RWDevCon 2016 Inspiration Talk – Embracing Failure by Janie Clayton

Janie Clayton

Note from Ray: At our recent RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea, some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you can enjoy them, even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s our next talk – Embracing Failure by Janie Clayton – I hope you enjoy!

Transcript

Hi, everybody. I am Janie Clayton and I’m going to talk about something that a lot of us really don’t like to think about. I’m going to talk about how to embrace failure.

Back when I was a little kid, I started playing the piano and I was really good at it immediately. I was the best person in my class of like 60 people and my town of 2000 people. I could play anything I wanted without having to practice too much.

So I thought that I was like a total prodigy genius person. I thought that when I grew up I was going to be a concert pianist and I was going to go to Juilliard and perform in front of all of these giant multitudes of people. This was what I was going to do with my life.

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Well, then something unfortunate happened. I went to a different school where I met other people who’d actually been playing the piano longer than I had and who were a lot better than I was. I would talk and I’m like, “Holy crap. You guys are amazing.” They were like, “No, no, no. We’re not. We’re actually not all that great.”

I was really disappointed because I thought that this was something that I was going to do with my life. Finding out that I wasn’t the greatest piano player in the world, that this wasn’t what I was going to do, I got really discouraged and I gave up on it because I’d never practiced before and I never had to practice. I didn’t have any discipline to go in and actually do things to make myself better.

I just assumed that you’re either born good at something, or you weren’t good at it immediately and it just wasn’t something that you were supposed to be doing.

The Influence of Childhood and School

I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, I’ve been really thinking about how we go about what we do with our lives. When you’re a kid and later in high school, you’re trying to figure out who you are. When you’re a kid you think you’re going to be an astronaut or you think you’re going to be president of the United States.

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You have all of these ideas about what you’re going to do and we have all of these high stakes things where you have to decide immediately when you’re a little kid about what you’re going to do so that you can take all the right classes in high school and later go on to college.

Then you get into high school and you don’t really have time to go and pick up any of these cool, neat hobbies that you have. You have to specialize in what it is that you’re going to do. There’s a lot of pressure on you, when you’re a high school student, to go and actually continue to make straight A’s. If you don’t get an A, if you get a B on a test, then your GPA goes down. Then you can’t get into Harvard and everything is ruined.

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This is pressure that we’re putting on these poor 16 year-old kids to tell them that they can’t make any mistakes because if they make one mistake, their entire future is completely screwed. It’s really hard to get yourself out of that mindset even after you get out of high school.

Fear of Failure Continues into Adulthood

We as a society are terrified of failure. We have this idea that everything that we do has to lead to something else. Like I said:

  • If you don’t get into the right college, you can’t get the right job.
  • If you don’t do all the right things, then bad stuff will happen to you.
  • You have to go out and you have to get married because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
  • Then you’re supposed to have kids.
  • Then you’re supposed to have a job.

You figure out when you’re like 40 that you have this life that you have to keep living, that you didn’t really want because you were so afraid of acknowledging that you didn’t like something. You weren’t willing to go in and make changes when it was possible for you to actually do so.

This leads to a thing that we see in the programming community, where everybody is terrified of ever acknowledging that they don’t know something.

This leads to a lot of really bad, toxic mindsets and behaviors because everybody’s completely absorbed with trying to maintain this façade that we’re all perfect, that we don’t make any mistakes, that we don’t have failures. Nobody is willing to ask for help; everybody has to pretend like everything that they do is perfect. You get people threatening to kill each over on Stack Overflow because they’re putting their semicolons on the wrong lines.

This is just a really bad way of going about living, so I just wanted to talk a little bit about my own experiences of failing upwards through life over the last 20 years or so. I want to give people an idea about how we can break out of this cycle and embrace failure so that we can learn and be more happy and productive people.

Confidence Isn’t Proportional to Competence

One of the first things I want to talk about is the cycle of learning. Back when I was trying to play the piano and I figured out that I wasn’t actually all that good at it, I quit on it because it was something that I didn’t think I could better at by training.

The Viking Code School blog had this great thing about why programming is hard and it was talking about this cycle of coding competence versus confidence.

Attribution: https://www.vikingcodeschool.com/posts/why-learning-to-code-is-so-damn-hard

Attribution: https://www.vikingcodeschool.com/posts/why-learning-to-code-is-so-damn-hard

I’m going to talk about my own experiences with programming, even though this is applicable to basically anything that you’d want to be doing.

When you first start out, you have this nice hand-holding honeymoon stage. When I learned programming, I learned on Codecademy, where you’d go and you would for-loop. Then you get a nice little, “Hey, you did a great job! Here’s a cookie!”

You feel really good and awesome. It’s cool, because you went and you did something successful and everything was broken down into nice happy, little competent tasks that you could do modularly and you feel really good.

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Then you get done with that and then you wind up on the Cliffs of Confusion. You get done with programming and you go and find your first job or you find other people. Then all of a sudden, you hear all of this stuff that nobody talked about when you were learning how to program because it was such an overwhelming thing that there wasn’t any time to go over it.

You go to a conference and you hear people talk about the Gang of Four and you’re like, “What’s the Gang of Four?” Or people telling you that you need to do things on GitHub or contribute to open source and you’re asking, “How do you contribute to open source?” and then they give you a look like, “Oh, you’re one of those people.”

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You’re too afraid to ask about it ever again and then everybody thinks poorly of you. So you’re spending all of this time bouncing around, trying to figure out all of these institutional knowledge that it seems like everybody else has that you didn’t have.

It gets very confusing and then eventually that leads to the Desert of Despair. You feel like you’re never going to catch up. That everybody knows all of this stuff. They were born with this knowledge. It wasn’t that they learned it over a course of time. You feel like you’re a failure and there’s nothing you can do. You get on your first project and you don’t have all of these nice little modular tasks like you did on Codecademy.

You have to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re talking to a client that doesn’t know what they want to be doing. It leads to this really powerful pit of despair where you just feel like you’re a failure and you don’t think you’re going to be able to do anything. You feel like you have to keep working harder and harder and harder to keep up.

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Then everybody else around you is also trying to work harder and harder and harder to keep up. It leads to this horrible endless cycle of everybody trying to pretend like we all know what we’re doing when we really don’t.

This is the cycle we’re in right now and we don’t have to live this way. It’s important to be able to realize that you can fail at something and that your world is not going to end. If you do one thing wrong, it isn’t going to lead to you having your entire life be destroyed. You’re not going to lose everything.

Advice from My Own Experiences

I want to talk a little bit about a couple of pieces of advice that I have from my own failures. Now unfortunately, failing is incredibly painful.

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In the original version of this talk, I was talking about the worst day of my life, which happened in 2008. I was going to school for audio engineering, video editing and other stuff after going to school to get a journalism degree. I’d spent about 10 years and 60 thousand dollars going to school trying to pursue this career.

In one day all of that was gone. My career was gone, all my network was gone. Everything was just completely gone. It was a really horrible, painful experience that I never want to go through ever again.

I learned so much from that experience that I decided to write this talk. It was such a horrible, painful experience. I learned all of these things that I knew I never wanted to deal with ever again.

For some reason we remember painful things a little bit better than we remember things that were successful and things that made us happy. Failing is a good thing because, if you think about it properly, you can really learn a lot of stuff about yourself and how to avoid having to deal with this painful stuff in the future.

Anything that you do is going to be difficult at first.

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I don’t know how many people have not actually been programming for very long, but I haven’t been programming for very long. I talk to people who’ve been programming since they were seven and they don’t remember that programming used to be hard.

When you first start off, you’re really slow and there’s a bunch of stuff that you don’t know, but you don’t think about it. Then as you get better and better, you start getting faster. Then eventually things get better.

Tip #1: Practice Is Necessary

Nobody is born being able to do something like this.

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This takes a lot of time and work and dedication. We just see the end result. You need to be aware of the fact that when you first start out with something, you’re not going to be like this, but you can get to be this skilled if you work really hard and you are focused and willing to work through all of the pain and the Cliffs of Confusion and the Desert of Despair.

Tip #2: What You Do Doesn’t Define You

We also need to stop trying to find something that’s going to define us.

I have heard of all of these problems in the last couple of years with gamer gate, where you have these people who have adopted the persona of thinking of themselves as a gamer. They don’t think of gaming as something that they enjoy doing. It’s just who they are.

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That causes a lot of problems, especially when you’re in online communities of people. Then people can’t give you advice about how you can be better at what you do because you confuse what you’re doing with who you are. Every time somebody tells you that you could be making your code more efficient, you take it as a personal attack because you completely adopted that as your persona.

You don’t have your nice patronus out there that can absorb all of the negative energy that you’re getting from people. You have no buffer because you have decided to identify yourself with what it is that you’re doing.

It’s really important to try to get away from that mindset so that you can be a happier person and be able to accept that sometimes you’re going to do something that doesn’t quite work out.

Tip #3:Don’t Compare Yourself With Others

We also need to stop comparing ourselves to other people.

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As Vicky mentioned in my bio, I spent a year working for Brad Larson. Brad Larson is the creator of GPUImage, he’s a moderator on Stack Overflow and he had one of the first video series on iOS development before raywenderlich.com really got big.

He’s been programming for 30 years. I’ve been programming for 3 years. I was working with him and I kept comparing myself to him because I thought he was really cool.

We have people in our community that we think are really cool and want to be like them, but we have to acknowledge that we’re all different people. We have different experiences and we’ve been doing things for different periods of time.

I would get really frustrated and depressed because I knew that I was never going to be as good as Brad. I actually had a discussion with another developer, Jeff Biggus, where I was telling him about how I felt like a failure because I was working for this genius guy and I just felt stupid.

Jeff just looked at me. He’s like, “Do you remember what you were doing last year? Last year you were unemployed. Last year you were doing your first conference talk, you were just getting started out and now you have a book. You’re working for Brad. You’ve done a dozen conference talks. Everybody in the community knows who you are. Look at how far you’ve come in the last year.”

I hadn’t thought about it that way because I was so busy comparing myself to the people that I admired and wanted to be like, that I didn’t think about who I used to be. If you told me 3 years ago I’d be doing this, I would have thought, “Nah. There’s no way.”

One of the reasons why I talk about all of this stuff in the community is because there might be people out in the audience who compare themselves to me and go, “Oh, man. Janie, she’s only been doing this for a few years but she’s really successful. I’m never going to be.” I don’t want people to feel that way.

I want everybody to be able to be happy with what they’re doing on their own without comparing themselves to anybody else. I want everybody to feel okay with saying, “You know what? I’m going to learn something that’s really hard and I’m going to go for it. I’m not going to worry about how I compare to somebody else.”

Tip #4: Do What Makes You Happy

Also, just do things that make you happy.

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I know for a really long time, we’ll have the mindset that any hobby or thing that we do has to eventually lead to something else. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m bad at doing the away from keyboard thing. For me, my hobbies are going and writing code for myself as opposed to code that I’m being paid to write for other people.

I recently started cooking because it was something I needed to learn how to do. I’d never been on my own before. I was getting really tired of all of the nasty packaged food that I was getting from the grocery store. It was just something I wanted to do for myself.

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It wasn’t because I wanted to be a chef or because I wanted to write a cook book, even though I’ve been told I should do that at some point. It was a thing that I wanted to do because it was important to me and I wanted to know that I could cook. I wanted to be able to make food and feed myself and do things properly because it was something that was important to me.

Do things that make you happy, without thinking about where it’s going to lead or what it’s going to do for you. Go out and dance badly if it makes you happy because our lives do not revolve around other people. We have to do what we want to do to make ourselves feel good.

Tip #5: Acknowledge Your Mistakes

That also includes being able acknowledge if you’ve made a mistake.

I know a lot of people who, from the time they were really little, they wanted to be game developers because they loved video games and that was the only thing they ever wanted to do.

So they spent all of their school time trying to learn how to do game development. They went to college for game development. Then they get into the industry and game development is not the best place to work for a lot of people because there is a lot more people who want to do it than there is market for it.

I can understand. If you spent all of your life thinking that you were going to do something and you spent a lot of money and you went into a lot of debt. Then you go into this field and find out that it’s something you don’t really like doing. It can be really hard to acknowledge that this is something that you don’t want to do and to walk away from it.

Since we’re at an Apple developer conference, I feel it is necessary to mention Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is one of my heroes.

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I know I really shouldn’t think of Steve Jobs as one of my heroes because he’s a person who was paying orphans in China 20 cents to make iPhones, but one of the things that I really admire and respect about him that I’ve taken away from his story was what happened to him when he got forcibly removed from Apple.

This was a horrible, awful experience that he went through where he lost the company that he founded. There were a couple of different ways he could respond to this.

He could have taken all of his Apple money and go on and bought a scuba shop on the beach and told everybody about how he used to be a big tech guy, but he didn’t do that. He wanted to be able to move forward and do something else.

He dusted himself off and moved on. He started NeXT. He bought Pixar. He did a whole bunch of stuff after that happened and eventually he came back and he led the company to what it is today.

I think it’s important for everybody to understand that we’re all going to fail and what happens after you fail is just as important as what happened before you failed.

Failing doesn’t define you. Your reaction to it does.

If you’re able to analyze your failures and look at what happened and what led to it, you’re able to get an idea about how you can avoid failing again in the future. I know people who horrible things happened to them because they made really bad decisions, but they didn’t want to acknowledge that they had any personal responsibility for what happened to them. You know, it was just a fluke of the universe.

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I think of my ex-husband, who lost his job while we were still married because he started taking every single Friday off and made it very clear to his company that he didn’t want to be there. When I talked to him afterward I’m like, “Okay. Do you understand why you lost your job.” He’s like, “Yeah. It’s because the universe sucks” and he wouldn’t acknowledge that he had any control over what happened to him.

When you fail, you can either walk away and decide the universe sucks, or you can do the really hard thing of taking a look in the mirror and saying, “What can I do to avoid having to do this ever again?”

I really hope that everybody here feels a little bit more comfortable about trying to embrace their failures and being able to go out and try something that might be a little bit less familiar. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do particularly well at it the first time. It takes a little while and if you keep working at it, you’ll do better.

So go forth and be awesome!

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Note from Ray: If you enjoyed this talk, you should join us at RWDevCon 2017! We’ve sold out for the past two years, so don’t miss your chance.
Janie Clayton

I am a consultant, author, and speaker from Madison, WI. I am the coauthor of the Swift Apprentice and the iOS SDK books from the Pragmatic Programmers. I blog random thoughts at http://redqueencoder.com. I live with an attempted grumble of pugs.

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