Programming as natural ability, and the bandaid of long work hours

Your project deadline is getting closer and closer, and you’re stuck: you don’t know what to do. Your manager won’t help, they just push you to work evenings and weekends–and when it looks like you’re going to fail, they hand the project over to another programmer.

You’ve failed your manager, and there’s a little voice in the back of your head telling you that maybe you’re missing what it takes to be a programmer, maybe you just don’t have the requisite natural ability.

That little voice is lying to you.

It’s the other way around: your manager has failed you, and is compounding the failure by conveying a destructive mindset, what’s known as a fixed mindset. To understand what I’m talking about, let’s take a quick detour into the psychology of education, and then return to those long hours you’ve been working.

Growth mindset vs fixed mindset

Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, contrasts two mindsets when learning:

  • If you have a growth mindset you assume your abilities can change over time, and that your skills can improve by learning and practice.
  • If you have a fixed mindset you assume your abilities are fixed: some people are naturally more talented than others, and there is no way to change your level of abilities.

According to Dweck’s research, students with a growth mindset do better than students with a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is self-defeating: it keeps you from learning, and it keeps you from even trying to learn.

In the context of programming this suggests that starting with the attitude that programming is a set of skills, skills that you can learn, will result in a much better learning experience.

But what does this have to do with long working hours?

You can’t work smarter, so you gotta work longer

In an article that was one of the inspirations for this post, Carol Dweck points out that a common failure mode among educators is to praise effort, working harder, instead of praising learning. While they may claim to be encouraging a growth mindset, they are simply perpetuating a fixed mindset.

This failure mode appears in the software world as well. Let’s assume for the moment that programming is a natural ability: just before we’re born, the Angel of Software injects between 0 and 100 milliliters of Programming Juice into our soul. If you’re really lucky, you might even get 110ml!

Now, given that each and every one of us only has a limited amount of Programming Juice, how can you maximize our output? You can’t learn more, so there’s no way to do things more efficiently. You can’t improve your skills, so there’s no way to become more productive.

So what’s left?

All together now: WORK LONGER HOURS!

Working longer ain’t smart

The truth, of course, is that there is no Angel of Software, there is no Programming Juice. Programming is just a bunch of skills. You can learn those skills, and so can most anyone else, given motivation, time, support, and some good teachers. And you can become more and more productive by continuing to learn.

If you believe in fixed talent, if you believe you can’t improve, you won’t try to learn. Long hours will be the only tool left to you.

When faced with a problem: just work longer hours.

When faced with another problem: work even longer.

You’ll work and work and work, and you’ll produce far less than you would have if you’d spent all that time improving your skills. And eventually you’ll hit a problem you can’t solve, and that you will never solve by working longer hours.

A growth mindset will serve you far better. You need to believe that skills can grow, and then you need to actually do the work to learn more and grow your skills.

And when you fail–and you will fail, because we all fail on occasion–take this as another opportunity to learn: look for the patterns and cues you should have have spotted. Having learned your lesson, next time you’ll do better.

We all make mistakes. You write some software that crashes in production, or accept a job offer with too little pay. You learn your lesson—but by then it's too late.

But what if you could skip straight to the learning?

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