The Spoke / Coding won't save us. Curiosity will. Subscribe

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Should we let fear guide our career decisions? Emi says no; let curiosity take the wheel.

There is a new commandment in modern education: “Thou shalt learn to code.” It’s the mantra of educational institutions, businesses and nonprofits. It’s driving thousands of people to take online courses and offline courses. The drive to know and understand how computers work is incredible, but many are pursuing this knowledge out of fear—fear that not knowing how to code translates into not having the skills to succeed. I would like to offer an alternative to the fear: curiosity.

Who am I to say this? Well, I was playing around with the family computer back in the early 90’s and taught myself HTML. I did this because I wanted to make things — specifically science fiction-themed websites. I got to know the web hosting service Geocities inside and out, and I played with animated gifs before they were cool. I listened to early (really early) podcasts. I completely erased (by accident) and restored our family computer’s Windows operating system. I did all manner of things with computers, popping them open, learning new programs like Linux. I even became a PaintShop Pro … pro.

I loved working and playing with computers. I still do. I was a little sad when the hermetically-sealed products emerged on the scene. I missed watching and hearing the guts of my machine humming and whizzing along, though I appreciated the technological leaps and bounds others were taking.

Today, I work in Silicon Valley — at a moonshot factory, actually — full of very curious people. I work with world-class technologists, scientists, engineers, filmmakers, lawyers, designers, psychologists and English majors. Our mission is to "launch moonshot technologies that make the world a radically better place.” In my free time, I enjoy reading about potential applications for blockchain (a cryptographically secured record system maintained by multiple computers), working on writing my book (it’s about creativity for now, but it keeps changing), talking to engineers about machine learning and discussing the brain with neuroscientists.

Pretty cool, right?

Now, here’s the kicker. I’m not a computer scientist. I’m not a software engineer. I don’t know C or Python, and I never completed the one computer class in which I enrolled. Years later, out of fear I was falling behind, I took an online coding class. I quit barely halfway through because, when I checked my work with my brother, an experienced software engineer, he told me the answer the course software spit back to me was wrong. He also told me that, if I really wanted to learn to code, I needed to figure out what I wanted to make first, then learn the code to make that thing work. In other words, follow your curiosity, not your fear.

When I think back, curiosity has largely governed my education and career choices. Today, I proudly hold a bachelor’s degree in international relations and theatre studies from Wellesley. I chose those degrees because I was curious about diplomacy and how countries develop relationships with one another, I also really wanted to know what it would be like to be an actor because I love to perform. Then, I got a master’s in producing for film and video from American University because I wanted to learn more about how news and entertainment are financed and produced. Not too long after finishing my degree, I got a job with The Washington Post, and then I went on to Stanford University’s

I didn’t get from The Washington Post to Stanford and on to a moonshot factory because I learned C and Python. I got here because I was curious, and I worked hard to follow my curiosity. I also met interesting, generous, curious people along the way. The path I’ve taken hasn’t been easy, but it wouldn’t have been any easier had I forced myself to do something out of fear.

Yes, I know a bit of code, but I learned it because I followed my curiosity all those years ago. I wanted the answer to a question: How do you make stuff online? I may learn more coding languages in the future, but only when I find something I’m really curious about learning to make.

I can’t predict the future, but I have a strong hunch that we’ll need people who like to solve problems and follow their curiosity more than people who simply learn to code. That means that we will need historians who want to figure out how to capture and make sense of what will soon become our digital past. We will need psychologists to help us understand and metabolize a life with new technologies. We will need anthropologists to help us understand what we humans become as we integrate with technology more. We’ll need sociologists and neuroscientists and machine learning experts and mathematicians and early childhood development experts, and elder care workers. We’ll need specializations we don’t even know about yet. Most importantly, we’ll need very curious, nimble, collaborative and compassionate people.

We'll need so much more than code.

Photo Credit: Piyapong89, "creative idea. Concept of idea and innovation with paper ball," via Shutterstock, 1 March 2018.