Take me back!! I want my CSS!! Click me to get back :)

Close X

Skillcrush FREE 10-Day Bootcamp

Become a digital know-it-all in just 5 minutes a day!

Confusion is your friend

The most important life lesson my mathematician father taught me.

The author and her dad circa 1986

My dad defies every stereotype of an absent minded math professor—except for the absent minded part, he is that. Otherwise he bears little resemblance to the stereotype: he is good-looking, funny, an avid surfer, and best of all, an amateur poet.

When I graduated from high school my dad gave a toast at my graduation party.

“I look forward to the day that Adda sees how useful calculus is,” he said “and finds that she can use science to help solve the world’s problems.”

Was he serious? I was totally mortified! Bringing up math at my graduation party? “Hello!” I eyerolled, “Dad! You know I want to be a lawyer!”

Fast forward nine years and one fine art degree later (go figure), and here I sit, up to my elbows in code, and you can guess who is getting the last laugh.

As I work with other people who are crossing the bridge from non-tech into tech, I come across a lot of consternation about how confusing things are. What do all those weird acronyms mean? How am I supposed to understand this code thing? Why is everything so darn hard to understand?!

When I am faced with those furrowed brows I think back on the most important lesson my dad ever taught me.

A few years back I was working for the first time as a technical producer. Everyday was a mess of waterfall charts, new programming languages, color coded emails and multi-page budget spreadsheets. Stressed out and overwhelmed by everything I was desperately trying to master, I called my dad.

After having a good chuckle at my expense, my dad told me the following:

“The key to success is to embrace the confusion.

“When you try new things or start a new job, there will be a period when you will be lost at sea and won’t know up from down. This is normal and to be expected. It is not a reflection on you, it is a reflection on the fact that you are trying something new, and with time it will pass.”

What sets mathematicians apart is not that they know the answers to the world’s great questions, but that they are comfortable moving through a hard and confusing process to find them.

When the rest of us think of math or technology we think of those brilliant, breathtaking moments of clarity when everything comes together, the secrets of the universe are revealed, and the web app does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

But any mathematician or developer can tell you that those moments are few and far between and that day-to-day life is spent ambling through the dark, desperately trying to make sense of dozens of error messages, and in general, a whole lot of confusion.

What I needed to do was take a deep breath and trust that my confusion was good, and not the impending disaster I believed it to be.

When you start programming your first web app you are doing something that you have never done before. It’s a new challenge, a new opportunity, and in the case of software development, something so specific that it’s probably never been done before.

Confusion, therefore, is a sign that you are heading in the right direction. It’s a signal that you have engaged in the problem solving pursuit that is math and technology and that it’s time for you to dig deeper and keep going because clarity awaits.

Turns out, there is scientific evidence to back up this idea that confusion is a friend and not a foe when it comes to learning complex concepts. As Annie Murphy Paul reported in KQED’s MindShift, a study at Notre Dame conducted by Sidney D’Mello found that subjects “who reported feeling confused by the exercise actually scored higher on a test.”

As D’Mello explains in the study, “we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result.”

Not only that, but a study at Arizona State conducted by Kurt VanLehn found that confusion was a critical step in the process of learning difficult physics material. Students who encountered what the scientists considered an “intellectual impasse,” ended up with a much more comprehensive understanding of the material. Confusion, it seems, is absolutely necessary in order to get to that breathtaking moment of clarity.

So next time you are feeling frustrated and confused, remember what my dad told me: not only is it a good sign, it means you are on exactly the right track.

Tweet This

  • http://twitter.com/JulietWaters Juliet Waters

    This is exactly what I needed to read this morning.  Actually, this is exactly what I needed to read in this lifetime.   Thanks.

  • Sky Davis

    Really great article, Adda!

  • Anna Jonsdottir

    Very good article :) 

  • Meg

    I needed this bit of encouragement today, as am trying to understand a new programming language for learning more about web development. I have also never worked in an object-oriented programming language.  Seems I am constantly writing down jargon that I don’t know. Listening to lectures will have much go completely over my head due to my lack of understanding of key concepts. Every time I think that I’m getting one thing, then realize how much more there is to learn before know enough to do much of any use. Feels like I’m falling with Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit hole. Definitely does seem like a sea of the unknown is ahead of me and quite daunting at times making me feel totally inadequate. 

    After a few days have to step back and acknowledge that I understand more than I did when I started, so maybe there is hope in this current sea of confusion. Thanks for reminding me that this is normal and there is hope on the horizon if I just keep paddling. 

  • michelleglauser

    What great encouragement! Thanks!

  • Bjorn Birnir

    Every explorer was confused in the beginning. Looking back it all
    becomes clear.

    Love, Daddy.

  • Nicole Hess

    What a wonderful message to start my day. Just yesterday, I found myself starting a new web project just a bit outside my comfort zone. I know that just diving in, experiencing the ambiguity, and doing my best to remain patient while troubleshooting is what’s going to help me learn and grow as a developer. With that said, I’ve been procrastinating the start for a while now because I’m nervous about pushing through the confusion.

    Thanks for a great message at just the right time.

  • http://about.me/jelpern Jordan Elpern-Waxman

    Throughout my academic career (i.e. school), learning came easy. I was that guy everybody hated who showed up for the exam w/o studying and got an A. However, as I moved into the real world I found the path to learning was not as clear, and I often felt confused. As counterintuitive as sounds, I think the fact that school was so easy for me* put me at a disadvantage; I was more unsettled by the feeling of confusion vs colleagues who had more experience dealing with it. I had to make a conscious decision to embrace the confusion, but it’s always a challenge. It was great to read that confusion is not only something to be suffered but something to embrace. 

    * The one class that really kicked my ass btw, no matter how hard I tried, was Abstract Algebra. The only thing I remember from that class is that it literally made my head hurt. Mathematicians *are* brilliant people, who have a very special talent for visualizing extremely complex concepts. 

    • Adda

      Thanks for sharing Jordan. This is actually a well documented phenomenon which is that doing really well without trying can actually make it harder for you when you are faced with a challenge. So funny, but so true!

      • http://about.me/jelpern Jordan Elpern-Waxman

        Don’t I know it! That’s one of the reasons that as an investor I get nervous when I see an entrepreneur who has never experienced failure.

        Do you know any of the sources that document this phenomenon? I would love to understand this better.

        • Adda

           Let me dig up a great article for you, will post!

          • http://about.me/jelpern Jordan Elpern-Waxman

            Did you post something? Sorry if I missed it!

  • Robin F. Pearce

    Thank you Adda and Skillcrush and Bjorn! I shared this article with several friends yesterday. No matter what you do (I work for a non-profit HIV clinic that is just beginning to use electronic medical records – we are super low-tech) these words are extremely encouraging.  Here’s to confusion and charting new waters!

    Love, Robin

  • Rob Taylor

     Thanks for this :) Sometimes I really struggle with why I always seem to be stuck with jobs where I’m expected to support things I haven’t been trained in, code in languages I have no experience with, and still somehow be better at it than anyone else in the company. Sigh.

  • Mia

    As I work with developers a lot (although I’m myself only starting to try and take a dive more actively into all things tech), I went and asked some of our senior devs whether they would agree with Adda’s dad, and their response was a clear yes: They said: “usually if you’re not lost when you start something new it means you haven’t looked enough.” I like this.

  • Bragnanymous

    This is, by far, my biggest struggle at work every day. I’m surrounded by people who are vastly smarter and more educated than me, and it’s easy to feel like each failure is evidence that I’m not intelligent enough or don’t belong there.

    But how can you tell the normal confusion of learning from the confusion of just being unintelligent?

  • Jeesun Kim

    great article!