28 January 2019

My Learning - Part 6 - Sources

Before I go into how I find, select between and get the most out of individual sources. I want to go over some basics related to source selection in general.

First a couple of terms and I what I mean with them:
Source = E.g. books, podcasts or conferences.
Resource = E.g. a specific book or a specific conference

A realization

Spring 2012 I asked myself:
Which sources do I prefer when learning something new?

The immediate answer was "books and blog posts". I then asked myself:
Why books and blog posts?

This question made me realize something quite uncomfortable:
I read not because that's what works best for me but because it requires the least amount of effort.

... so I started questioning which sources I used and for what purpose.

Easy vs Valuable

Easy sources are simply sources with very low requirements:
  • Low amounts of effort required
  • No "difficult" dependencies (like other people)
  • Won't bother anyone around me
  • Don't require much preparation
  • Can be pause if necessary
Examples are basically anything limited to listening, thinking and/or watching (including reading).

These sources make learning happen even when the conditions aren't ideal and they're often effective at helping me get more information to work with. The problem is most of these sources don't push me to act or are even used instead of acting; and without action there's no "real" progress (my opinion).

On the other hand there are sources that typically have a greater risk attached (lose money, hurt my reputation, hurt my ego, cost a lot of energy etc.) but also comes with a much bigger reward. Some examples for me are:
  • Organize a learning event
  • Teach at a learning event
  • Coach other people
  • Practice in public
  • Practice that requires a lot of set up
  • Hire a personal trainer/coach/mentor
  • ... basically anything that directly or indirectly forces me to act and/or "be judged"
Using these sources sure costs a lot but on the other hand they typically bring much more value and a much stronger feeling of accomplishment.

Finally an interesting experience: About a year into my development as software tester I entered a state where I had the energy to start and complete most valuable activities and doing this provided me more energy than it had cost. This put me in a crazy, positive learning spiral which I try to replicate now when I'm learning coaching. The main ingredient for this, I think, was surrounding myself with great people, which I'll come back to later in this series.

Source selection

  1. I sometimes, in my head, "rate" resources based on how easy they would be to fit into my life and how much potential value I think they bring. This can help me find cross-overs (fairly easy and valuable).
  2. Sometimes easy is way more important than valuable and vice versa:
    Easy stuff is great when my motivation is low
    Easy stuff is great when my learning environment creates limitations
    High value stuff is great when I need a sense of accomplishment
    High value stuff is great when I need quick progress
  3. I like variation, especially when I feel stuck:
    Sometimes a "great" source becomes "bad" simply because I've used it too much
    Sometimes a "bad" source can be "great" just because it breaks the monotony
    When I look for podcasts, finding the first 1-5 great podcasts for a particular topic is usually quite easy but after that it becomes a lot harder. When I find one of these great podcasts I typically listen to the episodes that sound the most interesting to me first. This means after I've found theses 1-5 podcasts and listened to what I perceive as the best episodes for each of them, podcasts become a much less valuable source.
    Early on when learning testing, reading was great, but at some point I started to feel like I just read variations of the same thing over and over again so I had to find new ways to learn.
  4. Within a specific topic certain sources are better suited or better utilized than others.
    There weren't that many great testing books when I started learning software testing instead blogs and articles were the way to go. When learning coaching however there are tons of great books but I've had a hard time finding great blogs.


Bad content can create confusion which slows down my progress or makes me lose interest both in the particular topic and, worst case, in learning in general. This means I must allow my selection process to take time even when the resource is free (in terms of money).

Before I pick up a book and start reading I check reviews, read the back of the book and/or research the author.

Before I enroll to an online course I read reviews, check samples and/or research the teacher.

I'm generally much more relaxed when a resource is either recommended by someone I trust, if it's easy to skim (e.g. an article), easy to bail out of (e.g. a conference presentation) or if more research probably won't help me anyway (e.g. an area I don't know well).

Paying for learning material

  1. Question why something has a cost
    If I find anything with a cost attached my first question is:"is there a cost to this because more effort, skillful work and/or meaningful polish was added to it or just because someone wants my money?"
  2. Go for the super-stars
    A book, course or basically anything else generally costs roughly the same no matter if the content creator is a proven super-star in her field or an "amateur" (in comparison). So I save my money for the super-stars!
  3. Use free sources to find super-stars
    Finding my super-stars is hard, especially since some crappy creators are good at marketing. So when I find a potential super-star I check free online videos by that person, blog posts, interviews etc. When I start to see a pattern of greatness I have no problem paying for that person's content anymore.
To give you an example of all free:
During the Udemy sale on Black Friday I found a course by a person named Brandon Hakim. The course title and lecture titles did sound like potential money grabbers (kinda like tabloid headlines) but I researched him and the course (heuristic 3). After some thinking I decided to pay for the course because he seemed like a dedicated person with teaching skills (heuristic 1)... It was amazing! A few days later I picked up one more of his courses after just skimming its description (heuristic 2).

A clarification: A paid resource isn't bad just because I don't find it useful. For instance there are lots of popular resources where I simply don't like the format, teaching style, content creator's personality or the assumptions made meaning it's not worth the money for me but it can very well be worth the money for someone else. This also works the other way around: Just because others recommend a resource doesn't mean it's worth the money for me so there are very few things I don't research myself, at least a little bit.

Finally if a resource could be useful for my employer I sometimes check with my boss. This way I can get access to resources I might not had been ready to pay for myself, or at least now I don't have to, and I saved the company the work to find it. Win-win!

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