The White Belt; Alarmingly Appropriate

The White Belt Pattern is a simple concept: the idea is that one who seeks to learn must take on the attitude of a beginner. It is the frame of mind that “while the black belt knows the way, the white belt has no choice but to learn the way.” The pattern dictates that one maintains a stance of unknowing, and actively seeks opportunities to “unlearn” the things that he/she is already familiar with. E.g., if you were to write a program in Java, a white belt pattern course of action might be to redo that program in a functional programming language rather than an object-oriented one.

This pattern struck me on multiple levels. I am a martial artist; I have been training since I was very young, and am quite familiar with the notion of emptying one’s cup. However, though I’ve been used to doing it with martial arts for years, it occurs to me that I have a very hard time doing it with programming. I had this problem when moving from a Kenpo school to a Tae Kwon Do school; I would keep trying to do things the way I’d been taught by my Kenpo instructor, in spite of the fact that I’d set out to learn a new style. I wonder if I’m doing the same thing with code.

There have been times when, in my process of learning a new language, I’ve made statements to the effect of “Oh, X language allows you to implement this in a much more efficient way,” or “This type of code would be much more readable in X language.” This, I think, gets to the crux of the issue that White Belt Pattern seeks to address: Excessive comfort in one language, development environment or paradigm can have the unfortunate effect of shrinking a developer’s capacity for pragmatism with less familiar technologies. Comparing two technologies’ level of practicality without giving oneself the proper time to work with and understand each of them is intellectually dishonest, and can avert someone’s eyes from potential advantages of one or both technologies. Going forward, I will be certain to keep these principles in mind as I seek to understand new technologies, both over the course of the semester and in my professional career.

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