Monday Morning Haskell explores a variety of topics in the Haskell programming language, from the very basics to the best tools for use in a production environment. The author, James Bowen, is a software engineer in San Francisco.

Learning to Learn Haskell

A month or two ago, we discussed the Intimidation Factor of Haskell. That article focused on why people see Haskell as challenging and why they shouldn't. Today we’ll pick up on some of the threads of that conversation. We'll explore the how of learning Haskell (and other things). We’ll examine some general ideas on learning and discuss how to apply them to programming.

Warren Buffett and Compound Interest

There’s an oft-repeated line on productivity about Warren Buffett. He says he reads at least 500 pages a day, and this is one of the major keys to his success. Knowledge, according to Buffett, is like compound interest. The more you acquire, the more it accumulates and is able to build on itself as you make more connections.

The why of this statement is fantastic. I’ve found it rings true as I explore different topics. I have seen how my knowledge has begun building on itself. And yet, the how is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. This leads people to have a difficult time implementing Buffett's principle.

The simple fact is that the average person does not have time to read 500 pages a day. First, if he reads so much, Warren Buffett is likely an accomplished speed reader, so he needs less time. Second, he is in far more control of his time than most other people due to his wealth. In my current job as a software engineer, I cannot spend a full 80% of my working day on “reading and thinking”. I would have some very unhappy teammates and project managers to deal with.

The average person will see this advice and decide to start reading a ton outside of working hours. They might even succeed in hitting 500 pages a day...for a couple days. Then of course life gets in the way. They won’t have time over a few days to do it, and they’ll drop the habit.

A Better Application

So how do we achieve the compound knowledge effect? The real misinterpretation I find about this advice is this. The key factor in compound interest is time, not average investment. Making small, repeated contributions will have major rewards later on. Of course, big, repeated contributions will have major rewards as well. But if the investment causes us to give up the habit, we'll be worse off over time.

Once we accept this idea, we can apply it to other topics, including Haskell programing. We might be tempted to devote an hour every day to learning some particular Haskell concept. But this is often unsustainable. It is far easier to devote at least 15 minutes a day, or even 10 minutes a day. This will ensure we’re going to continue learning. On any given day, it can be hard to carve out a full hour for something. Your schedule might not allow that contiguous block of time. But you should always be able to find a 15 minute block. This will dramtically lower the barrier of starting each day, so you'll be more likely to succeed.

In keeping with the compound interest principle, progress is momentum based. By committing to 15 minutes a day on a couple different projects, I’ve made a ton of progress. I've accomplished far more than if I had tried to carve out an hour here and there. I was only able to start writing online because I devoted 20 minutes a day to writing. Once I stuck with that for a month, I was in good shape.

Josh Waitzkin and Confronting Difficulties

Another of the most important ideas about learning I’ve encountered comes from The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin. He is a former chess prodigy and grandmaster turned world-champion martial artist. He describes a story that was all-too familiar to me as a fellow childhood chess player. He saw many young players with a lot of potential. They would beat everyone around them at their school or local chess club. But they never brought themselves to face stronger opposition. As a result, they ended up not improving, and ultimately quit chess. They were so invested in the idea of winning every game that losing to anyone was too much of a blow to their pride.

If we focus on our egos too much, we’ll be afraid of appearing weak. The causes us to avoid confronting the areas of our knowledge where we actually are weak. These are exactly the areas we need to strengthen! If we never address these areas, we’ll never improve, and we won't be able to beat big challenges.

Confronting Haskell

So how does this affect learning Haskell, or programming in general? After all, programming is not a competitive game. And yet, there are still ways in which this mentality can hurt us. We might stay away from a particular topic because it seems difficult. We're concerned that we'll try to learn it and fail. And we worry this failure will reveal how peculiarly unfit we are to be Haskell developers. Worse, we're afraid to ask other programmers for help. What if they look down on us for our lack of knowledge?

I have three main responses to this. First, I'll repeat a note from the intimidation article. A topic is infinitely more intimidating when you know nothing about it. Once you know even the most basic definitions, you have a reasonable idea of what you're missing. Get as basic an idea of it as you can and write it down in plain English. You might not know the subject. But it will no longer be an "unknown-unknown".

Second, who cares if you put in effort toward learning something and fail? Try again! It can take several iterations of learning on a single topic before you understand it. It took me at least three tries before I understood monads.

Finally, the very people we are afraid to admit our weaknesses to are the same people who can actually help us overcome these weakness. Better yet, they are often more than happy to do so! This involves getting over our primal fears of appearing inferior and being rejected by others. This is difficult but not impossible.

Conclusion

So remember the key lessons here. Focus a little bit at first. Don’t commit to learning more than 15 minutes a day, and pick a project with clear progress. Keep momentum going by working at something every day. Don't worry if a concept seems difficult. It's OK to take several tries at learning something. And above all, never be afraid to ask for help.

So what are you waiting for? If you've always wanted to learn Haskell but never have, download our Getting Started Checklist to start your journey!

Have you done a little Haskell, but still don't understand some functional programming concepts? Check out our free Recursion Workbook to learn about recursion, higher order functions, and try some practice problems!

Compile Driven Learning

Interview with Doug Beardsley!