Try to feel inspired, not envious

Dear new developer,

I struggle with envy. I find one kind particularly insidious. It’s the envy I have of someone I know online. I’ll see someone younger than me, or less experienced than I am, or less knowledgeable than me. But they somehow have 10x the Twitter followers, or have been asked to headline conferences, or have written more popular books.

In my darker moments, I see them and think “why them? what did they do to deserve such fame?” I’m not proud of these thoughts, but I definitely have them.

While all my emotions are valid, this envy isn’t productive. It isn’t even realistic. Why?

Do you ever curate your online persona? I certainly do (confessions of ugly envy notwithstanding). I’m certain that these internet famous people do as well. This means that I don’t know where they actually are in terms of happiness, success or fame. I know what they choose to tell me and what I can infer. But I don’t know what other aspects of their life are like.

Second, suppose I do find out they are living a tremendous life, with no issues. Maybe I get the chance to chat with them at a conference over beers. The other aspect that I need to keep in mind when I’m envious is that I don’t know how they got to where they are. I have no idea of the fires that burn in them, the sacrifices they’ve made, the late nights and hard choices they’ve endured.

So in short, my envy is unrealistic because I don’t know what their life is like nor do I know what their path has been to get to where they are now.

So, if the envy is unrealistic, should I ignore it? I don’t think so. What I try to do, not always successfully, is turn it into inspiration. After all, the reason I feel envy is because I want what they have. So why not see what they’ve achieved as a goal and go get it.

They may have learned and worked toward what they’ve achieved in public, in which case I have a blueprint to follow. Or, they may not have done so. In that case, the mere fact they’ve achieved something indicates to me that it exists and can be done. Bannister ran a sub four minute mile in 1954. It became possible, and others followed:

By the end of 1978, over 200 runners had broken the once impossible barrier of the four-minute mile.

https://www.mayooshin.com/four-minute-mile/

So rather than feeling unrealistic, unhelpful envy, I look to the people on the internet who have shared their accomplishments and feel inspired. Wow, someone came out of school and self published a book! Someone else went from three hundred followers to thirty thousand. And someone else built a side hustle into a business. All these things can be done with effort.

I can be inspired all day long, and it is far more beneficial to my mental well being than envy. However, both emotions don’t matter much in terms of getting things done.

This leads to the last point. When I see someone with large achievements, I can choose to follow in their footsteps. Take their accomplishments as my goals. Or I can choose to think about what it might have taken them to get to where they are, what sacrifices they’ve made. That leads to the most important question when I start to feel envy.

Am I willing to put in the time and the effort to try to get what they’ve got?

Sincerely,

Dan

The despair of not being good

Dear new developer,

I recently learned a new skill. And I wasn’t good at it. (The skill, if you must know, was writing with a certain tone for a corporate blog. But the lessons below apply for any skill.)

I don’t like being “not good”, aka bad, at something. Especially since it was adjacent to an activity I’ve been doing for years, which is blogging.

I would get feedback on how to improve this or that. I understood the feedback, it made sense, but the overall feeling I had was of failure. I felt shame because this was something I thought I knew. That honestly pissed me off. But after the shame passed, I acknowledged that the comments were correct, that I wasn’t producing what I should.

It’s important to acknowledge that it’s OK to fail (I’ve covered that before) and that it’s OK to be bummed about it. We’re all human and the emotions are part of it.

I had a couple of choices. I could keep trying and make improvements over time. Or I could decide that, hey, maybe this wasn’t the right task for me to do.

The question is, how do you decide? I think there are a couple of ways to think about this choice:

  • how core is this skill to your job?
  • how core is this skill to the company?
  • how long do you think it’ll take to get good?
  • do you enjoy it? do you want to be good at it?
  • is there another way to solve the problem other than you doing something you’re not good at?
  • is there someone at your company who can help teach this to you?

Note that it isn’t just your opinion on these that matter. You also want to make sure you get your boss’s opinion, on each of these questions. The discussion is important and will determine how and where to invest your time.

If you despair because you’re bad at something, don’t just beat your head against the wall. Step back and be strategic about your efforts.

Sincerely,

Dan