In Which I Choke Under Extreme Pressure

If you have spent any time on this website, you may know that I quite like coding.

How much do I like it? Well I'm soon going to hit the top 0.5% of users on Codewars for problems solved. It's like a recreational activity for me (apart from when experiencing severe burnout).

When an opportunity to participate in a coding tournament arose as part of the data science bootcamp I'm attending, I was so excited.

The moment came and the first two problems I solved with no issues. Infact, I was the first person to solve both of them.

This high standard of performance I set no doubt added to the ever mounting pressure I was feeling.

The third problem was to count how many vowels are in a string. Easy. Within a few seconds I typed out:

return len([c for c in str if c in 'aeiou'])

Wait it doesn't work, why doesn't it work?

Well the answer is obvious now. I'm not checking for uppercase vowels. One class method away from passing.

At the time I was feeling some sort of intense pressure to perform. People were talking in the background, there was an audio echo so everything people were saying was repeated 12 times.

The performance anxiety I was experiencing was very extreme. My hands were shaking, I was sweating and my heart was pounding.

I was in an unfamiliar programming environment, I didn't feel I had the time to properly read and diagnose the error being given. All this lead to more stress, and even less ability to think. I was eliminated at round 3.

Staring at a laptop screen with head in hands

I could have made it to the end, I knew how to solve the problems with relative ease, but in the moment I just (metaphorically) died.

The Desire to Succeed

Sometimes I feel there is a huge sense of competition and drive to be the best at things. This is perfectly incapsulated in a scene in American Psycho where a group of coworkers compare business cards.

This satirises the absurd lengths for which some people will go to prove their worth, with Patrick Bateman showing discomfort at somebody having a better business card than him. On the outside he must pretend that it's all okay. Showing jealousy would be a sign of weakness.

I recognise this need to strive for perfection as an unhealthy trait, but it feels so deeply ingrained inside of me that it's not trivial to just think "I'm not going to be like that anymore".

It has lead to further struggles in my personal development, where if something is hard, often I would consider it not worth bothering.

This leads to a tendancy to think I'm not good at things. This is what's lead to me having my guitar largely unused for 16 years, amongst other things. The reality is that you cannot be good at things without working for it.

I have put effort into reframing this in recent years. Being bad at something is one step towards becoming good. If something is too hard, take a step back, try something easier, try break a task down into small steps to make it seem less daunting.

So What Can I Do About It?

My reaction to working under pressure was extreme. Very extreme. It reminds me of the anxiety I felt when I first tried to record my own voice. But experience let that fade, and now I only feel mildly anxious when I record myself.

What this indicates is that practise and exposure is key. Working under pressure by simulating stressful conditions might be the answer I'm looking for.

Websites like Hackerrank have interview preparation - solving coding problems with a timer ticking away. Even this has lead me to flounder under pressure.

Instead of using this as a learning experience, I have since avoided solving problems under time pressure, because I found it such a miserable experience. But it's time to face this head on instead of staying in the relative comforts of the familiar Codewars.

It's also important to practise some sort of self compassion. As humans we are flawed, we cannot perform at our best at all times, and we need to accept that that's okay, rather than wallowing in emotional agony. You can be happy with your own performance.

I play my dusty old neglected guitar now. I'm not good, and I'll probably never be great, but I have instead learnt to enjoy the process of learning and playing. Making small steps of progress can be the drive you need to continue.

Of course, I can write about this all day, the hard part is going to be facing my performance anxiety head on.

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