books on computer coding with cactusA few months ago, I was browsing through my fave local chain bookstore—that’s still in business—seeking a new challenge. I roamed into parts of the store I don’t usually frequent. Finding myself in the computer section, a book caught my eye.

A few years ago, you see, I taught myself HTML and CSS by reading a book by Jon Duckett titled, appropriately enough, HTML & CSS. At the time, I was interested in learning more about computer programming so I could create a better website without shelling out the big bucks. I had found WordPress, WordPress themes, and WordPress plugins to be fabulous helps in creating a professional-looking site, but I wanted more control over how elements on the site appeared, and for that I needed to learn HTML and CSS.

But I discovered that learning that skill didn’t just help me create a better personal site; the skills carried over to other aspects of my life. I suddenly became a more useful writer/editor when I could make my writing and editing look decent not just on paper but also on-screen. I found myself using my new skills to help a freelance client, a pro bono client, and a boyfriend. I was even able to advertise the skills on my resume when applying for a new job, and then use them at work when I got the job. While I’m no expert in HTML and CSS, I have learned enough to be able to hold my own: enough to be able to look up and understand solutions to problems for which I don’t have immediate answers.

The skills I learned have also been helpful outside of the realm of web development. This is harder to explain, but learning the basics of web programming helped me better understand the Internet in general. Previously, I had seen certain things on web pages and felt lost and intimidated. Now I see those same things and understand why they’re there. This often happens when a website is buggy. A piece of code will appear where it should be hidden, or something will look funny or not work properly. Knowing how the pieces fit together behind the scenes helps me decipher what things are supposed to look like and interact with the page as if they did look right.

All this was unintentional: I was merely trying to create a better lizaachilles.com, not accomplish all that other stuff. The other stuff happened as a natural byproduct.

When learning a new skill, it’s all about getting past the initial strangeness and effort of it. This is the learning curve people talk about. It feels ridiculously difficult at first, but through practice, you begin to feel more comfortable. Then suddenly one day, you think, “Wow, I’m a bona fide computer programmer!” Of course, you’re still not, like, writing apps or anything—but you can really do something online.

This brings me to that day in the bookstore. It was Duckett’s second book, JavaScript & jQuery, that caught my eye. I had no idea what those programming languages were used for or how learning them might help me work on my website, perform job duties, help paying and nonpaying clients, understand the Internet better, or enhance my life in another way. But since the first book was so useful, I thought, why not give it a try?

That was six months ago. Having finally finished it, I’d like to share with you some things I learned. But I’ll leave that for my next couple blog posts. For now, I merely want to emphasize how cool it is to take on something very, very hard and, bit by bit, get better at, until you are applying your new skills with ease.

Now that I’ve completed this challenge, what shall I take on next? I see that Duckett has a third book coming out in January. Or perhaps I’ll learn how to water a cactus without killing it . . . or how to keep a bookshelf spotlessly white and almost empty.

Are you in the process of learning an incredibly difficult skill? If not, would you like to? Why not start today?

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