Don Jones®

Tech | Career | Musings

Nelson asks:

Reading books versus watching videos or a combination of both to evolve in your career? I am actually trying to evolve in my career as a Windows Systems Administrator and since a few months already, I am trying to learn the most I can about PowerShell. I feel that I am in low intermediate level. I am almost ending my first book written by you “PowerShell in a Months of Lunches” and looking forward to continue with the others. Trying to automate many routine tasks at my actual job in a successful way till now. But honestly, is really hard sometimes to advance with the speed I would wish to. Nevertheless, and since there are so many different companies providing studies through videos, I sometimes have the doubt if by only watching videos might be good enough to increase the level of knowledge or it is really recommended a combination of both (books and videos together). The lack of time for normal persons like me with family and kids might tend to prioritize the videos. But can you really get to the next level by only doing that?

I hope you’ll ask a question, too! And here’s the list of everything asked so far.

So, dirty secret: I don’t learn all that well from books or from video.

One of the important chapters in Be the Master actually discusses the need to figure out how you learn. No one form of learning is objectively better than another; what matters is what works for you and your unique brain.

Plenty of people have learned a ton from books. Plenty of people have learned a ton from video. They both work–if that’s how your brain learns.

Let’s remember what teaching is: a way of sharing past experiences and mistakes with someone, so that they can gain the knowledge from those experiences and mistakes without actually having to live through them. I tell you that “a boiling pot on the stove is hot,” and if you believe me, then you don’t have to touch it and burn yourself to possess that information.

So to be an effective learner, you need to figure out what kind of learning works for you. Are you able to pay attention to a video? Are you willing to stop and practice some of what’s being demonstrated, so you can better internalize it? Then video might be great for you. Do you find your attention wandering when you read? Anything longer than 1,000 words is boring, and you just can’t focus? Then most books might not work for you.

I read a lot for pleasure, but it’s not the best way for me to internalize new information. But there are variations there, too. When I was young, I was raised in the Protestant faith. My parents disparaged of ever getting me to read the Bible, because, I mean, seriously, that it not a page-turner. So they got my an illustrated Bible, told in comic book form. I devoured it. It had been edited down and was more interesting to me at that age. I’m sure I learned things from it, but it felt effortless. It was a matter of finding the right medium for me, at that age, at that time.

Can someone binge-watch 30 hours of video on a technology topic, or devour a 600-page book on that topic, and suddenly be “at the next level?” I doubt it. Assuming you’re comprehending the material, you’re still not integrating it into who you are. You’re not experiencing it. Most adults learn better by digesting new information in small chunks, and then practicing or playing with that new information to really feel it. There’s not really any way to speed up how our brains learn. They are what they are, and they weren’t originally designed for the complex things we ask of them these days. But we’ve learned to make computers that fit into your pocket and strap to your wrist, so our brains are clearly up to the challenge, provided we “meet them where they are.”

My book, Instructional Design for Mortals digs a bit more into the how of learning. How, that is, our brains actually ingest, process, and embrace new information. The short story is that we’re multi-sensory learners, and we learn best when we’re solving problems. Reading a book might let you memorize some new information, but that’s not really what you’re after. You have to take the time to dig in and do it, with your eyes, your ears, and your hands. You also have to be willing to experiment, which implies that you’re willing to make mistakes and fail – and then learn from those failures.

I’ve taught classes where everyone in the class had a lab computer full of virtual machines. They’d been assured that every VM could be reset to its starting point in a minute or two, so there should have been no fear of breaking something. Invariably, I’d be asked, “what happens if I do [something they thought of]?” Why in the world would you ask me that? Just try it. If I tell you, you haven’t learned anything. If you try it, you’ll learn, whether it works or not. Learning is little more than a series of mistakes. Books, videos, teachers, podcasts, whatever – those can speed up some of the mistakes, but the real learning happens when you dig in. Yes, that’s not always fast, cheap, or convenient, but it’s how our brains are made.

So I’d say, “try it all.” Try books. Try different authors. Try videos. Try everything. See what sticks for you, and make sure you’re experimenting with the things you’re learning. Try things. Make mistakes. Recover. Move on. That’s all learning really is.

One thought on “AMA: Books or Video?

  1. Nelson Montes de Oca Valerio says:

    Thank you very much Mr. Jones for taking the time to answer my question in full details. It is really appreciated.

    You really made a point here. In fact, what you suggest about trying everything is what I am actually doing, but more than that, I am trying my best efforts to link those learnings with real needs in my actual job and automate routinely tasks as much as I can. When I don’t know how to do something, I look for examples in the PowerShell community and try first to understand those examples and later apply the concept (sometimes by copying and pasting some part of the code and adapt it to my needs).

    Thank you again and wish you a very happy new year. God Bless you.



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