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by Jacob O'Bryant

Production and Learning

Recently I've been thinking about two different mindsets: a production mindset and a learning mindset. Whenever I'm working, I have predominantly one or the other. The production mindset is characterized by efficiency and output. You try to accomplish as much as possible with the least amount of resources. You make heavy use of the 80/20 rule, only doing things that are essential. You get things done. The learning mindset is characterized by curiosity and growth. You take time to explore different possibilities. You're not worried about meeting a deadline. You don't care about "wasted effort."

This distinction came to mind as I was building a prototype web application in my spare time. I was trying to hook up Sente and Pedestal (two Clojure libraries for web sockets and HTTP routing, respectively). I didn't find any examples demonstrating this, but I followed the instructions on Sente's Github page. Unfortunately I ended up with a bug that I didn't understand nor know how to fix. I did more Googling, asked a friend for help and was considering messaging Sente's author. However, I looked at Sente's source code a bit and found out that it wasn't terribly long. Instead of groping around in the dark, I could delve into the code to deepen my understanding of what was actually going on.

This also made sense because I wasn't in a rush. The whole point of building this prototype was to help me learn more about building web applications, so why not take the time to understand how a websocket library works under the hood? It seemed like such a novel idea to me, and now I realize it's because I'd spent the past seven years in a production mindset.

Seven years ago is when I started college, and until I graduated it was a constant struggle to finish homework, complete projects and prepare for exams. I was happy if I got enough sleep every night. So of course I had a production mindset—I needed to finish my coursework efficiently just to keep a healthy balance in my life. My time on the job since graduating has similarly had a production mindset not because I'm being pushed by deadlines all the time (I'm not) but because... it's a job. Our customers want features X, Y and Z, and I'm being paid to help get it done.

However, there was a time when I had a learning mindset: high school. I was home schooled up until starting college, and my parents gave me a lot of flexibility. In high school I started diving into programming and Linux. I learned on my own from my own motivations. When I had an idea for a new program to write, I'd pause my work in other subjects while I focused on programming. Since I was being motivated by curiosity and enjoyment, I took my time to learn new things. It was great. When the project wrapped up, I would catch up in my other subjects. Then the cycle would repeat.

I look back on my high school years with fondness. I learned so much. If I have any regrets about my college education, it's that I spent practically the entire time in a production mindset. It certainly helped to develop character traits like diligence, but it wasn't the best for gaining knowledge. All in all, I have this gut feeling that I could've become much more with a learning mindset.

But that being said, what would I have done differently? Quit my part-time job? I learned a lot from that, and I appreciated the financial independence it gave me. Should I have taken fewer credits? That would've disqualified me from scholarships. Maybe I should've allowed my GPA to fall in order to free up time. In any case, it was a difficult situation, and the right solution is probably systemic.

This idea opens up a few more questions; for example, can you have an even mix of learning and production mindsets? Or does it have to be primarily one or the other? How can a learning mindset be facilitated at school and work? As an individual, how can you create room in your life for a learning mindset? Perhaps I'll think more about these questions in another essay, but for now, I'm itching to spend more time learning for the sake of learning. More on that in my next essay.

Published 23 Oct 2018

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