Dreams are so much fun.
I’d say that I am a chronic daydreamer, constantly thinking about what could be, getting excited by the prospect of anything new, making me an optimist in an often naive sense. My daydreaming extends to things from my everyday life, and in the context of this text, things that I pursue in university or even independently.
By daydreaming, I refer to the sort of mental escapism where you imagine the future, what you are doing then, and simply try to hallucinate what’s at the end of the tunnel, to the point that the act of hallucination gives you some joy. I don’t think that’s bad - you need this type of thinking to stay excited about anything in life! However, daydreaming can set us for disappointment by placing us in a future that doesn’t yet exist. Couple that with anxiety about hitting your personal goals, you have a pretty good recipe for disappointing yourself. It’s easy to have grand dreams, fun to be optimistic about achieving them, and sadly, gut-wrenching when they don’t come true. This is something I find myself doing quite often in life.
The way I approach a new topic these days usually looks something like this:
- Panic about entering something unknown
- Learn the teeniest thing about the topic and get super excited
- Start thinking about how ideas in that tiny concept might be related to other projects I am involved in, such as my research
- Have grand ideas about doing something novel/interdisciplinary in this field
- Get anxious about my inability to truly do so
- Feel defeated when that anxiety is proven right
This way of thinking is arguably encouraged by the course structure in universities - where final projects are often expected to be novel and mini forays into research. The sort of ambition this coursework expects is uncalibrated - it is simply unrealistic to do something that is groundbreaking within a span of three months, at a pace of 3 hours a week. Even beyond coursework, I see this in a lot of educational content that’s marketed online - proficiency at the highest level is made to seem achievable in a short span of time. When you buy into that ideology and fail to meet the expectation, the lesson you take away is that you are not good enough. I think the more accurate and healthier lesson to take away is that the learning environment was not conducive to actual learning. More broadly, I think this ties into a phenomenon in computer science that I’d call ‘Tutorialitis’.
I’d define ‘Tutorialitis’ as the *condition that appears when one is so accustomed to consuming quick-tutorial based content, that they feel dizzy when taken into another slower learning environment. *‘Tutorialitis’ is based on the proliferation of concepts and ideas in a field through bite-sized tutorials that are meant to get quick results, often at the cost of an in-depth understanding of the subject material.
When I was first starting out in CS, I was drawn to web development - like most people are. It was easy to set up, fun to visualise, and quick to iterate with. I spent quite a bit of time in the first year of undergrad tinkering with frontend frameworks and prototyping websites. Back then, I believed that this interest was due to the creative nature of the work, which I think is accurate but an incomplete picture. It was also the easiest thing to pick up. I’d attribute this ease to the murky concept of ‘intuitiveness’. With just a few minutes in an editor, you can get a sense of how HTML might work. Combine the quick pace of tutorials with a quick learning curve, which help you get pretty results very soon, you feel accomplished quite easily. An unintentional lesson I took away from that experience was that this is how you are supposed to pick up topics. Anything that strayed from this pattern was perceived as something that I’m intrinsically bad at.
In this case, ‘Tutorialitis’ leads to one misattributing their difficulties in a certain domain to their ability, when it is more likely something to do with how they are approaching the problem. I find that I take a very aggressive approach when learning a new topic/skill. I can very easily get excited, open several browser tabs, and start exploring something new. The momentum never sticks though. In some ways, this can be seen as my attempt at recreating the quick pace of tutorials that I’ve previously done. I’m so invested in the idea of moving forward that I just try to run forward and inevitably stumble.
A nice analogy for this situation that’s helped me in recent weeks is that of a plane that’s trying to take off. Planes have a long runway for a reason - they need time to reach the high velocity that’s required for takeoff. That’s just part one though. Once they do lift off, the angle at which it pitches up also matters; you want it to be high so that you gain altitude quickly but not so high that you lose thrust and stall completely. The way I’ve been trying to pick-up new topics is to pitch up so high that I immediately stall and crash the plane, never truly picking up the topic I intended to.
All this ties back to the concept of daydreaming. You only pitch the plane up when you are dead set on going higher, in pursuit of some dream that you have. When you focus so intently on the final goal, you can stall and forget about how the learning process is supposed to go. The healthier way to do it is to accept that you need sufficient time to liftoff. But, even if you are free of time-related anxieties and know how to fly a plane, ‘Tutorialitis’ makes us forget that there are many different kinds of planes! My mistake until recently was not calibrating for the various shapes of learning curves when picking up new skills. I subconsciously subscribed to the binary of a flat and steep learning curve. Not every plane is nimble though. Keeping that in mind is probably a good idea.