The value of learning the hard way
March 16, 2008
An old friend asked me recently why I had decided to become a programmer in the first place, and I started trotting out my standard canned answer… when I suddenly remembered a different story that I rarely share. Sure I love the web and social software is keen and I’ve met lots of brilliant people here and entrepreneurship is ever so much fun… but you know, my life would have been completely different if I’d had even a little bit of savoir faire when I was in my early 20’s. If I’d had the slightest clue how to get a job as a management consultant after college, I’d probably be wearing a skirt suit and dragging a big carry-on bag through O’Hare right now. But because I was too lame to know how to write a resume and go on job interviews, I ended up learning Linux instead.
So my career shift was motivated by desperation as well as fascination. Would I have pushed myself into a completely new career path so hard if I’d felt I had easier options available to me? And later would I have spent so much effort figuring out organizational dynamics if my coworkers had accepted my ideas right away? Without all those periods of unemployment, would I have had so many opportunities to learn new and different things? Would I have considered it a true necessity to take a good hard look at myself and the patterns I kept reiterating by my choices? I’m as fundamentally lazy and self-satisfied as the next person, if not more so, and therefore as loath to do painful and difficult things unless they seem necessary for survival.
Having learned so much from so many “bad” experiences, I find that I am now rather suspicious — or even pitying! — of people who seem to have never known failure, humiliation, and poverty. And yet, I find that now I spend a fair amount of energy trying to help others avoid the best of all teachers! I try to make time for pretty much anyone who needs help getting a job, thinking through their career options, learning about entrepreneurship — basically all the things I never got much help with when I could have used it.
I always used to wonder about the phenomenon of ostentatiously self-made parents with spoiled-rotten offspring (maybe because I was so worried about being one of the latter myself). I wondered how it could be possible for a fully-conscious adult to be utterly convinced that only hardship creates the character traits that lead to later success — but also to raise their kids in an environment where it was literally impossible for the whelps to taste any of that salutary hardship.
But now I feel like I can finally understand just a little of what it must be like. It is genuinely anxious-making to watch young people suffer and struggle and blunder around. Also it’s fatally easy to convince yourself that no one else needs as much bracing negativity as you yourself did, that they can learn the same lessons with one-third less suffering. It’s probably more correct however to assume that it’s a mean zero distribution… at least some of the young people you encounter would actually benefit from MORE hardship and misery than you enjoyed.