Lessons learned outside of class: Search for breadth first

Andre Stackhouse writes in University of Washington's student newspaper, 'The Daily,' about the lessons learned as an Informatics student (expected graduation, June 2014):

Lesson: Cast a wide net and catch many fish — metaphorical fish, unless you’re a fisherman.

Growing up, I was often told, “Everyone is good at something, but nobody is good at everything.” My take away was that I had a natural set of talents I should develop and that I shouldn’t worry about anything else. This point felt reiterated when I reached college and was told by numerous people that I should do what I love, as if there was some kind of two-way fork in the road with one direction labeled “your passion” and the other labeled “everything else.”

It’s fair to say I attempted to follow this advice, but it proved very difficult. Having many passions meant it wasn’t obvious how and where to spend my time. My father had worked as an engineer in the software industry for most of his career, and I had a longstanding passion for technology. This presented an obvious direction for me to go in, combining a genuine passion with lucrative career options.

Unfortunately, despite previous proficiency, my abilities in math and science didn’t carry me through the UW’s prerequisite courses for the computer science program, and my first attempt in a computer programming class went remarkably poorly. I never even applied to the department.

However, failing to crack this industry in my first attempt had a silver lining. Dog paddling through college for two years led me on many adventures that I may not have needed had I figured things out sooner.

Combining my strength in English and philosophy classes with my affinity for film, music, books, and video games, I began working for The Daily as an arts writer and as a videographer for an affiliated UWTV show, The Daily’s Double Shot.

I declared informatics — a cross-section of design, business, and computer science — as my major and continued to develop my technical skills both within and outside of my department. Though it was unclear how any of these would ever be connected, I did them for reasons of love, stubbornness, and curiosity. My GPA suffered from committing to so much and persistently taking classes I knew would be hard for me (and were outside of my degree requirements), but the breadth of my learning has proved valuable in unquantifiable ways.

These experiences only connected once I considered a career in the video-game industry.

A combination of an informatics contact and my work for UWTV led to my introduction to the International Game Developers Association, where I helped them do some video work for an event. Had I been only a videographer, the event would have been a one-time interaction, and had I only been an aspiring game developer, it wouldn’t have happened at all. The connection was nonlinear, but The Daily’s Double Shot earned me contacts in the indie gaming community valuable to a budding game developer.

Meanwhile, as my technical skills developed, I had been attending weekend hackathons where, with a small team, I’d spend the weekend building games. The first time I realized I was far better at programming outside of class than I was inside of class was when I saw my first game to completion. Then, my second game directly led to my first internship, which was at a local gaming startup called Zhurosoft.

Officially a game developer for the summer, I called on my time as an arts writer and the insights into game design I had developed because of it. For years now, I had been breaking film and games down to their elements, asking questions like “How well can the audience relate to this character?” and “What exactly is it that makes this game fun?” This kind of analysis gave me a deeper understanding of an audience’s relationship with entertainment, one I doubt I’d have ever been taught in any programming class.

Even if my career is not ultimately in video games, my experiences have made me more complete. For every story told here, there are three about something I tried that led nowhere. However, many of the things I did for no other reason than my love or interest for them ended up having value in ways and places I never expected.

My time in informatics has prepared me for a career in management in technology and sharpened my entrepreneur’s mentality. Studying outside of class helped me develop my abilities as an engineer and make contacts in the industry, and working as a writer has helped me understand people and break things we love down to their component parts. I’ve met brilliant and fascinating people every step of the way. Where I once had no clue what I would do with my life, I now have opportunities in many fields and am often confronted with challenging decisions about how many things I can take on with my time.

If I was being honest, I would modify the aforementioned phrase to “Nobody’s good at anything … unless they work at it.” The intent is not to be discouraging or to deny the existence of talent but rather to explain that most people are average in most ways and that expertise is not something people are born with but comes only with hundreds of hours of dedication (or 10,000 according to Malcolm Gladwell).

More than many realize, greatness is a choice. Nurture talents and address weaknesses. Life isn’t a road as much as an ocean, so cast your net wide. The most important lessons are often the subtle ones learned in the pursuit of something or through people met on the way rather than the goal itself. The value may not even be obvious enough to notice, but it’s there.