Pragmatic Thinking & Learning by Andy Hunt

“Pragmatic Thinking & Learning” is a book full of knowledge, and that is also what it is about: knowledge. More precisely it is about your knowledge, how you can improve your skills and how to fully leverage your brain. The book is the easily understandable round-up of knowledge about the brain, learning and other interesting information of high interest to knowledge workers, that I always wanted to read. And don’t be afraid – the book isn’t just dumping knowledge on you. As it is common for books of the pragmatic bookshelf, it does so in a very understandable way and is spiced up with a lot of good humour.

This book is really good. How good? When I studied at Mendicant University I recommended this book to a fellow student on the mailing list, as we were discussing about stepping away from the computer in order to solve problems. Within some hours 3 other people agreed that is a great book and definitely worth the read. It was a small course with a handful of participants and some mentors (I’ll write a post about Mendicant University soon) so the “return rate” really impressed me, but to me the book deserves all the praise.

So who wrote this book? It was Andrew (Andy) Hunt, one of the founders of my favourite bookshelf, one of the authors of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and author/co-author of other great books like the famous “The Pragmatic Programmer”.


The book starts with a chapter mainly about the Dreyfus Model, a model that helps you assess your own skills explaining the differences between a beginner and an expert. Andy also explains this model shortly in a free PragPub article.

The next chapter is all about the brain, it explains how your brain works, what L-Mode and R-Mode are and why it would be a good idea to use the latter one more.

The following chapter was the most interesting chapter of the book to me. This chapter explains how to really leverage your brain and activate all its computational power. It is elaborated why you should try to involve as many senses as possible when trying to solve a hard problem, why metaphors and humour greatly help and why sometimes all you need to do is take a walk.

The chapter after this one is called “Debug your mind” and talks about things that basically can go wrong or in your way, like cognitive biases, generational affinity, the bad effect of pressure or how humans sometimes use reptilian approaches in order to deal with life’s challenges. The main point here is to be aware of those “bugs” in your mind so you can fix them.

The next chapter is about learning, how you learn best, why teaching greatly helps, the different learner types, mind maps and how you should really read books.

The following chapter is about gaining experience, an important part of learning. For me the biggest takeaway was “Build to learn, not learn to build.”- but there is so much more in this chapter.

The last “real” chapter is concerned with managing focus, it contains a lot of tips and tricks on how to maintain your focus and how to focus better. It also explains exactly how bad loosing your focus is for your productivity. The book wraps up nicely with some pages that nicely recapitulate the book and help you where to get started now and what to do with all these new ideas.

What makes this book special?

This book is special to me as it is a very good summary of interesting facts and methodologies concerning thinking and learning for knowledge workers. It introduces you to all these concepts in a highly comprehensive way. I feel like this book gave me the basic knowledge of this topic. Moreover I believe that, if it wasn’t for this book, I would have had to read at least 5 other books in order to get this level of knowledge. Furthermore it is a really enjoyable read, as the author himself highlights the importance of humour. It really lightens it up quite a bit. And I just love things like: “you’ve read The Pragmatic Programmer.” With a footnote that says: “If you haven’t, run, don’t walk, to the bookstore and buy a copy. Seriously.”

Choice Bits

Choice Bits is about briefly introducing my favourite ideas from the book, but with this book it is extra difficult as it contains so many ideas, that I’ll really have to pull myself together.

Build to learn, not learn to build

Have you ever read a whole book about a new programming language without using it? I have. I read a whole book and then I wanted to start to program in that new language. I didn’t get very far, I couldn’t remember much. I was making little stupid mistakes all over the place. In order to really learn how to use a technology you have got to start using that technology – reading a book will help but not make you an expert.

L-Mode and R-Mode

Those are the 2 “operation modes” of your brain, L-Mode stands for linear mode and R-Mode stands for rich mode. Linear mode is used for logical thinking, speaking and is mostly used. R-Mode on the other hand isn’t rational and verbal, however it has more “processing power” and is under used. Unfortunately only one of those 2 modes can be active at a time.

A good example is when you try to remember something but you just can’t come up with it. But hours later, without thinking about it, you suddenly remember it but the thought is very hard to verbalise. That’s your R-Mode that has digged up the information you desired.

Another story, taken from the book, I always tell when explaining this concept to friends is the story of Elias Howe, who tried to invent a lockstitch sewing machine. One night he had a terrible nightmare, where cannibals were about to eat him. They poked him with their spears. However these spears looked a bit odd… they had holes close to the tip of the spear. Holes like with normal sewing needles, just at the other end. When thinking about the dream he realised, that this was exactly what he needed to do in order to make his lockstitch sewing machine work. And whom does he have to thank for this? His R-Mode, it had the answer all along but didn’t know how to verbalise it, so it tried to get some attention with a cruel nightmare.

Context is king

Context is always king, at least when you are more than a beginner. It is suggested that beginners in a particular skill need context-free rules, whereas on your way to expert you get to value the context more and more. This is also part of the Dreyfus model.

Attractive Works Better

The book relates to a study where people are presented two user interfaces. Both have the same functionality and workflow, but one looks good whereas the other one looks ugly. The subjects found the beautiful interface much easier to work with. Being happy (or visually pleased) actually allows you to bring more of your brain processing power online – which (of course) facilitates learning and working.

Personal Impact

This book has helped me a great deal in being more effective when working and knowing about the fact that I still “work” even when I’m not sitting in front of my keyboard. I really began to value a good walk when working on a hard problem – often times my R-Mode helped me with a great solution.

Also I feel a lot smarter after I read this book, because now I can explain many things and I have numerous new ways of solving problems. Not just stepping away from the keyboard. I now know that I should try to make of as many senses as possible when trying to solve a difficult problem. And of course it feels good to know why teaching helps so much when learning something. I have noticed this effect many times, but now I can explain it.

I now recognise how bad losing my focus is, I am more aware of cognitive biases, I have started to effectively using my virtual desktops and now I think twice about interrupting someone’s work or letting someone  interrupt my work as I know that I will use a lot of context and a lot of time.


I am highly recommending this book to everyone, who makes a living with thinking. If you want to be more effective at your job and learn new technologies faster and better, this book is for you. It also helps you understand why somebody might have a total different view of a situation, as somebody else might have different cognitive biases or a different generational affinity.

As sometimes computer terms are used to describe concepts I mostly recommend this book to Software Engineers/Programmers or people who are at least familiar with the concept of programming. However I believe that the book is written well enough and doesn’t rely to heavily on these terms that people completely unfamiliar with programming may also benefit from it.

Most of all this books helps you understand how thinking and learning really works, which is a good thing because there is a good chance that you can improve both your thinking and your learning. The book gives you all the knowledge, techniques and tips in order to do this, but you have to do this yourself. Personally, I am looking forward to re-reading the book using the techniques the book taught me, in order to leverage the power of the book and my brain even more. So what are you waiting for? Head on over to the pragmatic bookshelf and buy this book!


As I am still new to writing reviews I would gladly enjoy some feedback on what was good about this review, what was bad, what you felt was missing and what you felt should have been left out. Comments on what would make you come back to this blog are also appreciated. You can do so via the comments section or check out the About section for other ways to contact me.

Sharing knowledge, ideas and resources

So what are blogs about? From my current point of view they are about sharing knowledge and ideas with other people. And of course to discuss these ideas and to give people the chance to build upon these ideas.

I want to expand a bit on the idea of sharing knowledge, especially the sharing of great knowledge resources. There are a ton of great resources out there, you just have to find them, which is often easier said than done. I wish I would have some of those resources earlier, for instance when I was trying to learn Ruby or Rails. I want to help to give the authors the respect and attention they deserve but foremost I want to help those who try to learn something to find the best (and probably free) resources to do so.

Therefore I’ll not only post about those resources but try to maintain pages referring to all those great resources I found over time. Of course there are also non free resources which deserve to be mentioned cause they are all well worth what they cost.

I hope that the first post will be up this weekend – so stay tuned!