Stop Scrolling And Do The Work
June 15, 2020
Naturally, we thought an Italian-American Canadian Eatery would be the answer to our hangovers. Naturally it was not. Just bad linguine and Bellinis and more lessons taught but unlearned.
- Jonah Campbell
Occasionally, in a moment of dazed wonder after a particularly unproductive google search, I’m struck by the incredible amount of resources at my disposal.
I sift through blog posts, videos, tutorials, and forum threads that were placed on the internet for millions like me to consume for almost no money, and I take it completely for granted.
It’s the oldest cliche in the book that programming is mostly scouring the internet for ancient wisdom left behind by our predecessors. But I think we often come to rely on it a bit too much, and to our own disadvantage.
It’s one thing to be faced with a specific problem and searching for a solution online. It’s another thing to scroll through resource after resource, and just by virtue of coming into contact with the material, believe that this does anything to improve development skills (or any other skills, for that matter).
If we insist on ‘learning’ in this way, the best case is that we waste our time. The worst case is we become overconfident in our abilities, and our fragile self-image crumbles at the faintest contact with real on-the-job requirements. From this follows an even more acute impostor syndrome, a frustration with ourselves, and the undermining of the trust others have placed in us.
So why is this such a common phenomenon?
Collecting does not transform us and always postpones learning and transformation to the future. Collecting creates debt that we promise to pay back in some future that never arrives. The collection allow us to imagine ourselves in the near future as a person who has read and understood the collected material. This makes us feel good. We like that person.
I think the same can be said about superficial, passive, skimming of internet resources as well, as long as it isn’t in the service of solving a very specific, well-defined problem, as mentioned above.
The fact is that if you want to get better, you have to do the work.
The work is hard. Bookmarking, scavenging, collecting, skimming - these are all easy shortcuts that we use to trick ourselves into believing we’ve done the work.
But just having the resource at our fingertips and/or knowing the name of the concept described by the resource is not the same as engaging with the resource and thinking critically about how the knowledge gained from it relates to what we already know. This idea is described by Richard Feynman’s famous distinction between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
To anyone starting out in the software industry, it can be overwhelming to confront the sheer volume of resources on the web, to see the kinds of things people build, and then to contemplate that this is the path they’ve chosen for themselves. Sitting with that feeling is very uncomfortable, and we want to do whatever we can to minimize that discomfort and believe that we, too, are capable.
But even if we can’t change the fact that we have a lot to learn, we can still choose to learn effectively.
Seth Godin said something I found very memorable in an interview with Tim Ferriss. The quote originally came out of a discussion about cooking, but as he explains, it can be applied to a lot of other domains. What Seth said was, “It costs very little to find out”.
This really resonated with me because today we are equipped with tools that people just twenty years ago would probably have had difficulty imagining.
So if we want to get a better grasp on a programming technique, we can open a REPL and practice. If we want to learn about code infrastructure, we can deploy something to AWS for pennies. If we’re interested in front-end, there’s Codepen, JSFiddle, and myriad other quick prototyping tools.
This doesn’t mean that we should start a hundred new projects and immediately wade in way over our head.
But what it does mean is that instead of scrolling and collecting our way through the internet, we can ask ourselves what we’re really interested in, and invest time in understanding that subject more deeply.
Campbell, Jonah. Eaten Back to Life: (Essays). Invisible Publishing, 2017.
Eriksson, Magnus. “Living with a Zettelkasten.” Omxi.se, 21 June 2015, https://omxi.gitlab.io/2015-06-21-living-with-a-zettelkasten.html#fnref:11.
Ferriss, Tim, and Seth Godin. “The Tim Ferriss Show.” The Tim Ferriss Show, 10 Feb. 2016, https://tim.blog/2016/02/10/seth-godin/.
Tietze, Christian. “The Collector’s Fallacy.” Zettelkasten, 20 Jan. 2014, https://zettelkasten.de/posts/collectors-fallacy/.