Unlike many of my peers who started late careers in software, I’ve actually been programming since my early teens. Silly Harry Potter sites on geocities, BASIC programming and Lego Robotics in middle school enrichment programs, Java and MATLAB in college.

But it wasn’t until I was 25 that I finally decided programming could be a career. It was after an assignment at DevBootcamp where we parsed HTML from craigslist and displayed summary information on the command line. Then, I concretely understood how code is powerful and connective.

Was I crazy for not seeing this in all the other examples I’d encountered? Maybe. My predominant experience with code up to that point was games – mazes, space invader, etc. (And a bit of isolated laboratory data analysis.) I never feared studying software because of my gender or my perceived intelligence, but its conflation with games drove me away, because I consider games a waste of time.

There are good reasons for teaching with games – they are modular and isolated, and they have clear, satisfying goals. Programming as a career sometimes feels like a game, because it’s easy to focus on creating good code structures while disconnecting from ultimate uses, like “this is for running a corporate ticketing system.” And many of the failings of the tech industry are from forgetting that code has actual consequences (facebook news) or getting lost in an insular world (every app that mails you something inconsequential). So I think it’s appropriate to be wary of the games.

 

Evaluating Limitations

Ice is a more limited resource on public sessions, so it’s a challenging setting to practice figure skating. Sometimes it’s self-destructive to compromise on resources when learning – for example, it would be terrible to rent skates instead of buy them, because bad skates make it impossible to learn correct form.

When starting out, skating on public sessions are great! You can practice most basic skills, and public sessions may be the only option anyway, besides group lessons. Without time pressure, it can be nice (and effective!) to work on one difficult skill for an entire public session, because that’s the easiest way to detect progress. I also found that working on something invited helpful suggestions from more advanced skaters.

Once past the basic levels, I don’t advise practicing on public sessions as a substitute for freestyle sessions; having space is too important for jumps and spins. But attending additional public sessions is still useful if you have things to practice or polish. Often I’ve found that doing things slowly on a public session promotes the body awareness I need to solidify a skill. Public sessions are often at more times (not only in the pre-dawn hours) and they’re cheaper. They’re also an opportunity to build confidence by skating on a rougher surface and a good time to make friends!

Following are suggestions of things to practice on a public session.

Beginning skills:

  • Forward skating on one foot
  • Forward swizzles / wiggles
  • Forward stroking
  • Lunges
  • All types of stops
  • Edges in semi-circles
  • Crossovers (around curves, or if you can find a less-trafficked circle)
  • Mohawks
  • Turning from forward to backward / vice versa on two feet

More advanced skills:

  • Forward power pulls
  • Forward cross rolls
  • Three turns or brackets in semi-circles
  • Beginning one-rotation twizzles
  • Spread eagles
  • Pivots (these might be a beginning skill. But I only recently realized I should know them, so I don’t know where to put them)
  • Centering spin exercises (I have a lot of trouble pulling into my spins correctly, so my coach suggested I start them standing still from my feet in a T position)
  • Backspins

Being careful

It’s necessary to be respectful of people around you at public sessions, because most people won’t be able to respond quickly. It’s possible to skate backwards if you can spot an open area, or if someone is watching out for you. A center space can be good for practicing regular spins, although camel spins make me a little paranoid since they take up more space.

 

I received my acceptance letter to the OMSCS program today (it’s an online master’s degree from Georgia Tech, profiled in this article), and here’s the sequence of how I felt:

  1. Yay! I see rigorous coursework and a career-related degree in my future!
  2. This is silly, they must accept just about everyone.
  3. (Checking a reddit thread to see backgrounds of people who applied, were accepted, etc.)
  4. OMG everyone has a CS degree. This is terrible, I don’t have a CS degree. I’m going to be way, way behind. What am I going to do?
  5. At least I can write about this in my blog post today.

We naturally tend to replay embarrassing moments that highlight our insecurities. Today I spent an embarrassing number of minutes asking my manager to allay my confusion about a piece of code that was essentially… two booleans working together. Ugh.

I think what could help is instead actively writing down positive anecdotes or feedback that made us feel  “Oh, I guess I’m all right.” For example:

My first semester of college was a struggle – my first class of my first day was Chemistry, and the professor asked us to discuss, as a class, how we would make a biological computer (Umm… what?? That question assumes knowledge of two subjects that are not at all chemistry). Then I nearly failed two physics midterms. All semester I couldn’t understand my math professor, I couldn’t memorize bioengineering reading as well as the pre-med students, and I felt like I was a lame, under-educated person from a merely average public high school – a person who didn’t belong in a class with innovative people imagining using DNA as bits.

But at the end of the semester, I’d managed decent grades in my classes, including Math 114. I was talking to a classmate at my dorm after final grades were out, and he said “Wow, that class was really tough. I already took multivariate calculus in high school, but I barely got an A.” After I got over the mild outrage of “WHAT? You already took multivariate calculus? I missed a memo!” I realized I was doing fine, because I got an A too.

The answer is either almost never (if you want to hate yourself) or almost always (the more correct answer).

I used to believe in ‘ideal conditions’ – e.g. the ideal condition for practicing violin is when no one else is home and I don’t have to play in the creepy basement, or the ideal condition for studying physics is Saturday morning at a library carrel with a view of downtown Philadelphia. As an adult, I still catch myself superstitiously thinking about ideal conditions, but I’m starting to outgrow them.

Thinking about ideal conditions is essentially mysticism. The first instance I remember overcoming it was practicing running the first summer I lived in NYC. Prior to this, I was a timid runner, and so I usually exercised… at the gym (gasp! how embarrassing, right?). When preparing for a run, my thoughts would be a mix of practical concerns (“Have I hydrated enough today?”), organizational dilemmas (“Can I comfortably hold my wallet and my phone if I use my too-small pocket for my keys?”), and outright absurd fears (“What if I pass out in the middle of Central Park and can’t find the nearest subway?”). Before I dedicated myself to running that summer, it was rare I ever ran outside, because conditions were rarely ideal.

After running outside for many miles and not encountering any dire circumstances, I realized that conditions are almost always good enough to go running. Not to say there aren’t ideal days (my best run ever started in Riverside Park and ended with getting lost around the north end of Central Park during a light rain), but the threshold for “good enough” is so miserably low that only circumstances like major illness or injury should prevent one from going for a run.

Skating

I figured out how to do a lutz sometime around February. And then I forgot how to do it. Then I remembered. Then forgot.

I recently noticed that because of the variability, I’d started composing a list of conditions that seemed necessary for me to be able to manage it at any one practice session – whether I had a day off from skating the day before, how awake I felt, etc. Furthermore, I realized that this list kept me from practicing the lutz, because I’d assess how awake and well-rested I felt and decide in many instances that I wouldn’t bother.

But this is silly. The lutz is not easy, but I also know it’s within my capabilities. I know that even when I’m exhausted, I can jump up and make a full turn in the air, so I’m not without the energy to practice the lutz. Today I managed to land it eventually – not smoothly and naturally in a way that feels easy, but this ironically makes me feel a little better about it, because I’m recognizing it as a challenge of arranging my body correctly rather than a confluence of magical conditions.

Programming

I’ve resumed programming as a practice (instead of as a job) because I’m currently unemployed again (yay for free time! and eek for job-searching!). The co-founders of the company I was at decided to shrink back down to the two of them, so I’m actually facing technical interviews for the first time ever. I feel like I’m getting my comeuppance for sidling into my first programming job without interviewing at all.

It’s not superstitious of me to assert that I think best in the mornings; however, it is silly when I put off working on difficult algorithms for the sole reason that it’s after 6pm. I’ve noticed that when I properly commit to working on a difficult problem in the evenings, one of two outcomes arises – either I end up solving the problem and deciding it wasn’t that difficult after all, or I go to bed deciding it’s difficult but find it easier the next day.

In Conclusion

I find that it helps to hold two beliefs in my head to overcome the desire for ideal conditions:

  1. The outcome of practicing doesn’t matter. When I’m in a specific instance of practicing, it’s easy to start thinking that I’m on a path to something, and that the results in practice have consequences for how well I can eventually accomplish my goal. But that’s not really true, and I can only practice well when I believe that the results don’t matter. Try and fail at the lutz? Doesn’t matter, it’s just one attempt and the bruise will go away eventually.
  2. My goal is within my capabilities. Persevering through uncertainty is possible and can lead to good things, but it can also lead to wasted time and overlooking better things to do. Plus persevering through certainty is easier, so I try to believe in certainty whenever possible – i.e. “with practice, I’m 100% sure I can achieve X.” With skating challenges, I remind myself that as a healthy adult, I’m not nearing my physical limitations at all. With programming challenges, I remind myself that I’m a smart person with a stellar IQ and SAT scores (embarrassing to admit, but it really helps).

If you check the date of my previous blog post, you’ll notice that I’m also an ideal-conditions blogger – unwilling to post unless a wide range of conditions are met (I have to believe the writing is simultaneously high quality, fully considered, interesting, and non-offensive). I don’t know if I care enough about blogging to dedicate myself to a writing practice, but if I do, I’ll apologize in advance for the plethora of low-quality, half-formed, boring and offensive posts to come.

 

 

What it is

Hobby of the Month is something I did in 2012 and 2013, and I find myself mentioning it whenever people ask about how I came across the variety of activities I’ve dabbled in. The concept is to choose one activity each month, and then devote about an hour every day to working on it.

By default, I’ve always had a number of activities, but I had trouble committing to anything long enough to make real improvement. A month was a good choice for length of commitment, being long enough to develop some competency but short enough to not be intimidating, and daily was the logical choice of frequency for developing a habit. Without a habit, it’s easy to forgo doing anything productive in favor of watching television or passively ingesting news.

Why I started

(Note – I had a lot of trouble writing this part, and I concluded that it’s all sort of related Marx’s theory of alienation. So if you remember the bit about alienation of the worker from himself, you could probably skip my reasoning.)

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling busy, but it was only when I started working that I became aware of how time was passing (e.g. 60 hours a week at work) and how time scarcity prevented me from feeling fully myself.

Many people come to define their identities through work and relegate their other interests to the category of “cool things I loved to do when I was younger and had time.” As much as I believe jobs in finance and consulting can be exciting, educational, and meaningful, the demand for time can be absurd. (And I know, I wasn’t even a banker!) It frustrates me that society funnels so many intelligent graduates into careers that discourage personal development outside of the job, simply by not providing much time.

But this only happens because many people seem to accept that it’s okay to put other aspects of life “on hold” – hobbies, relationships, etc. – for devotion to a job that should lead to a lucrative career. Implicit in this is an assumption that there isn’t much societal value in encouraging individuals to maintain a diverse array of interests. After all, the simplified world of microeconomics recommends we seek comparative advantage and economies of scale.

Some people are fortunate (or have accomplished enough) that the work they do professionally is truly, purely what they want to do, i.e. they would do it without pay and have little desire to do anything else. For most of us, we aren’t fulfilled by our professional work alone, and shelving parts of ourselves to focus on singular goals can only yield temporary benefits. Long term, our lives and work benefit if we clearly see our motivations for living and we feel like our actions fit into being a whole person. For me, this required a sense that I was gaining competence in a variety of activities, which hobby of the month fulfilled.

Why I stopped

In 2013 I started playing piano as a hobby of the month, but I found near the end of the month that I wanted to keep working on this instead of choosing something new. I kept playing piano every day for a few more months, transitioned to photography in the summer, and then started learning to sing towards the end of the year. In 2014, I also started figure skating, which still occupies the majority of my activity bandwidth.

I didn’t realize this when I started, but hobby of the month became practice for how to manage and evaluate a long list of potentially interesting activities. Having this schedule trained me to be open to discovering new activities, and also helped me see the value of committing to daily practice, even briefly. Now that I have this awareness, it no longer feels necessary to have a monthly schedule – I’m fully capable of finding new activities, committing regular time to them to improve, and deciding when to put something aside in favor of something else.


 

Hobbies I Remember

Yoga – Aside from attending yoga classes, I also had Yoga Anatomy as a reference – this book doesn’t suggest yoga routines, but for every pose, it has a thorough description and diagrams detailing muscles involved.

Meditation – Honestly, I feel like this is so variable that I sometimes forget why anyone bothers to define it. It doesn’t really matter if your eyes are open or closed, if you want to sit or move around, if you want to pay attention to one thing or try to notice your thoughts drifting. Just be aware and something good might happen. Focusing isn’t the same as meditation, but it’s somewhat related and this book was interesting. Later on, DevBootcamp recommended Search Inside Yourself, which was also a light but useful read.

Guitar – William Leavitt’s book is a pretty good linear introduction. As a former violinist, it’s so much fun learning instruments where frets keep you from being grossly out of tune. What’s the word for this, where some instruments allow an infinite number of in-between notes and some have a limited number of notes because of frets, keys, etc. (I want to say “quantized” like atomic systems but that’s not used by other people)?

Photography – Tony Northrup’s Digital Photography book is the most popular on amazon, and for good reason. Great overview, and his passion for photography shines through – the guy set up his backyard specifically to photograph birds! I love that.

Writing “meaningful” things – there wasn’t a stylistic restriction on this, and I mostly wrote in a journal or wrote a lengthy email to a friend. By making myself write for a certain length of time, I realized that initially mundane observations would turn into valuable insights – hidden assumptions, unexpected connections, and unrealized meaning – and that’s when I would feel satisfied that I’d written something meaningful.

Getting rid of things – I was inspired to minimalize after reading part of Thoreau’s Walden. I kept a blog about this month of choosing one “thing” (often a group of similar things) to remove from my life every day; it was a refreshing and rewarding exercise that changed my attitude towards acquiring objects.

Programming in python – I don’t remember getting too far in this (particularly compared to the education I got at DBC), but working with Learn Python the Hard Way was a nice reminder that I liked programming. Looking at the table of contents now, it still seems like a decently thorough introduction from syntax to setting up a basic server.

Learning French – I remember seeing many web sites recommend Tell Me More as even better than Rosetta Stone, since Tell Me More takes advantage of adults’ knowledge of grammar rather than Rosetta Stone’s childlike attitude of starting from the very beginning. I thought it was a decent system, but this company was actually acquired by Rosetta Stone in late 2013! So I can’t tell whether the software I was using is still available. During this month I also used Duolingo, tried to read Harry Potter A L’Ecole des Sorciers and of course, Le Petit Prince.

Piano – I followed the lessons in Alfred’s Adult Piano book and also played from books like The Best Songs Ever (how could I not buy something this hyperbolic?), Les Miserables, and Wicked.

Among all the activities I’ve tried in recent years, figure skating is probably the one that’s changed me most. It’s so strange – I wouldn’t have expected to fall in love with a pursuit that generally targets kids, remains entrenched in unfeminist stereotypes, and leaves my legs constantly bruised. But since I started (almost a year ago!), it’s never occurred to me to take a break or change hobbies. Why do I like this? (Why do I like any of my activities?)

Living means expanding your reality

Skating is really, really fun – beyond fun. It’s something else, to escape the normal confines of friction. (For those of you in Chicago, this winding skating path should be opening soon. I’ve often dreamed about having icy paths as an alternative to sidewalks.)

I remember a few mornings in New York where I was completely alone at City Ice – there’s an intense quiet floating in the air that permits an unusual awareness of how skating sounds (whooshy, scrapy, scratchy, or a number of other things). It was one of the most meditative and beautiful spaces I ever found in New York City, maybe anywhere. Otherworldly.

Transcendence comes from discipline

Often it’s not easy to motivate yourself to visit another world (especially at 5am), because the full feeling of being there is impossible to recall on the outside. When I’m not skating, all I have is a phantom, symbolic/linguistic memory that skating is magical, so it’s important for me to pre-commit to going to the rink on a schedule. It’s a little odd to pursue transcendence practically, but many of these seeming dichotomies aren’t real anyway (e.g. creativity and structure, inspiration and dullness, etc.).

I’ve also realized from skating that putting in consistent practice tends to result in inconsistent progress (inconsistent practice tends to result in consistently no progress). I guess I always knew this factually, but learning to figure skate (maybe combined with getting older) has tangibly reinforced this. There are weeks of struggle where every attempt at something feels like potential suicide, and then finally moments where your spins stay on the sweet spot and you feel the rhythm in your jumps (then fall over again).

Being Flamingo-Like and Other Physical Benefits

I noticed after a few months of skating that I’d become much more adept at standing on subways unassisted (i.e. not clinging to poles, bars, or other people). How hygienic! I’ve also noticed that shaving my legs in the shower is significantly easier (not that I’m making any judgments about whether people of any gender should shave). It’s freeing to realize you could maybe function pretty happily on one leg.

But besides the balance training (which adults can really use as they age), I’ve found that I’m now in the best shape of my life simply by directing all of my physical pursuits towards being a better figure skater. It has such a diverse set of requirements – balance, flexibility, strength (and all over, too! It’s not easy holding up your arms for an hour), cardiovascular endurance, etc. – that I don’t have to think or plan much to get a good mix of exercise.

All-Over Intelligence and “becoming a better person”

(in quotes because I claim to do many things that make me a better person. I should publish a long list of things I do regularly that make me a worse person to balance it out.)

Learning to skate has made me realize how futile a goal of “staying in shape” can feel. I used to go to the gym in college, and while I didn’t find it to be a negative experience, I also never felt a sense of accomplishment or even considered that exercising should correspond with a sense of accomplishment and self-betterment.

A large part of the appeal of figure skating is that it’s helping me with my kinesthetic intelligence, which is easily my weakest intelligence “modality“. I have a long history of getting lost in dance steps and avoiding games with throwing and catching (reminds me of this), so training to improve my body awareness and motor control is extremely valuable to me.

Kinesthetic intelligence training is a goal of most athletic activities, but I think figure skating is unique in its level of technicality. Relative to other sports, accuracy and adherence to patterns is more important than pursuing a superlative (like going faster, or further, or whatever-er), and there are lists of skills accompanied by descriptive instructions on how to do things correctly. So in that way, I don’t have to depend purely on kinesthetic intelligence, i.e. watching what other people are doing and trying to feel it in my body – it’s also possible to develop a physical understanding through listening, researching and thinking. I think this can be an avenue to understanding most athletic activities, but the structure isn’t necessarily in place to teach them this way, whereas the technical nature of figure skating almost requires it.

My advice for any adults interested in trying it out:

  • Most rinks have some sort of “learn to skate” class for adults, where you won’t feel out of place if you have trouble standing up in ice skates.
  • This is a list of levels and requirements from one of the major figure skating organizations: ISI requirements; there are decent youtube videos for most of the early skills.
  • Read some blog posts from adult skaters – there are a few that I follow on feedly and find inspiring:
  • Contact me and I’ll go out with you! Particularly if you’re in Portland, OR (because that’s right, I’ve finally moved!).