28 January 2019

My Learning - Part 7 - My hourglass model


When I start to learn a new topic I try to go broad (many sources) just to figure out the recurring themes, get the key concepts described in many different ways and to get a basic understanding of how big the topic is. It's also a process to identify: "Who are the heroes in this area that everyone refers to".

Later, when I've "mastered the topic", I also go broad just to discover new ideas, to challenge my current understanding and to expand my core.

A recent insight however relates to the period in between; a period where I often struggle. What I've noticed is after I've identify the most important recurring themes and heroes I need to narrow down my focus and only learn from these heroes and from well established basic resources. This is where I build my own foundation and if I spread out at this stage things tend to get blurry because I neither have a clear structure to tie new concepts to nor the ability to filter out what's important.

To put this in different terms; to be able to create a core to which I can tie all other information later I need to learn from a small number of resources that together paint one clear picture not many.

The model

This broad to narrow to broad fits the image of an hourglass:

Applied to my learning

To tie this back to my software testing and coaching education:
My "level of mastery" in coaching I think is near the green cross in the picture, so right now I'm already quite narrow in my focus but will probably have to get even more narrow before it's time to broaden again. In comparison my level of mastery in software testing has declined a bit but is still in the bottom half (the red cross).

I don't know if this model fits "everything" I teach myself (sports, tech, whatever) but it makes sense so far. As a tool it has for instance helped me control my urge to delve into new and shiny resources about coaching and instead focus on the ones I'm already using to build my core.

Move back up

Outdated knowledge and new insights can move me back up again, or at least suggest that I should revisit an earlier stage. To give you a couple of examples:

I've focused primarily on other areas than software testing the last few years, this means that when I try to improve my ability to test; reading all those newly published blog posts or testing all those new tools may be the wrong strategy. Instead I might need to revisit the experts, figure out if there are new heroes and learn how their ideas impact my understanding. For those of you familiar with the topic of software testing: For insance continuous delivery, AI and microservices have made some of my old learnings obsolete.

Another example is now when I learn about coaching. After narrowing down I sense that NLP is a more fundamental concept than I initially thought. This means I have to go back and restart some of my research of coaching with this in mind.

The more I think about it the more I realize how important the iterative aspect is. As I build my core, going back to the first stage can help me improve my map and that map greatly impacts which resources I should focus on. Same thing with going back to that narrow process of building my core late in my development. If I don't there's a big risk I'm watering a dead tree (adding ideas to an outdated core)...


While writing this I also realize there might be a useful connection between paying money and the hourglass model.

Generally I think paid resources are a bit of a gamble/waste early on since I can't tell good from bad at this point. In the narrow section however it seems to me paying money to get access to as much content as possible from my heroes should be essential. Finally when I've reached a high level of mastery I should be able to better find and identify the gems among the free content as well as have the necessary network to be able to discuss topics with experts without paying (it should be in both's interest at this point)... So there might be an inverted version of the hourglass that represents "value in spending money". But this is still an ongoing though process.

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