Post-Burnout, Self-Identity

I’m not sure if I’ve been particularly explicit, but around when we sold Pencilneck, I was really suffering from burnout. At the time, I fully intended to entirely abandon the tech industry – maybe go to grad school, maybe this, maybe that – I didn’t really know what would be next – but I was 100% sure it would not be more of what I was doing. I’ve tried a variety of ways to write about this – I saw today that I have some dozen drafts that are somewhat related to this idea, but I’ve decided to stream-of-thought this to just put it out there rather than frame it essay-style.

I took on some work post-sale – “doing what I knew best” which was writing code. But a thing that I’m not sure I’ve ever voiced publicly is some of the visceral effects of my burnout. Sure, I had a hard time concentrating, and very low productivity, but in particular, a lasting, lingering effect was massive anxiety, burgeoning on panic, every time I opened an IDE and tried to write code. I did some of this – but, unlike the previous 20-odd years of doing this work, this stopped being my happy place, indeed, became this place of doubt. The spiraling bad thoughts meant that my heart wasn’t in it. I was generally fine with implementing work, editing existing things – I helped wrangle some Drupal and WordPress here, a little Django there – but this was tying other people’s work together, not writing new modules, not original programmatic thought.

The work I did at the time that I enjoyed, indeed, that brought me back to happiness was shifting my thinking from systems thought to structural or organizational thought. While that had been an increasingly large part of my work up to then, it has driven almost all my work since – and I love this.

So while yeah, part of this is definitely professional growth, I still find it weird that I no longer enjoy writing code – I have self-identified as a programmer since.. probably since I first discovered Basic when I was 8 or 9 years old. And I don’t any more – and this has certainly cause no small amount of Imposter Syndrome feels – most often when talking to developers about their work, or their progress the how dare you pretend like this is strong. And all of this is related to that same basic panicky instinct when I think about writing code. Exploring that, pulling on that uncomfortable thread, getting comfortable with my discomfort has been helpful – I’ve learned that it’s not the writing code per se, but rather my experience of what comes next – other people’s excitement, expectations, the burgeoning responsibilities, the pace of work, the endless, relentless crush of running a business where I am the engine, vs the simple act of writing code, solving at the function level.

I started this post with maybe a different intent than I find myself now at – I wanted to say maybe how much better I feel. But the truth is that I’m not sure I do. I have ideas that I’d love to explore. And importantly, I no longer feel panicky at the thought of writing software. But I think more than anything, I think I’m slowly, in what feels like a healthy way vs an avoidance, coming to terms that I no longer think of myself as a programmer (engineer, developer, etc). And I’m not sure I know that means entirely, yet. I love technical architecture and problem solving and systems design and platform tooling and the commensurate things that go with what I do. I have recently dug in and started playing with Swift, which I’d never used before, and didn’t feel panicky at all thinking about the idea of writing something.

But maybe this is the crux: I’ve spent my whole (adult) life deeply embracing the idea that if I have an idea, not only could I built it, but that I should build it – only I could built it – and if someone else if working on it, I always need to be able to jump in and finish it. The shift from “Individual Contributor (IC)” to “Leader” happened for me ages ago – but a large contributor to my burnout was this persistent thought I had to be able to be the best IC in a pinch, no matter what. And I don’t know entirely what this means, but I think I’m increasingly comfortable with the idea that if I have an idea, I don’t have to be the one to build it? Ideas are nothing without execution – but execution can maybe look something more like general contracting, organizing others rather than individual craftsmanship? I directly support at team of about 30 right now (and indirectly influence a fair number more), and there’s no scenario where my time is not better spent enabling, unlocking, supporting, coaching, planning, reviewing etc for all and any of them vs me doing any of their work. And that’s ok? that’s good. It’s pretty great, actually. These awesome people are executing – sometimes on my ideas, more importantly mostly on theirs. I deeply love what I do these days – but I wish I had a “definition” for it as simple as “I’m a programmer”.

I’m not entirely sure what I am now.

But to circle back, and maybe end on a down note: burnout is real, and the effects are maybe permanent, and I wish that I had paid more attention in the moment to the shifting sands of what game me bad, panicky anxiety vs what was giving me good, excitement anxiety. A little therapy, a little coaching, a lot of introspection has really helped me. I still don’t enjoy programming like I used to and (most days), that’s ok.

Why Can’t I sleep?

as I tweeted in frustration late last night, I’ve been having troubles sleeping lately. This happens sometimes – bouts of insomnia – that usually correspond to my mind working overtime behind the scenes to process something (aside: I often think, and talk about my subconscious in the third-person, as if it is someone else. I’ve never thought about it too much, but is that odd? Do you think of your subconscious as a quasi-autonomous entity or fully integrated into you?) (aside #2: Why do porn-stars often refer to their genitalia in the third-person? To achieve the mental separation for good mental health?).

However, this is different – I’m actually very tired and trying to sleep. But there’s 2 things stopping me that I’ve only just noticed how important they are. One, I’m sick with a cold and thus have various breathing issues. Had Leah not been working night shifts this weekend, I’m sure either she would have slept in the spare room or I would have been banished, because I’m sure I’m snoring up a storm. But, that comes and goes, and my sleeplessness has been longer than this weekend.

The day after boxing day, I fell while snowboarding. I initially thought I had maybe cracked a rib, as each breach hurt so much. But once I calmed down, I realized I’d just hurt my ribs badly on the left side – likely something muscular, as any rotation or stretching causes a sharp pain just to the left of my heart. More or less manageable , except for one thing: I, by preference, sleep on my left side, arm stretched out under my head like a pillow. So, you know, fully extending those muscles on the left side of my torso. Which really hurts. So I can’t do that right now. Which means I’m trying to sleep on my right side – which is doable, but feels odd, so takes longer. But! because I clearly have muscle memory, I apparently keep rolling over onto my left in my sleep. Which sends a stab of pain on my left side when I do so. Which wakes me up. And starts the whole process over again.

Today is the first day that I can lift my left arm to shoulder height with what I’ll call “manageable” pain, so hopefully I’m starting to heal. But in the interim, I’m feeling desperately short on sleep.