Learning and the Narcissism of Small Differences

I started working with python full-time about a year-and-a-half ago. I was coming from having mostly done ruby and javascript for the last few years, and my prior exposure to python was relatively brief.

I fairly quickly found a bunch of annoyances in python that I carped about frequently. Can’t resolve circular references? Ruby has no problem with that. Class and static methods tacked on via decorators? Those should be first-class concepts in any modern programming language. Not to mention that the python style of programming (and the circular reference issue) encouraged having multiple classes in a single file, or even files with bare, classless functions (i.e. modules). And what kind of crap is “if __name__ == '__main__':”? Yeah, I did a lot of grumbling.

But a funny thing happened. I kept working with it, learned to do things the “python way,” and most of these things turned out to be not such a big deal. I found a lot to like about python. The lack of extraneous characters for defining blocks (a.k.a. significant whitespace) was refreshing, and made for more readable code. It has a deep and well-documented standard library, and the quality of external libraries I’ve come across has generally been extraordinarily high. I had come to enjoy writing python.

When learning something new, the natural reaction is to compare it to what we already know. That’s how the brain works, by making associations. The easy trap to fall into, however, is jumping to the conclusion that because it doesn’t quite fit the patterns that you’ve learned–because it is different–it is inferior or broken. This is often compounded by the normal frustrations any beginner encounters, especially when you’re in an environment where you’re expected to hit the ground running.

I believe this is related to what Sigmund Freud termed the narcissism of small differences, the idea that people with relatively minor differences in viewpoint tend to be more combative than those with major differences.

Over time, as you learn and start to see more of the whole picture, those annoying differences become smaller and smaller, often disappearing entirely. In fact, you’ll likely come to appreciate some of those differences.

It takes effort to fight those initial narcissistic tendencies. The next time you’re thrown into a foreign environment, make a conscious effort to keep an open mind, and bite your tongue until you’ve given it some time. After you’ve mastered the subject, then you’re entitled to bitch about it.