Learn to Code, It May Just Organize Your Life One Day
Back in 1989 when Will Smith was still The Fresh Prince, he made a parody rap song called, “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” In the video Will Smith is an average guy who, as the title suggests, suddenly thinks he could defeat then heavyweight boxing champion — Mike Tyson, in a boxing match. It will come to no surprise that Will Smith then proceeds to comically fail. And while only a parody, the song’s premise perfectly embodies the Dunning-Kruger effect.
In psychology, the Dunning-Kunning effect is a cognitive bias in which people of lower ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive or physical ability as being greater than it is. Sufferers include; the dad with a rudimentary knowledge of electricity thinking he can re-wire a car. Or a guy who’s watched enough episodes of Law or Order that he feels comfortable taking his parking ticket to the highest court in the land. In cuter iterations, this is also when a kid might think it totality within their skill-set to build a functioning aeroplane out of card board.
The wonderful thing about the Dunning Kruger effect is that once you realize you may have it — and if you’re motivated enough, you will be instantly orientated to properly filling in that gap in your knowledge or skill set. A few months ago, I came face to face with my own iteration of it.
But let’s be clear on something, while I can now throw out terms like; “passing arguments to parameters” and “console log that to check your code works” with some degree of confidence, I am not near anything that would even slightly resemble proficiency. I am still learning but unlike an amateur in the ring with Mike Tyson, I’m actually loving every minute of this.
As cliche as this sounds, my life has changed for the better as a result of learning to code. It forced me to look at my time in a whole new way. I simultaneously realized how busy I had become and also, how ill-prepared I was to handle that workload. Before coding, my life was a right-brained whirlwind of lessons, lesson plans, projects, meetings, family dinners, research and writing. All thrown together with little to no thought to efficiency in execution. I thrived in a state of perpetual improvisation with only a vague running outline of where I needed to be and when. My alarm clock hadn’t rung in years. My bed time could just as easily be 3am or 3pm depending on which of the dozen or so projects I was working on.
I saw nothing wrong with this because all of my major life-support functions were handled by my wife. Bills, food, travel expenses — I just gave her the money I made and she then made sure we didn’t die of starvation or end up homeless. I loved this arrangement because I’m also in that special class of semi-narcissist who believes their words are destined to have some profound effect on society someday. You know the type — the guy with a Medium blog (cough) who tepidly says, “I’m a novelist.” when asked what they do for a living but not loud enough that anyone who actually gets paid for writing might over hear them. The same type of guy who first read that Einstein messy-desk-equates-to-genius quote and thought; “Yep, that’s me, and what’s more genius than turning my entire life into a messy desk?”
When I started learning how to code, I was already committed to the idea that for better or worse, critical acclaim forthcoming or not, I was going to write more books. I had already authored two with varying degrees of success; one a detective novel; the other a family saga set in ancient times that was short-listed for a literary prize. Both had required an extensive amount of research that I somehow managed to get done despite my ‘night at the improv’ style of time-management. Research requires lots of reading and I had just started working on the outline for a third book for which I had ordered 23 research books from Amazon. These were then thrown into the whirlwind of my schedule with no consideration to when I might actually find time to read them. Before coding, I was only getting through one of these books every two weeks.
Coding couldn’t have come in at a better time. After a two-hour crash course intro with a coding instructor, I was pretty much hooked. I think there are two reasons for this. One is that I love learning and believe ignorance in the information age is a condition chosen consciously. Two is that as a writer, I’m also used to staring at thousands of lines of text on a computer screen knowing that stuff on page 17 has to be relevant to stuff on page 97. After that first lesson though, I found myself also staring at the abyss of all that I still needed to know about coding.
Looking at the divide between myself and proficiency, I become acutely cognizant that there was no way I could become proficient at coding without re-vamping how I did everything. The result has been a massive leap forward in my productivity and jettisoning of bad habits. Coding has made me start to consider the time it takes to complete tasks and my own ability to accurately allocate that time into any given day.
Where as before my day would start at anywhere between 7am and 10am with coffee while I browse the interwebs. Followed by answering texts and messages for an hour. Then household chores, lesson planning or back to bed before heading out to lessons from about 1pm to 7pm. I would then get home around 8pm, have dinner and spend time with my wife. She would go to bed around 11pm and I would write about 2000 words before I went to bed. Sometimes on the couch with the TV on. Sometimes just as my wife would be getting up to go to work.
That 1pm to 7pm time span was the brunt of the storm. I’d be moving around all over the place, sometimes having to move or cancel appointments because I hadn’t budgeted the proper travel time in between them. I’d sometimes be arriving places too early or completely forgetting appointments then having to reschedule them later at weird times. In retrospect, it wasn’t sustainable. But like code that “//just works so don’t touch it”, I saw no need to change.
I find myself now in a world of Githubs, Stack Overflows and O’Reily books. I still don’t understand all the buttons but I’m now like that 45-year-old guy who suddenly decides to learn guitar — much to the chagrin of his wife who, several times a day, is called over to listen to the same three chords but just arranged differently. My wife will frequently look at some code I just begged her to come see and remark, “Wow, you really made that red box turn green now, babe. Awesome!”
The change in my productivity didn’t happen over night but it was fast enough to be perceptible. Once I had decided on the deep dive into coding, the first step was finding the time to become better it. That meant dedicating an hour in the morning to just pure study. But I soon realized that I needed to allocate more than an hour. That then created the knock-on impetuous to organizing the rest of my day so as to get that extra hour. It forced me to first eliminate the rescheduling I often had to do. That meant paying more attention to how long it took me to get places and then sticking to those times when I was preparing to leave home for the day.
This created the need for me to once again adopt a dedicated bed-time which naturally meant a dedicated wake-up time. I then found more time for writing by putting the books I needed to read into the hour-long travel times I budgeted between appointments. I’m now getting through 3 research books a week and my life feels more like a tidy bookshelf than a messy desk. My days look much different now, they run smoother and things are getting done with minimal headaches. If something unexpected does pop up, I channel the old me for the time it takes handle it then move on.
It’s been learning a process that has reached far past just the new material I’m trying to absorb. In a way, it feels like coding is re-wiring the way my brain works. I’ve learned that good code shouldn’t look like a wall of text where syntax was thrown together just because it did the job. That it should be elegant, simple and yet serve many purposes. What I’ve also learned is that there exists the reality in coding that a lot of the work coders do is fixing legacy code. Going through someone’s earlier iteration of what they thought was a functioning system of operations built on top of each other — and fixing it so that it’s elegant and less of a load on the operating system or browser. Most interesting, to me, in all this (and perhaps a sign that I should keep going) is how the very act of learning to code has for my productivity, been that sort of legacy code fixing.
I have no idea where coding will take me but I can feel myself adopting a more left-brained approach to things in general. I don’t know how this will affect my writing but I can’t deny the new creative avenue I see opening up in front of me. Now its just a matter of learning enough to able to take what’s in my head, out of it.
[Sergio Monteiro lives in Asia with his wife and is the author of two books. His first book, Other American Dreams, dealt with the migrant crisis of North Africa and Europe and was compared to the writing of Portuguese novelist, Jose Saramango. His latest work, Enoch’sMuse, follows the life of Enoch, a biblical figure, and is available on Amazon and select bookstores. Enoch’sMuse was selected as a finalist in the 2017 Proverse Prize for Unpublished Fiction, Non-Fiction or Poetry and has been compared to Mary Renault’s, The King Must Die.]
- Silvio Borges Graciano — Administrator, Macau Literary Festival.