I was having dinner with some friends from college the other day, all of us working in Tech, and the following dialogue took place:
Me: […] I had a mental meltdown not long ago. I tried balancing so many things at the same time that I literally lost it. I never felt so out of control…
Friend 1: We’ve all been there. I’ve had only one serious breakdown so far, but I’ve come close a few times.
Friend 2: Ha! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve snapped already…
The lighthearted ambience of a bar made this conversation seem nothing more than a couple of friends sharing life experiences, but as time went by, that exchange started sinking in.
Anxiety, burnout, depression, low self-esteem, work addiction, general loss of perspective… those are some of the more common mental afflictions I’ve come across by interacting with peers. Curiously though, all of them see those pains as “part of the job”.
As the world got more and more digital, people building tech grew in prestige and achievements. A career in technology has made it to the ranks of “law school” or “med school”: hard to get in, but easy to get rich if you make it.
Working from home, earning 100k, relative small working hours, free snacks and pool tables at the office; talking about mental health on those conditions seems petty, almost out of touch… but is it?
Working with software or hardware in almost all of its forms have some underlying toils that are not easy to spot on your daily routine, but they are no less damaging because of that. It’s time we open up and discuss about those issues for what they really are: issues.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems, and I have almost nothing to provide other than my sympathy and some insight, unfortunately.
As my counselor would says though, “identifying the patterns that hurt us if half of the work done”.
Let’s try and identify some patters then, shall we?
How many stories can we fit on this sprint? What our roadmap looks like? Is this prototype final? Are you sure this deploy won’t break anything? How many points do you think this story takes… we hear those every day, several times a day.
The need to see clearly into the future is why a lot of us have jobs. Loads of time and money are spent in our industry to try and guess what is the best next step to be taken. Most often, several next steps.
No human is capable of predicting the future, but evolution made sure that we get damn close to it. Our ancestors didn’t needed future sight to know that tickling the sleeping lion would end their Neanderthal life early. Our ability to guess about the future is rooted on the very primitive drives of survival and self-preservation.
Every time you are asked to predict something, your brain goes back to those instincts in order to assemble a response. Alertness, divergent thinking, sense of urgency, increased heart rate… in other words, Anxiety.
Anxiety is not an issue per se, it’s a perfectly healthy process of our brains. The problem lies on our jobs constantly asking from us to be anxious.
Human beings, much like any other animal, love patterns. Our neurons are wired based on those. A job in Tech is asking us, every day, multiple times a day, to be anxious. That’s a pattern right there and once you get accustomed with it, it’s hard not to use it for everything else in your life.
Almost everybody in Tech have heard of the famous “fail fast” philosophy. The idea is that if you fail small, quick and cheap, you have a better chance of not failing big and expensive.
To the unadvised, the “fail fast” approach makes it looks like that the Tech workplace is soft on people, giving them time to figure things out before calling for actual results.
The reality is quite the opposite. The “failure” mentioned by the paradigm is not related to trial-and-error, but to potential bad business decisions. If you take a deeper look on what is postulated, modern tech is pretty averse to failure.
The team is always fully responsible for a product’s demise. It doesn’t matter if everyone gave their best or if failure came from an outlying factor: the team should have predicted the pitfalls before with discovery and QA.
Similar to the need for predictability, the expectation that you’ve “failed” all possible wrong paths before actually committing on what should be the single best course of action creates a sense of uneasiness that leads to anxiety.
Failure is human and unavoidable. Although we don’t feel like it, we are often way less in control of things than we imagine. The notion that a team is the sole responsible for their results is, at best, naive. So much happens between production and delivery that individual responsibilities are often diluted to the insignificance.
Accountability is important, but it’s often tyrannical.
Tech runs fast, and everybody knows that. The ludicrous speed in which the AI market has been developing is proof. If anything, it seems that tech is moving faster and faster as time goes by.
Tech is the transformer of challenge into opportunity, and we have been using it more and more as time went by. At the beginning of civilization, tech was wheels and plows, now we have rockets, machines that talk and the world wide web.
We, as a society, came this far thanks to our adaptability. People have a singular capability of overcoming adversity and necessity. The ability to transform stress into action made us leave caves, work the land, cast iron and reach the moon.
Notice that stress is the key word here. While other animals often translate stress into the simple “fight or flight” instinct, we use it to fuel inventiveness, transforming the environment around us and finding solutions to problems that otherwise would be unbeatable.
Working in tech is fundamentally intertwined with stress because we transform struggle into insight. We bash our heads against walls of code, hours of office politics and countless try-and-error routines in order to come up with the next big solution.
Stress is a common by-product of most jobs, but tech is one of the few in which you are dependent on it. The faster we have to move in order to stay on top of everything, the more you need to stress yourself out of the comfort zone. Productive, but not healthy.
“A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what they value”, said Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor. If Marcus worked in tech eighteen hundred years later, his quote might have been changed to “by the value og their OKRs”
Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been binding value to work, and tech careers seem to have fully converted people into capital. The famous “outcomes over output” mantra means that work don’t have intrinsic value anymore, only if it produces positive results for the business.
A developer is as good as the code it deploys, designers are only worth their portfolios, product managers’ LinkedIn profiles are a Christmas threes of impacted KPIs.
As it’s with all things, some times performance goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. Business outcomes are a roller-coaster, and if you limit yourself to what you do for a living, you’ll roller-coaster yourself: when on top, you’ll be fearful of the descent, when at the bottom, you’ll cripple yourself with low self-esteem.
We are never happy because we don’t feel we are quite there yet, but we also never feel safe because we ignore how much we have already done. The constant pursue for more, for biggest numbers, is an absolute destroyer of mental health.
It’s not uncommon to see people that live for the product they work for (remember that woman who slept at the office floor?) and their mood is totally dependent on the metrics they get, the results they crush. Being passionate about what you do is a beautiful thing, but there is a line between being ambitious and being a slave.
Fixing things that feel broken is not achievable by running away. Venting off is good, changing focus is important, but those definitely are not effective at transforming how we feel about things.
We can’t change the industry, it is what it is. We can only change ourselves and how we deal with the good and the bad of it. Before anything else, we need to know what we are dealing with. Only then we can think about solutions.
As long as our lives orbit around our careers, it’s going to be very hard to step away from those inherently negative characteristics of the job. Workplace success is amazing, but it shouldn’t replace relationship success, family success, personal growth success…
The gurus, mentors, courses and bloggers, we paint this fairy tale land about tech as if everything is great, but it’s not.
Working in tech is just this: work
Uninspired, boring, average and mundane work.