18-Nov-2013 by Allison McMillan

Read Time: Approx. 4 minutes

On Grit and Learning

This weekend, I was listening to the Ruby Rogues podcast from this week about how to learn. I’ve thought a lot over the past few years about how I learn, the importance of learning, and to be honest, how my upbringing and self-confidence has been affected by my learning. I am the middle child of three. I grew up in a single parent household but with a fairly traditional slant. I also grew up with a very very smart older brother. He was reading independently by the time he was three and often put himself to sleep by reading the dictionary...yes, the dictionary. He was the “smart one”. He was also the lazy one. Because he never had to work in school, he never did. He almost never turned in homework assignments but aced tests without ever opening a book. I was very different. For a long time, I was the “ditzy one”. I asked a lot of questions which were sometimes answered, sometimes laughed at, or sometimes explained by my brother using vocabulary I didn’t understand. I often had to think about concepts or reread things to understand and I had to study and work hard at school. As the most social of the three of us, I ended up being the outgoing, smart-ish enough child who was always expected to have a middle of the road career in something not super easy but also not too difficult.

Until I went to college, I believed that I was not so smart and would always have to work much harder than everyone else in order to learn something. When I encountered something challenging (especially math and science related things), my initial reaction would be that it is probably too difficult for me to understand as opposed to knowing I could understand it with a little bit of effort. A few months into school, I started raising my hand, answering questions and getting them right! Something that stumped my classmates, I would understand and when I couldn’t figure something out, I thought it through or discussed it with others to clarify. Turns out, I was smart, I just grew up convinced I wasn’t. Additionally, I realized that my ability to work hard was not due to the fact that I didn't understand something, it was because I strove to reach higher goals and wanted to understand something more fully than just “getting it”. This newfound “smartness” also came with self-confidence. Once I realized I had valid questions to ask and legitimate comments to make, I had no trouble speaking up.

This is where the Ruby Rogues podcast comes in… the first thing they spoke about was Grit and the importance of Grit. Grit is basically perseverance. It says that successfulness is not defined by innate talent or smartness but about GRIT and someone’s ability to stick with something and continue to push themselves to learn more. Sandi Metz did a phenomenal talk about this to the DC Rails Girls workshop in June as well which was the first time I had heard the GRIT theory. Other things discussed also resonated with me. I found myself alone, in my living room, often nodding at the conversation. For example, they discussed NOPS, which is a really interesting concept of recognizing when you are uncomfortable and going with it. I realized I did this when starting to learn. At the beginning, I was embarrassed to ask questions and they made me uncomfortable. One day I decided to just go with it and say I’m going to ask every question that comes to mind today. It was great. Everyone answered my questions and I learned so much more once I stripped myself of the feeling of embarrassment about needing to ask.

There were a few other good tips that relate to the lightning talk I gave at RubyConf (speaker notes coming soon! I promise). Things like knowing that everything is a rabbit hole and you need to give yourself license to not care about some things as you learn or explaining things as you learn them. This is actually mostly why I started this blog. I find that when I solve a problem I have and I want to blog about it, I understand the problem and solution much better because I want to explain it to other people and feel a responsibility to be able to explain it effectively and in a way others will understand (and now I understand pictures of rubber ducks I’ve seen related to debugging!! It’s called rubber ducking or teddy bear programming (same principle as rubber ducking but with a teddy bear) when you explain a solution or issue or definition to a stuffed animal or rubber duck in order to ensure you understand it). And a final great tip about constantly stopping to evaluate yourself, asking what did I do well this time and what wasn’t so good?

I know that at this point in my coding journey, someone is going to need to take a chance on me. In a recent interview, someone told me that no one would ever take a chance on me because I don't have a CS background or professional coding experience. I know enough but am still learning a lot and I just hope someone sees my perseverance, grit and passion for learning enough to know I’m a good bet as an employee. I also want to say to anyone who is currently learning, keep pushing yourself. Every day you know a little more, even if you don't always feel like you do.

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