Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Beginning at the Beginning

A great thing about this work is that I do a lot of research on esoteric topics, and in following the bread crumb trail, often end up in surprising places.

Anyone who knows me would be surprised to find me lurking at a programmer's blog. My most recent experience with programming was a college class in BASIC and Pascal, a class I took only because my father wanted me to, which was an early lesson in how disagreeable it is to do that which one is disinclined to do out of a desire to please another.

In spite of my dedicated efforts to the contrary, I miraculously passed this class in which I learned nothing but how to memorize like a monkey. (I got an A or a B, which didn't surprise me at the time--I was just relieved. Now I find it shocking.)

Really, all I remember of the class was how the professor had eyebrows that looked like furry caterpillars crawling across his face and how miserable I was one day, while I was shivering in the front row of the cavernous lecture hall--I'd ridden my bike through torrential rain to get to the campus, and my hair and clothes were soaked through. The skin on my face was wet. Puddles formed on the floor under my chair. 

And yet,today I found myself here in programming land:
I'm going to give you a piece of advice when you're trying to learn something new: Never listen to people who try to make beginners feel like losers. For whatever reason, some people get off on making beginners feel like they're worthless for attempting something. Maybe it's because they feel threatened by new entrants, or maybe they were picked on as kids and this makes them feel powerful. Who knows, but generally if they're trying to make you feel like a loser because right now you're not that good at something, then just ignore them. 
Few people enjoy the disorientation of not knowing what to do, especially those who are accustomed to being what my grandmother would have called quick studies. Probably the more capable one is, the less one likes feeling adrift in the sea of ignorance.

The other day I was telling a friend about how I'd once nearly spontaneously combusted at a country western line dancing class (I had intended to register for Cajun Zydeco, but there'd been a misprint in the catalogue, and so I thought, What the hey, might as well do this thing that I would have never in a million years considered doing, being as the only country music I ever listen to is either Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline, except for this). The teacher, used to students already well versed in that style, gave few demonstrations, but instead called out the names of steps and then corrected students as they flailed. Knowing neither the steps nor the names of the steps, I flailed mightily.

No matter what it is we find ourselves expert at now, we were all beginners once.
The truth is, if us old dogs really believe in a meritocracy, then we should be embracing beginners no matter what their reason for learning. If we believe that someone's capability has nothing to do with their past or qualifications, then that means everyone can improve and you have to evaluate them on their skill at the moment. Running around yelling at people because they didn't happen to follow your path is just spiteful resentment.
Another truth is that it's exhilarating to work with beginners. Their very unfamiliarity makes the whole world new again. They bring a new perspective that can be challenging--why indeed do we do that task in that particular way, is there a good reason, or is it just something that's become habit but has no value?--and this challenge to our established modes can be invigorating. If we let it.

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