We are all noobs

Michael reminded me of this:


but as you can see if you go follow the ensuing twitter conversation, it’s a rant that I can go on about for way more than 140 characters. So I will.

It’s incredibly common for people in any kind of support environment, or really any kind of tech learning space, to start off a completely reasonable and intelligent question with “hey, so I’m a total n00b, but…” and end even even a perfectly successful interaction with “oh god I’m such an idiot”. And I’m pretty sure that it’s all down to one really, really bad assumption and the consequences that follow from it:

  • The world is divided into two kinds of people, which for now I’ll call noobs and rockstars1.
  • Since there’s nothing in between the two, there must be some kind of infinite gap.
  • So a noob must obviously be a horrible thing to be.
  • Therefore, ohmygodohmygod I suck.
  • If I have a totally reasonable question, I need to crawl in to the channel/forum/classroom and immediately show my belly like a puppy afraid of being savaged.

And they have some very good reasons to do so. People can be real assholes, and nerd spaces have a longstanding rep for being incredibly unforgiving about any perceived stupidity. So playing submissive puppy is an understandable response: after all, why would you want to expose yourself to getting ripped apart by the pack?

It’s not just in support venues, either. If it weren’t for this kind of attitude, we wouldn’t have huge-selling book series on “… for Dummies” and “… for Complete Idiots”. (No offense to friends who have published in both series!) We certainly wouldn’t fall back on tired old tropes like “so simple your mom can do it” — aside from the nasty sexism, it assumes that there’s a whole class of non-technical people out there who are just fundamentally  incapable of getting anything hard.

And so if I think (or just secretly fear) that I’m on that side? Yeah, you bet I’m going to feel like the mere fact of having a question is something deeply shameful 2.

Meanwhile, for rockstars, the whole noob vs. rockstar thing is just as destructive (if not quite as obviously so at first: after all, they’re on the winning side of the equation). If it’s only the noobs who need to ask questions, then if I admit my ignorance on anything, I must secretly be a noob! Oh the shame! Better just not ask and admit weakness… And that way lies a nice self-defeating case of impostor syndrome, for the less confident among us; or the kind of junior dev arrogance that Garann talks about, for the otherwise inclined.

The fact is, learning doesn’t happen without a lot of painful and embarrassing bumping up against the stuff we don’t know, and it’s neither easy nor comfortable to be in that position. I’d even go so far as to say that’s why we learn: the sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering something you couldn’t handle an hour or a decade ago is a powerful driver to get through a painful process, but on an even more basic level, no longer having that awful pit-of-the-stomach feeling is even more so. Unless we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s impossible; in that case, most people just give up and avoid whatever it is that’s making them feel this way.

You’re a noob. I’m a noob. Hell, I’m a noob about all the things that people sometimes try to call me a rockstar about. We need to stop dividing up the world this way. And don’t let me catch you saying things like that about your mother.

  1. I have just as much of a problem with the “rockstar” side of the equation, but that’s a different rant
  2. The flip side is the bully who fronts expertise by calling other people noobs. If you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t do that.

4 thoughts on “We are all noobs

  1. The Junior-Dev Syndrome’s funny. The more someone’s reasonable about their skills, the more likely I am to respect them. (Also if I could figure out why more women tend to downplay their skills, I’d be a rich woman…)

    That day I realized ‘Shoot, I am a damned guru with this stuff!’ was surprising.

  2. I agree with what your saying in the main, but I think a lot of it comes down too not necessarily the term (although there’s some negative connotation in there, sure) but how people use the term to refer to themselves, and how others use it about other people — and how people choose to respond to said usage.

    I use nOOb or noob or newbie with impunity when it comes to things I’m interested in, but I a completely cheerful about not knowing much. But I just try to ask intelligent questions, but I don’t usually feel like I’m lesser or begging as I talk with people who know more than me. But I would definitely…er, uphold my honor, with prejudice (Kidding! Maybe.) if I was trying to learn something and someone got all holier-than-thou with me.

    Maybe that’s the advantage at being a noob in some things as you get a little older — you pretty much don’t give a flying rat’s ass about people who are negative. You know either to not engage or, when you do get into something, you take no crap.

  3. Right on, Amy.

    In general, I think we need to be less frightened of asking when we don’t understand something and less judgmental of those who ask. “Inquiring minds want to know.” To me, “newb” has always had undertones of “person who doesn’t yet know the measure of their vessel.” It’s important to constantly test yourself, and to ask that others test you, so you can get that measure.

    This is something that professional illustrators have to learn. The thing that separates pro illustrators from the “newbs” (the “amateurs” and “hobbyists”) is their ability to take criticism and improve. They’re lucky because everyone can tell when something looks bad. But not everyone can look at code and tell if it’s good or bad. Plus, once you reach a certain level of mastery with art, you’re a master. In web development, your work is never done. There is always a new spec, a new best practice a new SOMETHING that you had better get your nose into before the pack leaves you behind.

    I had a conversation with my husband about Garann’s post this morning. I said to him that we’re all newbs. Just some of us are a little more ahead of the curve than others or have a deeper understanding. But you’re always running with the pack toward the horizon; deep knowledge just lets you catch up faster.

    I have always felt rather awkward in my field. I have a solid, deep grounding in CSS and markup. But my JS is not impressive for a front-end developer. I blame my job history for my lopsided development: the skills you use are the skills you master. And I want to master JavaScript! I feel very shy admitting to other front-end developers that my JS is not where their’s is. But I also know that the only way for me to get better is to be honest with them about where I am, and to ask for their assistance in reaching new levels of expertise.

    Two things that help me overcome my shyness is to remember that experience counts for something, and that everyone has mastery over something that others do not. In my case, I have illustration skills. Would I think any less of a front-ender who asked me how to draw an arm better? No, I’d pick up a pencil and show them how!

  4. Nobody knows everything.
    Everybody is capable of learning.
    Learning new things is fun.

    Keep those three facts in mind, and eventually, somebody will refer to you as a rockstar… and you won’t know why. That’s the best part. :)

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