Programming parallels: a lesson in empathy


In the midst of a three week hiatus from work I’ve found myself filling my time with long-forgotten hobbies: art, baking, design, and crafting. These have been my long-neglected creative outlets, and it’s been a wonderful experience getting back into them.

Through a series of wonderings I found myself deciding that I could absolutely, 100% crochet a blanket. I had crocheted a bit as a kid, having learned enough to make a mountain of dishcloths. How hard could a blanket be? I thought, as I started browsing Etsy one morning.

As I navigated the steps from deciding to crochet a blanket to actually trying to crochet a blanket I realized I was experiencing so much of what beginners experience when they decide they want to learn R. I’ll leave it to you to draw the parallels between my crocheting experience and what learning a new programming language entails, but I do want to encourage you to try something new - anything, really, so long as it’s outside your wheelhouse - as a way to connect with the beginner mindset.

How diffcult can it be?

So what if it’s been over 25 years since I last picked up a crochet hook? How hard could this really be? I see people crocheting all the time - it’s clearly doable. I’ll just pick a pattern and follow it!

I spent at least an hour on Etsy perusing crocheting patterns before deciding that I was very clearly capable of making this blanket:

Rainy Day Flowers from The Hat & I Crochet

Rainy Day Flowers from The Hat & I Crochet

I downloaded the pattern, opened it up, and panicked. Just reading through the yarn requirements had my head spinning - would my local store have this brand? What if they don’t have these colors? WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?

I didn’t even make it to the actual pattern instructions before deciding that this blanket was going to be an aspirational project for some yet-to-be-determined date.

Choosing a new direction

What I could take away from my first attempt was that I needed a project with a more straightforward starting process. And instead of a 3-D blanket design, maybe a flat design would be a good starting point. So back on Etsy I found this pattern:

The Dreamer from The Hat & I Crochet

The Dreamer from The Hat & I Crochet

After downloading the pattern I felt confident enough that I could “figure it out” and was immediately confronted with the next step - I had to buy supplies!

But where do I buy yarn? If I go online I have to wait, so let’s go to an actual brick-and-mortar store. Is there a place in Dallas? Why did they all shut down? OK there’s a Jo-Ann Fabric and so what if it has a 1.5 star rating - it’s close and has yarn.

Each question led to three more questions

Deciding on a store felt like a huge accomplishment! All I had to do now was drive to the store and buy the actual yarn, right?

Sort of. Here’s a sampling of questions I had to deal with while standing in the yarn aisle:

  • Are all skeins of yarn the same length?
  • Does the brand of yarn matter?
  • Does the weight of the yarn matter?
  • What happens if I use a different weight?
  • Why is this brand called Cupcake?
  • What colors should I get?
  • Once I decide on a color, is there enough in stock?

The “doing” part of the project

Home an hour and $50 later, I was excited to start actually creating something. Except that’s not what happened. Despite having all of my supplies and the pattern in front of me, I was confronted with challenges that the pattern didn’t talk about - and why should it? It wasn’t written for someone who was using it to learn how to crochet, it was written with a series of baked-in assumptions, and it was up to me to figure out what the assumptions were and how to address them.

Assumption one - get the end of your yarn out of the skein

There wasn’t a “loose end” on my yarn for me to pick up and use, so I found myself Googling all manner of phrases to finding the starting end of a skein of yarn. It took awhile and required me to know whether or not I had what’s called “center pull” yarn (it’s not labeled on the skein, so I just assumed that I did and went with it - turns out I was right!) Cool, I’ve got the yarn, let’s go!

Assumption two - I knew how to read a crochet pattern

I’m showing a small piece of the pattern instructions because it’s a paid pattern, but here’s an example of what the instructions look like:

me reading crochet instructions for the first time

me reading crochet instructions for the first time

Assumption three - I both knew and cared about the various ways to “do a thing”

A lot of crochet bloggers have opinions about the proper way to “do a thing,” and are happy to instruct you on their preferred method. Let’s take the adjustable ring as an example. Over the course of 90 minutes I learned more about the various ways to make an adjustable ring - which you’re supposed to call a “Magic Ring” if you’re in the know - and why the Magic Ring is better than a starting chain than I wanted to know, without ever figuring out how to successfully make a Magic Ring. It was infuriating to read about all of these opinions on various methods when all I really wanted to know was how to make the damn ring.

Even after wading through the opinions, each blogger had their own version and tutorial, and most went from step A to step D without explaining steps A.1a, A.1b, A.2, and A.3 that I needed.

A frustrating number of bloggers used photos where their hands were in the way and I couldn’t tell what was happening.

Finally I found a blogger who explained how I needed to hold tension on the ring while starting out, and said this is something most beginners don’t realize they need to do, but it makes all the difference! and it was like finding a friend who really wanted to help me in the middle of the rising panic associated with what should be a simple task but was turning into a nightmarish trip down the rabbit hole.

Assumption four - it’s important to keep your yarn from tangling

This one probably seems obvious, but as I started to actually crochet, it wasn’t long before I hit what we’ll refer to as “The Great Yarn Tangling of 2019.” It turns out that with center pull yarn there’s a clump of yarn that comes out in a little bundle. And rather than starting to immediately crochet, you should take some time to untangle that little bundle and get it in an orderly ball - otherwise you’re going to make such a mess later on that you’ll likely cut the yarn and give up on the section you’re working with and just re-cut the yarn past the tangle and start with a clean slate.

(any resemblence to Git/GitHub is purely coincidental)

The actual crocheting

Having sorted all of the above out, I started to make progress crocheting - actually crocheting! Little patterns started to emerge, and I started to feel like maybe I could finish this blanket project. I wasn’t going to finish it in a week (my original, completely baseless goal), but if I did a few pieces a day, I could make progress and have it done in a couple of months.

The more time I spent crocheting the less time I spent undoing everything and re-consulting the pattern. I’d moved from “I’m going to do this one round and then undo it and practice it again” to “I’m going to finish this single piece and then figure out what I need to modify.”

It’s taken me four days of work, but I finally have a growing stack of crocheted pieces that are the same size and shape and resemble the pattern, which feels pretty freaking awesome.