Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.

— Henry Ford

What do you do when you need to learn something new? Do you wait for someone to teach you? Or do you seek for knowledge actively? In this post, I will discuss why there are clear advantages to the second approach (and also, why the first approach is still prevalent).

Push vs Pull Learning

There are many different ways to learn. You can read a book, attend a training, subscribe to a MOOC, practice through a pet project, participate in local meetups, ask coworkers for support, follow tutorials on blogs, watch videos online. There isn’t a clear winner when it comes to learning. Some supports are more effective depending on the subject. For example, a MOOC is clearly superior to learn graphic tools like Photoshop, and thus many authors completely migrated to MOOCs. Watching the instructor doing the actions is clearly preferable to reading bulleted lists in books. I learnt Photoshop this way many years ago, and I’m now delighted by courses on LinkedIn Learning. Each support presents advantages and drawbacks, and you will get much better results by varying learning resources than simply learning using books or trainings exclusively. Complementary is key to learning.

There is, however, an important distinction to make between these different supports. How much I control what I learn? Who is pulling the strings?

When I buy a book, I personally decide what I want to learn at the most appropriate moment for me. When I attend a local meetup, even if I’ve selected it from many other meetups, there is a strong likelihood that the subject doesn’t perfectly match what I’m trying to learn, or that I’ll have to wait a few weeks before the day of the meetup. I depend on the initiative of someone else to learn. You may say the same for books as you can’t read a book if the author has not taken the initiative to write it in the first place. That’s true, but choosing a book over thousands of references is not the same as choosing a meetup over a few dozens.

The two approaches are named Push Learning versus Pull Learning.

In Push mode, you passively wait for the information to reach you. You hope that a local meetup on a particular subject will occur, you wait for your company to send you to the next conference, or you ask for a training.

In Pull mode, you actively search for the information where it exists. You follow a MOOC to introduce yourself to the subject, you read an advanced book to go further, you follow influencers on Twitter to watch their publications.

For most of us, Push Learning is the traditional mode we have all experienced in school, and this mode continues to be the most prominent. Nobody like being told what to do, but concerning learning, things seem to be different. Until when?

The benefits of Pull Learning

There is nothing profoundly wrong with Push Learning. There will always exist subjects you will learn by coincidence. You may discover a new framework because you hear a colleague talking about it. You may learn a new tool because your company decides to commit to this new tool. You may discover a new programming language because someone living near to you decide to share its interest during a meetup. Of course, you could have learnt about these subjects by yourself. The reality is you can’t run in every direction. At best, when learning something new, you may ask you "Why didn’t I learn about this before? How could I have learned about it before?" What is really crucial, however, is to use Pull Learning concerning your subjects of predilection.

Pull Learning is getting more and more attractive at the same time it is becoming more and more profitable. On one hand, new technologies contribute in making Pull Learning widely accessible, and terribly enjoyable. Try a MOOC on Coursera for example, and compare with the lectures you had at school. On the other hand, in today’s fast paced world, you cannot just follow trends passively, and wait for your company to train you. You need to be ready for the next wave, without waiting for it to push you in, at the risk of being overwhelmed. In short, you need to adopt Pull Learning:

  • Pull learning favors learning. You take the decision to learn. Nobody is forcing you, so you could not resist, you will learn faster, and you will retain the information longer.

  • Push Learning is often about what others want you to learn, whereas Pull Learning is more about your own preferences. "You need to learn this" vs "I want to learn this". Listen to yourself.

  • Pull Learning is on-demand, just-in-time learning. You have full control on your knowledge and tailor it at your convenience. You can follow any path you want.

  • Pull Learning is the only way to reach expertise. There don’t exist trainings to become an expert (otherwise, there would be a ton of experts out there). Expertise results from long study sessions, working alone, trying to push your limits a little farther, slowly but surely.[1]

The good news is Pull Learning is within everyone’s reach! Remember everything you learned by yourself when you were just a baby. The human brain is a learning machine. Even if we lose half of our neurons during our early years, why not press the resume button and start learning again?

Migrating from Push to Pull learning is like migrating from TV channels to Netflix. Don’t watch what TV channels have programmed for you. Watch what you want, when you decide, and wherever you are. If adopting Netflix was easy, why would it be different concerning learning?

To conclude

Push learning involves learning something that someone else has decided for you. Pull learning involves learning something you have decided right now. Say like this, it’s hard to justify the prevalence of Push Learning. Too often, we stop being actor of our own learning experience, although Pull Learning represents a far better strategy to face the challenges of the 21st century.[2]. We still need to be curious and to welcome every opportunity to learn something new, but we need even more to be proactive and seek by ourselves what we really want to learn.

In practice
  • If most of your learning occurs through Push Learning, experiment with Pull Learning. Read a book, subscribe to a MOOC, add interesting blogs in your news reader.

  • If you are reading only books people recommended you, go to your bookstore and look for your next reading. I read a lot of books. Not all was great, but I learned from every one of them. Try what interests you at the moment.

  • Don’t stop attending local meetups or conferences, but watch recorded conferences online to complement your learning.

  • For companies, stop relying exclusively on training and start encouraging pull learning. Include credits for employees to subscribe on platforms like Safari Books Online, Linkedin Learning. Encourage the diversity of ideas through the diversity of learning.

About the author

Julien Sobczak works as software developer for Scaleway, a French cloud provider. As an avid reader, his main area of focus are developer productivity, mental literacy, and everything that resolves around personal development.

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