Your Code Sucks, Get Over It

Your Code Sucks, Get Over It

Horrifying. That about describes my first art class. As a computer science major with virtually no art experience I was surrounded by students who had devoted nearly every waking moment to drawing, painting, sculpting, and bending metal into non-functional shapes.

The second class was the worst. Our assignment was to create something in Photoshop and print it out with virtually no instruction. Easy enough I chuckled to myself.It was 1996, and the school computers had two browsers: Netscape Navigator 1.1, and Mosaic. There was no Wi-Fi, and the dorm rooms had no Internet hook up. Photoshop created files so big you needed Zip, or hot-off-the-press Jaz drives (remember those?) to store your massive 10 to 20-megabyte files! I smugly felt I had a huge leg up in owning my own computer, knowing how to use it, and having "hacked" the dorm phone system to get Internet in my room so I could more easily do research.

Upon entering class, the professor immediately instructed us to place our art at the front of the room.

Oh crap, I thought. Everyone's pieces were beautiful. They'd had no difficulty using a computer. They hadn't needed the Internet to figure out how to use non-dot matrix printers.

With heart in my mouth and head hung low I reluctantly placed by far the worst piece of crap the department had ever seen or will ever see, up for all to critique.

The class lightly critiqued the first several pieces. Minor adjustments, mostly.

When it was my turn there was an awkward silence. After an eternity, the professor let them off the hook by drawing attention to a 2cm square part of my piece as potentially interesting. He suggested I try again this time with a massive zoom. A polite way of saying: "you completely failed, try again".

Reckless Persistence

Despite the humiliation, for some reason I persisted. The group persisted too. Persisted in humiliating me again, and again, and again with constant criticism, thre times a week for a semester.

Think your code reviews are bad? This was awful to a whole new level.

Except, at some point this thing happened. It became a little less awful every time. Toward the end I finally came to the realization: I am not my art. The class isn't criticizing me. Each comment of "it fails to engage the viewer's attention because it lacks contrast" didn't require an emotional response.

Essentially, they were saying: my art sucks, but that doesn't mean I do.

This is described beautifully in this quote from Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, (a book I highly recommend):

A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. ...The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her.

And, it was that realization that allowed me to grow exponentially as an artist. In fact, by the end I can confidently say I was not terrible. Here's one of my final pieces.

Go ahead and critique it in the comments. I would genuinely welcome any feedback. Because, just like the blogs I produce, the CAD models I design, or the code I write, I'll be the first to admit there's lots of room for improvement.

In fact, there're more than just room for improvement. I have proof that my code sucks. Every time I look at anything I wrote more than a few weeks ago I'm consistently embarrassed by it. Doesn't the same thing happen to you? Doesn't your code suck too? Obtaining good, constructive, feedback just helps you discover sooner those ways in which your code sucks.

Overcoming Criticism Anxiety

If criticism causes you anxiety, you're not alone. Whether the venue is code reviews, reddit comments, or performance reviews, anxiety is a normal reaction. Here's how Stephen Pressfield describes the problem:

Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. This is how the tribe enforced obedience by wielding the thread of expulsion. ...Resistance knows this and uses it against us. It uses fear of rejection to paralyze us and prevent us, if not from doing our work, then from exposing it to public evaluation.

If the thought of feedback makes you queasy, consider this idea I learned in the public speaking group Toastmasters: we all have a circle of comfort. We generally go out of our way to stick to the activities in that circle. But, the more time we spend on activities outside of the circle, the larger our circle grows.

While that was originally intended to encourage gaining comfort with public speaking by performing more public speaking, it could as easily be applied to fear of criticism.

If you have anxiety about feedback consider this: instead of avoiding the situation, next time try putting yourself out for feedback even more. Maybe decrease scope to limit exposure, but don't hold back. Try committing to writing a blog post once a month or once a week for a year. Apply for jobs with technical interviews. Speak at user groups.

The more feedback you receive, the thicker your skin will grow, the more detached from it you will become, the less defensive you'll be, the more of it you can incorporate, and the faster you can grow.

I feel extremely fortunate to have taken that art class and for having chosen persistence over paralysis. It didn't just grow my art skills, it helped free me from anxiety about feedback in general. Because of that experience I honestly love receiving constructive feedback.

And, if increasing feedback frequency doesn't work, just envision your future-self looking back at your code from a few weeks in the future. Imagine your future-self telling you in all sincerity: "Your code sucks". Now it's time to get over it, and figure out how to make it better today.