A friend of mine messaged me the other day. Even though they’ve been in the technology industry for awhile, they just recently landed their first engineering job. So, with this first job, they’re feeling pressure to look like they know what they’re doing and they’re worried that, by asking questions, their coworkers will find them out and they’ll be told they should just leave the tech industry.
Have you ever had this fear? I know I have. The times I’ve had this fear of being kicked out, of being ostracized, haven’t usually been about writing code but about things that around it: job interviews, giving talks, or teaching topics I’m not intimately familiar with. I’m going to be found out; someone will realize I’m just a self-taught faker and refuse to work with me. I’ve also experienced it in places that are outside of technology, as I’m sure you all have too. Oh no, what if my friend finds out I’m not as sushi savvy as they are?! Will they still want to be my friend?
Not knowing something doesn’t make you a bad programmer. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in technology or writing code. And it absolutely doesn’t make you an impostor. But what can you do when you run into a wall, need help, but you’re still scared to ask questions? Here are some of my favorite ways to find solutions on my own.
The CHALTS Checklist
Check these six conditions to make sure you’re in a good problem-solving mindset.
- Cold – It’s hard to think when you’re physically uncomfortable. If you’re cold, put on a sweater or socks. If you’re hot, get a fan or go somewhere cooler. I’d say this applies to where you’re working and how you’re sitting or standing, too. Make sure you’re stressing yourself with pain or discomfort as little as possible.
- Hungry – Your brain needs calories to work. Get something to eat or drink, even something small, to give yourself a little boost of energy. I know I’ve had so many problems that I just couldn’t solve until I had a few nuts or some gummy bears (a guilty pleasure), and then the pieces slid together so much easier. Along with this, drink some water. Keeping yourself hydrated will help with reducing physical discomfort and help you keep your mind on the task at hand.
- Angry – Repeatedly running into brick walls will make even the most peaceful of us start to see red eventually. I know, personally, I start to see a problem I can’t solve as an enemy. I get, literally, mad at the function that won’t return the correct output or the sentence that I just can’t seem to get right. If your emotions have started to run away with you, you won’t be able to think your problem through. Take a break, do something fun, and get yourself centered.
- Lonely – This one might be a bit of stretch if you’re not wanting to ask questions of your coworkers and friends, but a bit of camaraderie goes a long way in getting our minds into a better state. I enjoy playing board games and I’ve found that, with a problem I can’t quite get through, that a half hour of Hanabi or Codenames helps to get me back to a place where I feel confident in myself again. Snuggles from pets, children, loved ones, or even stuffed animals can really help, too.
- Tired – Sometimes we’re just too tired to work our way through a problem right now. That’s fine! We’re all human, after all! Take a break, take a nap, or even go to bed for the night. You might even find that your brain worked out a new solution to the problem for you while you dozed or marathoned a Netflix show. With the proper rest, many big problems become minor annoyances.
- Substances – And, sometimes, you’re just not in the right mindset to solve problems. There’s a common saying from the writing world: “Write drunk, edit sober”. Programmers have created their own version: “Code drunk, debug sober”. Honestly, though, you’re better off not writing or coding, especially anything tricky, while under the influence. I also think this goes a bit further, too: even if you’re sober, check to make sure you’re not being influenced by other chemical imbalances. Have you had enough sunlight lately? Do you need a drink of water (again)? Is your blood sugar too low or too high? Check in on your physical and mental states.
Talk about something else
Part of CHALTS is “loneliness” and I suggested you talk to other people, get some social interaction. It really does do a lot for you, even if it’s not in-person. Texting a friend, posting in a forum, or hanging out on social media can all help to boost your self-esteem (well, maybe not social media) and bring you back to feeling like a part of society again.
The urge, though, is usually to talk about the problem you’re having. I think it’s better to talk about something completely different. Instead of asking Jim or Alisha about why your regular expression is only finding every other letter, ask Alisha to tell you about her last rollerderby game. Or find out your grandma’s best brownie recipe. Go ask the CEO about the last book she read. These all get your mind off of your problem and get you focusing on something else. And while you’re focused on a book recommendation, your brain is chipping away at the problem in the background.
Get out of there!
Sometimes you just don’t have the emotional capital required to talk to someone else. In these cases, I do whatever I can to change my surroundings. I go take a walk. I play a video game for a half hour or watch an episode of a favorite TV show or YouTube series. Or, and this goes back to the “angry” part of CHALTS, put on some favorite music and dance; the physical activity, combined with letting your mind rest for a bit, really helps to reset and repair mental batteries.
Changing your environment itself can help a lot, too. Clean up your work area, open or close a window, restart your computer and organize the windows better. Small distractions, like not being able to quickly reach over and jot down a note, can cause big setbacks and frustrations. Yes, you’re “wasting time” cleaning up your desk, but you’re setting your mind up for better focus just five minutes from now.
Once you’re focused and you’ve stamped down as many distractions as possible, give your problem another shot and see if it turns out to be a little more organized, too.