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Confusion Is Your Friend

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The most important life lesson my mathematician father taught me.

By Adda Birnir (Co-Founder, Balance Media & Skillcrush)

My dad defies every stereotype of an absent minded math professor – except for the absent minded part, he is that. Otherwise he bears little resemblance to the stereotype: he is good-looking, funny, an avid surfer, and best of all, an amateur poet.

When I graduated from high school my dad gave a toast at my graduation party.

“I look forward to the day Adda sees how useful calculus is and finds that she can use science to help solve the world’s problems,” he said.

Was he serious? I was totally mortified! Bringing up math at my graduation party? “Hello!” I eyerolled, “Dad! You know I want to be a lawyer!”

Fast forward nine years and one fine art degree later (go figure), and here I sit, up to my elbows in code, and you can guess who is getting the last laugh.

As I work with other people who are crossing the bridge from non-tech into tech, I come across a lot of consternation about how confusing things are. What do all those weird acronyms mean? How am I supposed to understand this code thing? Why is everything so darn hard to understand?!

When I am faced with furrowed brows, I think back on the most important lesson my dad ever taught me.

A few years back, I was working for the first time as a technical producer. Everyday was a mess of waterfall charts, new programming languages, color coded emails and multi-page budget spreadsheets. Stressed out and overwhelmed by everything I was desperately trying to master, I called my dad.

After having a good chuckle at my expense, my dad told me the following:

“The key to success is to embrace the confusion. When you try new things or start a new job, there will be a period when you will be lost at sea and won’t know up from down. This is normal and to be expected. It is not a reflection on you, it is a reflection on the fact that you are trying something new, and with time it will pass.”

What sets mathematicians apart is not that they know the answers to the world’s great questions, but that they are comfortable moving through a hard and confusing process to find them.

When the rest of us think of math or technology we think of those brilliant, breathtaking moments of clarity when everything comes together, the secrets of the universe are revealed, and the web app does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

But any mathematician or developer can tell you that those moments are few and far between and that day-to-day life is spent ambling through the dark, desperately trying to make sense of dozens of error messages, and in general, a whole lot of confusion.

What I needed to do was take a deep breath and trust that my confusion was good, and not the impending disaster I believed it to be.

When you start programming your first web app you are doing something that you have never done before. It’s a new challenge, a new opportunity, and in the case of software development, something so specific that it’s probably never been done before.

Confusion, therefore, is a sign that you are heading in the right direction. It’s a signal that you have engaged in the problem solving pursuit that is math and technology and that it’s time for you to dig deeper and keep going because clarity awaits.

Turns out, there is scientific evidence to back up this idea that confusion is a friend and not a foe when it comes to learning complex concepts. As Annie Murphy Paul reported in KQED’s MindShift, a study at Notre Dame conducted by Sidney D’Mello found that subjects “who reported feeling confused by the exercise actually scored higher on a test.”

As D’Mello explains in the study, “we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result.”

Not only that, but a study at Arizona State conducted by Kurt VanLehn found that confusion was a critical step in the process of learning difficult physics material. Students who encountered what the scientists considered an “intellectual impasse,” ended up with a much more comprehensive understanding of the material.

Confusion, it seems, is absolutely necessary in order to get to that breathtaking moment of clarity.

So next time you are feeling frustrated and confused, remember what my dad told me: not only is it a good sign, it means you are on exactly the right track.

This post was originally posted at Skillcrush.

Adda BirnirAbout the guest blogger: Adda Birnir is Co-Founder of Balance Media, a women-led client services and product development company based in New York, and Skillcrush, an online learning community for female creatives, thinkers and makers. Our goal is to create the next generation of digitally-savvy, creative females who can rule the web. Adda’s principal interests are digital media, progressive journalism, art and infographics. Check out her website here. Follow her on Twitter at @builtbybalance.