Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A Project of One's Own

Work has been unbloggably tough lately, which has been hard on my self-confidence. This led to the following tweets last night:



And then I went off to work on my personal project. That project is in far too nascent of a state to share, but I will say that it is a Drupal-based project and I am really enjoying it. Working on it is good for me for many reasons, but the most important is that it is all mine, so whatever progress I make is also all mine, and the self-deprecating voice that lives in my head can't diminish the achievement by assigning credit to someone else.

Having a way to quiet the self-deprecating voice in my head is essential for me. People often think that the hardest part of being a woman in tech is having to put up with sexist comments, or having to represent all of womanhood as the sole woman on the team, or even having to fit in to a culture in which all the in jokes reference a geek culture that often excludes women. But for me, it is none of these things. I don't enjoy sexist comments, to be sure, and I have been known to reply tartly that I'll need to tune in to the sisterhood to answer some clueless question about "what women think," but I can usually shrug those things off. I don't get all of the geek culture jokes, but I get enough of them to fit in just fine, and since I enjoy sci-fi and geeky comics like xkcd, this has never been a problem for me.

No, for me, the hardest part is the way that the subtle (and not so subtle) reminders that I am not the same as everyone else undermine my confidence. I did not grow up programming in the way that my colleagues did- although I did have one programming experience in junior high. I was given a Texas Instruments computer as a hand me down from a cousin who no longer wanted it. I plugged it into the (also hand me down) black and white TV I had, and picked up the manual to try to figure out what I should do with it. There were some instructions on BASIC, so I wrote a program to play "Ode to Joy." And then I didn't do anything else, really, because I didn't have any other ideas.

When I told that story at a work lunch, the other people at the table were clearly surprised I'd coded as a kid. They had the grace to recover relatively quickly and try to hide their surprise, but their surprise didn't surprise me. I am so completely used to having people underestimate my technical skills and background that I am actually surprised when a new team member doesn't do that. Whatever the reason for this underestimation- my gender, the fact that I am primarily seen as a project manager now, or something else entirely- the effect is the same. Couple that chronic underestimation by others with weeks like the last few I've had at work, and it is far too easy to start underestimating my own capabilities.

My personal projects are antidotes for that, and that is why I make time for them, even when my work and family responsibilities try to squeeze them out. I will cut back on exercise, time with friends, even sleep before I drop my projects, because the projects are quite literally essential to my sanity. They are the only way I have found to tell that annoying self-deprecating voice in my head to shut up and let me work.

Do you have a self-deprecating voice in your head? How do you shut it up?

12 comments:

  1. The sledge hammer I pull out when all outher tools fail is the memory of the few years I spent not in academia, where it was obvious to the people around me that I was more accomplished than them. Those years were incredibly fulfilling, but in some ways boring. As long as I can remember that experience, I can remind myself that it is not that I am mediocre, or below average in the population in general, only that I feel that way given the company I choose to keep. For me, that knowledge helps.

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  2. I remind myself of an experience I had coordinating an analytical methods intercomparison. One of the scientists methods was clearly not working, and gave bad results. The guy had spent his PhD developing this, and if it had been me, I would have been devastated and the experience would have seriously eroded my confidence. I remember his detached, positive, and practical approach to the problem and it gives me a better perspective.

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  3. Um, yes. Totally. Academia is a weird business. It's nonstop rejection and criticism. I can take the criticism 95% of the time, but it's wearing in a very subtle sort of way. Everything you do can be improved. You show a piece to someone and they can always find a suggestion for something to do better. You publish a book and the reviews are full of comments on what you could have done differently. You're rejected for grant after grant. (I'm in the humanities.) You get a 'revise and resubmit' and it feels like a victory, even though it's full of sometimes nasty comments on all the stuff you need to fix. (People can be really mean! Just nasty, in a completely unnecessary way.) the times when we get positive feedback are few and far between (and don't even think about reading those course evaluations!). Moments of triumph - a grant win (a couple of times in a career for a humanities person, if she is lucky); a book published (every 10 years give or take); a really good article out; tenure; getting a new job. I think that's one of the reasons that those who can get involved in cycles of applying for new jobs all the time, just so they can experience being wooed. We never say nice things to each other! No one ever writes an email to someone to say, Wow that was really amazing work you did; I really enjoyed it. (Ok, it happens, but not often.) You have to have an almost completely self-contained ego - that is, one that is sustained on positive self-evaluation. But there are times when it's kind of unbearable, and you just wish someone would say, "This is perfect! Thanks!"

    But my strongest voice of self-deprecation isn't professional, it's about parenting.

    I'm feeling a little beaten down lately.

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    Replies
    1. You have to have an almost completely self-contained ego - that is, one that is sustained on positive self-evaluation. But there are times when it's kind of unbearable, and you just wish someone would say, "This is perfect! Thanks!"

      How very true. This has been a very hard aspect for me to come to terms with. Men seem to be, on average, much better at not depending on external evaluation...

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    2. My particular line of work is such that mostly I only hear from people when something is wrong. The rare user who actually takes the time to thank us for our work is much appreciated!

      I'm sorry you're feeling a bit beaten down on the parenting front right now. I definitely have times like that. Maybe I need a "brag folder" about my kids to pull out when I'm depressed by some parenting failure- because if I stand back from the day to day struggles and look at how they're doing, they're both pretty great, so I can't have screwed up too terribly.

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  4. I really internalized, "If you don't fail from time to time you're not aiming high enough." And I think very hard about things I want to change and how I could change them so I never feel trapped. Feeling trapped is the worst for me, so I always have a backup plan. Just having that makes me feel better about things.

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    Replies
    1. That is a good motto. I don't really have a problem with failure, more of a problem with feeling like I'm not enough of a techie to hold my own in that world. Perhaps a remaining vestige of the Imposter syndrome I've struggled with since college?

      I totally agree about the feeling trapped thing. I always want to feel like I have options- which is another way my projects help keep me sane!

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  5. Angela9:16 AM

    For me, my feelings of success come from the volunteer work that I do. Like you, when I need to feel good about myself, I do something creative in my volunteer position or help out the other volunteers I work with, and I feel better about myself.

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  6. I have to say that one of my greatest academic regrets is not learning to code. I tried to teach myself Basic when we got our first computer, and very quickly got lost. I wish I'd taken advantage of the classes my high school offered, or told my parents it was something I wanted to learn. They were all about enrichment, and would have been happy to encourage that along with ballet, music, sports, and Scouts.

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    Replies
    1. It is never too late! I didn't really learn to code until grad school. I detoured into databases, though, and never really got good at programming. I my try to fix that in a later project. Or maybe the current project will take that turn. But really, if you have a solid grasp of logic, you can learn to code. You'd probably just need to find a problem that is sufficiently compelling to you to make it worth the effort- my experience has been that I will learn coding as a tool to do something I want to do. There are some who will learn it just for its own sake, but that is not the only way to do it.

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  7. Irisevelyn6:02 AM

    I certainly have a self-deprecating voice, unfortunately I haven't found a way to keep it quiet. I also keep thinking that telling people what to do isn't actually work (as opposed to work things out yourself). It doesn't help that I've changed topics within academia and now am leading a small research group which means that I'm doing more and more manager tasks. So now I keep wondering why anyone in my team should listen to me, since I don't know the topic as well as my team and why I shouldn't be fired, since I'm not actually doing anything useful. SInce I also have a one year old and a 3 year old, there is no time for any project of my own right now. Wow, that sounds much more whiny than intended, most of the time I'm fine. I'm making progress in just not thinking about it.

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