Stop Looking for Advice

The best advice you can get while learning to program is the advice you do not get because you are too busy shipping.

There is no magical formula that will automatically get you to where you want to be in your journey of learning programming. The reason is that once you reach a certain elementary level of mastery, you can only advance by building actual software, not by reading about building them. Therefore we need to spend less time looking for advice and more time on shipping stuff.

Avoid Abstract Instructions

The hard truth is that almost all instructions are a part self-promotion and a part attempt at being helpful. In other words, consuming advice from other people generally do not directly improve your programming skills, no matter how credible or professional the sources might appear. This article you are reading now is not an exception. I can promise that it will not make you a better programmer, nor will it tell you something that you do not already know by heart. You might as well stop reading it and start building.

There is only one reason that beginner programmers keep looking for advice and those more experienced keep professing as though they knew it all. The moment we preach not to look for advice, the very first thing that cannot be denied is that such opinion is in itself an advice. In other words, the advice of not looking for advice proceeds to deprive itself of any logical justification. Therefore experts cannot say it like it really is without undermining their very credibility.

Take Only Baby Steps

It is particularly dangerous to keep searching for advice that is too broad. Certainly, we should seek help to accomplish various small feats in everyday situations. But it is a waste of time to browse the Internet for abstract topics such as how to become a better programmer. You cannot just consume tutorials on such philosophical subject matters and take a giant leap forward.

Instead, take baby steps toward the place you immediately want to be in the next moment, by building your own ideas. What really worked out for me when I was learning to program for the first time was to spend all my time on looking up how to build a thing, and on actually building it. Rince and repeat. If you get stuck, take smaller steps instead to make up for that one big step you wanted to take.

a Stack Overflow reputation chart
A chart showing Stack Overflow reputation as I taught myself to program

A good place to get help is sites such as Stack Overflow because they help you get over small problems we immediately face, rather than providing philosophical advice. Those sites do not promise a grandiose vision of making us better programmers by taking 4-week courses or mastering JavaScript in 10 hours. Whenever you see someone selling such things, please run away and do not look back.

The advice you should get are things such as how to roll back that migration you messed up. Or how to write a regex to match that pesky string. Or how to speed up that query that takes several seconds to run. You need such advice so that you learn how to do those things, not so that you can magically transform yourself into a master programmer by some abstract means.

This Was My Advice

At the risk of undermining the very thing that it intends to profess, my dearest advice to you is never to seek advice. The world around us learners is inundated with cheap information that allures our attention by instantly gratifying prospects of growth. And we are often caught in the endless cycle of seeking advice, especially as beginners, for all the wrong reasons.

Instead learn how to animate that button in CSS, how to recursively walk that tree, or how to rate limit your API. Learn them so that your button and your tree and your API can be more themselves, not so that you can be taken to the next level. Be wary of advice that is any broader than things such as those. Ironically that was my advice. I am not in a position to argue that it is any truer than those that I just criticized. But there were some things to be said, and you can be the judge of them. Yes, there were some things to be said. And therefore I have to end this series by destroying itself. Stop looking for advice and start building. And one day when you are busy building something, if this self-contradictory advice somehow finds its place in your head, you will know why it had to be this way.

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Sung Cho

I am a developer interested in learning new things in an efficient way.

Sydney, Australia

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