The Rockwell station.

You Have To Know What Scares You More

I graduated Dev Bootcamp in September, and got asked to come back on contract as a junior instructor, and that job became full-time official last month, and that meant I finally got to reunite my family in Chicago, so we’re together again and my career trajectory has changed in a huge way and 2014 was the most amazing year of my adult life.

But that’s not what’s important for today.

What’s important is that my family moved to Lincoln Square, right off the Rockwell Brown Line stop. That matters because the train is at street level at Rockwell, which means I get to see a drama play out every morning that reminds me of my work.

The Rockwell station is just west of its namesake street. A street level station means there’s no bridge over Rockwell, just a track embedded in the asphalt and four big lighted wooden arms that come down when a train’s about to cross; it’s a railroad crossing, and sometimes people get hit at crossings, so there are bells and flashing red every few minutes before Kimball-bound trains slow down into the station. Or before Loop-bound trains arrive at the station, load up, and then cross Rockwell heading east.

The timing matters for this analogy. Kimball trains come through the crossing faster, since they’re decelerating from speed. By contrast, you’ll see and hear the warnings for a Loop train before the train has arrived at the station, before it has slowed down to a stop before the closed crossing, before passengers have boarded.

And I say all this so maybe you’ll think differently about the kind of person who would ignore bells and flashing lights and duck under a descending wooden arm to make their train. Maybe they’re not ignoring a clear danger. Maybe they have enough context to know when there’s no danger at all.

For many DBC students, the beginning of Phase 1 is all loud warnings and descending arms. Day One hits and it’s FULL – intros given, overviews covered, rules communicated, and on top of that there are several code challenges to get through in what amounts to only a few hours of core coding time. It’s hard to get through everything on the first day, and if you don’t, the fullness of the day gives your ego an easy out: “surely tomorrow, when there’s more time to code, I’ll get through the challenges easier.”

And then comes Day Two and the pace actually increases and it’s really easy to feel like you’re already in danger of total challenge/day/program/career/life failure, depending on how loud your inner authoritarian can yell at you from inside your head.

Before Dev Bootcamp, you were really good at something, art or negotiation or electrical engineering or parenting or sales or being a full-time student, and a lot of your identity is wrapped up in that first expertise. Society messages to us that everyone’s supposed to get good at something and then make some money doing it, and we get nervous enough about the money part that we forget to challenge whether that “something” really needs to be singular for anyone. It’s not that you can’t take on a brand new skill as an adult (I’ve personally watched hundreds do it since last May), it’s that no one’s ever explicitly told you that it’s totally normal, it might even be the default path to happiness, so all you’re left with is the sense that you’re struggling and that you’re doing it alone, because who’s ever done anything this crazy before?

Well, your cohort’s doing it, so that makes you feel safer. And you’ve got instructors who did it, and that helps a lot. But inertia is powerful, and when your brain can’t get its daily expected dose of expertise dopamine, two days in a row, it can make you panic all the same.

I’ve seen a few people have to leave DBC. Sometimes the program just doesn’t fit a student’s learning pace, and it hurts to say goodbye, because you still know they’re going to go off and become great coders one day, but you won’t be there to see it. But sometimes a student just hits an emotional wall and shuts down, and it has nothing to do with their technical prowess, it’s all about their courage.

It goes something like this: “I know I’ve already repeated this phase, and I really need to buckle down these next three weeks if I want to pull through. But what if I summon a Herculean effort and I’m still not good enough in time? Maybe it would hurt a little less if I just tapped out now and failed on my own terms. At least then I could retain some sense of control.”

This morning, on my way in, I saw the gate start to come down, and three people took off running to beat it. Two ducked under, and the third decided at the last moment not to chance it.

If the train represents a perceived danger, and the wooden arms are the ego’s defenses against that danger, maybe the difference between those who go for it and those who hedge is in the context. Maybe Runner 3 didn’t know it was a Loop train and that there was plenty of time to duck even after the arm had dropped completely. And maybe the knowledge that DBC is a safe place to learn and make mistakes, the knowledge that you’re surrounded by students and mentors and teachers who have your back and will help you succeed, the knowledge that so many before you have found success here by trusting the process and bringing their whole selves into the struggle…maybe that knowledge will empower you to pick your moment, stare down the train and get yourself where you were trying to go.

However… what if the train represents a path to somewhere awesome, a path you can miss out on traveling if you hesitate for too long? If that’s the case, maybe the arms and bells and lights are the ego’s defenses against personal change, and maybe Runners 1 and 2 weren’t afraid to duck under them because they knew the ego is a vicious liar when it doesn’t want change, and in that context the warnings weren’t warnings at all, they were just excuses.

But that’s not right either. Coding (and, I’m slowly learning, life itself) isn’t about finding the right solutions, it’s about the best solutions available considering the specific situation and the tradeoffs involved. There’s no black and white, just pros and cons and a choice to be made.

And if that’s true, the train is both danger and opportunity. It’s not your death or your salvation, it’s a risk. It might crush you, or it might open its doors and let you change your scenery. But the tricky part is that when the bells start to go off and the lights start to flash, you will need to decide for yourself what the warning means, and you’ll need to act on that decision quickly.

It’s convenient that I ride toward the Loop way more often than I ride toward Kimball, because it gives the analogy another layer. When I hear the bells and see a train barreling westbound toward the tracks, I know ducking the arm would be a stupid risk, not because I’m more likely to get crushed by a westbound train, but because west is not even where I need to go. Hopefully, long before you started DBC, you got at least a kick out of writing code that works; if not, this might not be the right risk for you in the first place.

But that’s hindsight at this point. You’re here now, and you’re uncomfortably new at this, and the work is really hard, and your defensive brain is warning you that you might be in danger. And yet the train that’s endangering you, these challenges, this process, the uncertainty of what comes after, the uncertainty about yourself, is the very reason you left the house in the first place. At this point, you can hold yourself back or push yourself toward the risk.

I don’t know your tradeoffs, so I can’t speak for you. And it’s a scary choice no matter what side you land on. Scary like running through a railroad crossing is scary, because in both cases you’ve grown up being told to never ever chance it: “A career change? At YOUR age? But you’ve got such a good thing going…”

Still, I’ll bet money that while running through a railroad crossing is scary no matter what, one of those runners was more afraid of getting crushed, and two of those runners were more afraid of missing the train.

I graduated Dev Bootcamp in September, and got asked to come back on contract as a junior instructor, and that job became full-time official last month, and that meant I finally got to reunite my family in Chicago, so we’re together again and my career trajectory has changed in a huge way and 2014 was the most amazing year of my adult life.

For me, putting my head down and going for it was the right move.


One comment

  1. Just read your whole blog, every post, and I appreciate it so much. I start in Chicago in a few days and your blog was everything I could’ve hope for in regards to understanding the experience before undertaking it.

    Thanks for taking the time bro.

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