Comics Are Good for Learning Complex Things

I’ve spent the past ten years of my professional career in various aspects of adult, technology education. About midway between the start of my journey to now, came: Build Your Own Website. A comic book I collaborated on with my friend, the talented artist and designer Kim Gee. In retrospect, I wasn’t even sure exactly why I wanted to do a comic. I knew that I liked Kim’s comic work and I knew that I wanted to organize my process for how I taught myself web development and WordPress but it was only after I connected the dots looking back that I realize how important that decision was.

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner

The source material that eventually became the comic, wove together elements of my own personal and professional fabric. Teaching myself WordPress was a personal journey (a hobby) at first. In 2002 I felt I needed a website, but I didn’t know why. But eventually I started messing around with WordPress and have been blogging on this site you’re reading now since I was in my early 20s. Sometimes other people needed help with WordPress or Websites and I got paid for some freelance gigs on WordPress but it wasn’t my main source of income. In 2006 I moved to NYC and got a job at Apple to pay the bills. Some of what I did at Apple included sales, mentor-style teaching, and one to many teaching. I taught other Apple employees as well as customers and I developed training materials. When I first jumped ship to start my own company, I was placing a lot of faith in WordPress and my personal skills with it. I had the intuition to write. I’d always dreamed of being a writer and I needed to organize my thoughts, so a book seemed like a natural place to start.

It was! I was so excited to be able to sit down and write about all of the challenges I went through teaching myself web development. Within only a few short months I put together a manuscript for “All the things you need to get a website going.” But it was just sitting on my hard drive collecting dust. I was riddled with anxiety about putting out a comprehensive guide to anything. What did I know? I had only taught myself these things. I had friends who knew much more than me about many aspects of web development. Who was *I* to have the ego to decide I could write a “comprehensive guide?” That seemed incredibly fool-hearty. But regardless I knew that having a physical book (an object) allowed me to put something tangible into the world that represented my values. I was just starting to build my company around training and web development. This book could be my manifesto.

Kim Gee Comics

The amazing Kim Gee. 🙂

But how could I release it knowing that it is faulty and imperfect? I knew from personal experience I had a real knack for teaching people in-person and part of my approach has always been extremely empathetic and patient. In my experience people are usually their own roadblock when it comes to technology, adults especially. There’s a very real fear that comes along with learning something new and technology is new and frightening and chaotic and ever changing.

I like what Steven Pressfield says about Fear: “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner

Learning to Teach Yourself a Skill Doesn’t Have to be Hard

Think of some skill you taught yourself. Let’s use an imperfect example: Say you want to learn how to play the guitar. You can look at sheet music. You can google chord progressions perhaps. You could sign up for private lessons. If you look hard enough, you can probably find millions of methods to learn how to play the guitar. But here’s the difference between those who have tried and failed and those who know how to play the guitar. The ones who learn to ~play enjoy it a whole lot. At one point they were a beginner just like you but there was something in their approach that lead to enjoyment. There are scientific explanations for this. One is called flow.

Flow is a universal process of human enjoyment while doing an activity. You can find your way to flow by focusing on challenges just beyond your current skill level. This seems to produce a kind of engagement level that keeps you progressing in the activity. In fact if you’ve ever seen someone engrossed in a game, you might recognize this activity. But it goes beyond gaming and can apply to other types of activities like sewing or gardening. It’s the act not the end goal that is the thing. You try and fail but the payoff is just enough that it’s actually somewhat rewarding and you want to continue. If you’re learning to play guitar, you don’t become Keith Richards overnight (or ever), but you personalize your journey and you find your way by trial and error. Learning to see failure as a guide is called the open or growth oriented mindset. It’s an approach to life that sees errors as opportunities for growth.

Design Thinking for a Better World

Understanding Comics

The brilliant and wonderful Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud opened me up to the idea of comics as symbols.

I’ve know about flow for many years now and it’s helped me personally but I wasn’t sure how it fit into technology education or my work. Now that I’m incorporating Design Thinking into my approach to teaching, it’s helping me to mine my past for gems of knowledge. I’m finally starting to notice some fruitful patterns in my journey. At a young age I was given the incredibly brilliant Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. In brief it’s a kind of deconstruction of the comic medium through a comic medium. Kim and I had some discussions about it as we were preparing our Kickstarter for Build Your Own Website. Turns out it was a big personal influence on both of us, even though we were at different stages in lifes and both had pretty major differences in career paths.

One idea that stuck with me from Understanding Comics book is this idea of comic as symbol. Humans are pattern-seeking. Even in very abstract forms, we can still construct a meaning. In an extreme form this manifests as pareidolia, seeing faces everywhere. Key to this concept though is that as meanings abstract they become more open to interpretation and more cross cultural. Words are only worth their meaning in particular languages but pictures cross cultural boundaries. Pictures beg equally for emotional and linguistic interpretation.  A drawing becomes a stand in for a concept that taps into the “readers” psyche in the same way a logo, brand, or color might.

The comic medium removes some of the barriers for outsiders looking into a culture to get a window into complex topics. It can connect dots between big concepts more easily by appealing to the emotive part of the brain rather than the intellect. This is the so called system one of the dual process theory. As I more explicitly make connections between design thinking and my body of work teaching and learning technology, I feel like I’m starting to fail in the right direction. The open and cross-cultural signifiers of the comic form, allow for analogies not to be taken so literally. Instead, they challenge the readers to build their own meaning and in doing so, readers give themselves permission to fail towards growth. It opens up their minds to new experiences because the challenge is rewarded by small wins. You recognize the pictures and *feel* better about the concepts because they are fun. Where as trying to learn the concepts through words alone might fail because the words are so alienating, the fun of a comic allows you to connect to an otherwise foreign world.

Humans are pattern-seeking. Even in very abstract forms, we can still construct a meaning.

Some People Hate WordPress like they Hate Comics

While I’m humbled by the praise I’ve received for the book and it continues to touch and reach people beyond my wildest dreams, it has been criticized as well. The criticisms are not unfair either. All the ones I’ve seen say some variation of “it’s dumbing down” or “it’s too basic.” Believe me, I’m used to it. Whenever I’m in a room with full stack or backend developers, you can tell they think the same way about WordPress developers. (This Quora answer kind of demonstrates this) WordPress isn’t “serious” if you want to be a “real” developer. I’m willing to admit there’s some truth to it. WordPress and my comic oversimplify some pretty complex things. They aren’t perfect. They have quirks and faults. But instead of seeing that as a negative, I feel that’s their strength. Being fun, open, and something that appeals to amateurs never *seems* sexy, especially if you have already predecided you don’t want to give it a chance. My mother hates cartoons for instance.

I’ve been with the WordPress community for over 10 years now. Just in the last five, as I jumped ship from stability into an uncertain future, making WordPress the core of my business, WordPress itself grew from 20% – 26% of the web. Open source stuff is messy. (It’s also hard to teach.) But I firmly believe beginners need to understand that it’s OK to be afraid of big, open, chaotic experiences. Just as people with deep tech knowledge have a responsibility to not alienate them. If more people understood their power rather than focusing on their limitations the world might be better off. There are huge communities of people out there just like you. Nobody but you can connect the dots of your personal journey.

tl;dr

“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Photo Credit: grendelkhan