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Staying Sharp January 15th, 2010

Staying Sharp

A few years ago, Cedric Beust, had a blog entry with the same title. I saved it. Here’s a summary of what he recommended for staying sharp:

Reading (a lot of reading) is certainly a great way to accelerate your skills
Studying other languages is also a fantastic and fascinating way of learning new concepts that change the way you think.
Spend time with “curious” colleagues.
Practice. Find the time!

It’s a very good entry. You should take the time now and read it.

How do you stay sharp?

I think it’s safe to say that you are not going to stay sharp by not doing anything. But that, I mean, just going to work and doing what’s required of you. Sure, it can happen, but imagine how much sharper you would be if you did something in addition to that.

To be honest, I don’t know a definite answer on what’s the key to staying sharp. There are different ways that can work for you. Rather than trying to tell you what you should do, I’m just going to explain what I do.

I’ve tried many things over the years. I would say that I’m an aggressive type. I spend a lot of time on learning and improvement. And I’m trying to adjust as I go along.

So, he’re what I do to stay sharp.

Reading. I think reading is critical. I try to read at least an hour every day. Book reading, that is. Sure, there is a lot of good and helpful material/articles on the web that you can read. I do that as well. I have my list of blogs that I read. I find reading them very helpful. It helps me to know the state of things. But reading books requires you to put the effort and spend some quality time with the book. It also means that the author had put some quality time to make the book. This combination means is more valuable than just reading an article.

Over the years, I have changed the way I read books. I have converted to reading most of the books in the PDF/electronic format. I find that much more useful. And easier. I can take notes. I can read the same book at work without actually carrying it to work. Sure, I still buy a hard copy from time to time, but only the select few.

Practicing. Reading will only take you so far. It’s easy to read. I know. I’ve done that for a few years.  I was on a roll, reading 300+ pages per month. But I noticed that I am not learning that much. Certainly not as much as I’d like. Plus, the rate at which I started forgetting things concerned me. Why is that? Just reading is not enough. Reading something just once might not be enough as well. I am in the process of modifying this cycle. It looks more like this now: Read. Take notes. Practice. Re-Read. Notes. Practice. Do what works for you. One thing is clear: by reading alone you’re not going to grow. You’ve got to practice. The more the better.

Doing more with less. This is a recent revelation for me. It’s exciting to constantly move to new things. Have you noticed that getting a new book is very exciting? But after you put the book on a shelf and it sits there for a while, something happens. Your interest in that book decreases after a while. It’s not new anymore. Not in your mind. You have discovered something else that’s new. Maybe you got a different book. So you focus shifts, that new thing is more “interesting.” It’s the same with reading. Once I  am almost at the end of a book, I’d like to move on to the next. Even writing a review for that book seems tedious. I’d like to start reading a new book right away. But I have to break that cycle. I noticed that this is one of the BIG reasons why I don’t learn as much as I’d like. I’m trying to do too many things. Not good. Here’s what I am trying to do now to break this cycle. Before I move on to the next great thing, I have to make sure that I really learned it. And that means re-reading the book.  That means writing a project based on the new information. That means writing a blog entry. That means creating a wiki/learning page. You see: that means doing more with less!

I know that the old way didn’t work for me. It’s something that I had to change. It’s still too early for me to report the results. It’s not easy to adjust. But I believe it’s the right path for me.

Staying sharp is not easy. But if you read a few books a year, you will learn more than most. Steve McConnell is Code Complete says: “One book is more than most programmers read each year (DeMarco and Lister 1999). A little reading goes a long way toward professional advancement. If you read even one good programming book every two months, roughly 35 pages a week, you’ll soon have a firm grasp on the industry and distinguish yourself from nearly everyone around you.” You just have to remember to do something with that knowledge to make it “stick.”

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