The Monster Under The Bed

August 09, 2020

This week I was talking with someone at work and they seemed to be stuck trying to wrap their head around a new idea. I asked whether they spent time watching videos or googling. They mumbled a bit about not knowing much about it and then veered into a different option. This got me thinking about what I used to be like. How I used to be intimidated when I didn't know something. This will probably only be applicable to a certain type of person so bear with me. Or completely ignore this.

Lots of people and cultures have some variation of the monster of the bed. Basically, when they’re a child they’re scared to go to sleep because there is a monster under the bed. They haven’t seen the monster but believe it’s there and are too scared to look. The fear of the unknown is so much worse than anything that could actually be there. There are many approaches to help a child (or adult) to cope with this fear and overcome it. In software, I think this manifests itself as being scared of a new tool or technology.

Early on in my career, I used to be terrified when someone talked about a technology I wasn’t familiar with. I remember someone on my team started talking about some new software thingy I hadn’t heard of (I think it was containers or microservices? It was a while ago). I had no clue what it was and was worried I’d be “found out”. I started trying to pick up some general buzzwords from conversations and repeat them to sound smart. It worked (I think because no one ever called me out.. maybe they were too polite) so I did it again when the next new tech thingy came around. It was a bad habit and took a while to unlearn. The worst part is that it robbed me of many years of learning new things.

I don’t remember what actually changed but at some point, I just stopped faking it. I learned to say "I don't know" and stop pretending I did know. I'd keep asking questions until I understood.

I also decided to start a list of all the things I heard about during my day. I’d go down the list when I had some spare time and learn the new thing until I felt I understood it. I’d cross it off the list and then keep going. Sometimes I’d dive deeper.

It felt so much better and liberating! More than that, I enjoyed it so much that when the list got low I’d go seek out the next thing. It started what is now a nice tradition of using certain times during the week for breadth learning (for me it’s mornings with coffee before I start my day).

When you find yourself scared of a new tool, try and consider what it’s like when someone else asks you about something. Do you mock them or think less of them? If you do, you’re a tool. But for most people, you’re more likely to want to be helpful and provide resources or explain it directly. That’s how people perceive you when you don’t know something. Not as an imposter or "dumb" for not knowing.

My goal here is to hopefully show someone else that there’s no need to be scared of the technology you don’t yet know. The difference between someone who knows a thing and someone who doesn’t is a lot less time invested than you think. I wish I understood that when I started my career. Next time there’s a monster under the bed, get to know it and you’ll realize it wasn’t so scary after all.