Hitting the Books One Hour a Week

Posted on May 5, 2023

A stack of thick books.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Raman Shah, an independent data craftsman based in Providence, RI. Connect with Raman on LinkedIn or Twitter.

What I’m working on: Diagnosing a recurring glitch in a data replication process

What I’m listening to: Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Jean Sibelius

A hobby I enjoy: Birdwatching

Every year, what springs from the phone feels faster, louder, more algorithmically enhanced – and an analog moment of silence feels more like an impossible luxury.

The notion of silence as a luxury is not new. Silence is fundamental to health and good relationships. It perpetuates wealth: curated and sold to the richest, it powers the education underlying most high incomes. We fight to democratize silence through our public libraries. Yet few of us, in the grind of holding communities together, afford ourselves much silence at all.

Over the last decade, a slow, steady drip of deep study has dramatically grown my professional capacity. The raw materials of this growth – good textbooks plus about one hour of silence a week – are unremarkable. By properly budgeting for the needed personal capacity and by enlisting peers for accountability, I’ve found such learning and growth to be surprisingly achievable and enjoyable, even as it remains rare in the wild.

An Artificial Boundary

I love learning, but school made me miserable. I struggled with the staccato of the academic calendar – especially the deadlines around term papers. School meant too much theory and not enough practice.

The working world, by contrast, seems to be all practice and no theory. Fresh out of my chemistry Ph.D., I was a software engineer. My team was awarded a “hack afternoon” of total discretion. I wanted to read a book chapter about an aspect of the Ruby programming language where I’d been stumbling. A senior colleague upbraided me: “We learn by doing,” he scolded.

I’ve found formal avenues of professional learning also to fall short. Trainings and conferences are packaged to neatly slot into departmental budgets and avoid disrupting the day-to-day tempo. But that same packaging begets superficiality: in a time-boxed training or conference, one often picks up buzzwords to regurgitate, but there’s no room for the halting cognitive struggle that truly transforms a skillset.

Ultimately, the boundary between a student life of theory and a working life of practice seems artificial. Growing in wisdom and effectiveness seems to be a lifelong project, requiring a lifelong mix of theory and practice. Schools control this mix for their students. But to an extent, as working adults, we control this mix for ourselves.

If we want to stir in a little more theory, how does that look?

Budgeting for Deep Focus

The easy part is to find a good thing to study. Notice some terminology at work that provokes the unease of a shaky understanding. Plop the terminology into the search bar of an online bookstore, sort by customer rating, find a few dozen dollars, done.

Much harder is to sustainably pay for the work of learning in the sense of personal capacity. In software engineering, I found a tendency to compete for status by moving with superhuman speed and intensity. These stunts damaged the community. Most people, intimidated, quietly gave up on the idea of learning or building anything for themselves.

I’ve found it prudent, instead, to target the lowest possible intensity that supports momentum. One hour a week is about right in my experience. But it’s one really good hour: rested and uninterrupted, perhaps backed up with extra sleep and an extra-quiet environment. In practice, even one hour a week under such conditions can be difficult to provide for.

To provide for such learning time in work hours is particularly difficult. Institutionally illegible, it depends on an outstanding culture of trust: of leaders in teams, and of residents in their governments. Externally, one hour a week of deep investment in internal capability is hard to distinguish from one hour a week of vacation. Only the healthiest organizations can support such an investment.

So this learning is typically informal and self-funded. In the pick-up study group I’ve organized, my study partners have succeeded – for months and years – to hit the books one hour a week in their personal time. Two of them have achieved this on top of a full-time job and a young child. (A second baby often finally makes the habit unaffordable.) This low intensity of study thus appears achievable in realistic life circumstances.

The Power of Peer Accountability

My little study group has been key to my learning practice. It’s hard to hit the books, even at a minimal pace, in total solitude. A Zoom call on the calendar to discuss the next chapter with friends can provide game-changing accountability. And the bit of interaction – talking through the reading and showing our work on self-assigned homework problems – often aids my comprehension.

My own group, speaking to my own learning priorities, is a shifting assortment of two or three data scientists and data engineers: former colleagues and their own former colleagues, living as close to me as New Hampshire and as far as Portugal. We meet once a chapter, every five or six weeks. We completed Statistical Rethinking by Richard McElreath last year and are nearing the end of Designing Data-Intensive Applications by Martin Kleppmann. Over three years, we’ve tackled over a thousand pages of graduate-level statistics and computer science.

The asset powering such a study group is ultimately one’s professional network. It’s particularly important in attempting such study in localgov, where staffs are mostly too small for any two people to want to learn the same thing at the same time. Finding people to learn with may be one of the most powerful opportunities lurking within communities like ELGL. It also might be one of the most under-utilized.

Learning in this way is a pleasure. Slowed down to about one hour a week with the exact pace mutually negotiated, it leavens the numbing grind of being a working adult. Reading textbooks cover to cover, it’s more thorough than the harried tempo of formal coursework. Studying within a group, it builds deep relationships. It’s far more rewarding than school.

What Are You Reading?

I hope our paths cross, and if they do, I’ll be curious to know if you’re hitting the books one hour a week, or if you hope to. I’ll have questions for you: What are you reading? Who is studying with you? And how do you pay for that one good hour a week?

You may find me wrestling with my little group’s next splurge of silence: Generalized Additive Models by Simon Wood. It’s full of complicated linear algebra. I’m a little terrified: math might be what I do, but math is hard.

I can’t wait.

Close window