Coding Taught Me How to Fail

By Emma Eriksen //

“Nana korobi ya oki” is a Japanese proverb with an English translation that you’ve probably heard: fall down seven times, get up eight. It speaks to perseverance, a character trait that is highly valued in U.S. culture—almost everyone knows the “bootstraps” and “self-made man” parables. But in a culture that praises success and growth, it’s rare to hear about the first or second or seventh falls that people make. For a culture that reveres tenacity and persistence, there aren’t many spaces that allow room for mistakes. I’ve found a huge exception to this norm within the realm of coding.

Like many other women, I consider myself a perfectionist, a term that masks the secret anxiety I have that failure on my part will reflect badly on the rest of my gender. I entered university without a grade below a B and was told time and time again that the quarter system was unforgiving with no room for mistakes. I failed tests sometimes, but the amount of time I spent studying after each bombed assignment spoke to my innate fear of being seen as incompetent. I crammed for hours, afraid to ask questions and worrying that my professors and TAs would see me as stupid.

I carried this fear with me until I took three classes in a single quarter that all had coding components. Within ten weeks, I received a crash course in R, Python, and the less buzzworthy Wolfram Language. I did my best, but I messed up—a lot. More often than not, my first attempt (and often second and third attempts) would result in error messages. But for the first time in my academic career, and quite possibly in my life, I was in a space where failure was not only tolerated but instead anticipated as a central part of the activity I was doing. Debugging and troubleshooting is a central part of the process of coding. My code didn’t work a fair portion of the time, but I was encouraged by my TAs and professors to keep trying and to reach out for help as often as I needed.

Obviously the world of professional code development is more cutthroat, and I can’t speak on the experience of any woman in computer science, a notoriously male-dominated field [1], but those few weeks I spent getting better at coding taught me a lot about the nature of failure. It’s not a death sentence and it’s quite satisfying to problem solve when something doesn’t work. The world might be a better, less hostile place if mistakes were accepted as a standard part of life, rather than an embarrassment or obstacle meant to be put behind you as quickly as possible. I imagine that this positive impact would benefit other women like me, perfectionists who would be more at ease knowing that messing up doesn’t beckon the end of the world. My advice to anyone considering trying to grow past the need to be always right is to take up an activity where mistakes are a standard part of life.

[1] https://www.computerscience.org/resources/women-in-computer-science/ 

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