by Zubin

What learning to code actually taught me


I have to admit it. I love to code. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, I am a perfect cliché. I started enjoying it only when I stuck with it for so long that I started to get the hang of it.

To be clear, coding is the only thing I’ve ever done where you spend most of your time ‘failing’. Broken code is the norm, and fixing it, finding bugs, and building stuff that works smoothly requires inordinate patience, research, focus, and persistence. But the lessons learned allow you to progress.

As we get older, we acquire beliefs that demotivate us. Our attitudes and expectations start becoming self-limiting, usually subconsciously. Even if our conscious minds accept the science of neuroplasticity, our subconscious beliefs haven’t internalised this knowledge. In fact, we aren’t even conscious of the litany of excuses that run through our mental operating system, as to why we won’t acquire new knowledge or skills.

Here are some you’ll recognise:

  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • Only kids can learn new things fast
  • It’s too hard
  • I hated school/uni
  • It’s better to stick to what you’re good at than learn new stuff
  • I don’t have the time
  • You’ve got to be a nerd / genius / brainiac
  • You’ve got to have a certain bent of mind / I’m not that ‘type’

Only the last one is true, and not in the way you’re using it.

For years I thought that you had to be “off the charts” smart to be a coder. It seemed an intellectual superpower. It was only when I read about Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and many others being self-taught, as kids, in the pre-Internet era that I started to think — hang on, that doesn’t add up. If these people could teach themselves as kids, when all they had was school projects and old manuals, then this isn’t about innate genius. This is about persistent effort, and time spent.

I started to research this more, and realised that a lot of coders are self-taught, and don’t view themselves as particularly gifted. Like all skills, the outliers are gifted. But they’re outliers. The good and great ones just kept doing it, again and again, until they got good enough to do whatever they wanted.

I started to see a pattern. As a “recovering lawyer”, I’ve been told that “you must be really smart to be a lawyer”. I disagree. If you reflect upon it, I’m sure you’ve met smart and not-so-smart people in all walks of life, and surprisingly, in the same walk of life. And on the other hand, some people you’d assume have to be smart to do what they do turned out to be very regular folks.

Some of our biggest figures in history insist that they are ordinary people that made extraordinary decisions and choices. Remarkable people often do unremarkable things and unremarkable people often do remarkable things.

Clearly, my beliefs were wrong. Maybe “smart” is a self-limiting concept, because it suggests you’re born with it or not. This is a cultural bias, a belief that being smart is a static, innate, congenital, universal attribute. Actually, being smart is always relative to a skill, and it’s a sliding scale. You can move up it, in the right direction, with persistent effort.

So, I had fallen into the same misconception. I assumed you needed to already possess great “smarts” to be a coder, just like others presumed I needed great “smarts” to qualify to be a lawyer.

Can you imagine if Henry Ford, Edison, Jobs, the Wright Brothers, Disney, Einstein and others thought that? What would our world be like?

No, it’s not worth thinking about.

Instead, let’s focus on how we disable and disqualify ourselves from learning through a combination of false beliefs, and false expectations. That way, we can self-correct when we disqualify ourselves. Better yet, we can make sure we don’t infect our kids with our false beliefs.

False Belief #1: Smartness is inherent

Nope. It’s acquired. And since it’s always relative, you’re always dumber than someone else. So keep growing.

False Belief #2: My brain doesn’t learn as fast as I get older

Actually, not true either. In fact, as you get older you learn how to learn better. Unlike your body, your mind at age 75 can be orders of magnitude better than it was at 25. Ask Benjamin Franklin.

What really happens is that our focus, attention, self-belief and discipline weaken and waste away as we get older, through lack of exercise. It’s not age, it’s that we’re out of practice. We have become intellectually flabby.

For many of us, the last time we really studied something was at university, and that was years ago. We kept learning what we loved to learn — hobbies, how to use Facebook, open-water SCUBA diving, how to upload filtered pictures on Instagram — because we found it enjoyable. But the stuff that is “work” we tend to avoid, and so lose practice.

You can get it back. And get better with time.

False Belief #3: It comes easier to other people

This one is particularly harmful, because it makes us feel inadequate and overwhelmed. Hence it is incredibly discouraging to the point that we don’t even try to take the first step. And it’s simply not true. That is just how it appears.

Let me tell you how deceptive this appearance is.

We tend to judge our insides by other peoples’ outsides.

Read that again.

We compare our innermost thoughts and feelings with how others appear on the outside. In a world viewed through Instagram filters, this will make us all feel incompetent, fat, ugly, stupid, and poor.

In fact, the belief that it comes easier to others is so subtle, that even my closest family assume that I am “naturally motivated”. ?

Let me put this to rest now. Motivation was the result of applying the learnings that I’m now, finally, spilling out in this blog. It was not the cause. It was a consequence.

Let me labour this point.

It was hard. It is hard. It will continue to be hard. Even today I have an internal struggle, almost every day, on things I’ve been doing for years. Some days I’m motivated, but my mind still wants to talk me into taking the easy way.

I don’t always WANT to practice code, read, ride instead of take a tram, go to the gym, abstain from eating an extra pie. I almost never FEEL like it. Every single day, my mind comes up with hundreds of excuses or slippery ways to trick me into taking the easy way out. The thing that is easier, is recognising what my mind is doing. Because as Tony Robbins says:

It’s not your mind … it’s THE mind.

And then I do it anyway. That’s not motivation. That’s discipline. Motivation is a flaky friend that relies on charm to win you over. Instead, discipline wears a smelly hoody, sits in the corner and doesn’t say much, but shows up every time, is reliable, and delivers the goods.

That’s the rule to manage False Belief #3 (you may never get rid of it, so just manage it). It doesn’t come easy to anyone. It just gets easier to manage the more you practice managing it. You’re never going to feel like it, so do it anyway. Just do it. Anyway.

Then others can look at you and say it came easy to you.

Oh, and it’s not just me. Take any person who inspires you. I mean it — any person at all. And ask them. Or read about them. You will see that it looked easy because you only saw the briefest, most superficial subset of their life. And you saw it through your filter. Behind the scenes they worked and worked and practiced and overcame resistance, negativity, and failure repeatedly with no evidence that it was going anywhere, or that they were making progress.

Now let’s talk about some expectations you might have that won’t help you all that much.

False Expectation #1: It will get easier

Yes. But only if you’ve stopped pushing yourself. If you’re finding it easy, it’s because you’re on a plateau. Plateaus are inevitable. Just don’t stay there. Level up.

False Expectation #2: It will happen quickly

No. it won’t. It will be harder than you expect, yet more achievable than you realise.

Read that sentence again.

And it will take longer than you bargained for. That is where most of your frustration will come from, as the passage of time will make you doubt and fear more. You will look for quick wins, and easy trophies. They will come. But well after the point you imagined, and as a reward for persisting past that trough of sorrow, when they can’t legitimately be called quick or easy anymore.

False Expectation #3: Your life will change

Maybe. Maybe not. Only one thing is guaranteed to change. You.

And seriously, that’s the starting point. From there, you can move steadily in the direction of the life changes you seek.

But the contents of your life will not change until you change. And if you have practiced persisting through repeated failure in something like learning a new skill, you will come out of it with insights and confidence that will help you overcome all the other setbacks in your life. And if you’re always trying to expand your life, you will always encounter those failures. That’s good. Failure is a sign of progress. Just keep going. And remember Nastia Luskin’s rule.

What inspired me to write this specific post:

[Update] Quincy at FreeCodeCamp has relaunched the FreeCodeCamp podcast, and uses his incredible experience as an educator to pull together content that will help you on your journey. I was recently on episode 53 and some of the things in this post are covered in greater detail there. You can also access the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify or directly from this page.

If you would like to talk about your journey, I would love to listen. Tweet me @ZubinPratap. If you think what you just read could be useful to someone, please share it.

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