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Let’s face it: Learning to code is hard and can be quite frustrating. It’s also very satisfying when something finally clicks or a piece of code works, but the next session of sitting in front of your PC with 10 tabs of different Google searches, Stackoverflow questions and documentation opened — while stressfully ripping your hair out — is just around the corner. That’s just how it is and that’s basically the case for (almost) everyone.
As programmers, we should never stop learning, especially with the speed at which technology is advancing, so we better find ways to cope with that stressful feeling. And one element that is vital to this, is a so-called “growth mindset”.
A growth mindset, as defined in the book “Mindset” by psychologist Carol Dweck, is basically a way of thinking about and dealing with challenges and especially with failure. A person with a growth mindset knows that effort and hard work will improve his or her skills, and no matter how bad and “untalented” he seems to be at the moment, he can significantly change his skill level, for example in programming. All that matters is that he puts in the hours and the effort. The opposite of a growth mindset is a “fixed mindset” which sees skills mostly dependent on talent, and intelligence as set in stone for life. And if you can improve in something, then only insignificantly.
Studies on those 2 ways of thinking found out, that people with a growth mindset are much more likely to succeed in their fields. They are less scared of challenges, less frustrated by setbacks and appreciate the learning process much more, while individuals with a fixed mindset mostly avoid challenges because failure would “prove” that they are not good and smart enough. When your skills and intelligence are pre-defined by your genetics, then an unsuccessful attempt would undeniably show that you are not made to achieve this. It would be crushing for your self-image. So you better don’t try at all and stay in your comfortable bubble. You basically only try things that you already know you’re very likely to succeed in and avoid failure at all costs. This sounds crazy, but this is actually what a fixed mindset does to you, even if it happens subconsciously.
Science has also shown that the brain is much more malleable than previously thought. You CAN improve your skills, intelligence and even your character quite significantly, even in high age. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as talent. Denying that some people are more talented than others by their genetics would be naive. But effort ultimately counts more. In a very similar book called “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, the author actually turns this into an equation:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Did you notice something? Effort goes into the equation twice, talent only once. So yes, talent does play a role, but not as much as putting the work in does.
You develop your mindset at an early age, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change it as an adult. Just actively try to adopt a growth mindset step by step. Acknowledge that your intelligence and capabilities are not set in stone. That improvement is more important than your momentarily skill level. That succeeding or failing doesn’t matter in the short term, as long as you put in deliberate practice. The next time you try to learn something you don’t understand and have that uncomfortable feeling of frustration and desperation because you can’t wrap your head around it, then finish your day with the thought, that the fact that you tried to figure it out alone is what matters. That, when you go to bed and sleep, your brain will organize all that new knowledge and form new neuronal connections while you are resting. And when you wake up you will be a bit smarter than yesterday. And this is what matters — the progress. Realize, that the fact that you don’t understand something right now doesn’t mean that you are not smart enough for it and that you can get good in most things as long as you are willing to put in the effort.
If you haven’t yet, read my blog post about a game mindset. It has great similarities to this post and I really think that this growth focused thinking is the key not only to success but also to happiness in general.