The Difference Between “I Can’t Do This” and “I Don’t Know This”

Blog Posts ,Random Musings
September 28, 2016

Last night was the halfway mark for the second round of introductory classes for the ARVR Academy in San Francisco. It was my 8th time teaching a lab for ARVR Academy, the third time that I’ve developed a curriculum for teaching the basics of virtual reality development, and one of an innumerable number of days that I’ve had really interesting, in-depth discussions with people of all backgrounds about education and development.

I am not trained in the art (and it truly is an art) of education. I don’t have a teaching degree, I haven’t studied education design, and frankly, I often feel safer behind the screen of a computer or a VR headset than I do in front of an audience – but I have spent the last two years in an unofficial instructional position where I hope to help people feel confident and comfortable with something that do for most of our lives: learning something new.

There is still a divide with technology. It’s something I see when I’m running labs. It’s something that I hear when I talk to different people – usually underrepresented within STEM fields – about their experiences. It’s something that I’ve experienced myself.

I had a really amazing conversation after class yesterday with one of the participants about teaching styles, during which we compared and contrasted a few of our own observations. That dialog prompted me to write this out, because I think there’s fundamentally a few things we need to be better about when we think of our own abilities and learning new things.

When we’re young, we recognize that we don’t know how to do something because it just wasn’t learned. We are all wired differently, and everyone has a set of unique challenges to overcome with how they learn best to grasp new material – but at some point along the way, I’ve noticed at some point, the inner dialog that we have changes from “I don’t know how to do this” to “I can’t do this.”

My sophomore year of high school, I took a computer science class for the first time. I was 15 or 16 years old, and I fell in love with being able to make computers – which I had been using my entire life – do whatever it was I told it to through the process of writing code. My first-ever Hello World was in Java – and I never got it to work – but I was hooked and continued to study computer science the following year, too. I approached every problem and bug with the mindset of “I don’t know how to do this yet, but I will.”

Because of my AP Computer Science credit, I skipped the earliest computer science requirements in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and went straight into 2xxx level classes, where I was in for a rude awakening. The pacing of university classes was significantly different than that of my high school courses, and I found myself almost immediately struggling to pass automated test cases that deducted points from missing comments or white spaces as I learned not just new algorithms and languages, but experienced changes in instructional styles from different professors every semester.

At some point, that dialog in my head slipped from “I don’t know this” to “I can’t do this.”

That dialog is dangerous.

I spent years in college as the self-proclaimed “CS major who hates programming” – not because I actually hated programming, but because I saw the results of hardworking individuals in my class consistently get perfect grades and assumed that there was something wrong with me that it didn’t come easily. I would spend hours and hours staring at my computer stuck on stupid bugs that jumped out at me two hours after the project was due and it was too late to change it. The repetitive voice in my head told me over and over again: “You aren’t smart enough for this. You can’t figure this out.”


After I graduated college, I thought that I would be finished. I wouldn’t ever have to write another line of code. It took all of about three months for me to desperately miss it.

Computers, and programming, and creating software – learning how to create new solutions and systems and experiences – provides an entire lifetime’s worth of opportunity to continue to learn new things. When you start to see inefficiencies in how things are done, or places where creativity can thrive, and you have a desire to change or utilize that technology – you can be struck with one of two things. You can be hit with that doubt – “I can’t do that thing” or you can be hit with motivation – “I don’t know how to do that thing yet”.

So much of our educational system, especially in STEM fields, is focused on absolute correctness, right or wrong. What traditional educational environments teach us is that if we don’t get the expected answer immediately, we get an F and the feedback that we don’t know what we’re doing. When those grades follow you along forever, it’s a mark that you don’t get to fix. I don’t get a do-over on the D+ I got in Comparative Languages, despite the fact it was six years ago.


This semester was when I first started looking at other majors to switch into, and the peak of the self doubt.

I didn’t switch majors. I didn’t quit programming. I certainly didn’t completely get rid of the “I can’t do this” goblin, and trust me, I’ve read up an awful lot on Impostor Syndrome. What I did do was find that my passion fell in the emerging technology space, especially in immersive technologies. I also slowly started to realize that as enter different stages of our lives, it’s far too easy to get bogged down into the self-sabotage of “I can’t”.

One of the biggest job perks of being a developer evangelist in the field of virtual and augmented reality isn’t just that I get to learn about really cool hardware, it’s that I get to learn from some truly inspiring people. I walk out of every single class that I teach having learned something different. I’ve heard new perspectives on things. I wrote my first tutorial on Unity while I was making my first-ever Unity app. At the time, I questioned the validity of what I – a complete beginner in to VR, graphics, and Unity – would be able to offer the world.

Over the past two years though, what I’ve seen is that there needs to be a total paradigm change in what we think of when we approach new technology, languages, and education around technology in general. We need opportunities to develop educational opportunities that are collaborative, flexible, and adaptable. We need to stop apologizing for asking questions of our mentors and role models. We need to change the narrative of education from “I can’t figure out how to do this thing” to “Who can help me figure out how to do this thing?”

What I did in college was suffer in silence. I saw my peers succeed from a distance and suffered silently in my dorm room, crying about why I couldn’t get my arrays to sort properly. I was too nervous that I’d be deemed helpless and not fit for computer science if I confessed to my teacher how lost I felt. Authority and systemic unconscious bias doesn’t help with these sorts of feelings, but it took me until my senior year to feel comfortable attending office hours and talking to my professors when I needed help. I assumed all of those peers were natural geniuses until I discovered after two years at Virginia Tech that there was a lounge where students worked together on assignments and the TAs hung out in.

When I approach education in VR, I try to do so with an open, active mindset. I am just genuinely that excited that more people want to hear about a technology I’m borderline obsessed with, and moreso, that I’m in a position to share that knowledge. I try to be transparent about teaching the things I fail at, as well as the things that I’m good at, because we need to normalize the process of learning and what that actually looks like.

I don’t actually watch Adventure Time, but I feel like I should because of a quote that’s stuck with me:

Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.

Pay attention to that narrative you tell yourself when you want to learn a new skill or if you see someone working in a field that you admire and want to learn more about. Question the assumptions that you’re making about your own abilities, and the definition of “can’t”. Frankly, the more technology progresses, the more invalid the word “can’t” even becomes.

What I can’t do is fly unaided by machines.

What I can’t do is breath underwater without an external oxygen tank.

What I can’t do is morph into a puppy and then change back, unless I’m playing in VR at which case anything goes.

But I can do a whole lot more than I thought I would ever be able to, and if this resonates with you, know that right here you have an internet stranger telling you:

You can, too.



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2 thoughts on “The Difference Between “I Can’t Do This” and “I Don’t Know This””

  1. C7210 says:

    such a great writing,thanks.

  2. Alexis says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m at one of those breaking point moments myself, so I can totally relate to this. These moments when you are challenged and raise self doubt are those where you turn to yourself to see how bad you want something. It’s when you find your unique self.

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