Waste Your Time
Catch up and keep up in tech
“Fast Paced startup seeks passionate coder”
I have encountered a surprisingly persistent myth of what this passionate coder looks like — so passionate that they want to code in their free time, don’t mind 80 hour work weeks, and consider showers optional until their code compiles. That’s just what you have to do to keep up with the break-neck speed of technology, right?
I was in the last semester of my graduate program when I had the realization that I wanted to switch careers. I quit teaching and started my career in tech on the day I received my Masters of Education in Talent Development.
I had a lot of the same questions that others seem to have as they start their journeys into the tech field :
“How long will it take?”
“Am I starting too late? I mean, there are 5 year olds who are Microsoft Certified Professionals.”
“How can I be sure that this really my passion?”
“Wouldn’t I have found my way to writing software earlier if that were the case?”
A horrible equation started to build in my mind. My learning velocity = The time it takes to learn plus the time I start times how fast I learn, divided how fast the industry is moving, divided by the other things I’ve committed my time to, minus the years I should have spent coding in my youth, multiplied by my age and number of cats I own, and all squared rooted because this is all stressful and I’m already overwhelmed.
It was only because I was armed with the knowledge of how humans learn, and how to structure the best learning experiences that I was able to act.
But first, if you’ve been in this a while, or if you haven’t started yet, let me give you the lay of the land:
Your first Google search for “learn how to code” will ensure a lifetime of targeted ads for coding bootcamps, luring you in with gleaming promises of a study track so rigorous, you can go from zero to paid in a short time. Another search will reveal others advocating for shutting yourself off in a dark room with a laptop and a stack of books until you eventually emerge, like some sort of developer butterfly. Finally, you will consistently encounter someone from the ever present ivory tower of academia, preaching the one true path of a rigorous 4 year program in Computer Science.
Even when you turn away from your computer, everyone around you suddenly has the answer: what worked for them, for their friend, or for their co-workers — and they will tell you all about it. Anecdotes can be helpful, but they can also really derail beginners. Curious first steps may be met with extremes: ‘This approach is a waste of time’ or ‘that is the wrong way to do it.’ Time scarcity will always find its way into the discussion.
No matter when you start, you will likely come to the conclusion that you are already behind, and have to find a way to catch up — fast. You have to buckle down, study hard, and keep up with this unsustainable pace for the rest of your career. You don’t have a minute to lose. So, the only answer seems to be to sign up for every tutorial, take every course, start studying yesterday, and never ever stop.
Unfortunately, that’s the hardest way to do it, and that approach is likely to lead to burnout, disillusionment, and terrible code.
I had to actively choose to ignore the scary feelings of panic and stop impostor syndrome from creeping in. Instead, I focused on creating opportunities for effective learning.
I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel — I could draw upon at least 100 years of research into how people learn. Educational researchers and psychologists like Dewey, Vygotsky, Csikszentmihalyi, and Sosniak have been studying our minds and how we learn for a long time, and a pretty good picture of what a healthy learning process should look like has emerged.
Basically, there are three “phases” to learning, and if you only do one, odds are you will struggle.
The Romantic phase. We traditionally call it ‘play,’ but this is what most psychologists would just call ‘learning.’
How many career stories started with “I knew in my heart this was going to be my career when I bought a programming book and went through the exercises as fast as I could”? You need to be hooked! In this phase, you build your passion, nurture your creativity, and develop autonomy.
It is a mistake to assume that this kind of learning is reserved for children — in this phase you pursue your curiosity, find challenges, find out what you enjoy, and why.
It can seem aimless, and oh so many people would call this a “waste of time,” but it is critical to building passion and guiding your learning.
The Discipline phase: When your curiosity has guided you to a task you want to accomplish, but you lack the skills — start working. Pursuing your curiosity is wonderful, but no amount of curiosity will result in making an app. You need the skills, the knowledge, and the deliberate practice to accomplish your goals.
Making software is exercising procedural knowledge, like making music, or making art. This means no amount of listening to music will make you a musician without practicing your instrument, no amount of reading about art will make you a painter without using your brushes, and no amount of reading about writing software will result in being able to write software without hitting those keys.
This phase is all about improving your skill set, learning the rules, and following them. You are not exploring your curiosity in divergent directions, you are problem solving, collaborating, thinking critically, and constantly practicing.
The Synthesis Phase. The combination of the autonomy you learn in play, and the skills you acquire with discipline — leading to performing highly in your field. You are making personal decisions about which rules to break, rules rules to follow, and which rules to invent.
What if I already feel burned out?
Research shows that when you spend too much time in one phase, you will begin to struggle. Shift phases. Balance is the key.
If you feel burned out because you are exhausted by the grind of the discipline phase, create or find an opportunity to “waste time” on autonomous pursuits, breaking rules, and letting curiosity (not efficiency) guide you. Build a silly project, do something “intentionally wrong,” and enjoy being a complete beginner again. Do not let your “velocity” enter the equation.
If you feel burned out because you feel aimless, or frustrated because you know what you want to do but you lack the skills to do it, shift phases toward discipline. Start a challenging project, join a bootcamp, enroll in a course, work through exercises — whatever you choose, embrace the challenge and let your skills catch up to your curiosity.
The phase of deliberate practice is hard — it’s where burnout most often happens — but even within this phase, there are ways to make it better. Research shows that mentorship, good feedback about your work and progress, constructive criticism, celebrating your achievements, and building your network are extremely valuable to keeping you going and practicing.
Learning is a cycle, not a race. Develop your ability to play and pursue curiosity, to practice and acquire skills, and to combine the two. Be flexible and shift between learning phases to maintain balance — whether it is over the course of a day, a project, or a lifelong career. You are learning many things, and so have many learning cycles.
How do I know if I’m learning effectively?
There’s a chart.
This is the part of my talk where I talk about what effective learning should feel like. My favorite two topics are Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and the ‘flow’ or Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” and how they can help guide your learning choices. Instead, here’s my hand drawn chart and a personal urging to Google those.
Isn’t tech different?
No. These patterns of learning apply to becoming a master musician to becoming a neuroscientist. This is the way people learn.
When will I catch up?
Null. This isn’t a race, embrace the non-linear, circular nature of learning. Embrace the student mentality, not impostor syndrome. Huge difference between the two.
What if I don’t have time to ‘waste my time’?
How many times have you heard “don’t waste your time” on something? Entrepreneurs, arguably, are all ‘wasting their time,’ and they believe in what they’re doing. Consider who benefits from you not realizing the value of your time. That’s why to them it’s “wasting time” but to you, it is actually time well spent.
If I could shout this research from the rooftops, I would.
There is nothing worse than seeing someone once passionate in the midst of burnout, or someone brilliant be completely and utterly bored by their jobs. It’s so completely preventable.
- To waste your time is to recognize opportunity, discover problems to solve, nurture creativity, take risks, and grow autonomy.
- To waste your time is to become a better thinker, student, mentor, and creator.
- To waste your time is to love what you do.
- To waste your time is to own your time.
Waste your time so that when you see:
“Fast Paced startup seeks passionate coder”
— You know that they’re talking about you.
Hi! I’m Natalya. I’m a front end developer. I am usually found talking someone’s ear off about “Practical color theory for people who code” but this is the short summary of my other talk “Waste your Time: Catch up and keep up in tech” that I presented at Women Who Code’s Connect2016 in Seattle.
I would love to keep working on this topic and to keep sharing the knowledge I spent my graduate career researching — especially what it takes to create environments conducive to creativity, learning, and meaningful mentorship.
Hopefully, after reading this, you want to invite me to do this full talk at your next super fun conference.