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Accepting Failure As A Teacher

I am on Day 27 of my bootcamp experience and I’m wrapping up my beginners’ level on python. I’m getting the hang of the process and the struggle it entails, but failure is something I desperately need to adjust my attitude too.

When I face failure, especially when I'm struggling with writing a code to make a program work, I have this desire to throw a fit and the door to my insecurities flings open as despair pours out and I begin questioning my abilities and my intellect, feeling embarrassed like I’m running a race and the whole arena can see me falling behind. I have this stubborn tendency of expecting some degree of successful output, especially if I’ve put in the hours.

For the most part, I lived my life resistant to put in all the small chunks of committed time that creating something requires. If I couldn’t see the immediate tangible outcomes, I’d drag myself through, procrastinate, lose energy and fail. I didn’t grasp that long-term success is the result of short-term persistence. In my desire to learn to program I am willing to drop old habits, perceptions and misconceptions and pretend to be an empty vessel to truly apply myself to this experience, but sometimes I still catch myself with some very non-constructive reactions.

For example, I spent the whole of last week on one task mostly avoiding it. I read an article about how when we tell ourselves we need something to be perfect, it’s just an excuse, and I certainly used that to procrastinate. I also excused myself from facing it head on not because it was too challenging, but because I feared feeling failure. When I finally put it together and sent it to my mentor he suggested another improved addition to make to the code and I was so annoyed - that it wasn’t perfect and that I had to spend more time making it perfect. Talk about conflicting priorities. Turns out working on that improvement granted me the opportunity to spot a few significant errors - I would not have otherwise seen.

Yesterday I spent 3 hours on a task only to realise I read the instructions wrong. So, fuming inside, I tried again. An hour and a half later, I was stuck on a loop trying to make it give me the results I needed. I was angry, because I thought I knew how loops worked, and I didn’t understand why it was taking me so long. When I told my mentor how I felt, he obviously gave me the whole spiel on attitude and all I wanted was the “answer”. Articulating my plan and taking a break to calm down, revitalized me and taking my mentor’s advice, I abandoned the approach I had obsessively tried to use. By the end of the day I had it done. Once again, I was reminded of the difference that attitude makes to the process.

To having the right attitude means keeping the break on the negative feelings; frustration, insecurity, impatience, irritation and entitlement. Another article I found useful was one on steps to follow before you ask for help, so you’re not being lazy. The writer really emphasised persistent independent effort to pursue knowledge and understanding. That was not what I was doing when I failed, but I felt entitled enough to throw my toys, because I equated time with effort. Keeping calm, continuously revisiting the pseudo code, finding a different approach and expressing your logic helps keep the productive flow pleasant and your attitude open enough to avoid seeing problems as problems, but as part of the learning experience.

The immediate connotation of failure is this sneering, mocking, provocative figure that feels like it’s out to make your life miserable because it's withholding your success. It’s in your way or worse kicking you down. We may see a representation of our worst fears, an embodiment of the worst parts of ourselves or a reflection of our inadequacies. We want to avoid it or break down in front of it. It is a threat to our confidence. If we were to look at failure as a teacher, we may instead see a constraint that provides us with a temporary blockage pr gives us a challenge that forces us to stop and rethink, try again or attempt something different. One writer articulated this powerful idea that constraint is a source of creativity, the limitation of which provides opportunity to innovate. By existing and requiring us to pause, this teacher expects us to learn something new by engaging with it and thereby find another way to get to greener pastures.

After seeing a useful template on dev to help formally track my progress, I can really see the outcome of my stumbling blocks. Through engaging with failure, its almost as if my learning experience gets enriched, because I learn more than what I even needed too for the task at hand. I always get a few extra nuggets of wisdom, my existing knowledge gets consolidated and my muscle of persistence is given a good workout.

John Maxwell wrote an entire book that broke down the approach to failure, by using the word learn in place of fail, taking a very proactive approach that completely changes one’s attitude in the moment and in anticipation of failure. Coming to terms with meeting failure as any other teacher, really is about adjusting my attitude and unlearning my intuitive egotistical reactions. Who knew programming would prove to be such a holistic and existential learning experience?

Links to the wonderful articles I referred to:
How to win and how to fail/learn – John Maxwell

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