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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.

“This is The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done”

I’ll start with a quick story.

I work with students at One Month, and we do a lot of one-on-one sessions where I can troubleshoot common problems that people have when building apps.

One day, a student reached out who was having trouble with images not working correctly in their Rails app. I had seen a few errors that could happen at this point in the project, so I was confident that I could get this fixed. I followed up and we scheduled a screen sharing session.

As the session progressed, I started to panic. This was a new problem, one I had never seen before, and none of my usual fixes were working. Over the next 30 minutes I tried several different things, walking through some more obscure troubleshooting techniques. As a last measure, I decided it would be best to have the student continue through the lesson with the code not working and we’d reconvene at a later date.

I felt defeated.

That’s when I saw the problem: we were missing the image rendering code. Once we added this bit of code, the project worked and the student was back on track. Hooray!

As I walked to the train that night, I replayed the session in my head, trying to figure out what happened. In that moment, I realized something about the learning process:

You are either doing something easy because you’ve done it before, or it’s the hardest thing that you’ve ever done, because it’s new.

When faced with a new problem, something you have never seen before, it will always be the hardest problem you’ve ever faced.

During that screenshare, I faced, at that point in my life, the hardest problem that I ever had to face, and it was new. It wasn’t what I had expected and nothing was working.

I had no clue what I needed to do and no idea where to go.

I think that as learners, we often forget this idea. We forget that we are forging new pathways in our personal atlas. It is in these moments that we have to accept that the problem is hard. It’s hard because we don’t have answers, and we don’t know how to figure it out yet. Not only do we not know the solution, we don’t know how to go about figuring it out. This feels really frustrating. But that’s the whole point: to challenge ourselves to find those answers.

The point is learning.

In 2015, Omies decided that we would make personal resolutions. We even went so far as to write them down and share them publicly so you all could hold us accountable. My resolution was to make more music. I share new work and music links every week on my public Trello board. Every week I sit down with the goal of “drawing a musical sketch.”

It has been really hard. It’s hard because it’s so far from where I want to be, and being bad at something for a while isn’t always the most fun place to be. When you’re learning, there’s a lot of frustration. Most people give up when it gets hard, but there’s something that happens when you figure it out. When I get frustrated with my weekly musical sketch or want to quit I think back to my screenshare:

“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, until it’s easy.”