Early Thoughts on Hacker School

I got my acceptance notification for the winter 2014 batch of Hacker School on January 3rd, six weeks ago. Right after being accepted, I wrote a bit in the same directory where I’d saved my application answers:

Just a couple of hours ago, I got word that I’d been accepted to Hacker School. I have a little over a month to get my life ready to shove a thousand miles east. I’m an unbelievable amount of excited – this is exactly what I wanted to do with my free chunk of time, only 1) paid and 2) with a bunch of other people who are also driven and excited and awesome and 3) in a pretty fucking adventurous place! My teenage self would be elated that I’m going to go live in the biggest big city in the US, and also probably kind of disappointed that I didn’t go do it ten years ago. (My teenage self didn’t really value family and friends and living someplace where ten million people are not also trying to live, unlike my wizened late-twenties self.)

I’m a little scared, but not as much as I was before, say, heading out to Seattle to cross the country on bicycles with eight people I’d never met. I don’t think I will fail at this. (I don’t think failure is even really a meaningful concept in this particular context.) It will probably go in some totally different direction than I expect (and not really knowing what I expect, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t), and I’m completely okay with that. The world is huge! It is full of things.

I am experiencing at the moment exactly zero impostor syndrome. I know it won’t last long but it’s pretty wonderful to feel while it’s happening.

It didn’t take me very long after that to begin both experiencing impostor syndrome again and worrying about living in New York City. A few weeks before Hacker School began, on the way home from visiting a friend in Seattle, I wrote a bit more:

Long flights are good for introspection. Long flights with a nice view of where in space the plane is are both good and bad for wanderlust. The earth below, my god, I would rather be there, eating a path through it on two wheels, finding the truth behind the lie of all the empty space on the map. Something is there, going unseen, at least by me.

I am about to live in one of the most examined, and least cartographically empty, parts of the US. Just doing so is achieving a very old dream of mine (and possibly of everyone ambitious who grew up in the Midwest around when I did). Part of my concern about living in New York is rooted in having imagined myself doing it while so naive, I think; the self that wanted it was so laughably under equipped to handle it that I’m worried about the present self’s capabilities. If it was something I wanted while so blind and silly, how could it possibly be a good idea? It’s a silly line of reasoning; stopped clocks are sometimes right, and even totally wrongheaded people can have good ideas for the wrong (or even right, I guess!) reasons.

And it’s also possible that I don’t give my younger self enough credit. I’ve assumed that if I had tried anything really demanding before about 25, that I would have failed at it spectacularly, because I didn’t really know how to try yet, or how to ask for help. I think that’s in part just to guard against regret, which I have a lot of despite this defense mechanism. Regret is silly overall anyway, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any. For all I know, though, if I’d gone out east right away at eighteen, I would’ve come out better for it, rather than failing and washing out like I’ve always assumed. Maybe I wouldn’t have waited until 25 before learning to try at things. I can’t know; that life is lost to me.

And some more thoughts from the very long, very delayed, very frustrating train ride from Chicago to Penn Station, around three weeks later:

Wow, there’s a huge gulf between how I felt on getting accepted to Hacker School and how I’ve felt about actually going. The last few weeks, I haven’t really been excited; I’ve mostly been full of dread. I’m not sure how much of that is a legitimate lack of desire to leave my extremely pleasant group of friends and cats, and how much of it is my first bout of seasonal affective disorder ever - it became clear to me a couple of weeks ago that I was experiencing it, and it became clear to me a couple of days ago that I was moreover feeling it very keenly. As a result I haven’t done the thinking and preparing I wanted to do, and here I am somewhere in eastern Ohio, with no clear plan for what I’m going to do in a couple of days. Yikes.

My goals haven’t changed, I don’t think. I want to work with a bunch of other people on a project of some value, in some language that opens new doors for me or teaches me to think differently. For the “work with a bunch of other people” part, I’m going to be fighting my nature pretty much every day, and I think it will be much better to make the decision of what to work on and with whom a few times rather than many. I can easily see myself saying “not today, not today” over and over again until the 12 weeks are up, having done something totally orthogonal to what I came here to do. That might be okay, but I’d prefer to have a change in focus happen deliberately rather than out of grumpy people-evasion.

The combination of working with other people and starting with a radically different new language… that’s going to be very challenging for me, psychologically. It will be good to work on asking other people for help, on being willing to look like I don’t know what I’m doing. Admitting ignorance. I want to get better at all of that stuff that doesn’t impress anyone. (I also want to get better at something that does impress people, but I think you get there by doing the former.)

After day two of Hacker School, I am feeling the truth of “that’s going to be very challenging for me, psychologically”. The particular thing I’ve chosen to do is totally left-field for me. It’s been hard to work on it even for a couple of days, especially after feeling like absolute dead weight in my first couple of pairing experiences.

It’s probably good for me in the long run to continue working on something that fails to come naturally, but continuing to work in Haskell is certainly at odds with my latent desire to build something real and useful, at least with my current skillset. This is the right place to work on hard problems and to build foundations for later work, and I may just need to keep reminding myself of that for another three months. It’s probably okay not to have everything all worked out at the end of Day 2.