I Think I Can’t.

Chelsea Saunders
Aug 15 · 8 min read

If you only know one thing about Launch School, it is (or ought to be) that Launch School utilizes a mastery-based educational model. If you have made it through the preparatory materials, you know one of the key aspects of its pedagogy is the premise that mastery is not the result of natural talent, but instead, is achieved through time and effort — and the corollary premise that anyone can attain mastery of anything, if they are willing to put in that time and effort.

On its face, this is a fairly easy concept to grasp, and makes sense. After all, even professional athletes still spend years training, and while some people are lucky enough to have a breakthrough idea early in their career, even well-known bona-fide geniuses like Feynman and Einstein still had to dedicate their lives to their profession to achieve as much as they did, despite clearly having an aptitude for physics. And if you’re like me, you grew up learning the fable of The Little Engine that Could, who “I think I can”-ed himself all the way up the impossibly giant mountain.

Yet most traditional educational models are not designed to reinforce this notion. Rather than basing advancement on genuine understanding of material, students in traditional educational structures are fed information based on arbitrary timelines, given conclusory evaluations determining whether they “passed” or “failed” and whether they are “good” or “bad” at that particular subject, and then herded along to the next course.

This cram-and-regurgitate style learning disproportionately rewards those who have natural aptitudes for particular subjects and can grasp them quickly, and more broadly, those who excel at rote memorization. Students who are able to succeed within the system receive praise, often with minimal effort, despite the fact that frequently, little information is genuinely learned and retained — certainly not a mastery level. Much of the time, even for these “good” students, lessons are quickly forgotten once the next course begins — yet they are still left feeling as though they are skilled in the courses in which they received good marks.

Meanwhile, students who need more time and effort to initially grasp particular concepts are made to feel as though they are failing or bad at those subjects — when, really, it’s just a matter of needing a little more work and time. Ultimately, students who need that extra time complete a course not only without learning the material, but with the conclusion that they “just aren’t good” at that particular subject.

The fact that this indoctrination of being “good” or “bad” at various subjects occurs at a such a formative time is problematic not only because it causes many of us to limit our own ideas of what sorts of careers are available to us (“I’m not good at math, so I can’t be an engineer,” “I’m not good at writing, so I can’t be a lawyer,” etc.), but perhaps even worse, it creates the extremely troubling illusion that there are actual barriers; genuine breaking-points, for things we might want to accomplish that make them impossible. Since we don’t allow students the time and support to keep working with material until they really learn it, we don’t allow students to experience that “aha!” moment to see that persistence does pay off; that things that felt impossible really aren’t, and more importantly, that needing that extra push doesn’t mean anything about the student or their abilities.

Instead we just dole out failing grades, move right along to the next topic, and instill the belief that sometimes there are ideas or skills that are just “too hard,” so it’s best to just give up and move on to the next thing. Worse yet, since there are plenty of students who do have natural aptitudes for whatever is being taught, for those who don’t, it reinforces the idea that “other people can do this, but I can’t — there is something special about me that makes it so I just can’t get it, even though all of these other people can.”

That’s nonsense, of course — as stated above. Everything takes work, even things that initially come easily. But this fundamental sense that some things are just too hard and it is better to just give up is extremely hard to shake, and working past this deeply-ingrained mental block can be one of the hardest parts of Launch School, especially for those of us who are coming to web development from very different disciplines.

The tech industry in particular feels like something that you have to be naturally good at. Tech has a reputation for being for “smart” people, for “nerds;” it is rich with the lore of young geniuses working out of garages or dorm rooms, full of confusing jargon that can act as a barrier to entry. And it is hard. There are topics that are so confusing on the first pass, that feel so abstract and convoluted and so far away from even basic comprehension, that it can elicit the extremely visceral feeling that “my brain just can’t do this.” (Shout out to anyone in 101 reading the Pass by Value/Pass by Reference material — oof!) And to complicate the matter, since Launch School is self-paced, it is inevitable that you will have the experience of studying with people, feeling relatively well-matched in terms of skills and comprehension, then see them fly through courses at a seemingly impossible pace, all while you are stuck on some especially obnoxious concept. No matter how much genuine humility the other students have; no matter whether you know they are able to put in more time than you are, no matter any other caveats that may apply, it can still really trigger the “I think I can’t”’s. That sinking reprise we learned in our early education: “they can do this, but I can’t. Something about me makes me not able to do this, even though other people can.” And it is powerful.

Sure, there is imposter syndrome — but that is somewhat omnipresent, lurking in the background. The “I think I can’t” is acute. It is intense. It is grounded in the reality of not yet understanding something. Learning — true learning — is a lot like coding. Just as your program either works or it doesn’t, you either understand something or you don’t. Sure, once you have a working program or mental model of something, you can expand on it, make it more efficient, identify and correct small errors; there is always room to grow. But ultimately, it works or it doesn’t. And the “I think I can’t”’s occur in that moment where it absolutely doesn’t. Your brain is throwing nonsensical error messages, and you genuinely don’t even know what you need to do to get things up and running.

When you have the “I think I can’t”’s, the temptation to give up and the feeling of self-doubt and foolishness can be overwhelming. But it’s not real. You aren’t different from anyone else in Launch School. The students flying ahead have been stuck on things too; you just didn’t see that. There are aspects of the course that make sense to you quickly but will cause others to stumble.

I really thought the “I think I can’t”’s would go away after I finished 109. As someone who’s had decades of being told, and believing, that liberal arts are where I excel; math and science arewhere I struggle, even completing 109 legitimately felt impossible at the time. It really felt like it was my “make or break” moment. If I could pass these first exams, that meant that I could write code, and if I could write code, that would mean I was capable of becoming a web developer. It felt like that measure would be enough to definitively prove to myself that I “have what it takes”. And I definitely, definitely thought that once I was in the upper-level Ruby classes, I’d feel certain that I could do it.

But that’s absolutely not what happened.

I felt great coming out of 109, as expected, but that confidence came to a halt almost immediately. I really struggled with object oriented code — it was such a shift in thinking compared to procedural code that even though I had made it past the first course and felt confident about what I had learned, I honestly thought that OO was my “wall.” Maybe that first “make or break” hurdle I had set for myself was the wrong one — maybe this was the real test. If I’m being honest, I seriously contemplated quitting altogether — best to cut my losses before I sunk too much time and money in, right?

But, thanks in part to the “gift” of a poor economy, and not feeling particularly compelled to re-enter the job-market, I kept pushing myself. And after a lot of reviewing and coding and battling my own doubts, it finally happened; it clicked. So there it was. 109 hadn’t been my “make or break” moment, so figuring out OO must have been my big test, right?

And for a while that seemed to be true. I hit a stride in the next couple of courses and thought maybe I’d finally really reached the “I can do this!” stage of my education. Things were making sense, courses were going faster than I expected, I started thinking more about my end-game — I was still nowhere near knowing what I needed to, but it felt attainable.

But then I started the networking course. Every word of it was was genuine, absolute gibberish, utter nonsense. Even on my second pass-through of the material, it felt so incredibly out of reach, I started to think maybe I had been wrong about 109 and OO, maybe this was my “wall.” Everyone I studied with seemed to understand things so much better than I did; I was so lost I didn’t even know how to ask for help because I wasn’t even clear enough on the material to formulate questions. Networking was destined to be my downfall!

This late in Core, the “I think I can’t”’s brought along the baggage of making me feel like an extra-big failure for getting this far and not being up to the task. But they also brought the memories of earlier “I think I can’t”’s. And the memories of getting past them; beating the seemingly impossible. And the memories of how very sweet it felt to be on the other side.

So I pushed through, but this time with some level of reassurance that I could succeed. It took longer than I wanted, but eventually, I got it.

Was that my last episode of “I think I can’t”’s? Almost certainly not. But the reality is there is no such thing as a “make or break” moment, unless you choose to make it one. That feeling has nothing to do with your ability to succeed, and you aren’t the only one who experiences it. Mastery is challenging — even if you have an aptitude towards something — but I promise, if you keep at it, you absolutely have what it takes.

So there’s your pep talk for the day! It might sound cheesy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You’ve got this!

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