the importance of encouragement.

July 28, 2020

It's funny to think about, but there was a time in my life where I wasn't planning on being a developer, or even working a little bit with code. For a long time, I wanted to be a lawyer, and then an architect, and then a doctor (until I found out that I get faint-y around needles), and then an engineer, which I ended up going to college for. I got into Clemson University's engineering program, absolutely bent on becoming an electrical engineer to work on building a bigger and better power grid. It wasn't halfway into the first half of the first semester of my freshman year when I figured out—rather quickly—that something was wrong.

I was the worst first-year engineering student ever.

I didn't enjoy my engineering classes, even though it seemed like most of the other people in there could at least stand them, and my college roommates/suitemates could tell you, I was horrible at them. I was the kind of engineering student who would accidentally build a bridge upside down and backward (the current state of my codebases doesn't reflect this, I promise). So I launched into something akin to a crisis: I had been prepping for years to go to school to be an engineer, but I hated everything about engineering.

To make a long story short, I ended up finding my home in the Computer Science department, which was definitely not where I thought I would end up.

So the question is, why? Why did I decide to take a leap of faith and try programming, something that I had no passion for (at the time) and no experience in? To answer that, we need to go further back than my freshman year in college, all the way to the middle of my time in high school.

a super delayed thank-you note.

Our scene opens on a tiny high school in my hometown, focusing on high-school Alex, complete with pants that were way too baggy and a haircut that looked way too close to Justin Bieber's first haircut. Every year, we were required to take a certain number of electives to fill out our class schedule, and I had to make a tough decision about my last remaining open slot. Because of the way that my class schedule had worked out that year, there were only two electives available that would have counted towards graduation. I could either take a year of weightlifting or take a new "Intro to Web Development" course. I know this may shock and astound most of you (sarcasm very intended), but weightlifting was not my strong suit (pun also very intended), so I decided on the web development class.

At the time, I had no interest in coding whatsoever. I had tried to build a website a few years earlier with a service called "Tripod," but got frustrated a few clicks in and gave up. But, sitting in an air-conditioned computer lab seemed like a much better idea at the time than lifting weights right before lunch, so I went for it.

I don't remember a ton about that class, but here's what I do remember:

  • Our textbook was Web Design for Dummies
  • We learned HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and PHP
  • Except we didn't really learn JavaScript because we weren't allowed to write JavaScript on the school computers. The IT guy was convinced that we would give the computers viruses if we used JavaScript.
  • It was a super interesting class, and somehow a lot easier than building a Tripod site

From the outside, this probably looked like a fairly standard, but interesting, elective class. But for me, it meant something more. A lot more. And it took me a long time to really be able to wrap my mind around that.

The teacher (who will remain nameless, but hopefully will know who they are if this ever reaches them) actually seemed invested in what I was doing, in what I was building. I know that having an engaged teacher doesn't sound like a massive achievement, but as anyone who is going or has gone through the education system can agree, that doesn't always happen. But he was more than engaged in our work—in my work—he kept pushing me to go above and beyond and was always astounded when I would come back having built something cool. And I'm not so naive to think that I was actually building something good; I just really thought so at the time, which was great!

Most importantly, though, this teacher acknowledged that I was good at building websites. Even at this ridiculously rudimentary level, and even though I was definitely not that good at it, he encouraged me and built me up.

Flash back to my mid-first-semester-of-freshman-year crisis: I was still at a loss about what to do. Engineering obviously wasn't for me, but I didn't really have any direction, either. People kept saying, "do something you're good at and want to be better at," but that wasn't really an easy thing to think about for me. I chronically suffer from thinking that I'm not good enough at the things I do (which I now know has a name: Imposter Syndrome), so it was hard for me to put a finger on something I knew I would enjoy and be good at.

So I started searching backward from that moment, trying to find any scrap of an idea that I could latch onto. It wasn't an immediate "ah-ha!" moment, but eventually, I found myself thinking back to that web development class. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the encouragement I received from that teacher, and how I was told, very intentionally, that I was good at web development. I had found my idea, and I knew what I was going to do.

Recalling that encouragement and how it felt to be individually acknowledged gave me a boost to my courage, and I decided to take the plunge into software. And I've never looked back.

So this is where I still have a hard time putting what I think into words, but here goes. For my teacher, if you ever somehow end up reading this, thank you. I'm sorry I haven't said it sooner, but hopefully it's apparent that I wasn't trying to avoid saying this because I was scared or too shy, but that I didn't (and honestly, still don't) really know what to say. Your encouragement and intentionality probably seemed like something so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of your day teaching and coaching, but to me, it means more than you will probably ever know. I wish there were more eloquent words that I knew how to say, but thank you. Thank you for giving me a career, a community, and the life I have today, because, without your genuine interest and encouragement, I definitely wouldn't be where I am now.

the takeaway.

Alright, back to business for the 99.999999% of people who read this and aren't my high school web development teacher. What's the point here? In my mind, there are three big things to take away from my story:

little things can turn into big things.

The littlest things can mean the most. I've experienced it personally, and I've worked with enough teens, college students, interns, you name it, to know that I'm not the only one who experiences this. Most of us will never really know the impact we have on a person, because our impact on most people is primarily through the little things.

genuine encouragement can go a long way.

The world can be a really negative place, especially right now, in the midst of a million different things going on. At some point, though, it's our responsibility to encourage and lift up everyone we meet. Everyone has skills, talents, and innate ability, but not everyone is told that they have these things. For most of us, we're our own worst critic, so having an outside source take a real interest in us and affirm the things that we're good at can be a massive stepping-stone on the way to accepting ourselves for who we really are.

never be afraid to speak up.

This goes for a lot of things right now, but I mean something very specific. Why is it so hard to speak up in affirmation of someone else? It's not hard for everybody, for sure, but for a lot of us, myself included, we freeze up when reaching out to people. This ties into the last point about genuine encouragement, but if we don't take steps to be actively encouraging people, we may be missing an opportunity to affect that person's life in an extremely positive way.

I see this a lot, especially in tech. So often someone will build a project, record a video, show off a design, and people just trash it. I saw this happen when Tailwind UI launched—someone replied to the launch announcement tweet by talking about how the library was garbage because they were clearly discriminating against people because of their lack of baked-in accessibility options. The project was literally a few hours old, and the creators were already asking for help from people who were more knowledgeable than themselves in that area.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't critique because, without that, nothing would ever get better. What I am saying, though, is that we should be as quick (if not quicker) to point out the good things that have been done as we are to draw attention to all of the bad.

So what do you think? How important is encouragement to you and your story? Let me know on Twitter!

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