Taking Risks: Why some people are quitters, and others aren't

This week, I had an experience where, for an entire evening, I felt like I'd returned to kindergarten. My heart pounded, my head ached, and I was that little five-year-old reluctant reader all over again. I could smell the tubs of broken stubby crayons and mixed-up hardening plasticine, and I swear I could hear my kindergarten teacher, the imposing, hawk-like Mrs. C., talking at the back of the classroom. As I stared at my computer screen at pages of unintelligible print, I was transported back forty-something years. And it was scary.

My computer stared back. Lines and lines of unintelligible computer code danced in front of my eyes. How had I imagined I could learn to upload to my own website, not using a simple online design, but properly, from scratch? I bet those of you who are technically-minded are scratching your heads, wondering why this was such a big deal. I'm sure today's generation learned HTML before they learned their ABCs. But the fact, is, I didn't. Trying to decipher it, despite the very detailed step-by-step directions that Anna, my web designer, had provided, was akin to trying to read and translate War and Peace in Japanese, without access to an online dictionary.

Fight or flight kicked in. I knew that I'd never make sense of this jargon on the screen! I lacked not only the skills, but the intelligence to crack the code. Forty years ago, if I'd dared, I'd have kicked my kindergarten chair over and had a tantrum. (I wouldn't have dared, though, because I'd once seen the horrible Mrs. C. slap a boy for not following directions, which struck terror into my heart.) Because I am an adult, and marginally more mature than my five-year-old self, I shut down the computer and went to the kitchen to rummage for chocolate in the refrigerator instead.

As I stood in the kitchen and mentally regrouped and ate chocolate, I realized that I had various options. First, I could ask my husband to help out. He is a techie and although web design isn't his thing, he could have figured it out. But he is also very busy and it would have meant an all-nighter for him to get up to speed. Second, I could sweet-talk same techie husband into finding the cash to pay Anna to do the work for me. Third, I could call for help from the daughter of a very dear friend, who is very busy herself, but very accomplished in this website-building business. Fourth, I could just call it quits.

The trouble with all these options was that, even if I'd taken one that led to a completed website, I wouldn't have learned how to develop my website for myself. Plus, I'd have felt like an Epic Fail. Which is exactly how I felt forty years ago, when I was trying to decipher my ABCs in kindergarten. (Incidentally, check back here in a few weeks for an upcoming article about my experiences in kindergarten learning to read, because actually, I already could read, except that nobody except me realized it).

If you're wondering what happened next, I ate chocolate, made coffee, ate more chocolate, and eventually switched the computer back on. Then I sat up most of the night, reading Anna's notes, clicking back and forth from her example web pages, her notes, and my feeble original attempts, figuring out, piece by piece, what it all meant and where I'd gone wrong. Occasionally I returned to the kitchen for more chocolate, and several times I almost quit, but then I logged back on and tried again. I don't pretend to really understand what I was doing or what all those mind-numbing <s and >s meant, and it was laboriously slow, but finally, I saved my first attempt at an HTML webpage. As I emailed it to Anna I felt that I was handing in the toughest assignment of my life!

But it was as I logged off the computer and headed to bed that the real learning began. I started thinking about this experience in the context of what it is like for learners in school, and why children make a choice to try - to take risks - or to quit. Why had I felt like quitting, and why had I eventually made the decision not to? What made this task so difficult for me, and what had helped me choose the path of resilience? Not to mention, why, exactly, does chocolate make such a difference in a crisis?

I can't answer the chocolate question. I'll definitely write about that another time, mostly because I like the idea of the necessary research. But I did come up with some ideas about the other questions. The task was difficult because I had very few frames of reference to draw upon. It was, in essence, a new language to me. This made the task so challenging that my fight or flight response was constantly tapping me on the shoulder. One wrong move, and I knew it would all be over.

As for why the idea of quitting was so appealing to me for several hours, the reasons were numerous, and complex. Some were due to experiences buried deeply in my memory. Like the teachers who favored boys in science and technology when I was in high school, and the boys in class who rolled their eyes if a girl so much as entertained the idea of answering a question. And buried deep in my subconscious were all the images in magazines, stories and on TV that told me that I was not going to be competent with technology and would always be reliant on a man to figure this stuff out.

Other reasons for wanting to quit were much more immediate. I was tired, and I had a lot of other things to do - far more interesting stuff, to be honest, than figuring out how to build pages on a website. I wanted to be writing articles, or sending out queries to agents for my current middle grade novel, or drafting a new picture book from an idea I had last week. In other words, given a choice, I'd always take writing ABCs over HTML. And truthfully, a major reason why quitting felt like a viable alternative was that I could have sweet-talked, or if necessary strong-armed, someone into helping me out, and got back to what I like doing best. Put bluntly, I could have quit without too much egg on my face.

Yet I didn't. Why not? My conscious reasons for not quitting were actually logical and showed some level of emotional intelligence. I knew that if I didn't learn to upload new material to my new website, I'd always be reliant on someone else to do it. I would never develop my new website beyond the basic structure that Anna had built for me. My website would be updated very rarely, and I'd end up back where I started, with an outdated site that didn't reflect me and my career as a writer. But there were other reasons why I didn't quit. It wasn't simply that conscious choice. And this is where it gets interesting.

In spite of years of hearing subtle messages that 'girls can't', I have always rebelled at any hint of gender bias. I tend to respond to challenges with stubborn persistence (some call it pig-headedness, but it depends on your perspective. Personally, I'd rather have a pig-headed daughter than a helpless one). Whether it's stubbornness or pig-headedness, I have never given in easily. I know that I'll never be a natural with technology, although I am competent in the areas I need. I'm pretty nifty with the internet and know my way around Word like the back of my hand. I am a writer, after all! But gadgets really don't interest me, not the inside of them. I like what gadgets can do (most of the time - I really don't really Nintendo, although my kids keep trying to change that), but I don't want to know how they do it. But what I really don't like is being told, directly or indirectly, that I can't do something. That makes me want to do it. Immediately.

But stubborn though I can be, I still could not have figured this website stuff out without help. And my help came from afar, from the web designer, Anna, who I've not met in person but have talked to fairly extensively over email. Our email exchanges have moved from strictly business, to finding out a little about each other. Just a little, but enough for me to feel that she's human. But having a human teacher or mentor wasn't enough - most teachers, if they're not computers, are human, but we can learn from some and not others. The most notable thing in my email exchanges with Anna is that we have asked questions. Lots of them.

In fact, Anna started off with a detailed questionnaire to help figure out exactly what I wanted from my new website. I'd estimate that 90% or more of our email exchange has been in the form of questions, either asking, or answering. Each time Anna answered a question for me, however dumb I thought my question might sound, I moved a little step further toward my goal of being able to do this myself. Not so much because of the information that she imparted, but because the answers gave me confidence to ask another question.

Real learning can happen when you know that you are in a safe environment, where you can ask questions and that your mentor will not only answer you patiently, but also ask questions back, to help clarify your position and understanding. On top of that, confidence comes from knowing that if you don't grasp this material right now, you will get a chance later, and that life won't end if you are a little slower than others. Feeling safe is the key.

Learning some things is easy, and you can do it even if you feel under a little stress. But when you are faced with something truly challenging, as looking at a page of HTML code was to me, you cannot function if any additional stress is added to the task. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about two different systems of the brain, the first of which is intuitive - and often wrong - and the second, which is analytical, but tends to be lazy and wants to be left alone. As I worked my way through the task of uploading my webpage, I was acutely aware that I wanted to be intuitive and do this with minimum effort. My preferred strategy was to rush it, bluff it, get it done, and move on. But I immediately found out that my System 1 intuition was not going to work here. I needed System 2, and it was going to be darned hard work!

Anna had carefully typed out and emailed me instructions of how to do this task, one small step at a time (hooray for teachers who plan for their students and who understand how to break down a task). Each time I made a baby step, like recognizing a title in the document and clicking across and seeing that same text on the test website, I felt like a kid winning a bag of candy. Slowly, slowly, one step at a time, I figured it out. And securely underpinning this process was the knowledge that if I got truly stuck at any step, I could stop, and send Anna a bunch more questions in an email. I was working independently, but there was a strong safety net beneath me.

As, step by step, I figured it out, I felt like a child learning phonics: one line made sense, then another, then suddenly, a 'Eureka' moment and I could decipher a whole section, then a chunk! Then, back to the drawing board, maybe another trip to the kitchen to pour more coffee, then back to work again. I'd like to say that I got there, the whole way, that evening, but I didn't. I did, however, get a heck of a long distance, and when I sent off my final document to Anna, I knew that I'd achieved something major. It would have been nothing for someone with even a small experience of web design, but for someone coming to this with no prior knowledge or understanding, it was a major achievement. I knew that even if I had 'flunked' the assignment and made mistakes that meant my page would never be decipherable online, I had learned something, and I had built the confidence to know that, given good teaching, I could do this. I might never be the best at it - I don't actually have the desire to be the best - but I could become competent, given time.

At the end of my email to Anna that night, I described my experience, and said, "I think I feel an article coming on." I freely admit that I prefer writing for my website than physically doing the work to build it. But, I'm very glad that I learned to create web pages for several reasons. First, I will now have skills to add to my website myself without relying on others. But most of all, I am glad that I proved to myself, not to mention my children, that I am still capable, even at my age, of learning something totally new.

And then there was the unexpected experience: I had the chance to go back to my kindergarten years and remember firsthand how it feels to be asked to do something that you just.can't.do. It was a great experience in role-reversal, and it was humbling. I just wish that my kindergarten teacher had been given the same chance to experience being on the other side of the classroom forty years ago.