Content warning: mentions of suicide
Time to read: ~10 minutes
. . .
So. I'm actually here. The finish line. Well, it's more like I now qualify for the race, but I digress. It's a little surreal being here, nearly 1 year after starting this journey. As I'm reflecting on the past year, I figured I'd share some of the most important lessons I learned during my time at Launch School.
My Educational Overview
For those of you who haven't seen me discuss my educational history, here's the SparkNotes version:
- attended college 2016-2019
- jumped between majors ranging from electrical engineering to criminal justice to kinesiology (and a couple in between)
- dropped out in spring of 2019 with a 1.7 GPA
- attended Bootcamp To Remain Anonymous in fall of 2019
- dropped out after about 3 weeks mainly due to lack of:
- and also felt very preyed upon
During all that time, I've also:
- worked in the IT world as a help-desk technician for a household name
- worked as a Minimum Viable Developer (MVD) for about a year
- worked teaching robotics to grade-school children
- technically was 2012-2016 but I lump it in because it's where all this started
Where Launch School Fits In
I stumbled upon LS by accident in February of 2020 (pre-"You Know What"), and it was like the heavens opened up and the pedagogy page descended from the sky. I was currently working a developer job that I knew wouldn't get me where I wanted to be, and I felt like I had exhausted all my possible resources to reach that coveted title: software engineer. It was like whatever advertisement algorithm that pushed LS in front of me actually understood what I needed for once.
So, I started in February and it was smooth sailing from there? Absolutely not.
I delayed starting LS for two months, for a couple of important reasons (hint: this is where the first lessons are learned, for those of you in the back of the class not paying attention).
The first is that my life was very unstable, in a lot of ways. My cousin had killed himself in January, I had just gotten out of a 4-year long-term relationship, I was living outside of my mom's house for the first time in my life, and the world was in a general state of unrest, even pre-"You Know What". I'd also later come to learn I was mis-prescribed a medication that heavily impacted my issues related to de-personalization.
The second is that I regularly made decisions based on impulse, not reasoning. Most of my decision-making process in my life up to that point had been tied to my impulses and gut feelings. Granted, there are times and places to trust your impulses and gut instincts, but I knew that this was not such a time.
While I trusted how I felt about LS, I knew that (especially after reading all their informational pages) the proper route was to let it sit and see how I felt about it after an extended amount of time. By giving myself the time to think about this decision, my life had calmed down to an extent for me to find a more natural starting point for this new venture.
The Start of a Journey
Fast-forward to the end of April 2020 and I've just finished my written assessment revisions for RB109. I got an A-. That's good enough, right? Right? Or at least, that's what I kept asking myself. It was the most intensive process I had gone through for a test. I went through 3 revision rounds. It was the first time a grader had gone through each question and picked apart specifically where I went wrong, and allowed me to expound upon and further explain myself. A lot more informative than the occasional '???' in the margins on my Calculus II exams.
But with that came the next part: the interview portion of the assessment. This is where my educational anxiety got a chokehold on me. What if they would find out I was faking? That I actually don't know all of these things? It's much easier to feign knowledge through text than through a live discussion. What I didn't realize at the time is that the assessments exist for that very reason: they act as a feedback-loop to solidify that knowledge rather than a hoop to jump through.
So I stopped!
Yep, I stopped. Mid unit. Mid assessment, really. Which actually points to one of LS' greatest strengths: flexibility. I paused my subscription, finished up some projects at work, took a few community college courses in psychology, but by the time July rolled around I still felt like I had passed up on a truly transformative experience. So I came back, this time making LS my full-time focus (and yes, I recognize that I'm in a privileged enough place in life to have the support I need to do that).
It might have also been because my research opportunity for the fall of 2020 at Well-Known University working on an intersection of software and early childhood development fell through because of "You Know What" so I needed to pivot anyway. I'm not still bitter it's okay I'm okay. Moving on.
The Nitty Gritty
I hit the ground running. Sprinting, really. Between July 31st and October 25th (~3 months), I went from completing my RB109 interview assessment to finishing the LS216 assessment (8 units), all with a minimum score of A. While some of you, especially early on in the courses, might be jealous of my pace and wonder why you can't go that fast, the worst thing you can do is compare your journey as a developer to someone else's. Also don't ask me for study tips, how I got good grades, etc. Honestly I have no clue and if I gave you a guide to my studying methodologies it might as well be written in Wingdings. At this point I think my brain's source code is written in Wingdings. The other day I saw someone on Slack say something about Zettlekasten or something so maybe look into that?
In addition to that, you never know the full story, and what's going on behind the scenes is just as important. I was still beholden to a lot of very difficult to control aspects of how my brain works. The reason I could go at that pace was that if I got hyper-fixated on something, I could not stop, even if I wanted to. This led to 20+ hour sessions of sitting at my desk, reading, researching, taking notes, developing projects, and taking assessments. No eating, rarely drinking, definitely not exercising. Some of my best assessment performances were when I was sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and mentally checked out from the rest of my life. Keep in mind all of this is being done in my "office" (fancy term for the attic in my mom's house with no windows and intermittently functional AC), so it was super easy to just not pay any attention to the rest of my life.
I had to finish in time for Capstone prep in December, I kept telling myself. I didn't want to continue being a burden on my mom (who was supporting every aspect of my life, including LS until I was accepted into the DPP). Because of that pressure I was putting on myself, I fell into the same trap that made me so unsuccessful in traditional educational environments: I found a nice hiking trail and plopped a treadmill down right at the trailhead. I was so concerned about the numbers on my treadmill display telling me how fast I was going and how many miles I had run that I hadn't noticed I had gone nowhere. I was still at the trailhead.
Had I made progress at LS and passed assessments and put in a lot of work? Of course. But because of my mindset, the pressures that should be relieved in an environment like LS were still present because I was imposing them on myself. With that pressure came anxiety; with the insanely fast pace came burnout.
Learning to Slow Down
It's the first week of November 2020 and I should have seen this coming from miles away. I had just passed the LS216: Computational Thinking and Problem Solving assessment and felt like my back was up against a wall. I was getting the same feelings I usually get as I close in on finishing something. For a lot of reasons that I might expound upon in a later blog post, the winter tends to be a time of radical change in my life. I quit/start jobs, I start/end relationships, I change majors. In general, I self-sabotage. The itch was getting stronger and stronger, to the point where I felt like I HAD to do something. I felt that if I wasn't finished in the next month then I didn't deserve to finish. And since I knew I wasn't gonna finish in the next month, I might as well move on to the next impulsive decision.
Enter the fight or flight response. Each of my radical life changes during the past 5 winters could be boiled down to fight or flight. What some people may not realize is that there's a very common third choice in that response: do nothing. Some animals might turn aggressive when faced by a predator to scare them off. Some might use their agility to escape. Many others do nothing. Some have natural camouflage. Some play dead. Even though most of us work with computers, rarely does anything else in life boil down to a binary decision.
So I did nothing.
At least, that's what it might look like on my assessment page. LS216: 5 months ago vs. LS229: 1 month ago. While taking multiple months per unit is by no means abnormal at LS, it was for me. Something I still struggle with is the feeling that I did nothing between November and the end of February. But, did I really do nothing? In some aspects, yeah. In the same way I used to have 20+ hour manically productive stints, I had 20+ hour depressive not-getting-out-of-bed stints. But mixed in there was a drive, a drive to change and get better.
So what did I do for those 4 months?
I started therapy again. With intention this time, not just showing up and treating it like any other doctor's appointment as I had in the past. I had a list of things I wanted to get better at and ways I wanted to change. I got my diagnoses after about two months of heavy introspection and intensive therapy. I started exercising consistently again. Nothing crazy, just walking most mornings. I started being more restrictive in my diet. Not in a stressful way, but in a mindful way. I started new ADHD medication. I navigated complicated familial and personal relationships that in the past would have triggered very destructive behaviors.
And, most importantly, after those 4 months I returned to my studies. With a renewed drive, I pushed through and finished the Core Curriculum, with my best assessment performances being those last two units.
Two days from now, March 31st, is my birthday. I turn 23. It's a little strange that I finished the Core Curriculum so close to that day. While I know 23 is such a small number, it feels so big. As is obvious from this post, I struggle with mental health issues. My last suicide attempt was on my birthday last year. I never, ever saw myself where I am now. My main reason for writing this is for it to exist as an artifact that proves me wrong. I will undoubtedly be in that place again, and I can read this to remind myself that with work, time, and the support of my family, friends, and unexpected strangers and classmates on the Internet, I can climb back out of it.
Looking back, I realize Launch School has been the transformative experience I hoped it would. What I didn't realize is that reaching this finish line would teach me so much more about myself than it did about software.
Thanks for reading!
And, as stated above, I would not be here without the tremendous LS community and my friends. If we've interacted a lot and you don't see your name, it's most likely because I'm a face person and while you exist in my heart you may not exist in the object-permanence section of my brain.
My wonderful mother
The Boys (Keaton, Josh, Luke, Grant, Hunter, Jacob, Clay)