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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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They Told Me I Was Smart

A great post over at Wired, Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, included a pretty comprehensive explanation of some research done by Stanford psychology professor Carol Weck. From the article:

Her most famous study, conducted in twelve different New York City schools along with Claudia Mueller, involved giving more than 400 fifth graders a relatively easy test consisting of nonverbal puzzles. After the children finished the test, the researchers told the students their score, and provided them with a single line of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence. “You must be smart at this,” the researcher said. The other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

The students were then allowed to choose between two different subsequent tests. The first choice was described as a more difficult set of puzzles, but the kids were told that they’d learn a lot from attempting it. The other option was an easy test, similar to the test they’d just taken.

When Dweck was designing the experiment, she expected the different forms of praise to have a rather modest effect. After all, it was just one sentence. But it soon became clear that the type of compliment given to the fifth graders dramatically affected their choice of tests. When kids were praised for their effort, nearly 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, when kids were praised for their intelligence, most of them went for the easier test. What explains this difference? According to Dweck, praising kids for intelligence encourages them to “look” smart, which means that they shouldn’t risk making a mistake.

Growing up, I was always being told that I was smart — by my family, by my teachers, and even by fellow students. I wore it as a badge of pride. And now I realize that was the worst thing for me — because I realize that back then — but even today — I make safe choices so that I avoid making mistakes and thus potentially looking stupid.

I need to print this out and carry it around with me, perhaps on the back of something that reads It’s OK to make mistakes!:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong — that surge of Pe activity a few hundred milliseconds after the error, directing our attention to the very thing we’d like to ignore — the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence.

Now we are 36

Another year has passed. Now I am 36.

I wanted to have a party this year. I wanted to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my 16th birthday. To me, this sounded like the perfect way of acknowledging how I feel — older in reality, but still celebrating my youth. But I’ve just been too busy to make it happen. And there have been more important things for me to worry about than a party for myself.

So instead I’m celebrating by writing this post.

What have I learned this past year?

I’ve finally realized that overcommitting myself does me no good. A year ago I would’ve acknowledged that it didn’t do anyone else any good, but finally I can see that it does ME no good. I already said no to one opportunity that came my way recently, and it was really hard. But I need to keep saying no to doing for others. I need to keep saying yes to myself. Being selfish is okay.

I also learned that it’s easy to get back into good habits, like working out every day — but it’s even easier to let yourself break those good habits because you think you’ll go right back to them. I did lose about 8 pounds this year, but I’ve also gained it back. Once I establish a goal and a set of habits around the goal, I need to stick with it. (Part of that whole “it’s okay to be selfish” thing.)

I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of not needing “stuff”. I got rid of one of my cars right before my last birthday, and since July my other car has been in storage. I’ve been to conferences where I don’t take the swag. I’ve been taking more books out from the library (and realizing that many of them just weren’t that interesting). I took about a quarter of my clothes to Goodwill last year and now I’m looking at my closet and thinking about getting rid of half of what’s in there. I take more digital pictures of things that are cute or visually appealing, rather than buy them to hang on to. Most significant, perhaps, is that I haven’t been able to write a “want list” of any kind. I’ve learned that I have everything I need. I probably don’t need everything I have.

Finally, in the past few months I have come to realize how incredible hard it is to take care of another person. It’s a huge mental drain, even when it’s not physically draining (which it often is). And managing other people’s expectations when it comes to caretaking is probably the hardest part of the whole thing. I’ve always been a supporter of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, but I think we need to have more conversations about allowing the elderly to choose to leave this Earth in a dignified manner of their choosing.

What have I achieved in the past year?

One goal that I’ve stuck with for a few years is getting out of debt. When I got laid off in 2008 I established a set of financial habits that I have successfully maintained. I won’t give specific numbers, but I will say that I now have more money saved as an emergency fund than I owe on all of my credit cards. In fact, I will be out of credit card debt by October! I check the numbers carefully every month (actually, daily), because part of me still can’t believe it will happen — but the other half of me doesn’t quite know what to do with the free time I’ll have soon, once I’m done obsessing about getting out of debt! I hope I can channel it towards my health goals.

Other “achievements” from this past year have weighed heavily on me, because I was giving too much of myself to make those things happen. So, in my mind, I’ve only achieved stressing myself out, which isn’t all that great of an achievement.

Favorite experiences from the past year

  • Finding my old friend, Rose, and being able to tell her how much she influenced my life
  • Seeing the re-formed (reformed?) Revolting Cocks perform in Chicago
  • Running 5 kilometers with no pain, and actually enjoying the run
  • Waking up to my cat pawing me (her new-ish thing, so that I get up early to feed her)
  • Getting up early on a Sunday morning to drive to the shore for pancakes with Scott

What I’m looking forward to in the year ahead

  • Getting out of debt!
  • Completing two back-to-back terms on the Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Association Executive Board
  • Losing 10 pounds
  • Figuring out what I want to do when I grow up

I think that’s pretty good for one year. Happy birthday to me.

Craftmanship can change the world

Most mornings, I hit the Starbucks near work for a double tall non-fat no-whip cinnamon dolce latte. Yes, it’s a mouthful to say. And apparently it’s a really tough drink to get right… at least for the morning crew at this particular Starbucks. Despite seeing the same crew regularly, I almost always have to correct them on some aspect of my drink that they’ve screwed up (espresso shots sat too long, wrong milk, wrong size drink, scorched milk, etc.). When I do point something out, rather than get an apology, I’m usually given some excuse as to why it’s not right. I’m starting to suspect that either they’re making my drink wrong on purpose or they just don’t care about their craft — but in either case, they send a clear signal: a job’s a job, and they don’t care about theirs all that much.

Web developers can’t have this attitude. We absolutely must care about our craft and continually ensure that our work is demonstrative of best practices (both industry and our own signature practices). Sloppy execution of our work leads to cross-browser problems, inaccessible features, confusing user interactions, and time lost refactoring code in the future. We don’t get to give excuses to our customers — if it doesn’t work, end users don’t use the site, and clients don’t pay. Messy code shows that we don’t care about leaving something our fellow developers can learn from, and it demonstrates that we don’t care to take the time get our code right.

I shudder to think about the kind of code the baristas at the local Starbucks would write, were they developers. If only they could be more like so many of the awesome developers/craftspeople I know… then I’d be happily caffeinated each morning. And if fewer developers wrote code the way those baristas make drinks? Well, the Web might just explode from all that awesomeness.

The Seventh Grade

While reading another story about the lack of diversity in STEM I was newly struck by the following statement, which I’ve heard in various forms over the years (emphasis mine):

“I think science is seen as a man’s world by a lot of people,” said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. “All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade.”

For me, sixth grade was spent in elementary school. I had one teacher, unless you counted the music, art, or gym teachers. We almost always had one computer (a TRS-80 or an Apple II/IIe) in our classroom, which the teacher actually knew something about and which we kids would typically fight over using. Even the few kids who had computers at home (like me) wanted to use the computer at school, and we’d rush to finish an assignment so we could get in some computer time.

Seventh grade was the start of junior high school for me, and thus began the hourly switching of subjects, teachers, and classrooms. In none of these classrooms did we have a computer, and I don’t ever remember my teachers mentioning computers. In junior high, the only computers I can recall were in the library, and they weren’t the sort that you “played” with. In addition, all of the extra-curricular activities I was starting took away from potential computer time at home.

So when I keep hearing about this crucial sixth/seventh grade time period for young girls, I can’t help but think back to my own experience around these grades. I didn’t lose interest in computers (or science or math) in seventh grade, but I was certainly separated from them. As time went on, I had less time to pursue those interests myself, and in some cases I was discouraged from pursuing them.

Sure, times have changed, but as the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Thus I’m inclined to assume that my experience may not really be that different from what kids experience today. Kids can’t stay in the elementary school environment forever, but with middle schools now starting at fifth and sixth grade, are we pushing change — not just academic and environmental, but social! — on them too soon, thus potentially losing more future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians?

Extraordinary World

The past 13 months have been a mixed bag of successes, failures, changes, growing pains, and learning opportunities. This time showed me who my real friends are and helped me realize what’s truly important to me. Silly as it may sound, the eleven Duran Duran concerts I was able to attend during this helped greatly with the process of finding and re-centering myself.

Duran Duran aftershow bracelets

Now the tour is over and life must return to normal. I’ve come to learn that normal for me isn’t what it is for others — the expectations I have of myself leading an extraordinary life constantly drive me to seek out unique opportunities. For a while, there were people in my life who made me feel as though this was an odd way to live, and I was always apologizing for doing the things that I loved to do. But the events and activities of the past year — and the love and support of friends — have helped me find myself again, and have shown me that an extraordinary life isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s what my whole life has been preparing me for.

2009 is going to be a very interesting and exciting year!

My collection of photos and videos from Duran Duran’s Red Carpet Massacre tour on Flickr