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Reaping Rewards by Expecting Success

Published 8/12/2019

In today's episode, we're talking about success and what it has to do with motivation, learning and at least a little bit of success amongst the failure we may also be experiencing.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
In the last episode of Developer Tea, we talked about the importance of going beyond simply fixing failure. We discussed how this applies to debugging sessions, for example. Not simply fixing the bug, but trying to understand the systems and the environment that created the possibility for that bug to exist in the first place. I hope that the last episode has encouraged you to have a healthy appetite for failure. It's also important that you find ways to succeed. This can be even in very small and intermittent ways. You don't have to have success on a regular basis to get the effect that we're going to talk about in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. Today's episode is a short episode. We do not have a sponsor for this episode. In lieu of a sponsor, I'd love for you to go and check out the other pie guests on the SPAC network. However, just SPAC.fm to find other fantastic shows for designers and developers who are looking to level up in their careers. What does success have to do with our motivation, our learning? Why is it important that we not only have these constant learning moments with failure, but that we also have at least intermittent success? Intuitively, we might believe that we can reason through this. If we never experience any success, then our morale will be low, that we won't feel like it's possible to experience success. We label ourselves as a failure. While at a high level, that very well may happen, there's another reason that we should care about intermittent success. At a very basic level, when we experience some kind of reward for our behavior, our brain releases dopamine. This is the reward drug. It helps to encourage certain behaviors. Dopamine is kind of the feel-good neurotransmitter. The interesting thing about dopamine and the way that our brains work is that we adapt to the reward system that we're used to. For example, if we consistently get the same reward from the same action, then the dopamine response will be the same. But if we increase the reward, the dopamine hit that we get from that same action and reward cycle will be less per reward. The ratio essentially is lower. Most research refers to this concept as hedonic adaptation. And the theory of why this happens is very simple. When we establish some expectations and something falls below those expectations, we're more likely to see a relative dip in our dopamine levels. I'll give you a few real-world examples that explain how this dopamine expectation connection may work. One example is playing a game with someone that you are well matched with. It's more exciting to play a game with someone that you are likely to be competitive with, mostly because you have the chance for the game to go either way. Consider a scenario where you are playing a game with someone that you know you're either going to beat very badly or they're going to beat you very badly. You might describe a game like this as boring. It's not exciting. Even if someone is running away with the game, if there's incredible moments in that game, it's very unlikely that it's exciting because there's not very much of a back and forth. However, if you are rooting for the underdog and the underdog wins, because your expectation was something different and a lesser expectation and reality exceeded your expectation, you're likely to get much more of a dopamine release in that kind of scenario. Another great example of this is when you first start learning a new skill. For me, for example, when I first learned how to build websites at the very early beginning of my career, and I started doing this for clients and the very first time I got paid was an incredibly rewarding experience. Looking back on it, I can't imagine getting paid as little as I got paid then, even for the amount of work that I did and even for the skill level that I had. Part of the reason that I can't imagine it is because of this hedonic adaptation. The dopamine reward that I would have today is incredibly lower than the dopamine reward that I had then. Now, I should say that I'm not a neuroscientist and there's a lot of disclaimers here and there's a lot of edge cases. Certainly, there are games that are exciting when there is a huge skew between them, maybe for other reasons, for other factors. So, we can't treat all of these problems as if they are simple to understand. But what I do want you to understand here is that providing yourself with the experience of success is going to give you a positive dopamine release. This is particularly true when you can establish some kind of expectation from yourself. A simple example of this is to build a very easy to keep habit. Theoretically, this effect may be responsible for the positive reports from people who make their bed every morning. They start their day with something that they can mark off as a success. This is a small dose of dopamine. This reward cycle is what teaches us how to continue with those habits and develop patterns of discipline. If we can remind ourselves regularly through those reward cycles what success feels like, then we set new expectations for ourselves. Not just at a cognitive level, but at a biological level. We learn the patterns of success, and interestingly, we become more satisfied by establishing expectations rather than by actually succeeding. When we believe that something is true about ourselves, the release of dopamine is quite similar to if the thing was actually true. In other words, as you are expecting a particular event to occur, that's when the dopamine is actually released. Why do we keep on talking about a chemical on a developer show? Because very often what we do as developers depends on a level of tenacity and a level of willpower that isn't easy. It's not simple to look at a bug that you've never seen before and expect yourself to succeed. It's not simple to establish good testing behavior. It's not simple to build software that's never existed before. Your job is not simple. It's important to remind yourself on a regular basis that success is not only possible, but it's something that you expect out of yourself. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. If you'd like to learn more about this reward cycle, there's certainly a lot of literature on this concept of the dopamine reward cycle. You can also read books like Robert Sapolsky's Behave. I'm actually in the middle of this book right now. Part of the reason why I was inspired to do this episode. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode and until next time, enjoy your tea.