Pre-MHacks Thoughts

I fly out tomorrow at 8am to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for my second major hackathon: MHacks. It’s one of the most hyped up and talked about events in the Hackathon Hackers community on Facebook, which with over 10,000 members is one of the biggest if not the biggest hacking community in existence. But I’m not feeling the excitement – to be honest, I’m scared of failure. And I’m trying to figure out why, so I can change that negative energy into positive motivation.

I went to my first major hackathon, HackGT, with feelings of being able to accomplish the impossible – unbounded enthusiasm, passion, feeling. I was (and DEFINITELY still am) the typical excited freshman unaware of the true grit and hard work required to ship a finished product – just blissful that I get to fly across the country for free to follow a passion, unobstructed with school or other extracurriculars, that I’ve had for over four years.

I came in with what I thought was an awesome, doable idea – a Google Chrome extension that would add saving functionality to Facebook posts.

Yet the project, while simple enough conceptually, turned out to be far more complicated than the teammate I found there and I expected. Documentation for Chrome extensions turned out to be very unhelpful, and Facebook feeds were an endlessly dynamic flow of content that required advanced Javascript/Chrome-specific software that were beyond the limits of what we could learn in 36 hours.  In the end, we walked out with a Chrome extension that added a save button, minus its functionality, to Facebook posts.

In all honestly though, that was the only downside to the whole experience, if that can even be considered a downside. I made some great friends and caught up with two old ones I hadn’t seen in a long time. I learned what it was like to fly across the country by myself, how to Javascript, how to divide up work between teammates, how to Git, and some ins and outs of how big hackathons work.

After I came back, I was still in high spirits. I had just experienced all these new things and I was still absorbing them. I was still enthusiastic about the Facebook Chrome extension project, telling myself I would finish it in the free time I had left in summer and during my first quarter of college. As time went on, though, life happened and the project never materialize. I became… ambivalent about the whole experience.

I’d like to call myself a hacker – someone who enjoys taking up problems and figuring out an innovative solution using hardware and software. I love computer science and making complicated things come to life on a screen and even in reality, if it’s hardware, by simply entering a couple thousand words into Sublime Text 2 or Vim or whatever IDE and clicking the run button. There’s so much pleasure and satisfaction with having the deep understanding of how a complicated thing functions. All hackers feel this way, to some extent. But here is a fact that bothers me: I don’t have anything to show for it. I’ve done tutorials, I’ve gone to hackathons, but I haven’t fully finished a project, 100%, all the way to completion. I’ve yet to complete a computer science project I’m proud of.

I guess I’m in that stage of my life where I’m trying pretty hard to figure out who I am and who I want to be. Hackathons are opportunities to exhibit this self-perception that’s tied to my career and aspirations and passions and self-respect. So it doesn’t feel right to call myself a hacker before those skills that I tell myself I have manifest themselves through a finished product. Now, it feels like MHacks is a matter of proving that this perception I have of myself is more than an unsubstantiated fancy.

It runs deep. But I think there’s another part of me swimming around here that I haven’t caught yet that runs still deeper.

My attitude towards failure in high school wasn’t so great. Early on in 9th grade, I received sympathy for expressing my sadness about failures, which made me feel better. As the years went by and as I failed and succeeded (just like anyone else who’s had a normal high school life) in more things , my friendships changed and I no longer received that sympathy. I think I started expecting that sympathy from myself, leading some pretty bitter periods of my life that I’m not exactly proud of (read some of my old posts, you may see it 😛 ) I’ve come out on the other side a lot happier, though I’m still picking apart and learning from what happened.

Being a hacker or a programmer is merely a status. At the end of the day, it’s a label for a skill set, and in the grand scheme of life, it’s as transient as the clothes I wear every day. It’s a passion, sure – it’s a potential career, sure – but I think I’m more defined by something more constant: how I approach every general challenge, every general emotional obstacle that may come across my path in the (hopefully) long journey of life.

It’s clearer now why I’m so ambivalent about HackGT. I wasn’t afraid that one experience would define me – I was afraid that the experience was symptomatic of a general inability to commit to something and execute it to completion. Which is definitely something far more serious. Looking at it this way, how I define myself is no longer a question of skills I may or may not possess at this point in time, but a question of willpower. Willpower was what prevented me from ever finishing that Chrome extension, not my lack of knowledge.

So here’s the deal: This weekend, it doesn’t matter whether I believe I’m a hacker or not. It doesn’t matter whether I ship something or not. What does matter is how hard I’m going to try to come up with an idea I’m proud of. What does matter is to what lengths I’m willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone to accomplish this goal. Because how I choose to approach this challenge, and whether I choose to learn from instead of be defined by my failures, is indicative of how I’m going to approach the rest of the challenges waiting for me in life, which outnumber and outsize MHacks 100,000,000,000 to 1.

At the first hackathon I went to, I did Android tutorials for 24 hours. The second, I tried for 36 hours to ultimately fail in finishing my first hackathon-worthy idea. This is my third hackathon. Will I continue this upward trend of improvement? Does it matter? Will I choose to be proud of success, or proud of effort?

I have no idea. I’m about to find out.