This week, as I am recovering from a recent illness, I thought it would be useful to share some things that I struggle with. Particularly, I want to stress how I try and overcome those things with some insight and a decent amount of hard work.
If I had to look over my life, I think I would be hard pressed to find someone that has not told me something like “I wish I had…” or “Why couldn’t I…”? Those are words I know I have used myself from time to time. I mean, let’s face it. Most of us have encountered difficult issues in our past, bad issues that we were forced to deal with. And while we would all like to just move past those negative experiences, that movement requires serious work, sometimes spanning many years.
Having had my own share of issues over the years, around ten years ago I started trying to look at those negative experiences in a new light. As painful as they were to remember, I wanted to learn more from those experiences in the hope of avoiding them or lessening their impact on my future. I found that when I drilled down to how I was feeling at that time, it always came to a focus on a common root issue. In most of those cases, I found that a value decision on my part was the problem. Now, I cannot blow some magic fairy dust on every value decision and make it go away… no one can. If someone tells you they can, they are lying. But I found that if I give myself permission to see things differently, I can change my viewpoint on some of those issues and reduce the amount of negativity in my life.
I feel that this is especially true for Software Developers and others in similar technical fields. We spend so much time in our minds, I feel that we need to be extra diligent in reminding ourselves that we are also human. As I have had a lot of time to think recently as I recover, I thought I would talk about some of the “permissions” that I have had difficulties giving myself.
Give Yourself The Permission To Fail¶
As someone who develops automated tests for a living, this is a must in my life. It is extremely rare that I do not fail the first time when writing tests. Most of the time, I get close to my goal before refining my approach to generating the desired code to meet that goal. Sometimes I am way off, and I must rethink things before trying again. Depending on how you look at it, most of my professional life is a failure.
But that it only one way to look at those tasks. The other observations that I can make is that I am persistent, and I do not give up easily. Another observation is that I am flexible and creative, as I need to alter my approach to take in the newly learned information and adjust my approach. I figured out that it just depends on whether I focus on the negative aspects or the positive aspects of those failures.
From where I sit, technically speaking, both sets of observations are correct. I fail a lot of the time when writing code, but I also do not give up in trying to get that code working properly. What matters is how I look at that experience. I can either choose to be negative and focus on the failure or be positive and focus on the hard work and the perseverance to overcome those failures.
It all depends on whether I give myself permission to fail, to fail gracefully, and to learn from the experience. And that all depends on my attitude, something that I can change if I need to.
Give Yourself The Permission To Relax¶
When it comes up in conversation, I often tell people that I do not like my phone with me when I am relaxing. Some people will look at me like I just told them I can hold my breath underwater for 30 minutes. Some people do not believe me and think I am lying. Some people ask why. That is when I talk about what I require to start to feel relaxed.
A big part of my prerequisites for being able to relax are no computers or phones around me. It is then that I start to do math with them. There are 24 hours in a day and 7 days a week. That makes for a total of 168 hours a week. I work 8 or 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, for a total of 45 hours a week.1 I try and get a decent 8 hours of sleep every night, so that is another 56 hours to account for. Add in about 2 hours a day for personal stuff, like eating, showers, and bathroom, and the grand total is now down to 53 hours. This means that only 32% of my day is not accounted for.
Those 53 hours already have a few technology things occupying that time: my side projects and the occasional video game. If I had to guess, I would say that around 15 to 20 hours a week are occupied with those hobbies. Unless I want my life to mostly focus on computers, I need to be able to tell myself to walk away from the computers, including cell phones, and enjoy the aspects of my life that are not technology specific.
When it comes down to it, I have found that if I give myself permission to relax in various forms, some subset of them is going to work on a given day. If doing LEGO on a given day does not work, I try doing some reading. If reading does not work, I try watching a movie. If that does not work… and so on. While it is sometimes the first thing that works, it is often the third or fourth, so I just keep on trying. The constant between all the things that I try is that they have little, if any, connection to computers in any form.
If people are still skeptical, I offer to break things down into a simple equation. This equation is a simple one to explain and to work through. You have roughly one third of your week to recharge your batteries. No one else can make you relax, but tons of people can get in the way of your relaxing. If you do not find your own way to relax with that one third of your life, where does that leave you? It is up to yourself to set the rules for what you know you need to do to relax and stick to them.
Give Yourself The Permission To Enjoy Life¶
So, if you cannot tell by my writings, I am a geek through and through. I love my career and solving problems so much that I work on a side project involving computers. When I place games, they tend to be video games. I have a set of LEGO models that would (and have) made some kids cry. If you give me a science fiction or fantasy movie from 1970 and forward, there is a good chance I have seen it. Even more interesting, if you say, “there is this movie with a guy and that guy does… and they…”, there is a decent chance I will tell you the name of the movie and who starred in it. Basically, I got geek cred.
But life is not just about geek stuff. There is more to life than geek stuff. When possible, I like to get out and help people do things that they did not know how to do before, such as archery. I know that I prefer exercise that is more nature oriented, so when I can, I go on a hike with friends and family. I have recently started to cook more meals at home, something that I was scared to do for years due to bad experiences. And yes, do not tell my dog Bruce, but I actually enjoy taking him on a walk every day and getting some good exercise while I am at it. Sometimes I enjoy life with something as simple as sharing how my day is going with my wife and snuggling with her while talking about it.
From my experience, if you want to enjoy life, you need a diversity of interests that balance each other out. A good example is building things with LEGO. A lot of my professional life is building immaterial things on a computer, so that act of building material things with LEGO helps me balance that part of my life out. During most workdays, I get up every hour to walk around, get water, and stuff like that. But it is not enough. Walking Bruce and hiking when I can help me move around and balance out sitting in a chair all day.
It is not always easy keeping that balance though, and that is where giving yourself permission to enjoy life comes in. There will always be another line of code to write, another test to complete, another article to create. For me, it all boils down to one simple question: if I do not give myself permission to enjoy life and the computers were to disappear, would I be okay? If the answer is no, I am out of balance and I knew I need to give myself permission to get back into balance.
Give Yourself The Permission To Be Sick¶
I thought I would end with this one, as it was my primary impetus for writing this article. Two weeks ago I got sick, and last week was a mixture of receovering and participating in a week of in-person meetings at work. Between my belief that what we are doing at work is important and my work ethic, there was no choice in my mind that work had to come first. For me, it was the only choice.
But that meant my side project, the PyMarkdown Linter almost completely stopped. At the end of each day, my energy was zapped, and I needed to recharge for the next day. If I was lucky, I was able to complete a tiny bit of progress on the project. As it was, I was lucky that my urge to write and ease with writing allowed me to work on this article and another article on Autism.
When my wife and I were talking about how our days went, as we usually do each day, I mentioned that I was upset that I was still sick and fatigued. And without skipping that much of a beat, she looked at me with a funny/serious combination look and said, “You’re not a superman you know, you’re human.”
After I told my wife that she was right2, it got me thinking. I had made a lot of progress with giving myself permission to be other things in my life, but had I given myself permission to be sick?
I am not sure I have ever thought of being sick in that context before, so I guess the answer right now is “No”. I need to work more on being okay with the times in my life when I get sick, and I need to focus on a smaller set of tasks throughout the day to allow my body to heal. My patience does indeed get tested when I am sick, there is nothing I can about that… yet.
Once again, it is my choice. I can give myself permission to be sick, allowing my body to heal whatever sickness I have, or I can extend the time that I am sick with sheer stubbornness. Guess which one I want to work towards?
In the end, when everything is considered, there is little we can do to prevent “bad stuff” from happening. Stuff happening is a constant in life, and it makes sense that a certain portion of that will be “bad stuff”. But while we cannot stop “stuff” from happening, we can sometimes change our definition of “bad” to make what happens more acceptable to us.
It is not always an easy thing to do. Speaking for myself, it requires a decent amount of work and upkeep on my part. I cannot speak on the behalf of anyone else, but I find that reframing a certain amount of the “bad stuff” as “just stuff” helps me maintain a healthier everyday life. And that healthier life allows me to develop software better, at work or at home. Sure, it takes decent effort to do, often resulting in conversations with friends and family to better understand it, but in the end I feel it is worth it.
For me, that switch between “bad stuff” and “just stuff” has always started with me giving permission to myself to do something or be something. When I allow myself permission to do something, I open myself up to allowing myself to reframe negative things that have happened while learning from those things, not forgetting them. [more]
For the sake of clarity, this is just time sitting in front of the computer. Because of my “knack” for analysis, I keep on thinking of computer related stuff for hours after I stop work. ↩
Yes, we tell each other “You are right” when the other is right. And that occurs frequently. It is just healthy. But even so, we both smirk and ask for more when the other says it. ↩
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.