You'll see when…
Or how to annoy people with four little words.
Life is full of these precious and annoying little moments.
It can be your neighbor playing country music at full-volume on a Sunday morning, our your coworker typing on his keyboard with the tactfulness of a buffalo. You know what I'm talking about: things that are not important enough to justify an outrage, but enough to turn a bad day into a worse one.
We all learn to cope with these annoyances in our own way. Some people go running in the evening, others rush out to the nearest bar once the work day is over. Some try to write about it.
Over the infinity of all possible annoyances, I have to say that there is one that I find particularly irritating. One that we are all guilty of doing from time to time. And it starts with four little words:
"You'll see when…"
Let me tell you a story from ancient times…
Once upon a time
It was one of my first weeks at this new job as Software Engineer at a big bank in the east of France. I had just joined a team responsible for designing and maintaining the bank's "middle-ware" — for non IT technical persons, it's the piece of software that sits between the bank's public website, and the low-level mainframe who handles money transactions.
It was a team of roughly 20 people, most of those in their 30’s and 40’s. Being only 25 years old, I was one of the youngest. I had been working a couple of years before, but it was a startup I had started right after university with some friends. So nothing like joining a big company with thousands of employees. I was enthusiastic and full of energy starting this new adventure: the bank was my oyster!
To really get the picture you have to know me a little bit: I had always been impassioned by computer science and programming in particular. Programming was not a job to me: it was always a hobby. Ever since I learnt programming around 9, I never felt bored in front of a computer. I could spend entire holidays looking at new languages, technologies or experimenting with toy programs. It never once felt like work: it was just fun.
I will always remember those first weeks, full of expectations. As I discovered the code base — for non-technical people, the "code base" is all the code written and currently used by a team/company. It's the thing you contribute to and maintain as a programmer — I started to get a terrible feeling: all the code in there seemed rather old and frankly, poorly designed. None of the newest techniques I had learnt were employed. No testing, no naming conventions, a lot of dead-code. A nightmare. It felt as if the code had been written 20 years ago and never touched since then.
With the experience I have today, this would not be a surprise. But at the time, it just didn't make any sense to me: why would my team let the code base in such a terrible state?
So I did what most juniors do and I asked one of my coworkers, perhaps not in the smartest way:
Hey, Bob, how come is the code base in such an ancient state? Why haven't we used <some technique> here to make this better?
Bob — who, I learnt later was actually the main contributor of the particular piece of code I had just complained about — replied with a couple of sentences that I will always remember:
This is not university anymore! We don't use fancy techniques found on the Internet! We don't have time to keep up with whatever is the latest fashion in programming this month! This is the real life and we have real work to do, so that's why!
You could tell that my question — with its clumsy delivery and complete lack of tact — had hit a nerve. But I didn’t realize it at the time. Instead I got offended by the pedantic tone of the answer and the aggressive semi-yelling that was carrying it. So I replied with something like:
Okay but this is not something I learnt at the university! It’s a well-known best practice. I read about that 2 weeks ago. It's not rocket science either!
And there it was, from Bob, the final argument that rules them all:
You think it's easy keeping-up with all the so-called "best practices"? You are young but you will see in a few years! You won't have time to do it anymore either!
Appeal to authority
How could I counter that argument from the height of my little 2 years of working-experience ?
The guy was recognized within the team as the most technical person. That guy had been there for a while and had more authority on the topic. What he said felt wrong but I couldn't quite figure out why. Thinking back at it, I believe I now know what bothered me so much:
Being up-to-date with most programming topics was my thing. It was how I was spending my free time, it was my passion. In a word, it was defining me. And that man, using his position of authority, told me — no, assured me — that it would come to pass, that my passion would fade out. That I would become another passion-less man working his 8 hours/day. That it was a fact, waiting to happen, that all of it was unavoidable.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here but…
Don't let anyone, ever, tell you that.
To be honest, it struck me for a while. I started doubting my abilities, dreading the moment when I would in turn become obsolete. We weren't really working on cutting-edge technology, and I couldn't see it improving any time soon. Everybody had given up. There was even younger people than me already on board the obsolescence train.
It is a terrible thing to be in your 20’s at work, bored from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. I would take as many of the eleven weeks of paid holidays — yes, eleven — to code on personal stuff in my free time. Think about it: I had to take a day off to actually work.
I would come home every evening — or rather, afternoon — depressed from doing nothing. Not just nothing interesting, nothing at all. We had almost nothing to do beside looking at the company restaurant schedule and planning our next holidays. What a soul-crushing period that was.
After a while, I decided to fight back. I started organizing trainings and discussion groups to modernize our working practices. It gained some traction for a while, but eventually people went back to their old habits. It was as-if the cost of changing was too steep to be worth it. Who cares if it takes us 3 weeks to do something instead of 3 hours ? It’s less time to be bored. And time — well, money — is not a problem for a bank anyway.
I eventually quit after two years of boredom.
A few years later
Here we are, a few years and 3 different companies later. My passion is still intact. Actually, I even expended my horizons: not only did my passion not fade out, but it also feels as-if it spread on many other topics. Now I even have a very exciting technical lead position in a big and amazing video-games company, and all my technical watch is put to good use there.
But what does that mean? I was assured that “I would see in a few years”. That it was unavoidable. After all, it was written in stone! How could that guy be wrong about that? He seemed so sure about it.
We all like to pretend we know other people’s future
Bob dictating my future was not the only time I faced the “You will see when…” from people. I have heard it many, many times since then. Likely even before that time too, but I don’t remember.
Whether it was:
You will see, after a while you just won’t do any sport.
I was listening to <whatever music style> too. But you will see, you will grow out of it too some day.
But I think the most common version is this one:
You will see when you’ll have children.
Oh boy, have I heard this one way too often…
The old and classic. The golden debating hammer: “You don’t have children. You cannot understand.”
It’s not about the children
Let me be extra-clear about something here before we go forward:
Yes, I am not a parent. Not yet. I very much intend to be some day. No I’m not jealous of you for being one. I do look forward to it but I don’t envy you either.
Frankly, I get it. Having a child is a life-changing event. How could it not be?
It changes everything: you move from two independent persons to three always-tired persons. You are now responsible for a new life on earth. If that isn't a big responsibility, I don't know what is. Whatever must have felt important before now seems like a distant and easy memory.
I get all that. No, really. I do.
No you don't!
Perhaps. I don't. Perhaps you can't get it before being a parent. Before experiencing first-hand the up and downs of giving birth. But that's the thing: you might know for yourself what that experience means, but you have no more clue than I do what it's going to be like for me !
The real meaning of "You'll see when…"
I'm going to let you in on a secret. When you say:
"You will see when..."
What I hear is:
"This was a very tough moment for me. I have a lot of regrets from my failure to adapt at this changing situation. I'm sure you will fail to !"
Yes, you got that right. It may not be your intention, but this is exactly what I understand, what I hear.
I don't mean that you are an evil or bad person. Your intentions are probably honorable. You want to give me a warning, you want to give me advice. But you don't want to look weak: you don't want to look like someone who failed to adapt even though it happens to everyone. So what do you do instead ? You describe the situation as something impossible to manage, as something that I will fail too. And that is what is so wrong.
Please don't take offense at me for saying this but in all truth, you can't tell the future, my future. I welcome advice. I'll take as much as I can. But I'll do without the assertions on my inevitable failure. Thanks.
I understand that you had to sacrifice many things to grow up, to be a parent, or to get your life back after a depression. You had to make some tough choices.
Perhaps you gave up on reading books, perhaps you can't find time to train, run or play football, or perhaps you can't go to the restaurant or the movies anymore. All big life-changing events will do that to you: they will force you to adapt to new conditions, to give up on things you like, to prioritize. And it's fine. It really is. Nobody is judging you for that. I am not judging you for that. But here is something that you still need to understand:
If you don't want people to judge you as a parent, stop judging them for not being one.
It may seem like a rant on all the parents out there, but it isn't. I just picked the best example I could find in my life, and quite frankly, the most annoying too. And also, I'm not done yet.
Why we do the things we do
I think it is natural to blame others for being able to do the things we can't do. It's pure and simple jealousy. We all do it.
Married couples envy singles for their freedom. Singles envy married couples for never being alone at night. It always comes to that: desiring something we don't currently have. But in the case of the "You'll see when…", it takes something more. Do you get it yet? Let me give you a hint:
What do you think is the common thing between Bob's lack of technological watch throughout his career and a couple that just had their first baby?
They can't go back.
Forward is the only way for them. You can't catch up with 20 years of technology and you can't unmake a baby — well, some people tried, but they ended-up in prison so I wouldn't recommend it — It's too late to make other decisions. To late to regret it.
I do not mean that all parents regret being parents or that all Bobs regret being obsolete, but some certainly do. And those are the ones that take shelter under the mythical "You'll see when…" whenever they feel their choices are under scrutiny.
Think about all the happy people in your life. All those that look blooming and confident about their lives. How many of those persons have already told you: "You'll see when…"? In my case that number is zero. I bet it's the same for you.
There is a reason for that: confident people don't feel the need to reassure themselves. They don't need to lower your chances of success. They have enough success already and aren't threatened by yours.
That confidence is the difference between:
"You'll see when you have children, you won't be able to keep your house clean either!"
"Oh god, I'm having such a hard time keeping up with all the cleaning at home ever since we had the baby!"
It's exactly the same information. Except one is honest, factual and humble and the other arrogant, defensive and judgemental.
Which one — do you think — will elicit the more sympathy?
Going forward, not going up
Ever wondered why you haven't seen your best friends ever since they had their baby almost two years ago? Sure, they had plenty to do since the baby's birth. Also a baby has a routine and it's not something you mess up with — if you care about your nights: you'll see about it some day!
But let's be honest: that’s not the real reason. If they really wanted to see you, they would find a way, even for 5 minutes. After all, they see Karen and Terry every Sunday for brunch. You did not know? They are that other couple nearby that also had a baby recently!
What happened? How have you become so uninteresting all of sudden?
Let me reassure you: you haven't. But you don't have children. You are a constant reminder that another choice was possible. You would create doubt. I wouldn't want you to be around either! Sorry.
On the other side, they can see Karen and Terry without any issue. After all they have made the same choices. They understand. Their similarity is comforting. But more importantly: they can't judge.
So we surround ourselves with similar people. I think that's normal: we create small groups of mutual understanding and leave groups where we don't fit anymore. It makes sense.
But for some people, it seems as if this newfound difference is perceived as absolute self-betterment. They become firmly convinced that they achieved a new-level in humanity. And they don't miss an opportunity to remind you of this. For them, living has become a contest and parenting is winning. Every person that isn't a parent becomes a child. Every person that puts their career before their family is a fool. Nothing else matters, especially not you.
If you know people like this, make no mistake: that attitude is not arrogance: it is pain fuelled with immense regrets. Something is not quite like they expected, and they feel like they have no choice but to go all-in to remain consistent in the eyes of society.
Hate them if you will, but they probably need our support more than anybody else. They had to convince themselves that nobody could understand them, that their problems are unique, unsolvable. The only alternative is that they failed somehow, and that is just not acceptable. How lonely that must be.
I understand very well today why Bob reacted the way he did. Why he felt the need to defend himself against my accusations. Why he did it the way he did, by twisting my perceptions so that I would stand down. He was just coping, even if badly so. I'm sure there were some good reasons for some of the decisions he made… but I didn't listen, I couldn't.
Because that's the thing: if you want people to listen to your pieces of advice don’t wrap them in judgment.
I know from experience how hard it can be, seeing someone find a way to solve a problem that we didn't manage to solve. Succeeding where we didn't. It is tempting to crush one's hopes to protect our egos but it is also deeply ineffective.
No, adapting to change isn't easy. We all make sacrifices. And yes, I don't know yet what it's like to be a parent. Perhaps I'll manage better than you. Perhaps it'll be worse. Only time can tell… You'll see in a few years !