At my software development bootcamp (Epicodus), we work in a style called “pair programming.” Pair programming refers to a practice where two people share the same computer, working together to write and debug their code. Each person in the pair takes turns on the keyboard and each person contributes by talking through the code whether typing or not. It makes a great collaborative relationship and is a fabulous way to learn. This approach has allowed me to see alternate logic to my own when attacking a code challenge, find bugs in our code much quicker because of the additional set of eyes, and benefit from a wider knowledge base than would be there if I was just on my own. It has been a great way to learn… until the other day, when my code buddy pushed me.
Not physically- that would have been easier. Instead he pushed me to redo part of the code on my own that he could tell I didn’t understand well. That seems simple enough; we had just gone through it and it made sense to me. All I had to do was replicate what we had just talked through and typed out 30 seconds earlier. The problem was I knew I was completely blank. I could understand it when I looked at it and I was pretty sure I could come up with it again if I went home and did it again very slowly, but faced with the empty screen and someone beside me, I felt completely exposed and vulnerable. He was being very supportive and encouraging, telling me that I should try it on my own so I could really get it. He wasn’t mean or condescending; he emphasized that it was hard for everyone at the beginning. But, I hated the feeling of him watching me struggle and fail.
Prior to this I believed I was okay with letting others see me not be good at something and comfortable with admitting I don’t know. I have even preached this to my children, explaining that it’s way easier not to pretend to be all and know all- then you can let people love you for who you really are even with the less than perfect parts, and there’s no fear of being “found out.” I really believe that and thought I was able to do that, but it turns out I only can sometimes. I can admit I am not great at throwing a frisbee, understanding economics, or organizing my digital photos. Those are no big deal and there are a lot of things I’m not great at doing that I could shout from the rooftops with no feeling of vulnerability. So, I’ve been trying to figure out what the difference is this time; because it is a LOT different… and I don’t like this feeling. Reflecting back on this, I felt exposed because my computer partner was seeing me struggle with something that mattered to me and I felt was a reflection of my intelligence. This experience has made me realize a pretty big chunk of my ego is tied to believing I’m bright and I learn quickly and easily. I mean, I’ve certainly had to put in time to accomplish things, but can think of only a handful of times when I just didn’t understand something I felt I should. I know not to compare myself with others but I’m now realizing that comparison in academic situations has typically given me a sense of security in myself. Now, though, I’ve had the experience of feeling slow and inadequate while my coding partner watched me work through the code. I wanted that struggle to be private at home and then to show the competent quick thinking version of me at school.
However, when my partner pushed me, I grew because of it. I felt so humbled and exposed and, I think, embarrassed, by my lack of competence, but it gave me a completely new empathy. I am ashamed of the feeling of superiority I think I subconsciously had in those situations. I never consciously thought I was better than the other person, but I think on some deeper self-value kind of level, that’s exactly what was happening. Intentional or not, that’s an ugly thing to see in myself. I now have a whole new appreciation for the courage it takes to NOT know… and not just be able to admit it, but be vulnerable and willing to let someone else actually witness the struggle. I’m not saying I want it to happen again, but I hope when it does I won’t try quite so desperately to hide it.