Why it’s hard to learn from books – But you can do it!

I’ve been coaching my younger sister through learning to computer program.

As part of the process I’ve been sending her pep/ motivational emails that might be useful to anyone who’s going through the list of books I recommended in this post here. Here’s one of them encouraging her to push through the difficulty of learning from books. Curious to hear what you think:

[Context: She just wrote me an email saying it’s taking her longer to push through the html book than she expected.]

Dear <<Sister>>,

You see how long it’s taking you to do these things and how hard it is to motivate yourself to learn from just reading books? I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s hard for at least 98% of the population.


Take 100 random people, ask them to just read a book and learn from it – MAYBE 2 people out of that 100 will be able to do it and follow through. And that’s me being generous.

There are a few things that go into it: motivation, confidence, and environment/time. You need all three. And note that those factors change for people over time.

So take those same 100 people, wait 5 years, and test them again, and a different 2 people would be able to do it. MAYBE if you run this experiment 10 times on 1,000 different people there will be one person who can just pick up a technical book, read it, and learn from it each time.

Why do I mention this? To let you know that it’s SUPPOSED to be hard to just pick up an html book and learn from it. And when we move on to computer programming, it’s going to get that much harder! No one’s born knowing how to program. It’s something each and every person had to learn – and it wasn’t easy for almost all of them.

For it to work, you need to be motivated, confident, and create the right environment/ have enough time. You need all three.

Let’s go into those factors:

  • Motivation: You have to WANT to learn the material in the book. And you have to WANT to learn it enough to offset whatever else is competing with your time. Most of your peers are probably into television and hanging out with friends. So they need to want to learn whatever is in the book more than they want to watch television. Or they have to want to learn whatever is in the book more than they want to hang out with their friends. That only comes if someone really likes to learn, really wants to learn what’s in the book, and/or is in a situation where they can’t watch television or hang out with friends anyway. That’s why when parents want their kids to do homework, they take away tv and don’t let them hang out with their friends – the kid doesn’t have anything else to do, so in theory, the kid will have to learn. However, there are still two other factors.
  • Confidence: The person has to believe they can learn the material. If you handed me a computer programming book where all the text (INCLUDING THE COMMANDS!!!) was written in Russian and said, “Ok, learn this.” I’d probably be able to try for 30 minutes. Maybe 2- 4 hours of trying to figure it out and make sense of it before giving up. And at that point, even if I were alone in a quiet room with no tv or friends – just that book, a pencil, and a notebook – what would come out of that room is a bunch of doodles. I’d probably take a nap at the desk. Why? Humans are hard wired to NOT work on things they perceive to be pointless. So even if someone’s motivated and locked in a room, they won’t be able to maintain a sustained effort if they don’t believe they can learn the material. (By the way, that’s part of why it’s important to start to learn the command prompt. It’ll make you more confident with the computer.)
  • Environment/ have enough time: Here I don’t just mean physical environment, though that is part of it, I mean their general life circumstances as well. If someone is in a place where they are constantly interrupted (by people, the realities of life, etc) it’s harder for them to put sustained effort into something (like learning from a book) that does not give an immediate reward. Example: If you were homeless, you’d have nothing to do all day, so why NOT learn from books, right? Well, I imagine most homeless people are hungry all the time, so it’s hard to think, and they need to worry about getting food. That’s the sort of environmental thing that’ll make it hard to learn. Or if you live in a place where there are birds chirping and people are walking into your room all the time, it’s also hard to get deep in thought without getting interrupted. That’s what I mean by environment – you have to get somewhere quiet, where you could work without being interrupted, and when you’re at a time in your life when other things are steady so you don’t need to interrupt yourself to do other things.

So, why is that all relevant? It’s relevant because if we’re conscious of those things, we can create situations that facilitate our learning things! And we can more accurately predict whether our efforts will be successful. Also, it’s important for managing other people. But for now, let’s talk about these things in the context of getting you to finish these books.

Motivation: You understand that going through the books I’m asking you to read could lead to a job that pays well and therefor, financial freedom. And you have good reason to believe me because we’ve grown up together and grew up in the same house. So you’ve seen first hand the difference in opportunity that comes from spending time on different activities. Therefore, you’re probably pretty motivated. It’s just about whether you’re motivated enough to NOT do some other things competing for your time. To help facilitate that, I’m paying you some money. $100/ week to start – so that you prioritize these things over other low paying jobs. That said, I understand that computer programming is not your passion. If someone asked you to do something more fun, that would win. Remember that doing this instead of working retail or waiting tables enables you to build a career while you wait for your dream to pan out.

Confidence: You’re doing a GREAT job of sticking with the book and knowing that you can learn. Seriously, really impressive. This isn’t material that comes naturally to most people, so usually they have to take classes to learn this stuff. When you get stuck, please know you can ask me questions and I’ll help you get unstuck. [This is true for anyone reading this post.  I also think it would be awesome to start a non-profit sponsoring refugees and smart, motivated kids from hard backgrounds to learn to code.] That should give you the confidence that even if you get stuck or something is hard, you’ve got backup. The book is in English and you’ve got someone you can talk to when you get stuck. You WILL beat this book.

Environment/ Time: It’s probably going to be hard for you to get work done at a small, noisy apartment. Please, go to a library or somewhere else that’s quiet when you need to work. As for time, I’m trying to help you have time by paying you. But you really need to block off at least 7 hours somewhere quiet outside of the house to be effective. A library is good because you can work somewhere quiet and get things done. When you find yourself getting distracted, you can just put your stuff back in your back and take a walk around the block. Kind of like going to the office.

So now you understand why it’s so hard for people to learn from books. That means now you also understand why the computer books section at Barnes and Noble is so big, but there’s still a huge shortage of computer programmers. Lots of people buy those books ($30 – $60 each!!!) expecting to learn, but give up after a few days, without finishing the books. That’s normal for most people! It’s the same reason America (as a whole) spends so much money on fitness equipment but is so fat. Like the treadmills, diet books, and juicers that people buy hoping to lose weight, computer books are another thing that people buy with the intention to change their lives, but they don’t follow through.

And you also understand why lots of smart employers LIKE to hire computer programmers even if they didn’t learn to computer program in college. Not only is there a shortage of programmers (so they don’t have much of a choice anyways – they have to take whomever they can get!), but someone who can teach themselves has usually made some serious sacrifices and can demonstrate they know how to work hard. It’s not easy. And everyone who’s done it knows it’s not easy – even if they might not be able to consciously express these factors like you now understand.

I think it’s cool that you’re actually going through these books. Even though I’m paying you, it’s still not easy. I respect your determination to follow though.

Enjoy your weekend and keep up the hard work.

One Response to “Why it’s hard to learn from books – But you can do it!”
  1. Marco says:

    Yo, that’s a figgin long email, she may not read the whole thing (I didn’t ;). I think I’m pretty motivated but I don’t think I could learn from a book cold without some kind of external motivation such as a class which has deadlines and someone else you’re accountable to, a project to want to do for someone else, a person project you’re really interested in such as designing a video game or a website about your favorite animal, or a group of people how are all trying to learn thebsame thing you’re accountable to.