I can’t catch up, and that’s ok

I’m not completely right in the head. No one is, of course, but the ways I fail at thinking are more important to me than the ways other people do.

A fundamental flaw I have (or: am trying to get rid of? The distinction is relevant, as I’m going to explain) is that I can’t recognize my achievements or progress. In my mind, what ever I know and can do and have learned to do and have achieved, is trivial and basic and something that anyone who gave a try can master and indeed has mastered. Anything I don’t know is the important and relevant part of whatever we’re talking about. Stuff that only the real Doers of the Thing know.

The real catch here is that when I do learn a new thing (which actually isn’t that rare) this view doesn’t change. It’s not that I’d move closer to real expertise. I just recalibrate my worldview: move that thing from the list of relevant things to the list of trivial things. I myself will forever stay at the verge of actually starting to be worthy.

I’m certainly not alone with this. This is an aspect of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, as opposed to growth mindset. These mindsets are general views on people’s abilities and skills and on learning. According to the fixed mindset, people simply have a certain collection of abilities and intelligence, and while you can learn some things, your basic qualities are what they are, end of story. You either are “good at” or “not good at” something. The growth mindset on the other hand focuses on the possibility of improving any ability, rather than catalogueing strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve read Dweck’s book at least three times. I read it twice in a row the first time. It made my fixed mindset so thoroughly, so painfully clear to me. Mostly through this: since a fixed mindset does not believe that improvement is possible, any situation where it might be shown that you can’t do something, is a threat to your self-worth. “What were you thinking to even try? This is not for you, you idiot.” your mind says. Or rather, would say, if you tried, but you won’t because you cleverly avoid any such situation. Who would want to be judged, and found lacking?

But many people see it differently. I have trouble even describing the growth mindset view on such situations because the thought pattern is so alien to me. But to some people being a beginner is not a threat, instead it’s even a source of joy. Not knowing how to do something means there is a chance to learn! Happy happy joy!

There, I can’t even explain that without being sarcastic so let’s try an example instead. My work as a data scientist happens partly at the intersestion of programming or software development on one hand, and academic research on the other. In fact, this is how I’ve transitioned from statistics to data science: by learning a lot of computer nerd stuff. A while back a colleague asked if I use a certain static program analysis tool in my work. I didn’t know about the tool, or in fact even about the concept of static program analysis. Two possible reactions:

“What’s that? Oh! No, I don’t use one, since I didn’t know about it, but it sounds like a useful thing, and I’m happy that I now know it exists. Thank you for asking.”

On paper this in fact does sound perfectly reasonable to me. But my actual reaction was this:

“What’s that? Oh. Well no, because how the hell am I supposed to even know about such things? I’m a statistican, not a programmer! I haven’t been taught this stuff! You can’t expect me to know this stuff. In fact, you know what? Fuck you too.”

Well. Not an exact quote, but the “you can’t expect me to know this stuff” was the content of my actual answer, and my mood deteriorated to the f-word department. I had been judged. (This was not the colleague’s intention, obviously.)

Another example: I play Supercell’s Clash Royale, where you are matched against random rather anonymous players around the world in a few minute duels. I’m currently trying to learn a new strategy and find it very challenging (that is: very very annoying). You can also play training matches against your guildmates and then re-watch and talk about it afterwards. I was reminded of this possibility when a new guild member played many such matches, and then joyously declared that everybody was very skilled, and it was a good learning experience. Hmm, I thought, sounds plausible. Maybe I should request help as well?

Absolutely not. To show to people who actually know how to play, that I can’t? No. Never. No way in hell.

So what does this have to do with me writing a blog? I’ve sort of wanted to for a long while, but never quite got to it. I now see that the fixed mindset is one factor there. I connected the dots while reading another book, Inevitable by Kevin Kelly. Kelly made a point about how so much media content is being created, in the form of blogs, music, videos, tweets, that you just can’t catch up. You literally can’t because the amount of content produced daily is more than you can possibly consume in a day, many times over. Kelly continued to talk about filtering and personal recommendations in relation to that, but it reminded me of something I had read, specifically about Twitter (but really can’t find now). In that piece the Twitter stream was compared to an actual river: you can go to it, and dip in, but when you go away the river keeps on flowing, and later when you come back, you only come back to the river, not to the water that was flowing there the last time. Just like with a real river, you can’t catch up. But they also said, and so does Kelly, that the best content, the most relevant and the most interesting, will flow by you again. Many times. In endlessly new combinations and formats. You can’t catch up but it’s ok because it’s literally impossible, and because the new is there.

That was a liberating thought. It brought to view a silent unrecognized assumption, inspired by the fixed mindset, that had captivated me, and made me uneasy about Twitter, blogging and a whole lot of other things. I don’t need to read all the other blogs on the subjects that interest me before writing about it myself. I don’t need to catch up before exposing myself to the discussion. It’s ok to be a beginner. Saying again the same thing that somebody already said is a contribution: it’s not showing that I am trivial, it’s showing that the point is relevant! And besides, maybe somebody missed it all the previous times it was said.

And if I’m told, you know, Some Random Blogger said the same thing, maybe I can manage to reply “They did? How cool! What else did they say, that might be interesting to me?” instead of “For fucks sake, why am I even trying when I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about, since Some Random Blogger said the same thing already before me, and therefore everybody knows it, and I was actually the last one to figure it out, and that’s how much I suck at this.” It’s not a judgement, it’s an encouragement. Or so I’d like to learn to think.

P.S. I’ve been sitting on this post for months. I could say that I wanted to have more content prepared before posting (and indeed now I do), but that would only be half true. The other half is I’m just horrified, simple as that. But the funny thing is that when I was preparing to actually publish, I found my old blog! I had nearly forgotten. To my amazement, the first post (it’s all in Finnish) is about the exact same thing: the justification of me wanting to say something that has been already said. It seems that back then I reached that conclusion far easier.

And yes, the underlying theme and my approach to it is the same, although in 7 years I may have made some progress. Happiness at work was a great starting point but there’s so much more.






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