Lately I’ve been keeping up with twitter, and retweeting the best of what I see. And there’s a trend in that recently: articles encouraging humility. I like this, and I feel like saying a few words myself.
Most recently, @shanley wrote (or.. crowdsourced?) an article on how the “10x engineer” is a myth, and why it’s bad. Unfortunately it just sort of trails off at the end, and I’m left a bit confused, so I’ll try to sum it up: Long ago someone did a crappy study with way too few participants, made wild claims, and then it snowballed into this myth that encourages harmful behaviour like hero-worship, overworking, depression, etc.
Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (and health issues nobody my age ought to have). And yet, it’s such a tempting trap that I keep having to drag myself away from it again. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a rockstar? Who doesn’t want to be the bestest programmer in the world, and have everyone think they’re awesome? My brain is good at avoiding substance addictions, but has a blind spot when it comes to people’s praise and approval. Besides, there’s so much in this world that I want to do, it’s hard to stop and rest when I need to the most.
Now, I find myself wondering: why is this rockstar thing so tempting? Why do I feel compelled to judge programmers, and persecute myself if I don’t appear to be the best? Why are people so eager to put someone on a pedestal and start a cult of personality? A part of my mind says, this is obvious, humans have always been that way. But I’ve found that questioning those “obvious” things can lead to interesting discoveries.
I can’t speak for other people, but for me…. it usually boils down to fear. Silly, irrational fears, which are the hardest to defeat. I fear that if I’m not the best programmer, I must be the worst programmer and I’ll end up with no job (despite having never been unemployed except by choice). I fear that if I’m not giving talks about awesome stuff, nobody will be interested in talking to me (despite all the good conversation and friends I made at WWDC, where I doubt any programmer knew less about apple tech than me). I fear that any imperfection in me could be used against my whole gender, even though the communities I hang out in wouldn’t put up with such behaviour, and the best thing I can do for other female geeks is to be myself as loud as I dare. :)
The worst part is, when I try to break away from this, I’m often overwhelmed by the fear that I somehow need these silly fears. They lie to me, and tell me that without them I’m nothing, that I’ll just lie on the couch and do nothing all day, and never accomplish anything. Yet when I’ve succeeded at putting aside those fears for a while, the opposite is true: on average, I get more motivation and energy, and accomplish more, and feel better about myself in general. Sure, sometimes I need a day or two of doing fuck-all first because I’m burnt out, but if I rest without beating myself up about it, I can’t seem to help doing something productive soon afterwards. And it’s a lot more fun when I wholeheartedly want to do it. :)
So, if you feel like your ego is hurting you… try putting it aside for a week or two. Focus on how you can help other people in your community, or at work. Try doing what’s right, even if you’re scared of getting punished for it. :) And put your health first, because you can’t help yourself or others if you work yourself to death. :P
Oh, and there’s another trap to avoid here: competitive humility isn’t real humility. If you’re putting down people for following their ego, you’re doing it wrong. And if you get angry at yourself for having an ego, you’re doing it wrong. I still want to be the bestest programmer ever. I still want oodles of money. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having such desires. I’m just taking them out of the driver’s seat for a while. Desires have a lot in common with two-year-olds; giving them what they want isn’t the best way to handle them, but beating them up isn’t right either. :)
Now that I think about it, fear and anger can be like two-year-olds too. Resist them directly, and they throw a wild tantrum and try their best to make you feel miserable. But give them some space and understanding, and hear them out, and they just might agree to try another way (forgive me if the metaphor is stretched; I don’t have much experience with actual two-year-olds).
Anyways, that’s enough for tonight. Maybe another time I’ll have a go at the hero-worship issue (note to self: The Speaker-vs-Audience Dichotomy is relevant reading). For now, I’ll leave you with an article that convinced me accepting tips is suboptimal, and a quote that changed how I think:
“Confidence doesn’t come from knowing you’re right – it comes from being okay with failing.” — Design is a Job