TITLE: Luck, Embracing Failure, and State of Mind AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 15, 2010 10:13 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This morning, Kevlin Henney tweeted:
Being lucky is not generally a matter of luck RT @gregyoung: http://is.gd/8qdIk
That shortened URL points to an article called, Be Lucky: It's an Easy Skill to Learn. The author, psychologist Richard Wiseman, reports some of his findings after a decade studying people who consider themselves lucky or unlucky. Not surprisingly, one's state of mind has as much to do with perception of luck as any events in the observable world. He has identified three common threads that anyone can use to become luckier: One of the things that struck me about this article was the connection of unlucky people to tension.
... unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people's ability to notice the unexpected.
Tension relates directly to all three of the above bullets. Tense people tend to overthink situations, looking to optimize some metric, and thus quash their gut instincts. They tend to seek routine as a way to minimize distraction and uncertainty, which cause them to miss opportunities. And their tension tends to cause them to see the negative in any event that does not match their desired optimum. Perhaps the key to luck is nothing more than relaxation! When I think of times I feel unlucky -- and I must sheepishly admit that this happens all too often -- I can see the tension that underlies Wiseman's results. But for me this usually manifests itself as frustration. This thought, in turn, reminded me of a blog entry I wrote a year ago on embracing failure. In it, I considered Rich Pattis observation about how hard computer science must feel to beginners, because it is a discipline learned almost wholly by failure. Not just occasional failure, but a steady stream of failures ranging from syntax errors to misunderstanding complex abstractions. Succeeding in CS requires a certain mindset in which embraces, fights through, or otherwise copes with failure in a constructive way. Some of us embrace it with gusto, seeing failure as a challenge to surmount, not a comment on our value or skills. I wonder now if there might be a connection between seeing oneself as lucky and embracing failure. Lucky people find positive in the negative events; successful programmers see valuable information in error messages and are empowered to succeed. Lucky people seek out variety and the opportunities it offers; successful programmers try out new techniques, patterns, and languages, not because they seek out failure but because they seek opportunities to learn. Lucky people respect their hunches; successful programmers have the hubris to believe they can see their way to a working program. If relaxation is the key to removing tension, and removing tension is the key to being lucky, and being lucky is a lot like being a successful programmer, then perhaps the key to succeeding as a programmer is nothing more than relaxation! Yes, that's a stretch, but there is something there. One last connection. There have been a couple of articles in the popular press recently about an increase in the prevalence of cheating, especially in CS courses. This has led to discussions of cheating in a number of places CS faculty hang out. I imagine there is a close connection between feeling frustrated and tense and feeling like one needs to cheat to succeed. If we can lower the level of tension in our classrooms by lowering the level of frustration, there may be a way for us to stem the growing tide of students cheating. The broader the audience we have in any given classroom, the harder this is to achieve. But we do have tools available to us, including having our students working in domains that give more feedback more visibly, sooner, and more frequently. One of my favorite comments in all the on-line discussion of cheating in CS is Comment 1 to Mark Guzdial's blog entry, by Steve Tate:
About a decade ago I was chatting with some high school teachers when my university hosted a programming contest for high school kids. One teacher pointed out that her best CS students were those that also played either music or golf -- her theory was that they were used to tasks where you are really bad at first, but you persevere and overcome that. But you have to be able to accept that you'll really stink at it for a good long while.
This struck me as a neat way to make a connection between learning to program and learning music or sports. I had forgotten about the discussion of "meaningful failure" in my own entry... Tate explains the connection succinctly. Whatever the connections among tension, fear of failure, cheating, and luck, we need to find ways to help students and novice developers learn how to take control of their own destiny -- even if it is only in helping them cultivate their own sense of good luck. -----