Surfing the Roku box last night I landed on the MIT Open CourseWare channel and sampled Introduction to Computer Science and Programming. In one lecture Prof. John Guttag offers this timely reminder:

Focus on understanding why the program is doing what it’s doing, rather than why it’s not doing what you wanted it to.

It was timely because I was, in fact, writing a program that wasn’t doing what I expected. And I had, in fact, fallen into the psychological trap that Guttman warns about. When you’re writing software you use abstractions and also create them. What’s more, many of the abstractions you use are the very ones you created. When you live a world of your own invention you can do amazing and wonderful things. But you can also do ridiculous and stupid things. To see the difference between them you must always be prepared to park your ego and consider the latter possibility.

Elsewhere in that lecture, Prof. Guttman talks about Jeanette Wing’s idea that computational thinking involves skills that transcend the computer and information sciences. In 2008, when that lecture was given, many of us were talking about how that might be true. We talked about computational thinking as a “Fourth R” — a cognitive tool as fundamental as Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic.

I never found an example that would resonate broadly. But maybe this will:

Focus on understanding why your spouse or child or friend or political adversary is doing what he or she is doing, rather than why he or she is not doing what you wanted him or her to.