I’m scared. Seriously, I am. Well scared is a very strong word. Maybe “anxious” is a better fit. Hopefully by the time you are reading this, I’ll be less worried. I really hope so because this feeling is not fun. What’s making me so nervous? I have to do something I don’t feel qualified to do and it’s kind of a big deal. I don’t feel like I can screw it up. It’s not life or death, it’s just that I made a commitment to do a job. I just didn’t realize that this commitment was going to be such a challenge (It turned out to be) or that it would come so quickly (it did). I can pull it off, but it’s not going to be easy and I suspect I’ll screw up a great deal along the way. The screwing up part doesn’t fit well with me. If I am going to do a job, I don’t want to do crappy work. I try to live my life by doing the best job I know how to do. A friend of mine once used to summarize things by saying: “The thing of it is”. I’m going to use that phrase because it seems to fit. The thing of it is that this whole situation is putting me out of my comfort zone. When I reflected on it, as much as I’m feeling so icky about it right now, I know in the grand scheme of things, being out of my comfort zone is a very good place for me to be.
So why am I feeling all out of sorts? When I was interviewing for my new job there were some subject areas in my discipline that I have very limited experience with. Ironically, if you go by the book, I’m qualified to teach them. My formal degree is in Information Technology. In higher education there are Information Technology programs and there are Computer Science programs. Computer Science focuses on areas related to designing and building computers and, more importantly for this discussion, computer programs. Information Technology is all about operations. It’s related to maintaining and troubleshooting computers, networks and databases systems. There is a ton of overlap between the two disciplines, so much so that either discipline is qualified to teach all computer related classes, at least they are at the community college level. This makes sense as a typical Information Technology program includes many basic Computer Science classes.
My institution, like every other certified institution in the country, has to balance off the formal qualifications of its staff with the practical realities. Plainly spoken, they don’t have enough resources to pay for all the instructors they would like with expertise in every unique sub-discipline. They have to take advantage of the fact that they are formally allowed to use multi-disciplinary instructors as per their institutional certification guidelines. For my department, an instructor with a Computer Science degree or experience would have to teach some Information Technology aligned classes and vice versa with Information Technology professionals teaching Computer Science classes. This is where I wound up getting assigned some computer science classes.
I have to admit, as it was an intro class, the concepts were very easy. The problem with programming is that it’s literally a different language. Unfortunately, you’re not talking to another human being. You’re talking to a computer when you write code. That means there is zero margin for error. It’s easy to understand what you want to say or more specifically what you want the computer to do. Saying it in a way that the computer can read it is another story. If you’re talking to a human being via the written language, they will understand your message if you miss a comma or an apostrophe. If you miss something like that in a computer program it will just crash. It takes years to master the syntax but like all languages, when you have it down, you can be tremendously creative and productive. That was the one thing I noticed about the instructor who was teaching the course that I was in. He had it down. As he was explaining it, he was pointing out the voluminous number of common syntax errors that could trip up a new coder. As I worked my way through the exercises in the course, I realized I was making a ton of errors which took me hours to debug. The current course instructor was able to spot my mistakes instantly. It was this skill that was making me the most anxious. I know when I am grading the students, I’m going to have to spot the issues quickly. I’m sure after a year or two of doing it, I will get very good at it as I’ll get the troubleshooting steps down. In most disciplines, practice really does make perfect. It’s that first year that I’m very nervous about. I don’t want to look like an idiot, or provide anything less than the absolute best education possible for the students.
So in the next nine months I’ll have to figure out a solution that will get me up to speed before day one of the class. I’ve been brainstorming different ideas. One of which is to record all the lectures in advance. I could write the scripts, record myself, and then put the videos together as an evergreen resource for all the students who are learning how to code. Then when I’m actually lecturing on the topic, It won’t be the first time I’m presenting the information. Lecturing to a camera with unlimited time and the opportunity to go back and correct my errors is much less anxiety-inducing than presenting it to a live group during a regular class period. Hopefully when I am ‘live’ in the classroom the practice in front of the camera will allow me to feel more relaxed. I suspect the more comfortable I am with the information the better I’ll be able to teach it.
Another solution is to take the script writing to the next level. I could use all the presentation materials, and other online sources of information, and build my own personalized text book out of them complete with exercises and coding examples. This has the benefit of allowing me to better understand how to logically present the information inclusive of using the correct language.
As much as this preparation is a mountain of work, it’s a tremendously positive exercise. The effort to find a solution is forcing myself to develop a new skill, which is to learn how to teach a technically complicated subject that heretofore has been a mystery to me. It’s very easy to go from learning how to teach one programming language to learning how to teach virtually all of them. More holistically this experience will also allow me to better engage more complicated subjects to which I have little to no exposure.
This new task, something you don’t see too often in education, is expanding me as a person. Let me correct myself, you do see it in education, but to really put yourself out of your comfort zone it typically has to be something you go after. The individual who wants to try the new job or move up the ladder in their career is the same person who likes expanding themselves by reaching for things outside of their comfort zone.
On the other side of the employment coin, the private sector, you see people being pushed out of their comfort zone much more often. Companies often pride themselves on being flexible with new initiatives and moving people around. The more people get moved around the greater chance they will be moved into an area which is outside of their comfort zone. I have one friend who has had six different jobs in the same company within two years. He was demoted, promoted, and moved laterally. It had nothing to do with his performance in any of the jobs. His company was purchased by private equity and he was rolling with all of the changes brought on by the new corporate overlords. The negative of the moves included a never ending uncertainty in if he would be able to stay employed with that company. The positive was each and every move caused him to learn new skills, meet new people, and see the company’s operations from slightly different vantage points. If he continues to survive at the company he’ll become increasingly more valuable to that company as well as others across the sector in which he currently works.
In most cases, I believe that the desire to grow by forcing yourself to be uncomfortable is a rare personality trait. More often than not, like my friend, or my own experience, we are pushed into growing as a person by forces outside of our internal motivations. I’ve mostly discussed being pushed out of our comfort zone in more of a professional setting, but of course it could be unexpected life events that are the catalyst for personal growth. It could be a change in our interpersonal relationships, a change in our stage of life, a medical issue, or any other number of challenges which force us to learn how to grow and thrive with a new reality. As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I think that’s an apt saying for life events which push us out of our comfort zone.
As I look at the big picture, one ironic worry is that if and when I ever achieve financial freedom, I’m concerned that I will lose this opportunity to grow as an individual by being forced out of my comfort zone. After all, the whole purpose of financial freedom is to be able to do what you want and not be beholden to a job or career demands. Without a boss telling us we have to do something we are uncomfortable with or lose our job, then why would we do it? The only motivation I can think of is commitment to others. The more you commit to things that you have little experience in, the more opportunities you have to grow. It’s almost like you become your own boss demanding more and more which keeps you growing and growing as an individual.
For now, I’m employed and challenged to grow into something new as part of that job. As I said, even though I know it’s a very good thing, I’m still feeling anxious about the new teaching and learning tasks set before me. I know I’m not alone as there are innumerable professionals who are pushed out of their comfort zone every day. I think about them when I feel the butterflies in my stomach and I wish I could do more to help them prepare for the challenges they face. As I write this I just thought of another option to help me get up to speed faster. As practice for my new teaching gig I could code a website about the benefits of being out of one’s comfort zone. If I do it right, it could be a win-win for everyone, especially for my new students.
Coda: After all my training was done, I was informed that I will be teaching in a completely different area more related to my background. I won’t be using the programming skills I learned, but I’m thankful that by being pushed out of my comfort zone, I’ve definitely grown as a person and an instructor. Now I said that the new subjects I’ll be teaching are more related to my background, but I’m not an expert in these areas either. I guess this means I get to be out of my comfort zone all over again.