Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Life Beyond IT: The Cycle of Self-Doubt

February 3rd, 2009 · 5 Comments

It’s hard to get fired in corporate IT
I worked in corporate IT for a decade before I finally escaped. In all that time, I saw only a handful of people get fired for performance reasons. Sure, I saw people get put on a performance plan and “reviewed” out of the company, but those people left on their own wheels after successive annual reviews describing them as low performers. I even saw one or two cases where a total bottomfeeder was able to hang on to her job for YEARS just by engaging in the performance coaching process. The fact that she “tried” to do better added at least another year to her time in the company. In the end, even she didn’t get fired. She eventually got the hint and moved on.

This frustrating tendency of corporate IT to hang on to employees was also a bit of a security blanket for me. I didn’t worry about getting fired. It’s hard to fire people and most managers just don’t have the energy to do it. It’s easier to reassign you to another group, reduce your work assignment to non-critical activities, or just ignore you altogether until layoffs come around and include you in the cut.

Getting fired for performance is not the same as getting fired for cause or getting laid off. Getting fired for cause is bad – it means you don’t get any unemployment benefits, but it’s also reasonably easy to avoid. Don’t steal, don’t forget to call in sick when you can’t make it to work, don’t pinch the secretary’s butt, and don’t use racial/sexual slurs. Getting fired for performance will not result in losing unemployment benefits, and it often comes with a severance package, though generally reduced from what you would get if you were laid off (I often hoped I would get laid off, sometimes secretly but often publicly – I would have received almost six months of pay).

Goodbye Security Blanket!
I don’t have a security blanket anymore, but oddly I’m not worried about getting fired. What I’m worried about is failing. Previously, failing didn’t worry me as much as it does now. Why? Because it didn’t matter as much to the company. What difference did my $2,000,000 mistakes make in a company that had canceled at least $200,000,000 in projects after disastrous failures? Besides, since I used scrum, I had some confidence that we would deliver something of value before we spent the entire budget, reducing the likelihood of total failure substantially.

Now though, failure means much more. The company needs me to be successful. This is not to imply that they would fail without me – I don’t think that’s true. But I impact the bottom line in a way I never have before. Throw my other ventures into the mix – and – and suddenly the prospect of failure really, really bothers me. It scares me frankly.

Hello Upside
At the same time, the upside potential of the work I’m doing now is staggering. It blows my mind to think about being involved in a product as great as TriSano and to know I have a real stake in its success. We’re taking risks and building an awesome product that benefits the public and the government. The potential consequences of success are buoying and tremendous.

On a smaller scale, the same thing is true of and Success in these ventures has much more potential than the payoff from successfully delivering a corporate IT project ever did.

Enter the Cycle of Self-Doubt
These two forces, the fear of failure and the hope for success, play off each other in dramatic ways. I find myself cycling weekly through wild optimism and and modest pessimism about the prospects of success and failure. I’m not used to this level of emotional variability, and at first it really bothered me, until I noticed that it was cyclical. Here’s how the cycle works:

First, some sort of positive signals emerge about the prospects of something I’m working on. My enthusiasm builds off of this feedback and I feed off of it.

The enthusiasm grows and I chase after it. I work harder and get more results, until it finally peaks in a somewhat irrational level of optimism.

Finally, the work starts to make me tired. My expectations drop to a more realistic level. Reality points out that progress takes time. I rest a little bit, still pleased with where we’ve gotten to.

Resting makes me nervous about the future. I start to have thoughts about whether I have done my part. Am I pulling my own weight? Am I giving my fair share to the team? Even if I am, is it enough? I start to feel a yearning for progress, for some improvement that makes me feel positive again.

I wade back in, attacking some problem that bothers me. I make progress, and I start to feel optimistic again. Look what a difference you made by doing this, I tell myself.

Some sort of positive signals emerge as a result of these efforts, and the cycle starts all over again.

Recognizing the Cycle Makes It Bother Me Less
A week ago I noticed the cycle and started to joke about it with my friends. When they ask how things are going, I said things like “I’m at the bottom of my self-doubt cycle right at the moment,” or “I’m at the top of the ferris wheel just now”. It usually took a bit of explanation before they knew what I meant, but I found it a useful way to talk about how I’m feeling about my job.

This cycle feels very natural to me, and overall it has a positive effect on motivating me. The bottom of the self-doubt cycle prevents me from resting on my laurels while there is important work to be done, the top of the cycle feeds my imagination and enthusiasm, and the middle states are highly productive times that yield lots of results.

I know this may sound weird, but now that I can see the cycle, I like it. I really do.

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Tags: Development

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Drew Kime // Feb 3, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Cameron Herold did a post on Tim Ferris' blog called "Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You" that describes a similar cycle. A bit different in the details, but it looks like he recognized the same thing in himself a while back and has really fleshed out the idea.

  • 2 davidray // Feb 3, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks Drew. Here's a link to Cameron's post:

  • 3 Jeffrey Fredrick // Feb 3, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Good that you can recognize it!

    I was lucky enough to have a friend and coworker with a similar cycle but out of phase to mine. That was good because we could help each other through the lows with the strength of our irrational optimism.

  • 4 Michael Hale // Feb 10, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Awesome post! I've felt this my entire life, and it's really nice to be able to understand what's going on, and to actually be able to enjoy and work with the cycle.

  • 5 Mike Hunter // Mar 4, 2010 at 9:18 am

    i can't agree more! thanks for the post.

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