How Do You Deal With Professional Fear?
I’m coming around to the belief that fear feels more or less the same for everyone, no matter the stimulus.
I think this is true, regardless of whether you’re:
- Meeting a bear or a moose or some other dangerous animal while hiking
- Asking a woman for her phone number
- Being made accountable for a major business deliverable
Having experienced all of these, I can say: the feeling is the same. It’s just a matter of degree.
How do you react to that fear when you feel it? The most common way I feel fear is at work. On a personal level, professional fear sounds something like this in my head: “I won’t be able to deliver my portion of this business goal, and I’ll be punished if I fail in that way.”
This fear has manifested behaviorally in several ways over the course of my career.
I was really scared of failing, and really scared of getting fired in my first few years on the job. I worked long hours, never pushed back on requests on my time, and overdelivered on pretty much everything - even things where extra effort had minimal effect. I worked, and worked, and worked, and never really understood what a fundamentally losing proposition that was. There was always going to be more work. Why was I sinking more and more of my time into perfecting the smallest details?
I didn’t realize it properly in the front end of my working life, but this huge time sink of my first few years slowly built up a huge well of resentment. I was getting to the office every day at 8AM, working until 6 PM, then running home to get on conference calls until 10PM or later. This, predictably, took its toll: I saw all of my friends having a rather healthy social life, and it made me angry. They were all having normal lives. I was eating shitty food, never exercising, drinking to excess, and throwing all of my energy into a pit that never seemed to reward me for my excessive commitments. Needless to say: I was pretty burnt out.
This is where the pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction for me. I began to aggressively limit the commitments I made at work. I pushed back hard on people asking for my time. In hindsight, I probably pushed back too hard, and shut off some opportunities that could have helped me advance technically and professionally. Of course, there were some tasks that I couldn’t really limit my exposure to. I had lost much of my desire to overdeliver on that work by this point. Instead, I started working to get the job done, rather than done to perfection, as quickly as I could. This was an edifying process: much of my work was good enough to never merit a second glance. It confirmed my suspicion. I’d been throwing a ton of time into detailed work with very little ROI.
My current strategy reflects a few years of prioritizing high-ROI work. I still try to limit the amount of stuff I take on, just for the sake of my own sanity, but it’s a little easier to take on new commitments when you work hard to understand the ask up front. I try now to listen closely to the tasks brought to me, and tease out the actual underlying problem being described. Then, I work even harder to figure out the lowest-friction path to achieving the goal.
I’m not perfect at it. I definitely slip back into mid-career, knee-jerk refusal to accept new commitments from time to time. I’m working to increase my level of comfort with changes in product work, and changes in product requirements. It’s fucking hard, and it’s still demoralizing when it inevitably happens to you.
Recognizing Fearful Reactions
How do you learn to contextualize fearful reactions in others? An excellent question, and one I try to ask more frequently in group meetings and interpersonal interactions.
Here’s just a few that I can think of offhand:
- Project managers getting pushy: demanding new features, insisting on analyses of previously solved problems, talking about engineers “owning the problem”. These typically end up being directives they’ve gotten from their management. Pushing this work down into the project team is a way of coping with the fear that they won’t deliver on it.
- Product managers seemingly never publishing specifications for squishy parts of the product - things like user experience specs, or audio specifications. It’s the oldest lawyer trick in the book: you can’t be accountable for something that doesn’t exist.
- Fellow engineers failing to ask other engineers for help or review. I think this mostly stems from the fear that you’ll be perceived as incompetent. It’s a common fallacy to think that only the incompetent are the ones that need assistance. Helping by Ed Schein has been an illuminating read on this subject - more on that in a later post.