Elizabeth is an author, speaker, mentor, and recovering web developer. She currently works on the Community Team at GitHub, and she’s all about looking at new ways to solve old problems. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her partner, their 3 children, and a dog named Raisin.
You can find her on Twitter at @ElizabethN.
Ripples on the Pond – The Quiet Revolution
Some days, it's hard to feel awesome about the tech world we live in, isn't it? There is a constant outpouring of rage, criticism, harassment, misogyny, and personal attacks. We love to disagree and judge and publicly shame for mistakes, and we shake our fists in the air and scream when we think someone's wrong. We thrive on this sea of negativity we have created. Sadly, when something truly inspirational does happen, its beauty is criticized, discarded, and drowned.
It seems we've poisoned our ability to celebrate the joy of discovery that comes with tech, and our shared love of learning. To be honest, our negativity and our rage is killing us.
Our Brains Work Against Us
So Much No!
It's not our fault, really. Our brains are chemically wired to work against us in the name of self-preservation. One of my favorites of the long list of cognitive biases we have that make us act irrationally is the negativity bias. In short, this means we give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. Psychologists and neuroscientists blame evolution; eating one bad plant can kill you, so that's something we have to remember if we are expected to survive. Negative experiences are a very threat to our existence and put us on high alert.
What that also means is we register negative experiences faster, and they are stored in our long term memory quicker.. When we encounter a negative experience, we are fully aware of it immediately, and it goes directly into our long term memory. However, it takes, on average, 5-20 seconds for us to even recognize that an experience is a "good" one. Then we have to be fully aware of it for 12 full seconds before it is stored in our long term memory. You should try that right now. Completely think about something good that happened to you this morning for at least 12 seconds, without allowing anything negative to come into your mind.(Spoiler alert: it's harder than you think.)
Negative experiences also have a greater impact on us than positive ones. That means we will feel the pain of losing $20 more than we will feel the joy of receiving it in the first place.
When we receive negative feedback, our happiness is adversely affected by more than two times the effect we feel from positive feedback. That means for every piece of criticism we receive, we have to receive more than two positive pieces of feedback in order to regain our sense of happiness, well being, and motivation.
We learn faster from negative experiences, and tend not to repeat them whereas a positive experience may not always elicit a learned response. In essence, while it seems more effective as a motivational tool, we are much less likely to try again should a failure be surrounded by negativity, as opposed to positive reinforcement and constructive criticism.
And it's not entirely behavioral; babies are just as affected by negative experiences and exhibit activity in the same areas of the brain as adults, when faced with an undesirable experience.
Did you know that there are 5 times the neural networks dedicated to negative affect (the level at which we experience negative emotions like anger, fear, guilt, shame, distress and anxiety) than positive affect (where we feel love, comfort, joy, compassion, contentment, connections and inner peace)?
In short, we spend a lot of energy and brain power processing and paying attention to the negative experiences and messages that come our way, which doesn't leave room for much else.
Being a Problem Solver
As a developer, do you consider yourself a "problem solver?" Most people do. The interesting thing about considering yourself a "problem solver" is that you train your brain to focus on finding the problem. You seek out what's wrong, and you fix it. But what happens when all you see all day long are problems to be fixed? And what happens when all your co-workers and friends only see problems that need to be fixed? We inadvertently surround ourselves with lots and lots of problems, that's what. Focusing on the flaws in everything around us becomes a part of who we are.
I came across this awesome quote, and I wanted to share with you. The use of language here is subtle, but important.
"The fundamental difference between creating and problem solving is simple. In problem solving we seek to make something we do not like go away. In creating, we seek to make what we truly care about exist.” — Peter Senge, Systems Scientist.
What if we called ourselves creators, or builders or something other than "problem solvers?" Would we be more proactive and less reactive? Would we be more creative and less pessimistic? Would we be able to appreciate the beauty in something instead of zeroing in on its flaws?
I don't know, but I'd like to think we would.
The fear of social rejection is a powerful motivator. I won't bore you with my own stories of personal rejection, but trust me. It can cause you to make some pretty bad choices.
Humans need each other, that's a basic fact. What's the worst punishment we inflict on those who are incarcerated? Solitary confinement. Even if some of us are loners by nature, we eventually need some human interaction. We need to feel accepted and a sense of belonging. We need to feel loved.
Again, scientists blame evolution, because traditionally, we survived longer together than alone. (At least until the point where we started killing each other.)
Think about it for a minute. How many topics do we shy away from discussing because we fear our opinion might not be the popular one? Or how often do we want to learn about something but we are afraid of showing our ignorance or vulnerability? Why do we let the fear of social rejection rule our lives so much?
It makes a little more sense if we look at the neuroscience and behavioral research that's been done to-date.
For instance, it's interesting to see that overlapping portions of the brain are active for physical pain%20Neuroleadership.pdf) and the pain of social rejection. When we feel rejected socially, the effects are as real as if we'd been slugged in the arm. Our brain also releases the same opioids (pain killers) in both situations. Our body doesn't recognize that a social threat is not the same as a physical threat.
When we change our behavior to go against what we think is right, just to avoid negative social consequences of social nonconformity, the same electrophysiological changes happen as if we had received the negative social consequences. We don't even need to experience them to feel their anticipated effects, and we've just changed our behavior to resist what we feel is right in our hearts.
There are negative chemical reactions in our brain when we feel misunderstood, and when we feel devalued, slighted, and disrespected.. And when we feel these things, the negative chemicals floating around in our bloodstream cause us to be on high alert, and cause us to actively look for other "dangerous threats." In effect, we begin to see things that reinforce the way we're feeling, and the cycle continues. Some call this a "negativity loop" and it's a very real thing that takes you down the rabbit hole of depression, despair, anger, and isolation.
So why does it appear that some people really don't care about conforming socially? Enter something called "rejection sensitivity", which is basically the level at which we feel the pain of rejection. Just like Mike Tyson feels the pain of a punch in the arm considerably less than I do, some people feel the pain of social rejection considerably less than others. And because we all fall somewhere different along this spectrum, telling someone to "not be so sensitive" is like telling them to "not hurt so much by getting kicked in the groin." It's much easier said than done. And like any spectrum, at either end is extreme behavior. On the one hand, a person might care so little about social conformity that they take pride in being offensive to others. And at the other end, a person might take great offense to the smallest events, and rejection becomes anticipated and expected, regardless of what’s actually happening. That negativity loop kicks in, and the cycle continues.
Scientists aren’t sure where this social rejection sensitivity comes from. The research on this is fairly new, and the theories range from being socially bred into us as children, to being a genetic predisposition (like being sensitive to sunlight), or neuroses we develop as we age. In any case, it’s important to note that we all do fall somewhere different on this spectrum, and that just because someone is different than you does not make them wrong.
It would be hard to write a blog post about our tech culture without mentioning impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is essentially the feeling that you’re just a big fake, that you have no idea what you’re doing, and that it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out. From there, of course you’ll be fired, humiliated, and maybe worse.
Some days it feels like we all share this, doesn’t it? If that’s the case, we are in great company. Famous figures such as Neil Gaiman, Maya Angelou, Don Cheadle and others, have publicly spoken about their struggles with impostor syndrome.
So where does it come from? Mostly it manifests from our own personal insecurities and self-doubt. And once that negativity loop starts, it just feeds on itself. We look for reasons we aren’t good enough, just to reinforce the fact that we are big phonies. We focus on our flaws, we become more insecure, and maybe we make a mistake. From there, it’s a short trip down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.
I’ll talk more about this in a minute.
Curse of Knowledge
Remember that list of cognitive biases I mentioned before? One of my other favorites is the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge posits that the more you know about a subject, the harder it is for you to empathize with a beginner. We forget at what stage we learned something, and what seems obvious to us is far from obvious to others. Interestingly, economists used this to describe why the most knowledgable salesmen were the worst salesmen.
Another fun fact: we consistently overestimate the number of people who know the things we know, mostly because we have all the context and they have none. What we think is "obvious" or "common knowledge" is far from it.
Now, consider these things together, along with the methods by which people learn in our industry. Some are self-taught. Some are university-taught, but have CS degrees, or programming degrees, or English or Math degrees. Some are bootcamp-esque taught. We also learn from our own experience, from experience of others, and from sometimes outdated or inaccurate sources. Our collective knowledge is like a big pile of Swiss cheese, and there is much, much room for interpretation, opinion and ambiguity.
And yet, we get frustrated when someone disagrees, or shows ignorance or doesn't know something we think they should have known. We lose patience when someone files a bug report incorrectly, or doesn't know the proper etiquette for replying to an email thread, as if this is all inherent knowledge. We shame and belittle and tout our disgust for those who are "clueless newbs." We have very little patience for ignorance.
Our Technology Works Against Us, Too
It's not just our brains that we're fighting against. We're also fighting against the technology we use on a daily basis.
Why You Gotta be so Rude?
This is going to be a shock to you, but it turns out we judge things faster and harsher online than we do in real life. Who'd a thought? Also, anonymity increases the likelihood of jerk behavior. Again, completely unexpected, I know.
But why? Why does taking away our identify make us act with such contempt and disregard for each other?
Online Disinhibition Effect
Dr. John Suler posits that there are really 6 factors that go into it, and collectively they are called the "online disinhibition effect". The six factors are:
- Dissociative anonymity (I'm protected by this identity-less mask, so you can't judge me)
- Invisibility (You can't see me, so you can't judge me based on what I look like)
- Asynchronicity (I can just drop a bomb in this forum or mailing list, then leave and never come back. There are no long term consequences to my actions)
- Solipsistic Interjection (I can create any kind of persona about you that I want, and make you fit my personal agenda)
- Dissociative Imagination (It's all just a game, it's not real life)
- Minimization of Authority (I don't have to play by your rules here, there's no status or social standing)
Couple the desire for privacy and anonymity with the desire for better policing of bad behavior, and you have a messy situation we've been trying to solve since the days of the CB radio in the 1970s. Somehow we haven't quite gotten it figured out yet.
So let's recap, shall we?
Negativity Bias Social Rejection Problem-Oriented Focus Impostor Syndrome Negativity Loop Curse of Knowledge Harsh Online Judgment Online Disinhibition Effect
And what is the result?
A culture that breeds FUD: Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. In ourselves, and in each other.
Let's talk about FUD
We all know how FUD works with software, but how does it affect humans, and the way we treat each other?
Fear has very real physical effects on us. It causes heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, clinical depression and more.
Self-doubt increases our susceptibility to anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, and the need for approval from others. It contaminates our healthy relationships, because we question the legitimacy and intentions of our partner's actions, and the authenticity of the relationship. Self-doubt also increases our rejection sensitivity, because the negativity loop continues to elevate the level at which we feel unworthy and incompetent, and we sink farther down the rabbit hole.
In short, FUD Is self-destructive, it's self-limiting, and it's toxic.
How can our industry be the best it can be if we're making choices based on fear, uncertainty and doubt? How can we face the creative challenges of the future if we are stuck in a vat of toxic bile? How can we be innovative and break new ground together if we feed on condescension, disagreement, conflict, and disrespect? How can our communities be healthy, inclusive, welcoming, and growing if we are ruled by FUD?
What if, instead of being ruled by the FUD we create, we are motivated by joy and innovation and creativity and respect and a shared love of discovery? What kind of world would that look like, and how do we get there?
This article has been pretty depressing, hasn't it? I'm here to tell you that in spite of it all, there remains hope. There is hope through individual choice, and individual knowledge and awareness, and there is hope in our technology. (In case you were wondering, this is also the part where Sam convinces Frodo to press on).
Beating the FUD
Before I go on, I want to take a minute to talk about the Membership Lifecycle of a community.
Online Community Membership Lifecycle
Author Amy Jo Kim developed a way to categorize peoples' membership in a community into what she calls the Membership Lifecycle.. (The Wikipedia article does a pretty good job summarizing the way an online community interacts with each other, if you're into that stuff and want to read more).
Essentially the categories are:
- Peripheral: a lurker, or someone who just watches but doesn't participate or engage.
- Inbound: a novice who is just starting to enter the community in a more active way.
- Insider: a regular who participates in the community and is an active member.
- Boundary: a community leader who is well known and respected, and is very present and visible.
- Outbound: a member who has been around a long time, but whose participation is waning due to other interests.
It's important to point out here that the Insiders, the Boundaries, and the Outbounds are the most influential members of the community, and those who decide what the culture is going to be. They decide what behaviors are tolerable and desirable, and how the community treats each other. They set the social mores and instill overall change. If you see yourself falling into one of these three categories, the burden of change falls on your shoulders. The Peripherals and Inbounds look to you for guidance and pay attention to how you handle yourselves, and how you react when things go wrong.
Everything you do and say matters.
And if you classify yourself as an Inbound or a Peripheral, then your biggest hurdle will probably be overcoming your personal fears, being okay with being vulnerable, and deciding if the community is worth your energy and time.
The Power of Choice
I said before that there are a few ways we can individually combat the FUD, and one of those is through individual choice.
Your Ripples Say a Lot About You
Every interaction you have on Twitter and Facebook, through comments on articles, through pull requests or issues, through bug reports and blog posts and articles you write, leaves a ripple in the technology pond. Your words and actions have a direct effect on everyone around you, and they in turn, have an effect on everyone around them. What kind of ripples are you leaving?
Sometimes we make mistakes. And sometimes other people make mistakes. Maybe it’s a terribly written piece of code or it’s a weird way of doing something we don’t understand. Maybe someone is just learning and doesn’t have the experience you do.
We have a choice about how we react when we see these situations, don’t we? Will we go down the path of the Code Elite, and submit the code to the Daily WTF where we can all have a hearty laugh about how dumb the person is, and how we couldn’t possibly have made such a ridiculous error? Maybe we’ll just do a search on GitHub for an awful piece of code and post the results to Twitter, so we can all see by name who is using such trash in their code. Or maybe we’ll send around a comic that belittles someone making a bug report, and we’ll slap our knees and have a nod about how much bullshit we have to put up with.
Does it matter then that maybe the person on the other end hasn’t been shown a better way of doing things in a constructive, teaching way? Does it matter that we have zero context about why the code we’re poking fun at was written? Have we forgotten the anxiety that goes along with submitting your first bug report, or pull request, or even sharing a piece of code with someone else?
And what happens every time we publicly shame someone for making a mistake? We perpetuate the fear, uncertainty and doubt that makes us all afraid to take risks, be a part of the community, make our code open and transparent, and make ourselves vulnerable. No wonder we all have impostor syndrome! It’s just a matter of time before our code is the code being mocked and we’re the ones being humiliated.
We have a choice here. We can continue to mock and shame, or we can just stop. We can tear each other down or we can celebrate successes and failures together. We can belittle or we can teach each other. We can criticize or we can provide feedback in a caring and compassionate way.
Being Judge Judy
Something I think is fascinating is the way we judge each other based on the tools we use. I’ve been guilty of this, too. Are you a Mac, Windows or Linux user? What’s your choice of editor? What kind of phone do you use? What language do you program in? To some, it’s incredibly important the way another person answers those questions. They will create all kinds of assumptions about them, and pass all kinds of judgment.
When you think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous. Quite honestly, who gives a shit? The phone you have in your pocket, that you chose to buy with your own money, has zero bearing on my life. The editor you use to write your code and the language you code in does not affect my life in any way, shape or form. So why in the world should I pass judgment on you because you choose something different? And why in the world would I try to convince you that my way is the right way? Unless I’m getting paid by Apple to sell iPhones, and the purpose of the conversation is to find out why the iPhone is superior, I have no business trying to convince you, or make you feel inferior.
The next time you have a conversation with someone, or an exchange on Twitter, and this topic comes up, will you judge another human based on what choices they’ve made? Or will you simply say, “Hey, that’s cool- I hope you write something awesome using that Ubuntu!” Maybe you’ll just encourage them to use whatever tools they have available to make the most amazing thing they can.
Everyone is Struggling
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every single person on this planet is struggling with something. Maybe it’s financial hardship, depression, divorce, addiction, health issues, or the loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s oppression or inequality, or the threat of physical harm. Maybe it’s a bad living situation or a horrible working environment or getting over assault or abuse. Maybe it’s taking care of a new baby or the uncertainty of living in a new city. No matter what it is, every single one of us is struggling with something.
Every. Single. Person.
Everyone you follow on Twitter. Everyone who follows you. Everyone you see at a conference or on the subway or at a PTA meeting or at a Starbucks. Every. Single. Person.
Sometimes we can put our struggles inside a little box, and we’re able to move on with our lives, and interact as normally as we can with each other. But sometimes that’s much harder to do. The stress and struggle manifests itself in the form of actions and words that might not be indicative of who we are. We may say things we don’t mean, or do things we regret. Or we may forget that the other person has struggles too, and we think our lives must be way worse than theirs.
But here’s where we have a choice. When someone does or says something that seems harsh or out of line, will you jump to conclusions? Will you have an extreme knee jerk reaction? Or will you take a minute to dig a little deeper, and find out why? Will you take the time and energy to have a discussion, even if it seems like the person might not be worth it? Wouldn’t you want someone to offer you the same kindness, compassion, and benefit of the doubt?
And on the flip side, if you’re the one who is acting harshly or inappropriately, is it fair to ask the world around you to continue to deal with it? Or will you choose to take control of your struggle and seek the help you need?
If we are going down this technology road together, then we need to start giving each other a little more leeway to be human beings.
Getting Yourself Unstuck
I have another rant about being able to let go of the things in your life that have come to an end. It’s natural for things to end, but as humans, we hate the thought of letting go, even when things have become harmful to us. If you’re feeling stuck, have a look at that video. I hope I’ll convince you to get yourself unstuck.
Because the thing is, we have an almost unlimited supply of ways to interact with the community. As a child growing up in the 80s, there was no community for me to interact with. Conferences and meetups and user groups did not exist. We now have thousands and thousands of places to go, projects to contribute to, and fellow developers to connect with. If you find the community you belong to is no longer meeting your needs or expectations, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a change. You can absolutely leave that community, and make the choice to find your people elsewhere.
Knowledge and Awareness
Remember when I said that our brains are working against us? Well the good news is that our brains can work for us, too.
Beefing up Your Brain-Fu
It used to be widely assumed that after the brain was done forming in our early twenties, then there was nothing else to be done with it. It was all set, the way it was. Boy, were we wrong.
Recent research has found that new neural pathways can be created in as little as 6 weeks by retraining your brain to think new thoughts. What that means is that if you are able to nip a negative thought in the bud, and replace it with something positive, your brain actually changes the way it processes incoming information. It’s not that we just “feel more positive,” there are physical changes happening in the brain. You can redirect your thoughts, with training and practice.
Speaking of training and practice, it has been shown time, and time, and time, and time again, that we can learn to be positive. Take Olympic athletes, for example. They train mentally, not just physically because they can’t allow themselves to be plagued by fear, uncertainty and doubt. Neither can doctors, pilots, ambulance drivers, race car drivers, or anyone else who works in a high-pressure environment. I sure as hell don’t want to be on the plane when a pilot is feeling like they’re just not up for the challenge that day, or that everything is terrible. For these people, negativity and self-doubt is not an option. So why is it an option for us?
Besides enabling us to perform better and handle stress better, why is positivity such a big deal? Positive moods make for better creativity and innovative problem solving. They also allow us to fight our fears more effectively, and with longer lasting results. That’s a pretty helpful thing when you’re in an industry drowning in FUD.
Our brain patterns also change when we are given training in compassion and empathy. It’s not that we will act like better humans, we are changing the way our brains operate.
When we practice mindfulness, our grey matter becomes more dense. Specifically, the parts of the brain that are responsible for attention, emotion, learning, capacity for empathy, and stress reduction. Meditation and mindfulness exercises beef up your brain the same way lifting weights does. That is huge.
Practice in mindfulness and self-affirmation also decreases burnout and increases self-compassion. It should be noted, that self-compassion is different than self-pity (which is “poor little me”) and self-esteem (having the confidence to complete a task). Self-compassion is the realization that we all suffer and have needs. Self-compassion is important because it increases our ability to have compassion for others.
Another tool in our toolbox is gratitude, for the beauty in the world around us, and for each other. When you express gratitude toward another, the brain releases oxytocin, which is crucial in solidifying social relationships. Gratitude also affects the parts of the brain responsible for positive thinking. It all works together.
Our Technology Can Work For Us
As I mentioned before, we humans still struggle with our online interaction. We are all too familiar with cyber bullying, trolling, and harassment.
A 13 year old named Trisha Prabhu may have provided a beacon of hope in the cesspool, however. Through an experiment called Rethink, Trisha surveyed 1500 teens about their willingness to post mean and hurtful messages. At the first pass, 67% were willing to post (that’s a lot of negativity being spewed into the world!)
Trisha added an alert that popped up before they were allowed to actually post, asking them to rethink their decision to post the message because of its malicious and harmful nature. The result was that the number dropped to a whopping less than 5%! A simple turn of technology drastically changed their behavior. I don’t know about you, but this gives me a tremendous amount of hope for the future of online interactions. Trisha’s research is only just the beginning.
Why do I care?
This is all fine and well, Liz, but really, who cares?
I’ll tell you why I care, and you can decide for yourself if you care, too. As I said before, when I was growing up, there was no community. I lived in a household full of computer enthusiasts, and we spent our lives on them. We were an Atari family, and at 10, I wrote my first program in BASIC. It predicted who I was going to marry, although the outcome wasn’t completely accurate because Ralph Macchio never did come to my door.
I thought that was normal, but soon found out that not only was it not normal, it was even less normal to be a girl into computers. As a result, I decided I didn’t want anything to do with them, and I got my degree in Organizational Behavior instead.
Eventually I came back around, and joined the open source movement in about 2002. I taught myself PHP and HTML and found myself poking around a community on PHPBuilder. They couldn’t have been more helpful and welcoming to me, and incidentally, 12 years later, they are still there kindly helping those who come looking for answers. (Thanks, guys ❤). They aren’t yelling snark on Twitter, they aren’t shouting from the rooftops, they’re simply and quietly helping other people, day after day, year after year. Those are the heroes of the community.
My career has not been shaped by one or two loud voices, but by interactions and experiences with nearly a thousand of my fellow developers and enthusiasts. I’m so very thankful to have met each and every one of them. I can’t believe I no longer have to feel like the outsider. It's such an exciting place to be!
Have all my interactions been positive ones? No, of course not. It’s been 12 years. I’ve come across a few jerks. It would be easy for me to focus on them, and to let them drown out the rest, but I won’t do that. I will instead focus on the thousands of positive interactions I’ve had that have made me a better person, and that have come from places of kindness, compassion, and a shared passion for learning. Because that’s truly why we’re even here, isn’t it?
So I ask you this: What kind of ripples will you leave?
Will you empower someone else to do something great?
Will you be a mentor to someone just starting out?
Will you educate without condescension or judgment?
Will you share your knowledge with others?
Will you collaborate with others instead of going it alone?
Will you seek out diverse points of view, and be open to them?
Will you befriend someone who is new to the community?
Will you assist someone who is in need?
Will you celebrate someone’s success, and let the failures go?
Will you encourage someone to take a risk, and support them if they try?
Will you create something new the world has never seen before?
Will you inspire others in your words and actions, and not intimidate or shame?
Will you show appreciation for the tools and people who help you do your job, and for those who have helped you along the way?
Will you accept people for who they are, and the place they are right now, without judgment?
Will you forgive someone who has wronged you, even if you feel they may not deserve it?
Will you seek to understand through discussion, and will you keep your mind open to being changed?
Will you respect that others have differing opinions than you?
Will you apologize to someone you’ve hurt?
Will you choose not to engage in snark or perpetuate negativity?
Will you simply care about the community you are a part of?
You don’t have to have a very loud voice to make a huge impact on the world around you. Imagine what our tech culture would look like if we all did one of these things with every interaction we had. Imagine the difference we could make, and what kind of legacy we would leave for our children. Imagine the amazing things we could all build together. We would be unstoppable, and we’d have a wonderful time doing it.
I hope that you’ll join me in the quiet revolution that is based not on fear, uncertainty and doubt, but on love, joy, and wonder. Think about those ripples, will you?