In November of 2018, I attended the 42 School Piscine in Fremont, California. For those of you who don’t know, the Piscine is 42’s grueling 30-day introduction to the world of programming. And when I say introduction, I don’t mean to imply that the program was by any means easy. In fact, it was the exact opposite of easy. It was more like 30 straight days spent screaming at a computer screen for 14 hours a day, while barely surviving on obscene amounts of red bull and mostly-shitty cafeteria food. I coded until my fingers fell off and my brain went numb. All of us Pisciners clawed and cried through the relentless stream of projects, most of which we either didn’t finish or were too mind-fucked to even attempt. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Piscine was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I honestly am so glad it’s over. However, for all the frustration and sleep-deprivation, the experience was completely worth it. Here’s why…
Above all else, the Piscine taught me how to learn.
Coming into the Piscine, I thought that the most important thing I would take away would be mastery of a couple new programming languages and a shiny new portfolio of cool-looking projects. I was wrong. Instead, what the Piscine really taught me was how to learn.
Over and over again during the course of the Piscine, I would read the opening lines of a daily exercise. Immediately, my mouth would drop open and I would blurt out, “what the fuck the does this even mean?” I would re-read the exercise twenty more times, still not making any more sense out of it. Completely desperate, I would turn to my nearest neighbor and haphazardly attempt to ask for help. After nearly an hour of incoherent jiberish bouncing between us, my neighbor would finally admit that he had no clue what the exercise was asking for either. Clueless, we would both start working our way person-by-person down the aisle, hopelessly trying to find anyone at all who knew what the hell was going on. After yet another hour of unsuccessfully searching for that golden brainiac, I would defeatedly crawl back to my computer and bash my head against the keyboard till I forgot all about my failures as a human being. Then, when the feeling came back to my face, I would open up google and start scouring frantically through the internet, trying to find anything that could help me. 30 articles, 5 stack exchanges, 4 wikipedia pages, and 3 random youtube videos later my eyes would widen and lightbulbs would start firing. I would switch over to my code editor and start firing off spaghetti bits of code until finally, two more excruciating hours later, something resembling a solution would appear. At last, after quadruple-checking and rewriting the code a million times, I would excitedly run my newly-created program. As giddy as a sugar-high six-year old, I would pump my fist and tell the exercise to suck it. But then, I would look back down at the terminal only to see, not the results I wanted, but an error that was more confusing than the exercise itself. At that cruel point, the whole entire process would suddenly repeat itself and I was back where I started four hours ago. That was the misery of everyday life in the Piscine.
Ultimately, for as frustrating and miserable as that process was, I’ve slowly come to realize that that was actually the process of real learning. That miserable process was, in reality, teaching me how to learn. I wasn’t just learning how to program in C, I was learning how to read effectively, how to communicate coherently, how to practice resourcefulness, and how to work with others. Out of sheer necessity for survival, I was forced to ask others for help and get creative in the ways that I searched for answers. That survival process itself burned problem-solving skills into my brain. Each exercise was warping my mind into thinking differently. By the end of the month, the manner in which I approached exercises was completely different. I wasn’t just flailing around like I was at the beginning of the Piscine. Instead, I was applying actual problem-solving skills by using the available resources to search out and make sense of the solutions. I was getting the concept of how to learn.
That in itself was more valuable than anything else the Piscine could have taught me. I left the Piscine more confident in my ability to learn new skills and overcome terrifying challenges. I not only learned the basics of programming, but more importantly, I learned the basics of how to learn how to program. That result alone made the exhausting experience of the Piscine well-worth it. I’m confident that that knowledge of how to learn will carry me through any future pursuit I choose to engage in, be it programming or anything else.
So for that lesson alone, thank you 42.