This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

It’s Okay to Not Learn How to Code

Sometimes — actually quite often — I think to myself, “I should learn how to code.” When I’m feeling particularly peppy, I open up a Khan Academy tutorial. Then after a few minutes I get bored and scroll through Twitter instead. Sure, programming languages are cool and useful, but so is geometry, and I don’t spend my free time on that either.

Image created by Octavian Arnaut. Posted with this comment: "EveryMatrix is looking for programmers."
Image created by Octavian Arnaut.

Here’s the thing: if I were the type of person who would be good at coding, I would have already been playing with Python and Ruby for years. I would have been entranced by HTML in fifth grade — instead of learning the rudiments from Neopets and moving on — and I would have branched out from there.

Realistically, I don’t want to learn how to code. I want the social cachet of being able to build stuff using computers, and I want the high salary a programmer can command in today’s labor market. But there are much easier ways to garner social cachet, ways that exploit my comparative advantage. Maybe I won’t make as much money as the wizards who design APIs and put together apps, but that’s just a function of supply and demand. In other words, it’s a reflection of my skills’ economic value, not a reflection of my value as a human being. Besides, I’ll earn enough.

Illustrations of dev work by Cathy Zhu.
Illustrations of dev work by Cathy Zhu.

Even if I forced myself to learn to code, I still wouldn’t be competitively good at it, because I’m not interested. There’s nothing in particular that I want to build that I can’t already hack together using basic OSS or otherwise freely available tools. I have found that it’s impossible to teach myself anything that I’m not enthused by, so why bother trying? There are so many subjects that I do find fascinating — better to focus my energy on those areas instead.

I’m giving myself permission to NOT learn how to code. If something changes and I find myself drawn to it, or if I need more technical capabilities to advance a project, I’ll revisit those Khan Academy tutorials. Either way, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Iterative Personal Development

Currently I am slightly obsessed with the concept of iteration. (That was the intent behind my “communicational pliancy” post.) When people talk about iteration in terms of software development — which is the context that I’m familiar with — they mean gradual improvement, tweaking and changing things after “shipping the minimum viable product”.

I want to live my life along the same lines: trying things, gathering information about how well they worked, and then trying something else. Built into this approach is room to experiment, even to fail.

Evolution by Kevin Dooley, made with Ultra Fractal software.
Evolution by Kevin Dooley, made with Ultra Fractal software.

I was talking with a new friend recently about designing systems, especially systems meant to organize people. I cited one of my takeaways from The Design of Everyday Things: you have to expect people to try the “wrong” thing, to misunderstand how the design is supposed to work. People will press every button in every bizarre combination and you have to plan for that. Systems (of all kinds) have to be designed to accommodate failure — if they aren’t, they will eventually self-catastrophize, to coin a phrase. (Just give Zappos a year or two.)

If you squint, this principle applies to one-person systems also. For optimal productivity and happiness, I have to design my own habits and attitudes to accommodate the quirks of human nature, my own specific personality, and the inevitable ill-advised impulse. Iteration seems like a great framework for this, since it’s all about incremental change that leads to gradual improvement.

Communicational Pliancy

Men of the community of Pie Town, New Mexico eating at the barbeque (LOC)
1940 or thereabouts in Pie Town, New Mexico. Yes, Pie Town! Photo via the Library of Congress.

Today I had a conversation with someone to clear up a mild disagreement. The disagreement was only mild because we’re reasonable people — if either of us had handled things differently it could have been a friendship-ending incident. As it was, we reassessed each other’s communication expectations and figured out how to go forward. One way of framing this is that we informally negotiated a code of conduct to apply to the two of us.

This made me reflect on how useful it is to iterate my social techniques in response to feedback (whether explicit or implicit). What I mean is tweaking my attitude and approach depending on what works best in a given situation. People do this automatically to some extent, and it sounds banal when spelled out. But for me the practice of intentionally maintaining social flexibility has been a surprisingly radical change in how I deal with other human beings.

It’s more productive to meet people halfway as opposed to expecting them to accommodate you entirely. I wouldn’t say this is easy — I am a stubborn person and I have to be wary of the urge to dig in my heels — but so far I’ve found communicational pliancy to be worth the effort.

“If we want to understand what’s on the mind of another, the best our mortal senses can do may be to rely on our ears more than our inferences.” — Mindwise by Nicholas Epley

I cross-posted this on Facebook and two friends offered astute comments. Emily Peterson:

“But what about a situation in which you’re asking for something you think is reasonable, and the other party is asking for something you think is unreasonable? In such a case, both parties meeting halfway results in the generic You feeling cheated [sic]. Does this only work when people’s expectations of one another are already in synch?”

Loretta Carr:

“Sometimes my truth and another’s truth don’t coincide; they’re not even close. When I don’t trust that person’s words or actions, I can’t work with him/her. Toxic situation for me. Gotta move on.”

Fair enough. It definitely depends on the situation.

Short Book Review: Scott Adams’ Success Secrets

Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, is a weird dude. No surprise to anyone familiar with the comic strip. I just finished reading Adams’ autobiographical self-help book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I don’t agree with all of his advice — do I really need to state that caveat? — but some of Adams’ concepts are interesting and even spot-on.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

For instance, Adams asserts that systems are superior to goals. What he means is that it’s smarter, for example, to always be looking for a better job instead of following a five-year plan to attain a certain position. He lays out a bunch of principles along these lines that in his view should lead to success. His through-line is the idea that you should optimize yourself to take advantage of luck when it strikes.

The book is certainly interesting, and I think particularly useful to people starting their professional lives. Here are the two quotes I liked enough to write down:

“Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. [After realizing that] I concentrated on ideas I could execute.”

“Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.”

I particularly agree with the second suggestion, that you should shape your paradigm to be productive rather than accurate. (This is basically what my therapist wants me to do.) If I dwell on the rottenness and chaos of the world, my realistic perception harms me; I become miserable and can’t get anything done. Far more effective to be an optimist without justification than a pessimist with plenty of proof.

(I like to call myself a cynical optimist. Is that annoying? It’s such a good phrase, and a decent representation of my personality.)

Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].

Efforts Toward Peace of Mind

"Constant vigilance!" Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series.

I try very hard to be patient and I try very hard to be positive. Succeeding — well, even attempting to succeed — requires constant vigilance. The world is naturally aggravating! Therefore it’s hard to stay levelheaded, compassionate, and cheerful. (Oops, I’m being negative again. Sorry, world, maybe I shouldn’t have criticized you…) Luckily, I am motivated to be easygoing and smiley. The reasons to keep striving are twofold:

  1. When I resist irritation and the impulse to complain, my life is calmer and more pleasant.
  2. The people I interact with are more likely to perceive me as calm and pleasant.

Both of these things are good. I want to feel better, and I don’t want to annoy my colleagues, friends, or family. Of course, my therapist would disapprove if I flat-out ignored my feelings, but I can acknowledge emotional reactions without letting them be in charge.

"The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by." Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.
“The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.” Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.

Stomping on anger and frustration, pretending that they don’t exist, is not an effective coping technique. And yet neither is griping. In 2014 Fast Company talked to Jeffrey Lohr, who coauthored a study called “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger”. Lohr and his fellow researchers found out that venting reinforces anger rather than relieving it.*

As Doctor Guy Winch writes on Psychology Today:

“[We] associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving. As a result, we complain simply to get things off our chest, not to resolve problems or to create change, rendering the vast majority of our complaints completely ineffective. Even when we do address our complaints to the people who can do something about them, we tend to be unsuccessful far more often than not.”

We’re not very good at talking to each other. According to Fast Company, “Instead of anger management skills, Lohr says people need to learn conflict resolution and communication skills.”

just listen to her
Listening is the most important part, yeah? Illustration by Rick and/or Brenda Beerhorst.

I’m no expert when it comes to communicating with the people who cause my frustration. But I’m pretty okay at communicating with my own brain. When I notice that I’m upset, this is what I tell myself:

“Everyone is doing the best they can despite their ignorance, weaknesses, and flaws. Respect that they’re trying. You have weaknesses and flaws too, Sonya, and you don’t know everything in the world, but you’re not a bad person. Neither is [whoever]. Respond with the kindness that all human beings deserve.”

My mantra isn’t always effective, depending on how annoyed I am and how preventable the problem seems, but at least it buoys the self I want to be. My knee-jerk reaction is, “Ugh, I hate these morons,” but my secondary reaction is, “This, too, shall pass away.” It helps when I remind myself that nursing anger doesn’t accomplish anything. I want to be forgiving. I want to be loving. Like I said in the beginning: patient and positive.

If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling "Happy Pill" by formatbrain.
If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling “Happy Pill” by formatbrain.

*Jeffrey Lohr’s paper “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger” was published in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice in 2007. David McRaney also wrote a good article about this called “Catharsis”.

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