TITLE: Digging a Hole Just to Climb Out AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 26, 2007 7:46 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I remember back in my early years teaching (*) I had a student who came in to ask a question about a particular error message she had received from our Pascal compiler. She had some idea of what caused it, and she wanted to know what it meant. It was a pretty advanced error, one we hadn't reached the point of making in class, so I asked her how she had managed to bump into it. Easy, she said; she was intentionally creating errors in her program so that she could figure out what sort of error messages would result. If you teach programming for very long, you are bound to encounter such a student. She was doing fine in class but was afraid that she was having life too easy and so decided to use her time productively -- creating errors that she could learn to debug and maybe even anticipate. I've written many times before about practice, including practice for practice's sake. That entry was about the idea of creating "valueless software", which one writes as a learning exercise, not for anyone's consumption. But my forward-thinking student was working more in the vein of fixin' what's broke, in which one practices in an area of known weakness, with the express purpose of making that part of one's game strong. My student didn't know many of the compiler error messages that she was going to face in the coming weeks, so she set out to learn them. I think that she was actually practicing a simple form of an even more specific learning pattern: consciously seeking out, even creating, challenges to conquer. Make a Mess, Clean it Up!, is a neat story about an example of this pattern in the history of the Macintosh team. There, Donn Denman talks about Burrell Smith's surprising way of getting better at Defender, a video game played by the Mac programmers as a way to relax or pump themselves up:
Instead of avoiding the tough situations, he'd immediately create them, and immediately start learning how to handle the worst situation imaginable. Pretty soon he would routinely handle anything the machine could throw at him.
He'd lose a few games along the way, but soon he was strong in areas of the game that his competitors may not have even encountered before -- because they had spent time avoiding difficult times! Denman saw in this game-playing behavior something he recognized in Smith's life as a programmer: he
... likes challenges so much that he actually seeks them out and consciously creates them. In the long run, this approach makes sense. He seems to aggressively set up challenging situations throughout his life. Then, when life throws him a curve ball, he'll swing hard, and knock it out of the park.
The article uses two metaphors for this pattern: make a mess so that you can clean it up, and choose to face tough situations so that you are ready for the curve balls life throws you. (I guess those tough situations must be akin the nasty breaking stuff of a major-league pitcher.) My title for this entry offers a third metaphor: digging yourself into a hole so that you can how to get out of a hole. As much a baseball fan as I was growing up, the metaphor of digging oneself into a hole was the more common. Whatever it's name, the idea is the same. I find that I'm more likely to apply this pattern in some parts of my life than others. In programming, I can recover from bad situations by re-compiling, re-booting, or at worst reinstalling. In running, I can lose all the races I want, or come up short in a training session all I want -- so long as I don't put my body at undue risk. The rest of life, the parts that deal with other people, require some care. It's hard to create an environment in which I can screw up my interpersonal relationships just so that I can learn how to get out of the mess. There's a different metaphor for such behavior -- burning bridges -- that connotes its irreversibility. Besides, it's not right to treat people as props in my game. I suppose that this is a place in which role play can help, though artificial situations can go only so far. Where games, machines, and tools are concerned, though, digging a deep hole just for the challenge of getting out of it can be a powerful way to learn. Pretty soon, you can find yourself as master of the machine. ---- (*) Yikes, how old does that make me sound? -----