.)

"... consider the case of the developer who claims ten years of experience, but in reality it was one year of experience repeated nine times. That doesn't count as experience." (page 15)

"The expert is very good at targeted, focused pattern matching." (page 21)

It's interesting how the focus on experts using intuition makes it seem like experts are less "interpretable" than non-experts, in the same way that neural networks are less interpretable than simpler models.

"... the reality that there is anywhere from a 20:1 and 40:1 difference in productivity among developers, depending on whose study you believe" (page 23, with footnote as follows) "In 1968, a difference of 10:1 in productivity among programmers was noted in Exploratory experimental studies comparing online and offline programming performance. The gulf seems to have widened since then."

"Sadly, studies seem to indicate that most people, for most skills, for most of their lives, never get any higher than the second stage [of five], advanced beginner, "performing the tasks they need and learning new tasks as the need arises but never acquiring a more broad-based, conceptual understanding of the task environment."" (page 25)

"Beware decontextualized objectivity." (page 36)

Chapter 3: This is your brain

Interesting box on page 42 about PKMzeta in the brain being important for memory (ref).

"Everyone–no matter their education, economic status, day job, or age–has good ideas. But of this large number of people with good ideas, far fewer bother to keep track of them. Of those, even fewer bother to act on those ideas. Fewer still then have the resources to make a good idea a success." (page 46)

"Linear" L-mode and "Rich" R-mode as alternatives to "left brain" and "right brain." He also calls it CPU #1 and CPU #2.

He references Guy Claxton's "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind" which uses "deliberate" d-mode and "undermind," Dan Pink's l-directed and r-directed, and Betty Edwards' L mode and R mode. (page 50)

Chapter 4: Get in your right mind

Emphasis on multi-sensory (even seemingly pointless multi-sensory, like fiddling with a paperclip).

""Drawing" is really about seeing."

"Write Drunk, Revise Sober"

Page 72 references Bird by Bird.

"Metaphor, a common ground for both verbalizations and images, is a way to voyage back and forth between the subconscious and conscious, between right and left hemispheres." (from Conscious/Unconscious Interaction in a creative act, Gordon and Poze)

"Metaphor comes from the Greek meaning "to transfer," with the idea that you are transferring the properties of one object to another in a way that is not literally possible." (page 75)

Ways to try to get ideas (etc.) from your subconscious:

"Instead, you want to cultivate a style of non-goal-directed thinking."

"Once you get used to seeing very small methods, with only a few lines of code, very long methods jump out at you as wrong."

"The only difference between a rut and a grave is the dimensions."

"When faced with a thorny problem, Dave Thomas will often say, "Turn that on its head." That's one mental wack: a way to knock you out of your rut to make you look at a problem from a different point of view.

"For instance, audio engineers use a well-known technique when mixing a recording. To make the sound as good as possible, they first go through and make each instrument sound as bad as possible."

"The [mental] locks include assuming there's only one right answer, thinking that a given solution is not logical, or dismissing play as frivolous."

Page 92 mentions the Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt Oblique Strategies, which is quite out of print as a deck of cards, and broken CGI apps on their site.

Chapter 5: Debug your mind

Partial list of cognitive biases:

On debate about the future, in retrospect:

"pages and pages of analysis and speculation, forecasting and fretting, almost always over the wrong question." (page 102)

Stuff on "generational affinity"

Ideas about four repeating generation "archetypes" (hero, artist, prophet, nomad) from Howe and Strauss, in e.g. the 2007 The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes Will Evolve, which says:

"Three of those generations will still be vital forces in American society 20 years from now: Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Their attitudes and behaviors will have profound effects on the economy, the workplace, and social institutions in general. For example, as aging Boomers eschew high-tech medicine in favor of holistic self-care, natural foods, and mind-body healing techniques, some hospitals are opening new wings featuring alternative medicine and spiritual counseling. Gen Xers, having grown up in an era of failing schools and marriages, will remain alienated, disaffected, and pragmatic as they enter midlife. Already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history, they will be highly effective at pushing innovation, efficiency, and mass customization. In contrast, young adult Millennials will favor teamwork, close family relationships, job security, and a bland popular culture. Their unprecedented digital empowerment and talent for organizing will create a political powerhouse and may even revitalize the union movement."

"If you think you've defined something, try to also define its opposite." (page 122)

"It is by logic we prove; it is by intuition we discover." (Henri Poincaré, quoted page 123)

Chapter 6: Learn deliberately

"Sheep dip training doesn't work." (page 127)

"In addition, and perhaps surprisingly, simply mastering a syllabus of knowledge doesn't increase professional effectiveness. ... Mastery of the knowledge alone isn't sufficient." (page 128)

Recommends SMART goals:

"Create a Pragmatic Investment Plan" (page 133)

(This refers to investing in learning.)

"Unfortunately, relegating learning activities to your "free time" is a recipe for failure." (page 133)

On page 139 Hunt talks about Sternberg's Triarchic theory of intelligence, but his description is different from what Wikipedia says... Wikipedia says it's these three:

But Hunt says "Sternberg sees a three-part mind, composed of a meta-level component that manages thought processes overall; performance-based components that do tasks, make associations, and so on; and, finally, knowledge-acquisition components that handle assimilating new information."

Maybe these line up somehow, but I don't see it from here.

"Reading groups are nontoxic." (page 141)

Strong praise!

Describes SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review).

On page 146, the "Test-Driven Learning" box (a play on Test-Driven Development) talks about spaced repetition. It mentions SuperMemo and Mnemosyne, and references The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning, which is a pretty great ref.

"As you go to add a new piece of information, a new thought, or an insight to the mind map, you are faced with the question, where does this belong? You have to evaluate the relationships between ideas, not just the ideas themselves, and that can be a very revealing activity." (page 149)

"The most value, I find, is to take the raw notes while listening (which helps you stay focused as you extract salient points from the lecture) and then transcribe these raw notes into "official notes." Even if I never read these notes again, the act of transcribing the raw notes is the most valuable portion of this exercise. You can do the same thing with mind maps-start with a rough messy one, and redraw it as needed. The redrawing helps form more associations in your brain." (page 150)

This is very much like the method of Paul Halmos.

"Use a mind map to help clarify." (page 152)

Page 154 has an interesting reference to The Prepared Mind: Neural Activity Prior to Problem Presentation Predicts Subsequent Solution by Sudden Insight:

"A recent study suggests that mental preparation that involves an inward focus of attention can promote flashes of insight, even if the preparation occurs well in advance of facing any particular problem."

This reference isn't really applicable to the book's topic there (documentation). It isn't super clear how to get the mental focus the researchers identify, or whether we really care because it seems like it didn't help people solve more problems, but only to be more likely to report that they solved via a flash of insight. And the problems in question are like "pine, crab, sauce" ("apple") so it isn't clear how useful this is anyway.

I think Hunt is right that "it might be that documenting is more important than documentation" but his reference doesn't support that claim.

Chapter 7: Gain experience

"we build to learn, not learn to build." (page 160)

"You need to unlearn just as much as you need to learn." (page 164)

This reminds me of what Dijkstra said in On the cruelty of really teaching computing science.

""I don't know" is a fine answer, but don't let it end there." (page 165)

Hunt riffs on the inner game to talk about increasing your awareness to increase your feedback and improve your improvement.

"the idea is to teach the student awareness and to use that awareness to correct their performance." (page 170)

"This is a key aspect to playing the inner game: don't focus on correcting individual details, but just be aware. Accept what is as a first step, and just be aware of it. Don't judge, don't rush in with a solution, don't criticize." (page 170)

"Don't just do something; stand there." (page 171)

"The Inner Game series sums up this idea with the phrase, "Trying fails, awareness cures.""

Page 173 references The 6 Myths Of Creativity, which are:

  1. Creativity comes from creative types
  2. Money is a creativity motivator
  3. Time pressure fuels creativity
  4. Fear forces breakthroughs
  5. Competition beats collaboration
  6. A streamlined organization is a creative organization

"You don't actually need to make errors, as long as it's OK if you did." (page 174)

"Perception is based on prediction." (page 177)

Reference here to On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.

"Legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny takes this idea [of surrounding yourself with inspiration] one step further and offers this advice: "Always be the worst guy in every band you're in. If you're the best guy there, you need to be in a different band. And I think that works for almost everything that's out there as well."" (page 177)

Chapter 8: Manage focus

Hunt recommends meditation.

In "Defocus to Focus" (page 187) on thinking about problems creatively:

"it's not the idea of not doing anything, it's the idea of not doing something."

Hunt advances Dennett's ideas from Consciousness Explained, saying "Multiple drafts form consciousness."

"That makes consciousness a bottom-up, self-organizing, perhaps even emergent property." (page 189)

"Have you heard of the consultant's Rule of Three? In general, if you can't think of three ways a plan can go wrong or think of three different solutions to a problem, then you haven't thought it through enough." (page 189)

A footnote attributes this to Jerry Weinberg's The Secrets of Consulting.

Thomas Jeffereson owned somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 books in his lifetime. And donated nearly 7,000 of them to form the core of the Library of Congress in 1815. (page 191)

Hunt advocates using a personal wiki.

"The real beauty of this approach is that once you have a place to put a specific bit of information, you'll notice that new, relevant bits of data suddenly start to show up out of nowhere. It's a similar phenomenon to sense tuning."

He doesn't quite manage to say Baader-Meinhof.

The idea also aligns with the fieldstone method, I think.

"Multitasking takes a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that in general, multitasking can cost you 20 to 40 percent of your productivity."

The "study" is footnoted as, which is a collection of links to papers... Not sure what it's referencing in particular.

He recommends using one of those focus apps that blocks out the internet etc. He references "Think!" and DeskTopple. Current options seem to be different.

Chapter 9: Beyond expertise

This is a brief conclusion, and I mostly liked that the author wrapped up by giving his email address and inviting feedback.