Robin Cannon's Blog

Stop Calling Things "Easy"

March 10, 2019

I had this blog post sitting on the back-burner for a while, with only some half-written notes. But as I was wrestling with a development issue over the last couple of days, it seemed apt.

As this blog itself demonstrates, I’ve been getting my head round Gatsby. It’s been a path back into more regular hands-on development for me, as I discussed a couple of posts ago. I’ve been enjoying it, but I’ve also found it challenging. Hell, the very first time I tried to run the Gatsby starter, my command line blew up.

Except I shouldn’t find it challenging, because;

GatsbyJS is surprisingly easy to use

I really like how easy it is to get started

#GatsbyJS is too easy

Built on @gatsbyjs, which, btw, makes blogs super easy

So easy it’s ridiculous

Wow. I’ve been coding for the web since the late 1990s. I know I’m pretty rusty. But I must be very dumb, or obsolete, if I’m struggling with something that’s so damn easy.

“Easy” is subjective

About twenty years ago I was living in Japan, and I worked with a guy from Australia. I remember asking him how Australian Rules Football players could run while bouncing an oval-shaped ball. I remembered playing rugby, those oval-shaped balls bounce in every direction! His answer was pretty enlightening. He said it was easy, because it was natural and because Australian kids grow up doing it. He said it was like I knew how to trap a moving soccer ball without thinking, because that was the sport I grew up with in England.

That’s not to say that either of us were talented sportsmen. But we both had basic skills that one of us thought was easy and the other thought was hard.

And everything is like that. Two of my years in Japan I spent teaching English. I’m English. Speaking English is super easy! For my students (and according to most analysis of language complexity), it was incredibly difficult.

“Easy” makes me feel dumb

Of course, when I was teaching those students, I never told any of them that English was easy. That would have been a dick move. Imagine trying to learn something that you were finding very difficult, and having someone tell you how easy it is. How discouraging is that?

But it happens all the time in tech (and, I’m sure, in many other places). And it can happen in two particular ways.

Devaluing a skill I’m good at

HTML and CSS are easy.

I lost count of how many times I’ve heard things like that. Those were things I loved doing and (at least a few years ago, before I got rusty), I was definitely very good at. But there’s no real achievement in being good at something that’s easy, right?

Making me feel dumb for not getting something

This is how I feel reading all the “Gatsby is easy!” tweets like the ones above. Now, eventually I worked my way through my problems. Even to the point of submitting a PR to update their docs. But it took some time, and I’m also lucky that Jason Lengstorf is a good friend. I know he’s not going to judge me for asking a dumb question. Not that there are really any dumb questions.

But if I was less confident? If I didn’t know Jason well?

  • I’m going to feel discouraged in my own abilities. I don’t understand something that’s “easy”. I must be dumb.
  • I’m less likely to ask anyone else for help. If this is so easy, everyone else must know how to do it. I’ll come across as an idiot.
  • Double whammy. I feel dumb because I don’t know something, and I’m too scared to ask anyone to help me learn the thing I don’t know.

There are better ways to sell something than saying it’s “easy”

To be clear, Gatsby aren’t themselves going around telling everyone how easy it is. And I know all those Twitter quotes are people complimenting them. And they deserve compliments, because they’ve done a good job.

But “easy” isn’t a helpful term. It excludes people. Or it devalues skills. It can be alienating.

Setting up a Gatsby site isn’t “easy”. It is well-documented, logical, the team is responsive, and friendly. I think Gatsby is measurably good, but not measurably easy.

My wife, Kim, is an artist and an educator. She tells me that she hears it all the time about drawing, that it’s too difficult. And she points out that it’s a learned skill. Everything is difficult before I learn how to do it. “Easy” is something that I’ve learned how to do well.

Stahp

While I was struggling with my prose, Sara Viera cut to the chase in a tweet. So, I leave her to summarize in thirteen words what I’ve been saying in hundreds.


Robin Cannon

A Brit in Texas. I manage the dev team for IBM's Carbon Design System.
My blog for work, tech, and industry related musings. Thoughts my own.
@shinytoyrobots on Twitter