Sep 29, 2013

Attitude over aptitude: why "I know enough code to be dangerous" is BS

"I know enough to be dangerous"

[Topic - this post relates to my thoughts about learning to code, about careers, and about attitudes people have about picking up new skills - see related post 'can you really learn to code in a month?']

"I know enough [choose your subject matter] to be dangerous" is something I never heard while living in North Carolina. It is something I often hear in and around the San Francisco.

As someone who had built a career in roles like business development and finance, I have been tempted to say similar things. However, whenever I heard someone else say it, it always seemed glib and shallow.  Call me silly, but I don't want to be shallow. Somehow, I felt I need to genuinely learn to code before I could say things like "I know enough to be..."

I'm sure you know it as well as I do. People who say things like 'I know enough to be dangerous' are either full of BS or insecurity.

Please spare us the platitudes
Attitude over aptitude

I get hung up on the details. It is my left-brain pre-occupation for patterns. I have been brainwashed for decades to learn from textbooks, or pay tuition to go to school, or to think that getting an A in a class means that you learned something.

(I reflect a bit more about this observation in 'can you learn to code in a month')

I recently shared my frustration with a mentor, Quincy: how is it that some people can seem to learn to code and start building in 3 months, while I still struggle with building more than half year out?

Quincy's advice.
Attitude over aptitude. If you take a leap and tie all your self worth in your ability to code, you will do what you need to do to get good at coding.

Of course, you are probably good at a number of other things. The key is dismissing all these other things as unimportant. During my transition, I kept justifying to myself, "I'm good at Chinese", "I can fall back on a career in operations", or "I have a business background - I'm pretty good at coding for some guy with a business background". These are traps! You have to do without an ego safety net.
Wow! It's true. The glib things we say are crutches. They are the ego's way of protecting itself for being too lazy to learn, or too afraid that we will fall and fail and look like fools trying.

Look for good people, not good tutorials

This isn't really an advice column. Instead, I hope that the experience I share here will help you learn something more about yourself and enable you to have more clarity or confidence in your walk.

So, don't take this so much as an advice as a personal observation. I found that in really learning - not just skimming over a topic, but really learning - some things are more important than others. For example, good tutorials count, maybe paying someone to give you will help. But, as I observed above, the right and sincere attitude trumps these. What else counts? People. Good books. Good ideas.

So, by all means, keep using those free tutorials, but next time also consider these:
  • Look for good people - Quincy shared an invaluable advice, because he cares. Another friend, Robert (mockdeep), has graciously been sharing his valuable time as a code reviewer and mentor on his open source project. Not all experienced professionals take interest in junior developers, or take time to invest in them. Good people do.
  • Good books / good ideas - I recently read Rework by DHH and Jason Fried (folks who built Ruby on Rails). I probably learned more about career (not just about coding) from this book than I did in two years at Darden MBA school. And at $10 a copy, it was orders of magnitude cheaper than the $100K I sunk into MBA education.
  • Right attitude - as we talked about above.
What good books and ideas are you absorbing today?

Start building

We are all apprentices in life. If you want to start learning today by building, join me and Josh as we try a 12-day-long experiment in coding and producing products.

Feel free to check out our 12days github page, contribute torepo, help us by sharing suggestions, etc.

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