Failure, Stress, and Having a Growth Mindset

How setbacks can be conducive to growing as a software engineer and human being

I have spent the last fifteen weeks in a fast paced, concentrated coding bootcamp. Coming into the software engineering program at Flatiron School, I had an expectation that the material would be challenging. Along with a few web development languages, I also learned something equally (if not more) important: how to deal with stress and failure, and how to approach challenges and setbacks with a growth-oriented mindset. While I have by no means mastered the art of stress management, I can confidently say that I now see failures as opportunities for growth, rather than a condemnation of my intelligence.

Logically I know that I will, at times, fail. I’m human, and my brain has limits of what it can comprehend. In a coding bootcamp, the non-stop curriculum has pushed my poor brain to the limit. I have made mistakes, sure. But for some reason, receiving the message that I failed a code challenge sent me crashing down. Hard.

It led to self-doubt. Questioning if I deserved to be at the school. If I’d ever make it as a software engineer after school. If I’d even finish school. I worried about what my husband would think. My classmates. My parents. What if they all affirmed what raged through my mind: that I was a failure and in over my head?

Dark thoughts and negative self talk swirled through my mind and left me totally stuck. I spiraled. And Cried. And ate probably too many dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

And then I took a breath.

Ok. Let’s figure things out. Let’s keep moving. I’m not stopping. So I guess that means I need to keep moving forward. How do I move forward from this?

Can anyone relate?

I decided then that “failure” needed to be translated in my mind into “chance to develop and grow”. Instead of sulking, my new goal at signs of difficulty would be to try to approach the problem from a new angle. Maybe watch a lecture or a youtube tutorial and take notes. Or try making a mini project to practice new terms and skills. Instead of taking the first sign of difficulty as a sign to pump the brakes, now I aimed to simply take stock of where the confusion was and find material to help further my knowledge.

When I decided to reorient my thought process in the face of challenges, rather than shut down and self combust, a miraculous thing happened: I started having fun in school again. I looked forward to lectures and homework, because the looming weight of “not getting it fast enough” didn’t hang over my head. Not limited only to school, I started to notice the effect of this mental shift also at the gym! Instead of giving up during a long workout, I actually felt like I had the mental space to push harder. The fear of “failing” a workout by needing to lower weight or reps didn’t hold me back (as often). I started leaving the gym proud of my accomplishments, and encouraged at progress rather than critical of any changes I needed to make to my programming.

In hindsight, it turns out that failing that javascript code challenge was one of the best things to happen for my view of front end web development. Because I had feedback on what in particular I failed in, I was able to go back through lectures and notes and homework and deepen my understanding. In the span of 24 hours, I went from feeling overwhelmed and lost on DOM manipulation to being able to implement changes as intended. And it turned out, I genuinely enjoyed it!

Had I not failed, and had my weaknesses not been exposed, I probably would have continued shying away from front end logic and design due to my lack of confidence. I would have been missing out on a crucial aspect of web development, and would have not experienced something that I now find a lot of enjoyment in.

While I am still learning to approach challenges with a growth mindset, these last fifteen weeks have trained my thought patterns considerably. I am so grateful for all of the lessons (both technical and otherwise) I learned at Flatiron School. While the next step is not as clear cut as the previous, I look forward to more chances to grow.

Full stack software engineer with a background in quality control, and an eye for details and logic. Passionate about learning and inclusive environments.