Unlike my other ramblings, this one will be more personal and less technical. I will describe my adventure learning as a kid up until now. In advance, I do not want to claim what is told here is applicable to others. I also realize that I am better off than many others and want to avoid making particular conclusions. I just want to share a portion of my life.
I despised 1st grade. I felt challenged and frustrated for the first time. I do not remember having such a hard time in any other elementary grade to come.
I remember coming late to class as my homeroom teacher finished narrating a story to four of my peers. I thought I could use my lateness as an excuse to skip the assignment. Unfortunately, my teacher instructed my peers to take turns narrating the story to me. As they were describing the story, I kept nodding along pretending I was absorbing the information. When I had to start the writeup, I was puzzled and did not know what to jot down. All I could think about was watching my peers finishing the assignment before me, and staying stuck. If only I was not late, I would have not wasted my peer’s time. Truth be told, I do not think I was capable of processing any of the stories I was told that year. This was just one of the many bad experiences I had.
Oh, I was late to class because I was with another teacher that was giving me special testing. I did not have much talent; my speech skills started developing later than normal. I needed to be taken outside of my classroom often to develop some of my skills, while missing out on other crucial class time. I was diagnosed with a mild learning disability, which lead to me having trouble reading and being unable at process information efficiently.
I do remember one triumph though. Every morning when we entered class, we completed an exercise that involved reading a few sentences and making corrections to every grammar error. Although I was able to pinpoint many of the corrections, I never finished with a perfect score, perhaps because I lacked the confidence to overshoot and worried about making an incorrect judgement, or perhaps because I thought that always obtaining an average score was satisfactory. After all, at least I knew how to complete the assignment.
At the end of class one day as we 1st graders all huddled up, my teacher noticed that my notebook was falling apart bits by bits. Out of habit, I made use of items until they were unusable completely, so I did not heed to this. My teacher on the other hand was disturbed. She challenged me in front of my classmates; if I received a 100% on the grammar exercise next morning, she would award me a new notebook.
The next morning, I spent more time than usual on the exercise ensuring I was jotting down all the corrections. I spent a few extra minutes longer that my special testing teacher came into my classroom and saw I was running late into hers. She was trying to drag me out impatiently, but I told her to wait a bit longer. She did not understand my scenario; I felt I could not lose this battle without giving my all. At the end of the day, I found that I perfected the exercise for the first time. My teacher gave me a new notebook as an award for the whole class to observe.
I felt my first major success here, which happened because my teacher motivated me to succeed. Had 1st grade not be challenging, I would have not been able to experience such a major achievement.
I was sitting in my living room working on 3rd grade math problems assigned from my special classroom. The assignment involved adding two digit numbers like 23 and 45. I learned how to perform this task proficiently until I encountered a problem like adding 43 and 27. I approached my older brother, seven years older than me, not knowing how to tackle it. He told me all I had to do was split the sum and carry over the 1. After illustrating what he meant, I understood the concept quickly and was able to solve all the problems on that page. The next day I realized that I was the only one that learned the trick. This was the first time I felt learning outside of school made a big impact.
Since then, my mathematical skills grew rapidly. Within a couple weeks, I opted out of the special class and entered the normal 3rd grade class for math. I completed my first morning arithmetic exercise quicker than my peers. I did run into some hurdles later though, like needing to spend a couple hours one day memorizing the upper half of my multiplication table that everyone else already knew. My test results later also did not turn out to be all that better than my peers as my rapid development started to halt. Still, my mathematical pace and interest improved greatly during this year because of the small bit of time I spent learning outside the classroom.
Skipping the Bar
Middle school was an exciting new experience. Classes started to become more divided by subject and skill level. Whether a student took an advanced, average, or below average level class depended on their demonstrated ability in their previous year of school.
When I entered my advanced level class for math, my friends were a little shocked. They were right to be surprised; I was on the edge of being recommended to take the advanced version. After all, I took an average level math class with average grades in my previous year and questionably met the threshold for an exam that determined where we would be placed. My eagerness and my mother’s recommendation helped me - I would have disappointed myself if I did not aim high. One could say I cheated the education system, but I think that is a naive perspective. I learned that my public education system could be exploited against standard requirements only if one was willing to try bending it.
I did not feel like I performed well in my 7th grade pre-algebra class, but I grasped the concepts by the end of year just in time before the final assessment. I made a risk knowing that I was sacrificing performance for more immediate knowledge. I would have been a year behind on the material had I chosen a lower difficulty level. Throughout middle and high school, I often ignored teacher’s placement recommendations for the next year when I performed below their required bar. For a couple of classes, I barely passed having received near failing grades for some particular semesters. Other classes that I was not recommended for I had aced. Classes I performed poorly in allowed me to eliminate possible career choices early on. Some of the challenging classes covered material that I did not learn elsewhere or relearn until many years later.
Taking a more challenging class was not only about gaining more knowledge though. Socially, I tended to make friends that were more intellectual. I felt comfortable being in a room where I felt like the least knowledgeable person. I felt like this atmosphere was good for my personal and academic growth. Overall, I am glad I did not stick with my average ability and challenged myself to skip ahead.
As I started 9th grade, I gave up my obsession with playing online video games in my idle time. Being fairly technical with computers, I followed online communities and gained interest in programming computers. I requested my mom to order two programming text books for me. In her mind, I know she was surprised that I wanted to order books. As I was walking with one of my best friends, I informed him that I wanted to achieve something from studying them; not to my surprise, he doubted that I could accomplish much from doing so. I told him that he will wait and see, and that was the start for one of my biggest challenges.
Indeed, initially I started with mundane tasks such as logging “Programming is fun!” to the screen, and I invested time pointlessly in memorizing particular snippets of code. The most challenging part was developing my problem solving skills, which became evident whenever I tried tackling book exercises. I had to learn how to think in a new way, like learning algebra for the first time. I had to learn how to ask the right questions and improve my ability of detecting how one piece of information related to another. I had to re-read content many times before I could gain a true understanding. This was a frustrating hurdle to overcome before everything started to tick.
Mid-way through the year, I became fed up with tackling book exercises, so I sat down and created a tic-tac-toe game. I showed this to my brother which had impressed him. As a programmer himself, he was impressed in my solving ability for handling all cases of determining on a 3x3 grid if X is a winner, O is a winner, or if the game ends in a draw. Later nearing the end of my 9th grade year, I developed a pong clone that had a variety of colors, multiple animated objects on screen, and the ability to play against a human or computer. I showed the game to the same friend that doubted me before; not to my surprise, he doubted me further claiming I could have not been capable enough to make this :-).
The next couple years to come I spent late nights working on a three dimensional video game, I attended a summer program collaborating with students in making small games, I obtained a web development internship thanks to my mother, and I gained experience developing software that I persuaded dozens of online users to use. My passion required me to learn about some concepts in vectors, matrices, and trignometry before my peers. I also exercised practical value of some subjects I learned in school like physics before others. In just these few years I had achieved great milestones from pursuing this passion. By the end of high school, I may have had more experience developing software than those leaving university.
After wrapping up high school and passing admission tests I saw little worth in, I arrived to university. Perhaps what I found first shocking was a theme amongst some intelligent individuals that did well in high school without needing to study much. These peers came to a sudden realization that they could not succeed doing that in university. On the other hand, I was just following a gradual increase in difficulty. Perhaps an equilibrium took in effect.
I did not take advantage of my university to the fullest degree. I tried a couple research programs available, but I found them uninteresting and I neglected to explore other oppurtunities. My university program, true to academia, was designed implicitly so that one may not be prepared beyond education unless they opt into research, clubs, internships, etc. Instead, I complimented my studies primarily by developing projects on the side. In some way, this unusual path was a risk because no guarantee existed that what I developed freely could gain formal acknowledgement or benefit my career. I was even secretive and did not like disclosing anyone on my projects. These projects were for fun; I expected nothing more at the time.
I still appreciated university. I would have not motivated myself to learn or discover some of the subjects on my own if I had not taken the classwork. Some material I learned, that others found little appreciation for, were eye opening to side projects I was developing. A compilers optimization course, which was the only graduate level course I opted into, changed my way of thinking about code generation; if I had not taken this course, I do not think I would be where I am currently. In the end, I realized that I was being introduced to theory in school; I needed to look elsewhere to find applications, and research into projects myself if I desired a more complete understanding. I felt a large difference existed between those who found no meaning in a subject and those who could find meaning.
Not being terrific with networking, interviewing, and knowing what I wanted to do in the real world, I took two software development positions I did not have a passion for. One was with intellectual people in a scientific field I lacked passion for. The other was an entry level position where I felt many employees were not as passionate as me. Although the experience in both positions was beneficial, I was not happy where I was standing.
Instead of being concerned about “real life”, I concentrated heavy portions of my spare time still developing projects. Developing these projects was not easy because I was not being compensated, and knowing what next needed to be done was challenging. After owning some projects for several years, the recognition received often felt less than deserved. Motivating myself to continously develop them was also tough. Close academic members I spoke to sometimes doubted that my “projects” could value to much compared to other real world achievements and experience. But I invested a significant amount of my time in these projects, so much that I disconnected myself from “real life.” I had spurts for several months, spending several hours each day after my full-time job and losing some sleep on my own interests. This was all for fun in the hope that my effort may serve some use, and some people online did benefit, but the work did take a toll.
In a way, my life was similiar to being in school again. What I did in real life (professionally or academically) was not too reflective to my experience or goals. Realizing I wanted to resolve this disconnect, I poked out of my shyness bubble and posted one of my nearly finished projects in a chat room. Several people were intrigued, and one of them invited me to a private chat room filled with experienced developers. I soon made contact there with a developer looking to hire for a special role that had high relevance to my several years worth of personal projects. Not having confidence from recent interviewing experiences, I told them I may have not been qualified yet. They saw I was underselling myself and gave me a chance. Thanks to that, I now have a position I find purposeful and one where I feel surrounded by those as passionate as me.
I took time to reflect before I stepped towards my new career. Yes, my prior position was unstable with funding running out potentially at any time for me. Yes, I did not receive a promotion to a newer title like a couple of my peers did. Yes, I hesitated when others asked what I was doing with my life. But hey, I realized that I was very proud of my personal accomplishments, which drove me towards a new career. As a side bonus, the sum of my personal contributions carved a small impact that reached millions of users. Unlike a promotion, nobody can quite notice, but looking back that is a rewarding feeling :-).
Food for Thought
That ends my story thus far. I am still considered a young adult by many and still have a long ways left to go! Final thoughts:
As a kid, I did not feel like I gained value learning outside of school until I found a passion of my own. How can we teach others to motivate themselves to learn? Is just assigning extra work to kids really effective?
I often strived being in a space where I felt like one of the least knowledgeable people. I still desire that today for personal growth.
I pushed myself hard more often than being realistic. I had plenty of failures and successes but was able to move on from them both.
What society and I valued often differed. Society put high value in test scores and degrees, but little value in personal experience and background.
Putting more effort in communicating with people, which I am weak at, helped me tremendously.