{October 6, 2013}   How to Not be a Rockstar

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.

Another post I retweeted was Presentation Skills Considered Harmful. It’s a very well-written post on how to reduce stage fright and be a better presenter at the same time – not “better” in the rockstar sense, but in the sense of actually being more useful to your audience. Last time I submitted a talk proposal, I had this nagging “I’m doing it wrong” feeling, and I think this post explains a lot of it – I was focused on how I could get my proposal accepted, how to make it sell and make me look like the sort of presenter everyone wants at their conference – not on how the talk could be useful to the audience. I mean, that was in there somewhere too, but it wasn’t the priority. In truth, even while writing it I didn’t really believe it was a useful talk. I just missed talking, and have yet to gain enough experience with javascript to have anything useful to say about it. :( Still, what I liked most about the article was that it gives me clear guidelines to follow when, one day, I do have something to say again. :)

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

Ann Onymous says:

This post really strikes at the heart of the problem and I can fully relate to it. Last summer I had a nervous breakdown full with panic attacks, irrational fears and whatnot due to putting so much pressure on myself to be the bestest as you say. I am about your age and it created a whole slew of health issues that indeed people our age should not have (it has turned me a bit into a hypocondriac, convinced I had some kind of cancer ; of course being under extreme pressure one’s body can answer mimicking the symptoms of some cancers or other severe diseases…). I have been very open about these issues with my colleagues, including my new boss. They all suggested to take things slow, relax, do other things: cooking my own food, getting time off the computer, practice some physical activity, etc. Having been used to working so much over the last decade, that is somehing hard to get accostumed to. But the experience has been scary enough that it keeps the motivation high to change things, hopefully for the better. Health and mental health are really the most precious things we have in life. There is no point in trying to be the bestest if in the process we kill ourselves (or at least make us feel miserable).

[…] recently blogged about How to Not be a Rockstar. It’s excellent, give it a look. And her piece got me thinking about how we are always being […]

ThomasZ says:

Whoa. Its been quite some time since we met online or offline, and you go and grow up on me! I mean, these are words of a wise old woman. And I mean that all in a good way!

Thanks for writing it up, it was a pleasure to read.

Comments are closed.

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: