Amy Writes Words - Issue #3: Objects At Rest
Amy Isikoff Newell
Today’s my last day at Wistia.
It’s been a wonderful journey, it was time to move on, and now it’s time to take a beat and figure out what new me will be born from this change.
I’m not sure what’s coming next, except a summer break. Tomorrow I will complete the ceremonial deletion of Slack from my phone and then I’m off to New Hampshire to stare at a river for five days straight while bingeing on soft cheeses and rosé wine.
Now I am an object at rest.
When something that’s been moving comes to halt, the silence is so loud. I’ve spent the entire pandemic trying to keep my family safe, do my part for the common good, lead my team, educate and care for my children. I had this fear, many of us working mothers did, still do, that if I stopped for one moment and let myself rest, truly rest, then I would stay at rest. That the only way to keep going was to keep going.
But now I am coming to rest. Not forever, and not completely. There are things that need to be done – things for my children, things for me, things for the world. A newsletter to write. A new job to find (my dms are open). Articles to write. Projects I’ve been putting off until I had a spare moment.
At the same time, I do not want to squander this rest by not resting in it. I’m afraid to rest and afraid not to. I wrote a poem about it, I’m not ready to share the whole thing, but here, you can have a stanza:
What does it mean to rest?
What does it mean to sit here
worth nothing, producing no value,
as the world continues
to spin and the clouds turn pink
for no particular purpose at all?
One reason I have always liked poetry is its pointlessness. No one earns a living from it, nobody but poets think it’s particularly important, it has little draw when compared against words set to music and sung while dancing, it’s a small art. It’s not a side hustle, and it’s not a hobby, and it’s not a vocation. It’s a part of my existence that refuses to be quantified.
“Let your hobbies be pointless, your loves inexplicable, your mind and your ideas sometimes fly untethered to the practical or the purposeful. Let some of your labor refuse to be quantified.”
And here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that I like. “Be joyful/ though you have considered all the facts,” he writes. “Practice resurrection”. “So, friends, every day do something/ that won’t compute.”
What will you do today, friends, that does not compute?
Why are there so many different kinds of things in this newsletter?
Because I really can’t be bothered to set up separate mailing lists, one for fashion, one for politics, one for engineering management, one for mental illness. That’s not how I think about the world. I try to label items according to interests so you can skip the ones you’re not interested in, but… I’m a systems thinker and all of the things I write about intersect so you might want to just read the part about fashion even if you don’t think you care about fashion, because maybe it’s also about control. Likewise you might want to read about Taylor Swift because I might be using Taylor Swift lyrics as a way into talking about Audre Lorde talking about anger.
On management: Leaving when you’re a leader
As I said, today’s my last day at Wistia. As when I left my prior job, the hardest thing about leaving is leaving the people, and the hardest people to leave are the people you hired, the ones you managed, the ones you sponsored or mentored or advised. I’m an extrovert, and I led a large team; I had 30 separate zooms the day I told people I was leaving, one after another, during which I ate an entire pint of Jeni’s ice cream. I still didn’t get to tell everyone personally who I would have liked to, but eventually the stamina runs out and the news starts to travel on its own anyway.
How do you leave so many people all at once, people you’ve been through hard shit with, people you care about deeply?
I say “I’m still in your network.” (I never let go of my network, bwahhahaha.)
I say “I’m always available to you when you need advice, about your career, or about mental health, or about the perfect chelsea boot.”
I say “let’s grab a drink in a few weeks! how about Tuesday the 7th, let’s get it on our personal calendars now.”
I ask if there’s any last thing I can do for people. I ask them to write me a LinkedIn recommendation if they are so inclined.
Sometimes I remind people I manage that our friendship can blossom in new ways when I am no longer their manager, when we are freed from that particular power dynamic.
Then I lie down and I try to let go.
I’m reading Adrienne Rich right now (see more below) and she quotes a Russian writer, Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing from Moscow in the 1960s on the subject of Soviet technocrats:
They are mostly young specialists and scientists whose services are needed by the State. […]They are horrified at what their fathers have wrought, but they are even more horrified by the thought of change. Their ideal is to pass their lives quietly working at their computers, not bothering their heads about the purpose or result, and devoting their free time to whatever gives them pleasure.
Tech is not neutral. Politics can only be kept out of the workplace by people who are not themselves (or do not believe themselves to be) negatively impacted by politics. What we build and how we build it matters.
And yes, of course we should spare ourselves some free time for whatever gives us pleasure, for something that does not compute…
Love, for example. Love never computes. That is why it is so pointless to question whether we deserve to be loved. Love is not a reward, it’s a gift. Asking whether or not we deserve it, or wondering what we did to deserve it, or why we didn’t deserve it or stopped deserving it – all the wrong questions. The only questions that matter are how you want to love – others, yourself; and how you want to honor the love that others have given to you, and how you want to love humankind, love existence itself, all the sparrows and the snails.
One way I want to love others is by making more space for them to be joyfully in the world, to be safe, to be valued. When I tie that to tech, to my career, and to what impact I want to have had over the course of my career, I want a legacy of having made more space for folks from more diverse backgrounds to lead and to lead well. I care not only about what we build, and how it creates value, but how we build it, who we include in the building of it, the values we bring to it, the commitment to consider and minimize harms with it, the ability to work together in building it with trust, and empathy, and humanity, and hopefully also some joy.
I care very much about building wonderful products and I care very much about profits too. But at my core as a leader I am motivated by authenticity and caring – that is, love.
See, look how I did that, I was talking about tech, but then actually about politics, but then actually about love (but really all three).
A friend who shall remain nameless introduced me to the world of queer readings of Taylor Swift songs, focused on her friendship with model Karlie Kloss. I love everything about this, including this Vogue spread of photos of the two of them together, where, well, I don’t know how those aren’t photos of people who are in love. And I’m here for it.
Also Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary this week, and I’m all for it. I saw this great tiktok about gender in the Lovato thread on Twitter (sorry, I don’t know how to link to tiktok I am an old and just watch tiktoks on twitter and instagram.)
I changed my own pronouns recently to she/they recently, although I’m not yet sure what I mean by that, and I was driven to it more by my resentment of Motherhood than by any sensation, really, of not being a woman. Stay tuned.
deep thoughts about a taylor swift lyric
“My words shoot to kill when I’m mad/I have a lot of regrets about that” from her song “this is me trying”.
I’m a word person. When I was a child my peers called me Dictionary (not a compliment). I like to joke now that I have all the best words, tremendous words, you wouldn’t believe all the words I have. “Person, woman, man, camera, TV…” Sometimes at night I lie in bed saying words to myself, or writing them down in my notebook. Falernum. Froth. Selvege. Southpaw. Serendipity. Salvage. Centaur, selkie, stark, secretion, sift. Once I went to a sensory deprivation tank and in the silence and the darkness still words floated up to my consciousness: Theft. Sedition. Clatter. Crawfish. Crumple. Crash. Squander. When I was getting ketamine infusions, my doc said she’d never met someone who remained so verbal while tripping so heavily on such a high dose of ketamine. I did not merely keep going, I sped up, I talked more. I could not help the talking. Caterwauling. Krill. Salubrious. Louche.
Like many word people, words are one of my best tools, and can be used to express love, make an argument, inspire, advise, empathize, advocate. Like many such tools my words can also be a weapon, and the energy of my anger lends itself easily to that weaponization, so that my words shoot to kill when I’m mad. I have written hurtful things in anger and then sometimes I have given those hurtful words to whoever I was angry with, and sometimes the words caused them harm.
I do have a lot of regrets about that.
I have an index card with those lyrics posted up on my bedroom mirror to remind me to be careful.
Yet, sometimes the words need to be written. And sometimes they do need to be shared too. The energy of anger and the eloquence it inspires is a necessary part of activism and change. Audre Lorde wrote about this in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”:
“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
I feel this powerfully. I have a coffee cup from Bitch Media that says “filled with rage” on it. It’s actually full of colorful gel pens, but they’re the tools I turn to when I need to write about my rage. The quote from Taylor Swift isn’t intended to remind me to swallow my rage (Lorde writes of women who swallow their rage that the “unexpressed anger lies within them like an undetonated device”). It’s intended to remind me to focus my rage with precision, to deploy it strategically, to count the cost to me and others of speaking or not speaking, to learn what my rage has to say and to act on that, but not to be driven by it.
Ideas are cheap, have some…
Here is a free idea: a novel composed entirely of [email protected] goodbye email threads at a company. This idea is free because I do not want to write this novel and because the difficult thing about it is not the idea but the actual writing of the novel.
That, by the way, is why software engineers find it so funny when someone at a party or their partner’s uncle corrals them with their killer app idea “I just need someone to build it now, will you?”
Here is another free idea: AI that learns your preferences and swipes for you on Tinder. THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA DO NOT BUILD THIS SEE ABOVE IN THE SECTION ON TECH. If you do not know why this is a terrible idea then please go read about algorithmic bias here. Why did I include this terrible free idea? So that we all have a chance to practice our possible harms caused by algorithms interview skills.
From my reading…
I’ve been reading What Is Found There, by Adrienne Rich.
To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and, simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled.
I’m looking forward to doing a lot of reading this summer. My life depends on it.
The End Part
DO YOU LIKE THIS NEWSLETTER WHY NOT SIGN UP? OR TELL YOUR FRIENDS TO SIGN UP?! Why not forward it to a friend right now!?
Or are you reading this newsletter and wishing I worked for you at your cool fashion tech startup that needs a VP of engineering? Why not message me about that?
Or maybe you just wish I would come on your podcast or give a keynote at your conference or write you a whole article about leaving a leadership role or any other topic? Or consult to you on a tricky management problem? I have free time right now and would love to hear from you about any of these things.
Or, maybe you have a comment or a thought about something else I mentioned in the newsletter and you just want to share it with me.
Just smash that reply button and start writing!