Alright, so this post is going to touch on some themes coming from my post on boundaries and probably delve into some tech and mental health issues (which should get a post of it’s own). Let’s start with a story:
Once, there was a man. He was probably the fellow who created the hammer. At the time, he was the one and only fellow to wield the might of the hammer — he could hammer all day, every day. No matter the material or if a hammer didn’t make sense (for he knew no other tool). He became renowned for his prowess with the hammer and was referred to as a master craftsman. The Hammer is what he was, it was his identity.
One day, someone walked into his shop with something new — screws. The man looked and nodded sagely “I can hammer those he said”. He began hammering away. Lots of sweat and love and bits of metal later he sat flummoxed for his hammering wasn’t working, the end result wasn’t what it should be. He grew depressed, anxious, his sense of self was called into question.
The townspeople grew worried, the man had suddenly shut his doors and was not seeing anyone else. Then, out of nowhere a new man appeared — younger, and with a new tool — a screw driver. He looked around and began to pick up the work the other man had not done.
As the man with the hammer watched out his shuttered windows as the other began screwing things into place the last of his will and sense of self began to crumble. The hammer is what he knew, the hammer had become him. He began to grow more depressed as what he loved, what he was defined by was stripped from him. He hung himself the next day.
Wow, ok, so you weren’t expecting that — neither was I when I was thinking about this and writing that down. But I found myself identifying with the man with a hammer. I could see how he came to identify with his tool, how he quickly slid into the trap of being “a hammerist” versus a craftsman. He loved his tool; he was passionate about the tool he had. He and the hammer had become one and the same. AAnd when inevitable change and upheaval came, it wasn’t the tool that become invalidated or one of two options — his sense of self, belonging and everything that comes with a life of passion and investment in that One Thing was stripped, crushed, and burnt.
He couldn’t see a new path, so he took the path out.
I was hammer guy.
Why am I painting this picture?
Because I’ve caught myself and many others in my profession in the role of the man with a hammer. A good friend and mentor of mine sat me down a long time ago and told me “You need to think of yourself as a leader, or a developer — which ever works. You can’t be Python and Python can not be the one thing you are passionate about.”
What stood out for me was that as we talked, I defended my stance and belief — I was a Pythonista, I wrote Python, I believed in the community and the tribe and the norms and This is Who I Was. He was gently trying to warn me not to be defined by my tools — not to love them — to love something is to enjoy it. He was warning me against the danger of my id, my sense of self and belonging becoming the tool.
In hindsight, I had already learned this in a different way — playing dot-com and post bubble startup games. I waded into each startup and rapidly my id and ego and sense of self worth became that startup. If it failed, I failed. If we were running out of cash, I’d grow depressed and despondent. If we were blazing trails and building things my heart would race and I would work 24x7 to get it done.
The same applies to, well, the tool I used — Python became my hammer of choice and the community welcomed me and made me feel needed and warm and even though gradually my sense of self was solely defined by the Job I was Doing and the Community I Was Part of. It was everything to me.
Oddly, as I think back to what my friend and mentor was telling me I kick myself. We were three or four startups deep at that point and I had already adapted my brain to accept eventual failure and to always be thinking about the next thing.
Well, now many years later I’ve had my sense of self torn away from me several times— I had to back away from the community That Was Me. I don’t program that much anymore as a leader of people. I don’t get involved in a lot of open source things and tend to avoid community things. Same thing goes for work — for a while I would still let myself be The Guy Who Does That Thing, meaning if I worked on Project X, it was my everything, my sense of definition and I would go to all out war to defend it. When I was married I was in that dangerous loop of “all I am is a parent this is my job and I must do it”. No “me” time. Work. Kids. Work. Kids. Work. Kids. This is new normal and no time for my partner and me, just keep the ship going, achieve magic at work. Be a superhuman.
You are not the Job or the Tool.
Therapists will tell you this as you sit in front of them bawling your eyes out about work, about being burned out and terrified that you’re irrelevant. When you find yourself laid off you’ll find yourself sitting alone drinking to stave off the depression and the loss of self. When your marriage falls apart and you suddenly find yourself with split custody.
Listen, you’re probably shaking your head and thinking hammer man doesn’t exist. He does. I know lots of them and I now mentor them away from that path. It’s ok to love what you do, to be passionate — you should be those things. What you have to watch out for is the fine line between passion and obsession, obsession and the destruction of self.
Tech is especially rife with this (especially as it preys on those who have no boundaries). You’re encouraged to become the product, become the thing you’re working on. You’re told to stay relevant you have to always be on the razor’s edge of news and trends. You work with a tool so much it becomes you and two truths emerge, you have become the job — the product — and the tools you use every day for years.
This of course, leads to burnout, depression, anxiety, suicide. This leads to: when something ends or when one tool supplants another, you are inflexible and brittle and break.
Mental illness — depression, anxiety, losing your sense of self is rife in the industry and it’s largely taboo. Hell! If you want to be a “10x engineer” you’re are actively encouraged to throw in everything. We incentivize no boundaries and blurring your life with your work.
Christ, at least investment firms try to force you to diversify.
Let’s talk about the job.
Ok. Let’s start with good things:
- It’s OK to love your job. Just realize, it’s probably going to break your heart.
- It’s OK to be passionate about the mission, vision and purpose. You need that to get up in the morning and face a wall of Outlook invites!
- It’s OK to dive in and give it your all — just don’t give it all of your self!
- It’s OK to fail and change. Learn to embrace it.
You aren’t the gig you’re working. If you’re at a startup or a big company and you’re on a big scary mission, you have to accept that there’s a pretty high risk of failure. In fact Startups and VCs are basically a giant game of making a huge number of bets assuming most will fail. Big companies are the same, they’ll bet, they’ll fail. They’ll re-org you and shuffle you so many times it’s like riding one of those spinny teacup rides at the fair.
Stop right now and think about what would happen if your project — or job — wasn’t there tomorrow? What would you do? How would you feel? At one point, I can admit that I was so emotionally tied to these things that I wanted to throw in the towel like hammer-man. “Well, thats over, I’m over, game over”
How much of your “self” is tied to what you’re doing right now, and what would happen to you if it went away? You have to think through this hard — play the thought exercise, ask yourself when the last time you updated your resume was, when was the last time you spent quality time connecting to others who you don’t work with? When was the last time you did networking or learning outside of work?
People crave belonging, and it’s easy to attach that belonging to what is, at the end of the day, a job or business that will die.
As a leader, I see the traps I fell into appearing in front of people all the time, and while it’s my job to:
- Help them grow and build their careers
- Inspire and guide them
- Mentor them and commiserate with them
- Fight for them
- Guide them away from the traps I fell into
I would add that my job is to ensure their future outside of the current work they’re doing or the company that pays them. I’m working with people and those people deserve a future that doesn’t include me, the company, the business unit or backlog.
This is career growth, not position growth, if they grow and they leave, mission accomplished.
Frankly, the same applies to open source and communities. If you are a leader or influencer your job is to guide people to well, diversify. Don’t encourage homogeny, don’t let people stand up and denigrate other tools or languages. Embrace change, embrace diversity of thought, tools and people.
And if you’re a people leader? Keep in mind they aren’t “resources” — they’re people with hope, dreams, aspirations and families. They’re not swappable parts on a factory line.
Now lets talk about tools
You have all seen it — a new programming language comes onto the scene and a billion blog posts and think pieces about how there will be a mass migration and $X is dead and $Y sucks, etc.
Each language and technology has a place it shines, and where it sucks.
Take me for example, I think Node is super good at API systems, Go is fast as hell and good for system programmer and microservice deployments, Python is still my go to chefs knife/business logic tool.
For a long time Python was my hammer. It doesn’t matter if I was painting a house, I’d beat the crap out of the walls until they were dust and I’d sit back and smile “No walls, no paint, done here”.
Quoting a friend:
“The thing to wed yourself to is change. It’s about how quickly you can evolve — not what you’ve done.”
Don’t be quick to dismiss new things, instead look at a way to incorporate them and learn. Don’t dismiss the old reliable things (Java). Just admit every tool has a use and you can not and should not be solely identified by one of them, or one community.
As you grow more experienced you’ll see these things — and you’ll know if you play with them to stay away (too raw, much pain) or when to sit out a round and let things settle (I’m looking at you, Angular and React).
Don’t get so emotionally invested in one tool, one technology, or one community that you lose your self in it. Don’t stand proudly up and stake your career on being “That Angular 1.0 person”. Just be a developer/engineer/designer with a broad set of tools who can Just Get Shit Done.
Invest emotional currency and love in people, in what you do, not how you get it done. Cause sooner or later you’ve staked your career on on the dodo bird.
Also do yourself another favor, unsubscribe from all the mailing lists you are on and don’t read the comments. Seriously.
Conclusion — and the personal aspect.
Backing away from work and tools — you need a definition of yourself outside of your roles. For example, if you’re a parent, when’s the last time your spouse and you had a date night? When is the last time you’ve had some quiet time?
If you’re not a parent ask yourself “when is the last time I did outside of #adulting, #work, #tech?” What was the last book you read? When was the last time you went outside and just breathed? Worked out?
Get out! You want to know what it’s like to be around people who actually care about people? Go volunteer at a dog shelter, a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Get a cheap bike and explore with all your smart devices off.
Set boundaries. Clearly draw the lines around who you are, not what you do or how you do it. Learn to connect to people outside of our industry, go roll in some dirt and bang on some pots and pans.
Don’t learn that you have no sense of self or belonging outside of these things and your roles the way I did a long time ago, being depressed and really wondering why I even existed (yes, suicide). Don’t be the hammer guy.
Again, quoting my friend Troy:
“The thing to wed yourself to is change. It’s about how quickly you can evolve — not what you’ve done.”
In love, in life, at work — save the feels for people, not things or org charts or Uber for plants. Give yourself time and space and identity independent of other people.