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I took 33,000 selfies during the pandemic and here's what I learned from it
Amy Writes Words #6
I have this Instagram account. Don’t click through if you don’t want to see endless pictures of me, my outfits, my boot collection, and my cleavage. If, on the other hand, you’re intrigued by the thought of boots and bikinis season and comfortable looking at skin I’m comfortable putting on the internet, feel completely free to click through.
The account was started as a collaboration with someone I then immediately became unable to collaborate with. Yes, there’s a story there, but no I won’t be telling it.
So then I had an instagram account that was meant to be all pictures of me, but I had no photographer. I had never been remotely interested in photography before and I could not take good pictures, and I certainly didn’t know how to take good pictures of myself, and so I enlisted other people to take the pictures for me: coworkers, friends, family, etc. It wasn’t especially frequent and the pictures were of mixed quality given the mixed skill levels of the people I asked to take them and it was an okay account for what it was but I did not consider it to be a particularly creative pursuit. It was just a thing I did, in part, if I’m being honest, for the dopamine hit I got from the likes.
Then came the pandemic.
Now I didn’t have any way to dress up for the public, and I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I only had the people in my own household to take photos of me, and they were not especially interested in this activity. And yet I suddenly wanted to post a lot more, because if I had to post then I’d have to get dressed, and putting on a great outfit felt better than checking my SpO2 every 20 minutes or washing my hands until they bled. And posting felt like a way to interact with the larger world. So I bought this thing called a Tenikle which was an octopus-like mini tripod for your phone, and it came with a little bluetooth clicker so you can take pics when it wasn’t in your own hands, and then I took 33,000 selfies.
Here’s what I learned:
You can get better at anything if you practice a lot, even if you don’t have much of a plan for how to get better, even if you don’t set any goals, take any classes, read a single book or watch a single video on even the most basic topics like why you generally don’t want to take photos outside at high noon or with the sun behind the subject.
I still haven’t set a goal, taken a class, made a plan, or read any instructional material on photography at all. Once in a while I text a friend who’s a professional photographer and ask for a tripod recommendation, or about backdrops, or about a particular weird thing going on in a photo that I don’t understand. But for the most part everything I know about taking good pictures I just learned by taking 33,000 pictures.
Here are three self-portraits taken at the beginning, middle, and end of the pandemic.
July: well, it’s a picture of me, yes. It’s poorly lit, ill-composed, and cluttered-looking
December: much more mood being conveyed, clearer picture, better composition, no clutter, edited
April: I’ve invested in a light and a backdrop and I’ve caught a really expressive moment with my body
Obviously, since I’m not trying to be an asshole, my point here is not “look what good use I made of my pandemic I’m so productive and I really have a growth mindset.” My point is that we often get fixated on learning as a deliberate and recognizable act and fail to notice that it’s actually quite difficult to go through life or work not learning anything at all, even if what we might learn isn’t something we planned to learn or noticed we were learning along the way.
Actually, a lot of learning looks more like pain and confusion and frustration and suffering than it looks like purposeful action toward acquiring some body of knowledge or know-how. (See this talk I gave about suffering at work at Railsconf 2019 for more of my thoughts about this) Sometimes at work someone will express that they feel stuck or haven’t learned what they intended to, if they came up with developmental goals as part of a review cycle or quarterly planning, and it’s because things move quickly and the goals stopped making sense but didn’t get updated, and while they were bemoaning the fact that they never really made progress on learning react they had to try a whole bunch of different approaches to solve a really difficult high-risk data migration problem and that horrible outage that kept them up at night forced them to learn far more about DNS than they previously had even considered they ought to, but gee it sure does turn out to be useful. And they had to have six different really tough conversations with a team member who they were struggling to collaborate with effectively and well, now they are collaborating well AND they have gotten so much practice planning for and engaging in difficult conversations at work, which is always an unbelievably useful skill. (I really like Jessitron’s article about goals, by the way, and I especially like to send it to people reporting to me right before any goals they need to write are due.)
Part of the role of a good manager is to help people recognize how their pain and suffering and failure has resulted in learning, and how they can now make use of the things they learned and they can share them with others.
Modeling is hard! Yes, duh. But, it was hard in surprising ways. Even if I’m not trying to get action shots, which is a lot of what I do now, it’s very physical. You move around for a lot of reasons: to get different angles and effects of the light, to alter your environment by clearing clutter, moving a power cord, get a different background, get something in or out of frame; you move into different poses and you fix up your hair or straighten your necklaces or put down your scarf or change your shoes. And it’s also very psychological — you’re trying to convey a mood, you’re trying to say as much as you possibly can with your body, your clothes and your face, you may be trying to feature the outfit or a particular part of the outfit and express how it feels to be in it, you might want to appear smiling or scowling or sad or enraged, and you need to do a little bit of method acting to get into that headspace so that comes out clearly in the photos. Modeling requires both range of motion and range of mood, and it’s incredibly creative and generative-feeling in ways that should have been obvious to me but weren’t until I learned to do it. And… I love it. I love it so much I want to do more of it! Wow, this is a real plot twist!
Everything all those assholes (I mean, really successful creative people like Twyla Tharp, Stephen King, and everyone else pretty much ever) have been telling you about the need to produce your creative work regularly whether you want to or not is true. Here is one of a gazillion projects to help you get started doing that. (This is similar to my recent realization that it really is all about core strength, which, by the way, I’m doing this monthlong core strength program right now that I really really love, and the tag line for it is “You get stronger by showing up and doing the work. And you show up when you like what you do.” ). One reason that I went in for a core strength program is that as I’ve gotten stronger in my body I’ve found that the modeling part of my project has gotten easier: more strength and more flexibility mean greater creative range — and that is in fact what I like to do, so I show up.
I really have to make a plug again here for B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits approach to building routines into your life. As someone with extraordinarily challenging cycles in mood, energy, and available spoons, I have struggled to build strong habits for myself, and that has meant that I have assumed that some ways of living were not available to me. For example, I have thought “well, I just could never be an artist or writer full-time, I need to have a full-time job, because I need the structure of having to get out of bed and go into work every day.” When the pandemic hit, I was forced to figure out some other way to structure my life, and I did.
I have never been one of those people with a ‘morning routine’. I have spent most of my adult life hating on such people. Now I get up, make the bed, brush my teeth, do my yoga, meditate, and then sit down to do my focus work, which right now is mostly writing this newsletter, working on talks, talk proposals, and articles, and researching and/or prepping for conversations with folks I might like to work with.
A year ago I couldn’t imagine taking a 100% remote job and I couldn’t imagine ever thinking hmm, maybe in a few years I would like not to work full-time anymore so I have more time for creative work, for helping others become great managers, and for advocacy around issues that are important to me. Today, it seems obvious that I don’t want to work at a full-time job every day until I die, I think I might actually be happier with a remote job than one where I go to an office every day, and I’m excited about the prospects to continue building more creativity into my days.
It’s not like I’m not totally traumatized like everyone else by the ongoing disaster that the pandemic has been. But this one thing, figuring out how to routinize some parts of my days so I can accomplish a few basic things almost all the time instead of being absolutely at the mercy of however I feel when I first wake up, which ranges from “oh damn, this again?” to “I would like to stab myself in the eye right this minute, my entire brain is screaming at me” — that is a real gift that I have wrested from all the wreckage, and I’m real grateful for it.
I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift’s re-recordings. If you’re not a Taylor Swift fan, you may not know how her old label refused to sell her her back catalog and then sold it to some other label instead, which pissed her off so much that she decided to re-record all of our previous albums and make that back catalog purchase pretty worthless. It’s badass, and fascinating, and you should definitely click through to read about it. Swift addresses the conflict in her song “It’s Time To Go” on the deluxe version of Evermore:
Fifteen years, fifteen million tears
Begging 'til my knees bled
I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all
Then wondered why I left
Now he sits on his throne in his palace of bones
Praying to his greed
He's got my past frozen behind glass
But I've got me
I’m thinking a lot about what I have right now, and what I want to do with it. I don’t have a job, and honestly, not having a job is something I struggle with. “Sure, I have a serious mental illness, but also, I’m leading engineering teams, so I can’t really be all that crazy, right? I can’t be useless. I have value, I earn money, I lead people.”
What do I have if I don’t have a job?
I’ve got me.
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Are you or do you know a woman/non-binary/gender-fluid/gender-queer person who could benefit from some mentorship or advice about engineering leadership? I hold free office hours! sign up here https://calendly.com/amy-newell/office-hours or read more about it at www.amynewell.com
While I’m not quite ready to jump back into full-time work, I am doing some writing, speaking, and consulting this summer. Hit me up if you’d like me to talk to your team, write an article, come on your podcast, show up to your employees, or consult on topics like engineering management, being a good ally to folks with mental illness or other invisible disabilities in the workplace, understanding power, hiring, mentoring, etc. Just smash that reply button, fill out my contact form, or DM me on twitter.
Now that I know how to take decent pictures AND I know how to model, and I’m finding satisfaction and joy in expressing myself through my body, my clothes, my pictures — I’m open to collaborations with other queer artists/photographers/fashion people. Are you interested or do you know someone else who might be interested? Just smash that reply button, fill out my contact form, or DM me on twitter.
And tell other people to subscribe! You love this weirdo newsletter, you know you do, you want everyone to read it! Tell the world!!!! Tell them to go right to https://www.amywriteswords.com and give me their email address and I will regale them every week with some crazy story, meditation on power, or leadership insight that I will always, always somehow tie in to Taylor Swift.