The Sophomore Slump

June 6, 2016

When I was in college, I spent most of my weekends traveling to other universities in order to take part in parliamentary debate tournaments. Students across all years participated in the same rounds, which made debate the single most exhilarating and intellectually-challenging activity of my college career – and also, the most emotionally difficult one.

Since freshmen are debating against seasoned seniors, the league had a special category of recognition for first-year debaters that fared well. Debaters in their first year are referred to as “novices”, and there was a corresponding set of novice speaker awards as well as team awards. Teams that were composed of two novices that had the best win-loss records would proceed to a special set of novice-only elimination rounds, or “outrounds”. When you completed your first year, you lost your novice status, and were thus disqualified for novice awards from that point onward.

There are a few interesting effects of this system. First, I have no doubt that early recognition and praise went a long way towards retaining promising novices. It can be enormously frustrating to invest long hours of training, just to “hit” (lingo for “debate against”) the best team on the circuit, lose disastrously, and be disadvantaged for the rest of the tournament. When novice teams advanced to outrounds, usually their schools would turn up to support them and “pound for them” – in debate, we banged our hands on the desks to signal agreement with an argument. (I know how weird this sounds out of context.) Having novice awards also helped to build an engaged community of first-years, and it encouraged them to “hybrid” – team up with novices from other schools. The system gave the newer people a clear and achievable set of goal posts.

But once you’re finished with that first year, the going gets tougher. Much tougher. Because you’re out of contention for novice awards and outrounds, you’re suddenly a small fish in a huge pond. Many people lose their confidence after a soaring success of a novice year, and some leave the activity altogether because they’re discouraged by their comparatively poor performance. We have a term for this: sophomore slump.

I’ve been programming for just under two years now. Learning to program doesn’t come with accolades like a debating trophy. But at the beginning, particularly if you’re lucky enough to land yourself into a supportive community, there’s a lot of encouragement to be found. In my experience, people are happy to explain basic concepts, review your code, and point you in the right direction. I know that I have been very lucky so far – I definitely had a sense of support and encouragement from my friends and mentors.

After a certain point, you start going to lots of meetups and having conversations with people who have an order of magnitude more experience than you, and you start to realise just how much you don’t know. There are known knowns – the things that you KNOW you can do, known unknowns – the things that you’re aware that you can’t do yet, and unknown unknowns – the things that you haven’t even grasped the knowability of. The unknown unknowns are blissful in their own way, because you don’t have to confront them until they become known unknowns. It’s more than a little bit demoralising to figure out that everything you thought you knew about object-oriented programming was incorrect. Or that you won’t ever find enough time to learn this language or that framework properly. Or that you don’t know anything about DevOps! DevOps is a thing! The list goes on and on.

I think this feeling is pretty similar to the sophomore slump in university debating. It’s a psychologically expensive task to force yourself to not only find out what the known unknowns are, but also to make the decision to a) turn them into known knowns, or b) be OK with not knowing them. It’s also hopelessly easy to lose your sense of passion along the way, especially with each negotiation we have with ourselves about what we’re not going to learn right now. How can you possibly be expected to know everything? For those of us who care and want to continually improve our skills, it’s a crushing feeling.

There isn’t really a “solution” to the sophomore slump, besides practicing more and going to more tournaments and meeting more people and having more conversations and keeping your mentality on learning, rather than “achieving”. Don’t worry about where the goal posts are, and don’t worry about what your friend is doing at her programming job and how much it seems that other people are ahead of you.

Here’s the thing I learnt after a long four years of debating. Nobody is judging your ability – people probably don’t even think about you. Everyone has their own problems to carry, and nobody thinks that you are less of a person, a debater, or a programmer, even though it seems like you’re not getting the same positive feedback and signals that you used to receive. Nothing matters except that you keep learning, and you keep immersing yourself in environments that unearth those “known unknowns”. Whatever pace you decide to take is the correct pace, because you’re still moving forward.