There’s been a lot of talk this week about Work-Life balance, pushing employees too far, and the like in the wake of the NYTimes expose about practices at Amazon. Whether you’re on the defense or the offense of this specific reveal, the bottom line is that overwork is a problem in the collective realm of our industry and one, like diversity, that’s worth talking about.
The fact is that I had starting writing this article about my own experiences with this well before the hubbub this week. I gave a talk at QConNY about my wins and losses when scaling a team earlier this summer.
Leading up to the talk and since then, my thinking has continued to become more clear. As always in the world of “wet-ware”, this is my personal experience and opinions and don’t necessarily apply to everyone. In the same breath, I’ve learned that opening up and being honest has more positive then negative effects; doing this as a community allows for growth through conversation.
Burnout is real
I’m having a hard time writing code.
Even after more than a year, I still look at code, at code that I wrote, with impatience and confusion and doubt.
This is a strange feeling for me. I would categorize myself as an extremely productive and fast programmer. At the peak of my productivity I was working on multiple projects in multiple languages with multiple teams in a single day.
But now, I’m blocked.
I wrote a little bit about the why’s of where I am now (and also talked about it at QCon, but the truth is: burnout is real. I was pushing ahead, digging a hole in the ground, and when I was so exhausted I had trouble getting up every morning, I tried to make a change.
Part of me believed that I would step away and all of a sudden be filled with ideas and energy again but for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened. Burnout for me is actually just a face of depression and the problem with either is that it’s often hard to pull out of the ditch — forcing something and failing at it often leads to more disappointment which just leads to more digging.
Do what you love is BS
I had this vision as a High-Schooler who was in to music and music production that I was going to graduate and open a recording studio. I was rallying towards the peak of my personal confidence (that period where you really do believe you know everything) and I had been telling myself and others that this is what I loved to do, and therefore I should have the power to do what I love and be successful at it.
After 4 years at a liberal arts college, though, I was facing graduation and was a bit disillusioned. I still retained some aspects of that earlier dream, but it didn’t seem as glamorous anymore, and I had started to love other things. I got back into programming after a hiatus and I did really enjoy it. Part of me had this feeling like, well, I might not love this, but I can feed myself doing it, so … That changed over time, I did love programming. With the discovery of open source and new tools I got more and more entrenched and more filled with this pride — “I’m getting to do what I love! People are paying me for this!”
Things change. I started to get involved in different aspects of this world: people, management, operations. There were constantly new things to learn and I was still excited and keeping up as best I could. There were little feels here and there, however: realizing I lived in the Bay Area and barely knew my neighborhood; constant stomach distress from eating crappy take out; only getting 5 days off after the birth of my first born. It wasn’t the fear of missing out — it was the realization that I liked other things and those other things were never in my schedule.
“Do what you love” is built on two giant fallacies: That you can only do and love one thing and that one thing has to be all that you do.
Hindsight being what it is, I’ve always loved and been inspired by many different things, and earlier in my life I was able to really embrace that and make it my mission to do all the things that I loved. At some point I lost sight of that, and now I’ve been struggling for the past year to try to throw myself into as many things as possible and try to find that balance.
Metrics for happiness
In doing a lot of thinking about this, I’ve tried to use a trick that I learned from Emotional Intelligence which is to force yourself to ask “why?” and “what’s beneath the emotion that I’m experiencing?” until you get to some dark-ish place that is more accurate or representative of a root cause.
After doing this for way longer then is probably healthy I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be successful and happy and I felt like I was unable or in the wrong situation to do that. When I broke this down more, it became a familiar narrative:
- Work Really Hard
- Make A Lot of Money
- Have the time and space to do the things I want
- Be Happy
The strange thing that it took me seemingly forever to realize is that there was this underlying assumption that to get to the real goals of #3 and #4 doing #1 and #2 were the only way to get there. Ingrained in me was the belief that success was defined by the path and not the result.
Changing my approach is a process, but one that I’m actively involved in. I’ve been thinking about how to use my skills and time to be happy instead of how to make money. This shift is hard because the pedagogy of success would assume that by stepping down in my role, making less money, etc, would mean that I’ve failed. I’m still wrestling with this because the belief is so woven in to our industry and society.
The hardest part about trying to be happy is the feeling that happy means happy all the time. While thats a pretty lofty goal, its a damaging one, as it makes us sink lower than necessary in moments of feeling sad or lost. Learning from my experience in Ops and Infrastructure, my new metric is aiming for 90th percentile Happiness. If every week, 90% of the time I’m happy and feeling content, I’m going in the right direction. This is a moving average function and it can smooth out those rough days when nothing seems to be going right.
Moderation and Balance
For myself, it’s key that there’s no ‘going cold turkey’. I’ve had fantasies of running away and just opening a sandwich shop. That’s not to say that I won’t do that someday, but personally, I’m at my most present and my most successful when theres a lot of different things going on that can form some sort of balance between work I have to do, work I like to do, and not work at all. This might be 40 hours of work, but it’s becoming clear that that’s really unlikely.
Moderation in most things is a step to finding the balance. Food journalist, Michael Pollan, famously summed up his approach to healthy and sustainable eating with the quote “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants”. I’m trying to adopt a similar approach to work:
“Do Work, Not Too Much, Mostly Fun”.
Whatever is next
I’m currently working on a bunch of different projects but most are not directly related to writing code. I’m working with some teams around the country to help direct their large application development efforts to be efficient and performant. I’m working on writing a book about Pizza with my best friend..
I’ve definitely had the feeling recently though, that I’m wanting to dive into something bigger. In searching for the next thing, I’m explicitly putting balance at the fore-front. Whether I end up joining another company or starting my own, 4 day work-weeks are the new “very busy”.
Completely Shameless Plug
Earlier this year, I started planning Catskills Conf. One of our goals was to share the raw energy and excitement in the area that I now call home. Part of this energy comes directly from this same motivation for seeking balance. My primary work in finding speakers and curating the event was to find people that inspire me and make me want to go out and do awesome things. I hope you can come join me and in October! (Tickets on sale now).
You can find more of my (technical) writing and more about me at my long-running blog: http://www.quirkey.com/blog