Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Pull Vs Push

17 Jan 2010

I've never been a fan of push-based knowledge systems. Think about it. You go to a lecture. The prof regurgitates a bunch of "knowledge" you may not care about one bit. You then take 30% of that "knowledge" home, unsure of what to do with it. Congratulations, you are now the 7 billionth victim of a crappy push-based education system.

I've always been a fan of pull-based knowledge systems. It's a system where you wander around a topic on your own, guided by your own interests. Ever wondered why we're so effective at our hobbies and the things we teach ourself, yet so crappy at our jobs? Our jobs were taught to us, while our hobbies were taught by us.

I once had an epiphany. In it, I was the world's best lecturer. Essentially, a present-day Socrates. However, my lecture halls would contain only 3 students tops, usually just one. And even though I was the best lecturer the world had ever seen, I could never be caught lecturing. The world's best lecturer never lectures, what?

Instead, I would sit silent in my chair and wait for my students to ask me questions. And when they did, I would answer them as briefly as I could, usually in a sentence or two. If they wanted more detail, they'd have to ask me more questions. Then I would give them a bit more detail, but only a bit more. After a few iterations of this, the students would smarten up. They would realize that the better their questions were, the more they could squeeze out of me. So they would often take an entire minute or two to craft their questions. Each question had to be like a needle in an acupuncture therapy: sharp, and to the point.

Since the students would spend so long thinking about their questions, they would often obtain answers to most of their questions on their own using their own heads, eliminating the need to pose the question to me in the first place.

This process would carry on for hours until my students were happy with the knowledge they had gained that day. This epiphany was my first voyage into the beautiful world of pull-based knowledge systems. In fact, we use this kind of pull-based knowledge system almost everyday: the students are none other than common people like us, and the best lecturer in the world is none other than Google. Every Python, Ruby and PHP programmer who has done quick Google lookups in the middle of an in-depth programming session knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Forcing knowledge on to other people without them asking for it is perhaps the worst thing you could possibly do to them, besides maybe murdering them. If you're knowledgeable about a topic, it's okay to let people know that, but don't start lecturing on it to every single person you meet. If people want help with your expert opinion, they will come find you.

The same is true for this very blog and this very blog post in particular. I might have made it easy for you to get to this post by publishing to your news feeds, but you still had to click to get here. And you still have to put in the effort of reading what's being described here. And if you're not interested in what I have to say once you click, you can read just the paragraphs that interest you while skimming or skipping the rest, or you could just close the tab and move on with life. You're in control here, not me.

You can't do that if I catch you in person and start lecturing you about the topics I am most interested in. I'd simply bore you to death. You could walk away, but you probably won't do that in an effort to be courteous. The internet allows you to walk away from anything that doesn't interest you without hurting anyone's feelings. Pull-based systems are as beautiful as they can get: you ask for the information, and I give it to you; I publish what I have to say, and you subscribe only if you're interested. No force, no pressure.

Two weeks ago, my friend Sarah shared this youtube video where Peyton Manning describes how it was precisely a pull-based system that made him good at what he does. Had his father Archie Manning tried to push football skills on to his son, the results could've ended up being quite disastrous.

Giving without someone asking is something I strongly try to stay away from. Especially when it comes to advice and help. The reason sometimes even good advice is so poorly regarded is because it is given without anyone asking for it. Same goes for help. I never help anyone unless they've explicitly asked me for it. And the people who receive my help after they've requested it seem more satisfied with it. My gut feeling is that in 99% of the cases, most people don't want my advice or help. Thrusting help or advice upon them is actually quite a painful thing to endure from the recipient's point of view.

My dad may be a pretty good tax planning accountant, but imagine if he lectured every person he met on tax planning. He'd have 0 friends by now. It is precisely because he withholds his accumulated knowledge and delivers them only upon request that makes him in demand. Elementary ECON 101 at its simplest.

The reason why the Socratic method is so effective is precisely because it is as far away from a push-based system as one can possibly hope for. Had Socrates been a university lecturer instead of an inquisitor, Plato would have been fast asleep by now. But the Socratic method isn't a true pull-based system either. It's not Plato who asks the questions in a Socratic dialogue, it's Socrates!

Pull-based knowledge systems are perhaps the next revolution in modern next-generation education systems. The smartest of the smartest, the true thinkers, the modern intellectual revolutionaries and mathematicians, the star athletes of our times, the ace politicians and foreign policy advisors, the next breed of Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and economics — all of them are going to be educated and trained using pull-based knowledge transfer systems for education, training, reinforcement, inspiration and advice, not push-based.

If you are the victim or perpetrator of a push-based knowledge system, it is time you start asking yourself the right questions.

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