Expanding my comfort zone, part 1: 2012 reflections on life and code

My motto for 2012. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt!

My motto for 2012. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt!

I know it, you know it: the obligatory end-of-2012-reflections blog meme is coming. So I might as well get a jump on it. It’s partly geeky, partly personal. And it’s not at all professional. Roll with it.

For me, 2012 has been a year of expanding my comfort zone by stepping outside it. Sometimes by being booted unceremoniously beyond it. I’ve walked the talk of one of my favorite pithy t-shirts of the year: “Comfort zone = dead zone.” At the ripe old age of 46, I’m finally learning how to be more at peace with being uncomfortable or uncertain, even for extended periods of time; and how to temper this discomfort with the kind of comfort that feeds my soul and keeps me sane.

One uncomfortable but important advance I made this year was to knuckle down and really start to learn how to code.

I took a 3-month immersion course from the Da Vinci Institute (a tech community catalyst for Colorado’s Front Range) in front-end web development skills: HTML5, CSS, and Javascript (really, JQuery). While this wasn’t programming in the software development sense, I learned a lot.

I especially appreciate the integrative insight as well as the practical skills offered by our instructor, Richard Jones; and by my friend and mentor Justin Crawford (who just joined Mozilla — congrats!). And I am grateful for the generous scholarship funded by the Boulder startup Epic Playground, which enabled me to take this class.

So really, what did I learn? While I can’t say I enjoy coding CSS, I now can do it — very slowly, clumsily, and with much frustration, but with some success. That’s a huge leap for me. More importantly, I now can look at a CSS file and understand how it works and what it’s doing, and sometimes where it’s going wrong.

Most importantly, I now greatly respect how CSS works and what it can do. I can recognize its rhythms and beauty as well as its practicality. I appreciate its specificity and nuances — even when they’re making me bash my head against my keyboard. The payoff: I now can make better decisions about CSS and even pitch in and write some of it. This will benefit any digital media project I do in the future.

While CSS was my biggest challenge and greatest frustration with this class, my greatest discovery came through through learning how to use HTML5. That got me even more intrigued by structured content, responsive web design, outliners, and adaptive content.

I’m noticing a familiar feeling as I learn about these particular techniques and technologies. It’s the way I felt about internet content in 1998, when I started Contentious.com: not pushing myself forward, but rather feeling drawn ahead and motivated by compelling new territory. I don’t know quite what I’m going to do in this territory, but I’m definitely going there.

Whether or not I become a great (or even competent) coder in the process is not the point. Coding is a crucial new literacy. It’s fundamentally empowering. And if I’ve learned anything about myself in 46 years, it’s that I really, really suck at being powerless.

I was definitely in over my head with this course, but that wasn’t what put me outside my comfort zone. I’m accustomed to diving into a new subject, being a beginner. I enjoy it. In fact, my urge to keep exploring is a big part of why I became a journalist in the first place — done right, this profession continually reveals new territory, or shows old territory in a new light.

In 12 weeks I didn’t learn as much about coding as I’d aspired to. That was my own doing. The problem was, I just didn’t put in enough time outside of class. Getting proficient at coding requires tons of steady practice. I was able and willing to put in the time for the class (3.5 hours/day, 3 days/week), but honestly I didn’t do enough of the homework.

So I had to ask myself the hard question: Why wasn’t I doing enough homework? That made me really uncomfortable, because it forced me to compare who I actually am with who I want to believe I am. Life and code go together. (In fact, my friend Lisa Williams has a blog about that.)

Over the last few years I’m been learning how to pay attention to, and honor, what I really want to do — and what I’m willing to do. The hard part is that these things often don’t match my conscious aspirations, or what others might expect of me (at least, usually, what I guess others might expect of me).

During earlier phases in my life I’ve simply powered through all sorts of things (projects, classes, events, interstate moves, buying real estate, managing relationships, etc.) because I felt I should do them or I’d already committed myself to them. Now I’ve arrived at a point in my life where I need to focus not just on what my project or task at hand is, but what my goals are. I’m finally learning to take my personal “big picture” seriously, treat it like it matters. Because it does.

In this case, being a hard-core programmer or developer is simply not my goal. It never was — but the social pressure in geekdom is that if you’re going to code at all, you must totally throw yourself into it or else there’s no point in trying. Well, so much for the social myths of subcultures. All of you geeks who want to chide me for my lack of diligence (and I know you’re out there), feel free. Hey, I’m from NJ. I can take it.

I didn’t consciously intend to shift my personal focus this way. It emerged when I started, a little over a year ago, to specifically pay closer attention to my emotions, thought patterns, attention patterns, and reactions. I started journaling far more than ever before, that helped a lot.

Getting to know my personal big picture is often uncomfortable, because so far it isn’t terribly clear or coherent. And it may never be. But I’m getting better at sensing when I find things that fit into it — and when I don’t.

I see that what I needed most from this class was confidence that I can learn how to code — I’d held off so long because it frankly intimidated me. I felt like I’d never be good enough to impress anyone. Now I don’t care about that.

I also needed some practical experience doing simple coding. And I needed to learn enough to decide which digital media technologies and skills make sense for me to pursue more vigorously.

While I never aspired to be a full-time professional software developer or web designer, being useful is core to my sense of who I am, who I always have been, and who I want to be. Much of what I do with my life and work happens through digital media. I want to be more empowered to at least tweak, and perhaps help shape, the technologies of digital media. So I’ve started moving in that direction. I’m working through some self-paced courses at Code Academy, and I’ve got some projects in mind.

First coding project: Contentious.com needs a better theme. I know, it’s kinda broken right now. So I’m learning PHP, so I can work more effectively with WordPress, since it’s a tool I use on several projects. I need to be able to get under the hood with it.

I don’t expect continuing with coding to be comfortable. In fact, I expect it will intimidate and frustrate the hell out of me much of the time. But the things I really need to learn, I know I can learn. Or at least, I can make some serious progress toward learning them. And for the rest, I can connect with smart, talented people — another skill I’ve invested heavily in developing, and which has paid off handsomely for me.

EDITORIAL NOTE: If you only read me for my media and tech musings, and dislike stuff that gets any more personal than what you just read, feel free to stop reading now. I won’t take it personally. :-) But if you care for some more personal insight into what I learned in 2012, read on!

Here’s part 2.

2 thoughts on Expanding my comfort zone, part 1: 2012 reflections on life and code

  1. Pingback: leaving the nest | prudychick.com

  2. Pingback: Follow The Fear: Do Things That Scare You

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