I Can Do Things That Are Hard: How Learning to Code Changed My Life

Not too long ago, I wasn’t a programmer.

I don’t have a computer science degree, and unlike many of my peers, I didn’t grow up writing code as a hobby. Becoming a programmer was an enormous paradigm shift for me, and it ended up changing my outlook on life. Learning to write code taught me something about myself that I’d never learned anywhere else.

After working as a video game composer and sound designer for about four years, I found out I was getting laid off from the closest thing to a stable job that I’d found in that industry. My wife was pregnant with our first child and we were just about to buy a house when I got the news. We lost the house and were terrified about having a child without medical insurance. My trade was one in which there were far more people who wanted to do the work than there were jobs, so my prospects were slim.

I’m a reasonably intelligent, talented guy. That’s not to say that I’m a genius, and I’m nowhere near the polymath I wish I was, but a lot of things I’ve tried my hand at in life have come fairly naturally and easy to me. Enough things, at least, have come easy to me that I could always find a way to avoid the things that didn’t. So, many times growing up, I’d develop a new interest, my parents would encourage me, and I’d give it a shot. If I wasn’t at least moderately good at it right away, I’d give up and try something else. In my mind, I was trying to “find my talents.”

When I attended Code Fellows to study iOS development, I experienced a level of difficulty that was completely foreign to me. Programming didn’t come naturally to me in the slightest. It made my brain hurt. I felt stupid on a regular basis. I was unable to lean on any natural ability or intuition, but quitting wasn’t an option this time. My back was against the wall. I had a family who was counting on me, and there was no “next thing” for me to jump to. I’d gone into debt just to be there, and I was out of options, so, for the first time in my life, I made the choice to stick with something even though it was hard.

The curriculum has changed a bit since I was there, but the course I was taking was forty hours a week for eight solid weeks. I spent each hour of each day feeling like I was slipping farther behind my classmates. Every Wednesday, like clockwork, I’d have a little existential meltdown. “Everyone else seems like they get it!” I’d think, “Why don’t I get it? Oh my gosh am I going to lose everything? This was my last hope!” This feeling would remain constant till around Friday afternoon when I’d start to regain confidence. Eventually I had to just ignore how well it seemed everyone else was doing and focus on my own progress.

Having never exerted that much effort before, I’d never known how exhausted my brain could make me. By the end of the first week, I sat on my couch, staring at my computer and… well… nothing. Nothing came out. I had pushed my brain to the point of exhausting and it had nothing left, so I closed my laptop and went to bed.

During those eight weeks, I rewired my brain. I had to break out of all the comfortable, well-worn neural pathways I’d established over a lifetime of playing to my strengths, and blaze new trails in my brain. Here and there I found bits of previous training and experience that helped prop up new training, but by and large I was on new ground and the effort was uphill the whole way. I only got through it by letting go of my habit of taking the easy path, and throwing myself headlong into the work.

I won’t lie and say that I finished Code Fellows at the top of my class, or that my skills exceeded those of my classmates. What I will say is that I came out of Code Fellows with skills and understanding that were hard-won. The awareness of how hard acquiring them had been was the greatest prize I won the day I received my certificate. I now make more money than I’ve ever made before in my life. I have a schedule that allows me to spend time with my family. I do work that I find satisfying and fascinating. I enjoy a level of confidence in my job security that I never thought possible. But out all of those treasures, what I value the most is the transformative power of discovering that yes, I, Jacob Hawken, can do hard things.

As a result, I’ve begun trying and succeeding at things that are naturally challenging for me, including weight lifting, running, martial arts, home renovation, and getting up early in the morning. I’m confident that if the economy shifted and I had to learn yet another new trade or skill in order to provide for my family, I could do it, because I now know that (yep, you guessed it) I can do hard things.

Sensing a theme here? Then go and do likewise. Go forth and do hard things. You have nothing to lose but weakness.

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