Starting and the fear of breaking things

When I first got into computer programming, over a decade ago, I would take code somebody else had created and then modify it to match my ideas. Often the cycle of copying and then tweaking would break things in the process.

I’d have an idea for an application, something that I needed on my own computer and figured others might enjoy as well, so I’d go scouring around the Internet for free, open-source code that I could copy. I’d have to copy dozens of existing bits of code from all around the web and then modify it to work how I needed it to.

Often I’d have make changes to code without having a full understanding of what it was I was changing. A period or some parenthesis would go missing in the code and suddenly the entire application broke. It wouldn’t run or function the way I wanted it to, so I would go back through all of the code and find the changes I made and figure out what was breaking and why.

And you know what happened? As a result of digging through the code so often, I learned more about programming than any book or class has ever taught me.

When you aren’t afraid to break things, you end up learning a lot more about what it is you’re trying to master than if you simply stuck with textbook tutorials. I took the same mentality of experimenting, breaking, and tweaking, into other areas of my life as well, including web development. Today, I’m now developing websites and online applications for international businesses and indie groups, as well as making best-selling creative iPhone apps.

I’m not sure who came up with this quote exactly, but while reading Anil Dash’s presentation notes from Josh Reich of Simple bank, it stood out for me like gospel. The quote is: “Don’t let your fear of breaking things keep you from trying new experiments, that’s how you learn about the real world.”

Too often we’re afraid of experimenting, of getting our hands dirty or trying something new, because we don’t want to break anything. But it’s through experimenting (and regularly through breaking things) that we learn and grow. How many things have you put off or ignored or let fall away from your to-do list because you didn’t know where to start or were simply afraid of breaking things?

What you’ll find, as you start getting into the work of any project, is that when you do break something it’s usually pretty easy to figure out why it broke and how to fix it. I’m reminded of a similar lesson my Father taught me when I was younger: everything is easier once you start.

Sure, you’ll make some mistakes (all beginners do), and you may break things here and there, but if you want to learn then those opportunities to break things are the best ones you’ve got.

This is a reminder to not let fear get in your way of trying new things and experimenting. It’s ok to get down and dirty in a mess, you can always clean yourself off and learn from what you’ve torn apart.