Hello, Humble Pie: Lessons in Data Science & Humility


This is a post about falling on your face.

And why that’s ok.

And why a dose of humility can be very good medicine.

Last month, I started a tech boot camp in data science. This is after quitting my job as a teacher last year, and part of a complete life overhaul, to gain a new skill, form a new career, and change my quality of life.

But data science isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse.

At breakneck speed, I have been learning to code. Until a couple of months ago, everything about it was completely foreign to me, and until a couple of weeks ago, it was still just baby steps.

Even through two degrees, never have I worked so hard cognitively to keep up. After several weeks of Visual Basic, Python, and Pandas (non-coders, don’t ask... did not involve a trip to the zoo, unfortunately), I can most of the time successfully comprehend what I’m learning. Although my brain does literally start to hurt from concentrating. Generating my own work from scratch is a bit of a different matter though.

To add to that, I am somewhat of an anomaly in the room. Not the only woman, thank goodness. (I had some worries about that at the beginning.) But I am definitely cut from a different cloth. “A blonde walked into a tech boot camp” is sort of how I would describe it. I am the only one with a gold MacBook. Colorful snakeskin wedge shoes. A water bottle that says “Meditate.” One of the few in the room who speaks up, frequently. Often the only woman who talks in class. And talk I do. I ask every question, from dumb to insightful. When asked if I’m getting it, I say “No” out loud when I’m not. And I will say it repeatedly, much to the dismay of my pride, who is taking a beating in this whole affair.

I have had several interactions which underscore some of the cultural elements of my mismatch. There is a “way of speaking” that men in tech do (this is probably similar to a “way of speaking” in many male-dominated fields)… My friend characterized it as speaking in technical jargon very fast so as to seem like you really know what you’re talking about. Not particularly appropriate in this instance, since the room we are in is designed for instruction, and about half of the room is totally new to coding. I have regard for my instructor, who is pretty good at communicating foreign concepts most of the time. But in general in this space, there is something of a struggle to communicate the language of tech in a way that is accessible to non-techies. The gap is pretty remarkable, actually. It is as though the poker players can only speak to others at the poker table. If you don’t play poker? Can't really talk to you.

It is a culture somewhat closed to outsiders. There are lots of assumptions made, smaller skills, concepts, or tasks brushed over, topics dominated by testosterone. When I am really stuck at something or overwhelmed, and I press on our instructors rather than just sit silently in confusion, I am often met with a remarkable struggle as for how else to explain things in plain English.

This week I had a meltdown. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one, but after 20+ hours of plodding through the homework assignment, I was little further than when I started. Even after asking for help, and getting some. It was as though the equation more time = more progress had completely gone out the window. I was PMS-y, exhausted, achey. And I was failing at this assignment, no matter how hard I tried.

Suddenly the snowball went all the way down the mountain in an instant. Not only was I failing at this one assignment, I had made a complete mistake in doing the boot camp, coding was a colossal mismatch, and the time, money, and cross-country move were a complete waste. And, in fact, I was doomed to never figure out what to do with myself and repeat this same mistake ad nauseam. And, I felt very, very isolated and alone.

After I got my bearings, I tried to take stock of what was happening. I am told I am doing better than I think I am, that this is what happens in the beginning of learning to code. I also reminded myself that the point of this affair for me was not to become a software developer. I do not want to get a job sitting coding all day. Noooo, thank you. So, if ultimately I suck at it, I suck at it. I will have still learned a ton. And who really effin’ cares?

Here is what I am learning:

  • The ability to recognize when I have reached a mental or emotional limit, and how to walk away when I need to.

  • How to be better at getting to “figureoutable” when things seem “impossible,” and the strategies of searching for answers.

  • How to work hard and do your best, but also when not to care quite as much.

  • The humility to say, “I’m failing at this,” or “I'm lost” … in front of other people. Or people who judge you.

  • How to sit with being uncomfortable. (Dosed my own medicine on that one, didn’t I?)

  • How to (hopefully) surpass my own limits.

  • How sometimes you are reminded of who you are and what your unique gifts are by being shown what you are not.

I am also reminded of something I read once, I think in the realm of advice to entrepreneurs. The advice was to silo your life (I’m recalling perhaps this Tim Ferriss podcast?), so that when one thing is failing spectacularly, you have at least a couple other things going on that can serve as a foil, where you can have some success so it doesn’t feel like you, your day, or your entire life is a failure. Bonus points if these other endeavors are totally outside your work realm, i.e. you’re trying to build a start-up, but you also have a regular work out practice (something physical) and you paint for fun (something artistic).

Since uprooting everything in my life, thus far I’ve felt remarkably fine being untethered, and by myself. I mostly have not felt alone, scared, anxious. This week has shown me where the weak spot is there. I do not have enough other systems and connections in place in my new home of San Diego so that when this one thing (boot camp) feels like it’s tanking spectacularly, I can still swim instead of sink, by anchoring to other things. I need the other things. I need a dance class, a yoga class, a choir, a volunteer activity, a social outlet. 

Someone recently reminded me of one of the blessings of humility: it is not just a hallmark, but a requirement of great leaders. We are not always strong. It is what and how we do in those moments of being “face down in the arena” (a Brené Brown-ism… perhaps it’s time to dust off that copy of Rising Strong again) that counts.

Humble Pie means you say, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have this figured out.”

Humble Pie means you notice that feeling of embarrassment when you ask for help and are totally lost, and are met with a kind of “Do you even know how to do this?” It means that you keep asking, even though that feeling makes you kind of want to shrink in and shrivel up.

(*Teachers, be so careful about this. Remember what it’s like to be in these shoes. Because isn’t every students in these shoes at some point?)

Humble Pie means you keep showing up. You keep on asking for help. You’re like a (nice) squeaky wheel.

Humble Pie means patience. With yourself and others.

Humble Pie means you figure out what you need to be ok, and you do that. Rather than pedaling harder on the same hamster wheel.

Humble Pie means accepting yourself even when you’re failing. It means rewiring how you talk to yourself in your head about that failure.

Humble Pie means remembering your self and worth are far deeper than the failure.

Humble Pie means extending that generosity to others.

So, hello, Humble Pie boot camp. Thanks for the lessons. I’m sure there’ll be more. Keep ‘em coming.


Illustration: Wayne Thiebaud