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Insights / Professional Development / It’s Okay to Be Different

January 11, 2017

It’s Okay to Be Different

4 mins read

Having different ideas and opinions, shared by no one but yourself, can be lonely and lead you to wonder how and where those ideas and opinions fit. For a career switcher, for example, it can be very intimidating to join a new field with a very different background from your new peers. And for someone who starts a new career in a less-traditional way – such as a coding boot camp – it is especially easy to feel out of place among the throngs of people who learned and practiced programming the same way and practice it the same way.

Feel Discouraged? You’re Not Alone!

I was initially discouraged from pursuing technology because I was not finding success the same way other people in the field did. I struggled to teach myself code through online tutorials and eBooks, which people advised as being the best tools from their personal experiences. The constant message I was bombarded with was that not only should everyone learn to code but doing so was “so easy.” This further discouraged me as I started to wonder if I was just not cut out for it since it wasn’t easy for me to pick up. Not only did I learn a better way for me to learn code, but I learned that my struggle with “The Way” to do things was not unique.

At RubyConf this year, I attended Sara Simon’s excellent talk about Language Fluency. She spoke about how she was encouraged to learn to code through projects, as that was how the developers who were already in the field had learned it. The problem with this was she wasn’t like the other developers and knew that project-based learning was not the best way for her to learn. Not only is it frustrating to try to learn in a way that doesn’t suit you, but it’s dangerous for a team to be full of people who learn and, likely, think the same way. It can be further discouraging to join the field or even to join a team where you are surrounded by ‘Passionate Programmers,’ the types of folks who only leave work to code more at home and don’t read books or articles that aren’t related to programming. As a career switcher who was not immediately obsessed with my new field, I felt more than a shadow of doubt about whether I made the right choice when I looked around and saw so many people who were like each other but not like me. One of the points that stuck out to me in Sara Simon’s talk was: “The disregard of rote memorization is a failure of imagination.” She knew that rote memorization was a learning method that worked for her, and she was frustrated by the fact that what worked for her was considered “boring” or “not innovative”. It’s good to be open to new approaches, but if you know what works well for you, do that. Don’t let the fact that it doesn’t work for other people discourage you from learning or working to the best of your ability.

It Isn’t a Weakness; It Can Be a Strength

While you may not interpret things the same way as your peers or your teammates, you have unique insights to contribute and they are extremely valuable. If you find yourself the sole voice of dissent on an idea, you owe it to yourself and your team to speak it. Even if your suggestion doesn’t get approved by the team, your peers learn that you have a fresh view to the discussion – all the better if that perspective is able to spark meaningful conversation around the topic at hand and lead to deeper understanding of it for the entire team.

Consider what sets you apart from the rest of your team and your field as a potential strength. Your perspective is valuable, even if it isn’t widely shared among the people around you, and your team should recognize your unique perspective for its worth. New and innovative ideas are harder to come by when you gather a group of like-minded individuals who bounce the same ideas off each other. Value your different perspective and understand how to leverage it when you are surrounded by peers who might make you feel “other”. That “other”-ness is one of the best assets you are able to offer to any team that you join and to the career field you have chosen to join. It takes practice to reframe your unique value to yourself. I have been coding for over a year now, and I still have to consciously remind myself to speak up if I disagree with team members who are more senior than myself. But I continue to practice speaking up because the discussions that result from my disagreements either improve my personal understanding of a topic, the entire team’s, or both. Becoming confident in your unique insights is a gradual process, but being able to harness your “other”-ness is a valuable skill worth honing. Wield it well!

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