What can a Programmer learn from Rock Climbing?

March 30, 2011 โ€” Railay is a tiny little beach town in Southern Thailand famous for its rock climbing. I've been in Railay for two weeks. When the weather is good, I'm outside rock climbing. When the weather is bad, I'm inside programming. So naturally I've found myself comparing the two. Specifically I've been thinking about what I can take away from my rock climbing experience and apply to my programming education.

Here's what I've come up with.

1. You should always be pushing yourself. Each day spent climbing I've made it to a slightly higher level than the previous day. The lazy part of me has then wanted to just spend one day enjoying this new level without pushing myself further. Luckily I've had a great climbing partner who's refused that and has forced me to reach for the next level each day. In both rock climbing and programming you should always be reaching for that new level. It's not easy, you have to risk a fall to reach a new height, but it's necessary if you want to become good. In programming, just like in climbing, you should be tagging along with the climbers at levels above you. That's how you get great. Of course, don't forget to enjoy the moment too.

2. Really push yourself. In rock climbing you sometimes have these points where you're scared--no, where you're fucking petrified--that you're going to fall and get hurt or die and you're hanging on to the rock for dear life, pouring sweat, and you've got to overcome it. In programming you should seek out moments like these. It will never be that extreme of course, but you should find those spots where you are afraid of falling and push yourself to conquer them. It might be a project whose scope is way beyond anything you've attempted before, or a task that requires advanced math, or a language that scares the crap out of you. My climbing instructor here was this Thai guy named Nu. He's the second best speed climber in Thailand and has been climbing for fifteen years. The other day I was walking by a climbing area and saw Nu banging his chest and yelling at the top of his lungs. I asked a bystander what was going on and he told me that Nu was struggling with the crux of a route and was psyching himself up to overcome it. That's why he's a master climber. Because he's been climbing for over fifteen years and he's still seeking out those challenges that scare him.

3. There's always a next level. In rock climbing you have clearly defined levels of difficulty that you progress through such as 5 to 8+ or top rope to lead+. In programming the levels are less defined and span a much wider range but surely exist. You progress from writing "hello world" to writing compilers and from using notepad to using vim or textmate or powerful IDEs. You might start out writing a playlist generator and ten years later you may be writing a program that can generate actual symphonies, but there still will be levels to climb.

4. Climbing or programming without teachers is very inefficient. There are plenty of books on rock climbing. But there's no substitute for great teachers. You can copy what you see in books and oftentimes you'll get many parts right, but a teacher is great for pointing out what you're doing wrong. Oftentimes you just can't tell what the key concepts and techniques to focus on are. You might not focus on something that's really important such as using mostly legs in climbing or not repeating yourself in programming. A good teacher can instantly see your mistakes and provide helpful feedback. Always seek out great teachers and mentors whether they be friends, coworkers, or professional educators.

5. You learn by doing; practice is key. Although you need teachers and books to tell you what to do, the only way to learn is to do it yourself, over and over. It takes a ton of time to master rock climbing or programming and although receiving instruction plays an important part, the vast majority of the time it takes to learn will be spent practicing.

6. Breadth, not only depth, is important. Sometimes to get to the next level in rock climbing you need to get outside of rock climbing. You may need to take up yoga to gain flexibility or weightlifting to gain strength. Likewise in programming sometimes you need to go sideways to go up. If you want to master Rails, you'll probably want to spend time outside of it and work on your command line and version control skills. Programming has a huge amount of silos. To go very deep in any one you have to gain competance in many.

7. People push the boundaries. Both rock climbing and programming were discovered by people and people are continually pushing the boundaries of both. In rock climbing advanced climbers are discovering new areas, bolting new routes, inventing new equipment, perfecting new techniques, and passing down new knowledge. Programming is the most cumulative of all human endeavors. It builds on the work of tens of millions of people and new "risk takers" are always constantly pushing the frontiers (today in areas like distributed computing, data mining, machine learning, parallel processing and mobile amongst others).

8. Embrace collaboration. The rock climbing culture is very collaborative much like the open source culture. Rock climbing is an inherently open source activity. Everything a climber does and uses is visible in the open. This leads to faster knowledge transfer and a safer activity. Likewise, IMO open source software leads to a better outcome for all.

9. Take pride in your work. In rock climbing when you're the first to ascend a route your name gets forever attached to that route. In programming you should be proud of your work and add your name to it. Sometimes I get embarrassed when I look at some old code of mine and realize how bad it is. But then I shrug it off because although it may be bad by my current standards, it represents my best honest effort at the time and so there's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm sure the world's greatest rock climbers have struggled with some easy routes in their day.

10. Natural gifts play a part. Some people who practiced for 5,000 hours will be worse than some people who practiced for only 2,000 hours due to genetics and other factors. It would be great if how good you were at something was determined totally by how many hours you've invested. But it's not. However, at the extremes, the number of hours of practice makes a huge difference. The absolute best climbers spend an enormous amount of time practicing. In the middle of the pack, a lot of the difference is just due to luck. I've worked with a wide range of programmers in my (short so far) career. I've worked with really smart ones and some average ones. Some work hard and others aren't so dedicated. The best by far though, possess both the intelligence and the dedication. And I'd probably rather work with the dedicated and average smarts over the brilliant but lazy.



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