Benchmarks

A few days ago, I was working on a survey analysis in R— a statistical programming language. My boyfriend asked what I was up to, and I told him I was coding. He was, too. He asked me if I needed any help, and without thinking, I said, “No, thanks!”

This sound like a minor event to you, but for me, it was a signal of massive personal progress.

My mind enjoys the kind of problem-solving that coding entails, but my disposition is exceptionally ill-suited for it. I realized a few years ago that I am preoccupied by failure. My habit of mind was to believe both that failure is the end of the world, and also that I was constantly doing it. Of course, this does not comport well with learning by error message! It also isn’t compatible with an academic career.

Brandon introduced me to a model that has helped me understand this very problematic thought pattern: schemas. A schema is a sets of beliefs about ourselves and the world that may have been accurate or at least explanatory when we were children, and which we perpetuate as we grow up, even if they are not or are no longer true. In schema therapy, these are referred to as “Early Maladaptive Schemas.”

For example, in the book linked above, the author describes the failure schema as “the belief that one has failed, will inevitably fail, or is fundamentally inadequate relative to one’s peers in areas of achievement (school, career, sports, etc.)” The book also describes various ways that we might cope with schemas– sometimes not very healthily. I might surrender to my belief that I will fail by doing things haphazardly (because I believe I will fail anyway), I might procrastinate or avoid challenge completely (to avoid failing), or I might overcompensate by driving myself into the ground in search of success. I’ll fixate on any signal that could conceivably indicate that I have failed or will fail, and I will believe that no matter what I do to try to improve, I will continue to fail.

As you might guess, none of these are great, and none of them are compatible with success in any career, but certainly not one that involves as much rejection as academic publishing entails, or one that relies on diagnosing and learning from failure to progress, like coding does.

I have been working on addressing this (and some other) schemas I’ve held on to, and Brandon has been integral to that. He sat patiently with me and taught me the process of coding (failure and all) and helped me rewrite the messages I was telling myself while I was failing.

“Everyone has a hard time at first.”

“You can do it if you want to.”

“You are getting better.”

This was not a pleasant task–there were hours of tears and anger on my part, often times misplaced on the person trying to help me. Progress was very slow, and I often couldn’t see myself getting better (mmm meta-failure schema. So helpful.) He helped me see much sooner that I was getting frustrated.

“You’re doing great. Do you want to take a break?”

“What are you telling yourself right now?”

“What would I say to that?” or “What would you tell [a friend] if she told you that?”

Two years ago, I was sobbing after about 20 minutes of trying my first homework problem in Matlab, and bawling while trying to make a button in javascript. I needed help every step of the way, and even lashed out occasionally when I felt he was expecting too much of [stupid, incompetent] me.

But this time, I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t know the solution, but I was confident that I could figure it out. I didn’t expect to get it right the first time, and I knew how to learn from failure’s feedback. I knew that if I did need to ask for help, it wouldn’t be a verdict on my competence.

I couldn’t see progress in the moment, but looking back, it’s very obvious. I used to cry every time I tried to write code, and now I do it fairly often without a thought. Now, my code isn’t amazing by any means, but it has been tear-free for several months :) Maybe you don’t think that’s a huge accomplishment for a 31 year-old, but 27 year-old Karen would have never tried writing code at all.

Last week I celebrated this personal victory. Yesterday, Brandon and I celebrated 4 years together! 4 years of improving together. :)

I’d love to hear about your benchmarks :) Leave a comment, or send me a message!

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2 Comments

  1. It’s encouraging for me to read that you have seen real change and growth and that as it was happening, it was slow and maybe even imperceptible. But now after several years, it adds up to a big change. Right now I am reading Mindset by Carl S. Dweck and your post reminded of some of the things she is saying about “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset.” I thought I had a growth mindset, but this book is showing me that I only have it in certain areas of my life and I could grow more if I can learn to adopt a growth mindset in other areas. After reading your post I am encouraged to keep trying to change.

    1. I love that book! I found it really helpful. I have it on audiobook, and I often put it on (or one of her videos) when I need reminding. You hit on it exactly– I have long had a big fixed mindset problem. I have a post draft in here somewhere about it :) I’m glad you found this encouraging, and thanks for the comment :)

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