Capstone Week 3: Mastery Vs Comfort

Another week in the books. I had many moments this week that shed insight into my weaknesses, my strengths, my learning style, and my approach to solving problems. I have also learned a good deal about what it takes to be a valuable teammate, and what I specifically can bring to the table in a team setting. For week three’s post, I’ve decided to focus more on the nontechnical lessons I have learned.

Capstone strikes a nice balance between team-based and individual work. I have always been an individual worker. In high school and college, I ran track or cross country rather than playing a team sport. What I loved about running was the internal battle it forced me to fight. During the highest-stakes races, my lungs and chest would feel aflame; lifting my limbs would feel like lifting lead weights with muscles that haven’t moved in years; keeping myself at that level of exertion would quickly invite powerful waves of nausea to crash against a running pace I could barely maintain. In the peak of this incredible physical discomfort, usually towards the third quarter of the race, thoughts of slowing down — of having mercy on myself — would hijack my focus. A part of my mind would beg another part to let my body slow down. Sometimes I gave in. I learned, though, that I didn’t enjoy giving in. I preferred conquering the challenge despite the painful cost that conquering would accrue.

This is the battle between comfort at the expense of mastery and mastery at the expense of comfort. Comfort and mastery are exclusive. This battle is not confined to the world of sports. I no longer run competitively, but I wake up every morning and I choose mastery at the expense of comfort. I choose it by being brutally honest with myself about my weaknesses. I choose it by waking up at 6AM every morning so that I am ready to study by 7AM, giving me three extra hours of academics before the morning capstone session officially starts. .. Then we work ‘till bed time. I choose it by being dissatisfied with “partial comprehension.” I choose to be obsessed with learning and obsessed with improving, because that’s the only way I can be sure that mastery will always beat comfort.

I love capstone because it is like one of these cross country races. There are so many learning opportunities during capstone that it is near impossible to squeeze all of the learning out of each experience. I recognize that I have a choice: I can do the minimum necessary to get through capstone or I can choose to push myself to grow in the face of each new challenge (which happens to be every day…). This is a great situation to be in because the minimum level of effort that capstone demands is actually incredibly high.

I also love capstone for the ways it is not like one of those cross country races. There is a greater emphasis on teamwork. Being a successful teammate requires an entirely different set of skills than being a successful individual. When working on my own, I can dig deep and force myself to sit with a problem until I understand it. I can dance with the discomfort that comes from wrestling a problem for hours without being able to solve it. In essence, I can use something of “intellectual brute force” when I’ve exhausted my arsenal of more clever approaches. This is not an option when working on a team. It does not matter if I understand the problem if my teammates do not, and vis versa. No amount of brutish effort can replace clear communication.

Earlier this week, I saw some very tangible evidence of how much capstone has helped me grow. We were assigned individual work for a particular set of Divide and Conquer algorithms. Some of these algorithms I had seen before… and last time I saw them, I was not in capstone. Last time I saw them, I took hours to wrap my head around them before gaining an inkling of understanding… This week, as I was doing the readings on some of them, the images of how they worked were so clear I could implement them straight from my imagination. My mind spun up completely accurate depictions of how these algorithms worked, and it did so with ease. I wasn’t the only one to report this experience.

I was surprised when I realized how much I had improved because I did not feel strong this week. I was preoccupied with a specific set of especially difficult problems that we had already moved on from. I spent 13 hours on a single coding problem last weekend and didn’t solve it. Luckily, when I finally decided to reach out to the instructor, the cohort was given a very clear presentation about how to solve problems of this type. This class of problems are still incredibly difficult and I typically have to look up the appropriate algorithm in order to solve them. This feels like defeat to me even though I know that every time I acquire a new mental model, I increase my ability to recognize similar problems, as well as my ability to adapt a mental model I already have to fit some specific problem in front of me.

This is a case of pride getting in the way of learning. See, I may have spent 13 hours on a single problem, but the last 12 were a waste. I could have concentrated on other important concepts rather than forcing myself to sit with a problem that I could have understood in 30 minutes with the instructor’s help. That’s what they are there for: to make sure we can maximize our learning in the finite amount of time we are under their mentorship.

So, I need to learn to moderate my effort. Sometimes I am so caught up with pushing myself that I don’t do it wisely.

That’s another week in the books. I have a few articles on certain technical concepts in the works and I look forward to posting them when they are ready for the public eye. The rest of my weekend will consist of completing the assigned work and going through a few coding challenges that relate to the primary data structures and algorithms we have been immersed in over the last few weeks.