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9 Great Lessons on Learning From Ancient Philosophers

Give a man a program, frustrate him for a day. Teach a man to program, frustrate him for a lifetime.” — Chris Oliver

“Son of a …!” — Alex Miles Younger

“…Welcome to programming!” — Lee Matos

Have you ever been frustrated by something beyond belief? Wanted to quit, give up, or walk away? You’re not alone. This is the plight of learners everywhere.

Programming, coding, and problem solving are all very similar in nature: get into a frustrating pickle, and figure out how to get out of it. The art of learning involves becoming very familiar with the process of figuring it out when things go wrong.

Our Python course kicked off last week, and we’ve had students in the office working night and day to solve problems and figure out technical issues for the first round of students taking the class. The first month of a course launch is always the hardest, because no matter what you do — no matter how much we prepare as teachers and as educators — there are always hundreds of student questions beyond what we expect.

Yet as teachers and learners both, we see this process happen time and time again. In fact, it’s how this company started in the first place.

Late-night jam sessions with students working on our latest Python course.

One Month Rails was born out of a deep frustration

One Month was born out of a deep frustration in learning how to code — Mattan was frustrated at what was available in coding education, and wanted to be able to build his project himself. So, he sat himself in a room for 30 days and muscled through the code, eventually teaching himself the basics of rails and figuring out how to become a developer on his own. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, and there were days when he had no idea if what he was learning would help him actually build something that he wanted to build.

As lifelong learners, it’s our job to strike a balance between staying motivated and sticking through the frustration to solve the puzzle. Ryan Holiday, in his recent book The Obstacle is The Way, reminds us of both Buddhist and Stoic philosophers that embrace obstacles as our greatest teachers. By changing what feels difficult or arduous into a metaphor of our greatest teacher, we can become great learners.

The obstacle is the way: 9 reminders about lifelong learning

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic Philosopher, reminds us that obstacles are beneficial to our learning and growth across all areas of our lives:

“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aeralius

From this, there are several key reminders on our own quests for learning — whether we’re learning how to built startups, create projects, or write our first line of code. This philosophy created the foundation for the book The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday — a great book to read if you’re ever frustrated or stuck. Here are nine key lessons from Ryan Holiday about how obstacles can actually become instrumental in our quest for learning:

1: Failure can be a benefit.

Failing at first forces us to pursue different paths and consider different alternatives. This increases our diversity and flexibility as builders and coders, making us more resilient in the long term.

2: There is often more than one way to solve a problem.

Problems can be addressed in many different ways, it’s up to us to figure out how to approach problem-solving more broadly, not just know the answers to specific questions. The best way to get better at problem-solving is to continue to tackle problems as part of your everyday life.

“The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.” — Ryan Holiday

3: Obstacles teach us as much about our inner workings as our outer world.

Sometimes the true obstacle isn’t external, but it’s what’s inside of us — our stubbornness, frustration, inflexibility, or fear… The process of embracing challenges teaches us about our own reactions and scripts as much as anything else.

4: Obstacles make you angry… which can be a great thing.

I remember the time someone said I wasn’t good enough to do a particular thing. Boy, did that piss me off … and make me want to prove them wrong. So what did I do? I went out and did it, probably ten times better than I would have done in the first place. That initial obstacle — the person who said I couldn’t do it — actually inspired me to become even greater.

5: Obstacles remind us to stay present.

“Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead,” writes Holiday. When we think too much about the problems piling up in the future, we forget to pay attention to the things immediately in front of us. Problem-solving is a zen practice.

6: We apply meaning to a puzzle, not the other way around.

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” When you’re solving a puzzle or working through a problem set, you are not a good or bad person; you’re just a person.

7: Things are worth doing well: it’s not just about getting the right answer.

Getting the right answer is not the same as working through the process well. “Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well.”

8: It is the obstacle that carves out our integrity, not the other way around.

“Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive,” writes Holiday. Building One Month was born out of problem that needed solving, not a simple dream that fell into place one day. Your work deserves your attention, and working through the process will open up more doors and opportunities than avoiding obstacles altogether.

9: Finally, on (not) quitting and frustration:

“It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life — that’s persistence.”

As teachers and educators, we don’t quit when something doesn’t go right — we keep testing, trying, and building until we find the best way to do something. Whether it’s a piece of code, a way for people to get in touch with us, or a new course launch, we’re always learning and growing. We don’t do this in the absence of obstacles; rather, we use all of the problems that come up as ways to keep learning, growing, and getting better.

As students and as teachers, understanding how to learn is about philosophy. The idea that obstacles prevent us from achieving our views fails to account for how valuable obstacles are in shaping who we are and how we approach our work. As we work through challenges, we develop strength, resilience, and even confidence and calm. Through the pursuit itself, you uncover ideas about yourself and the world that will serve you well in the future.

Perhaps, in fact, the obstacle itself is the way, and not the other way around.

Learning Hack: The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoros are a simple learning and productivity technique. We all get burnt out or spend time doing stuff that’s not really effective or valuable, right?

Take a kitchen timer (a Pomodoro timer) and set it to 25 minutes.

Work on one thing for those 25 minutes. If you’re able to do that, when the 25 minutes are up make a little X on a piece of paper, like a post-it, and take a 5 minute break where you’re NOT thinking about work. Go walk around, or drink a cup of water, or use the bathroom, or stretch a little bit.

Then decide what you’re going to work on next and do another Pomodoro.

After about four Pomodoros cycles (with 5 minute breaks in between each), you should take a longer break of 20 minutes or so.

The goal will be to hit a certain number of Pomodoros in a day, like 8 or so, and then hit that number again or more the next day.

If you get really distracted during a Pomodoro (like you end up spending a few minutes on Facebook) then the Pomodoro doesn’t count and you have to start over.

The Pomodoro Technique accomplishes a few things:

  1. It gives you an accepted relaxation / bucket time. Then you don’t feel bad taking a break. In fact, studies show that breaks are important for optimal learning and focus. If you don’t take breaks, you might not be as productive as you could be.
  2. It lets you recalibrate what you’re working on every 25 minutes. I know that for me I often get unproductive when I’m working on the same thing for a long-time because I start focusing on stuff that isn’t important but tricking myself into thinking its super important. (Have you ever found yourself spending more than 15 minutes agonizing over the formatting of a powerpoint slide?) The more often you step back and check in with the self, the more you’ll feel like you actually worked on the tasks that you were supposed to.
  3. It provides a small, but reasonable challenge for you to maintain focus. You can defer distractions to a time that is at most 25 minutes away.
  4. It sets a personal challenge for yourself. By quantifying how many Pomodoros you’ve accomplished during the day, you’ll naturally feel a desire to at least match that never the next day.
  5. You feel better at the end of the day. Most of us spend way too much time hunched at our desk and then we feel like shit at the end of the day. It’s usually because we haven’t been physically active, we didn’t drink enough water, or stretch enough throughout the day. These 5 minute breaks are perfect for that. I find that at the end of a day when I practice pomodoros, I usually feel awesome.

So how can you get started?

Well it’s as simple as getting a timer, a piece of paper, and a pen, really. But there are a few things I’d recommend:

  • There’s an app for that. Pomodoro Timer for the iPhone is a good one. There are a lot of fancy apps out there that track all your Pomodoros and are adjustable and whatnot, but this app does all I really want. It vibrates when your 25 minutes are up, and lets you pick whether you want to take a short or a long break when that’s done.
    (My friend Jon notes that there’s a cool desktop alternative called E.gg Timer, which has a pomodoro option at this url: http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro)
  • Get a notebook, a day calendar, or even just a post-it at your desk to track your Pomodoros. This will actually be a good reminder at the start of your day that you should be doing Pomodoros in the first place.
  • While you’re at it, buy a nice pen.

Hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have a learning technique you’d like to share? Or do you think Pomodoro is a stupid idea? Post about it in the comments below.