It’s been almost a month since my last newsletter. If you’ve forgotten who I am in the meantime, I’m Amy Newell, I write mostly about tech, software engineering, management, mental illness, gender, and Taylor Swift, and I do it all from inside a walk-in closet full of shoes. If you are wondering just how drunk you were when you signed up for this newsletter, you can unsubscribe here, but I hope you’ll read on first, because you can unsubscribe just as well from the bottom of the newsletter and in the meantime maybe I’ll say something useful or interesting that will cause you to decide to stick around.
It’s been almost a month since my last newsletter1 because I can’t get a newsletter issue out because every word I say is shit. No, I don’t need your sympathy or your protestations to the contrary, I know that objectively I do have things to say, that I say some good and important things that people want to hear, and that sometimes I say those things beautifully, sometimes I make a beautiful Work from the words and the ideas and their flow.
Today is not one of those days, it hasn’t been one of those days for a while now, and in the absence of anyone else to tell me the thing is due so I better get it done I have found reason after reason after reason not to get it done.
When the delta variant started to ruin everyone’s plans and it became a meme, I drafted three different times an essay about the importance of staying grounded in the present during moments of fear and uncertainty. “this issue of the newsletter is a grounding exercise,” I called it. But when I tried to make those three efforts into one coherent essay, something with flow, something beautiful, I could not. So there it sits.
I have written an almost complete essay entitled “This snail does not give a fuck about your OKRs” and it is clever but also did not feel good enough or complete enough to send out.
I have part of a draft of an essay about what’s wrong with your company’s culture and values statements but it is also not done.
I started something about making difficult choices, about the importance of making difficult choices so as to keep moving forward, about the illusion that we all labor under that we are faced with so many difficult choices in the business context when in fact compared to the rest of our lives the question of which feature to prioritize over others in whatever product we are making in our work is almost laughably insignificant. Not done.
Something about motherhood during the pandemic. Something about the increasing disaffection of the workforce and what that might mean for tech hiring these days. An essay for which I only have the title written down, and the title is “I’m the asshole”, and it’s something about those tantalizingly terrible AITA threads that start out on reddit and migrate to twitter where I have muted AITA because I can’t stand to read them because someone is always so obviously the asshole in them and more often in real life everyone is being the asshole at least some of the time. None of it done.
Lots of ideas, and a total although I’m sure temporary loss of capacity for follow-through. In the absence of anyone else’s deadlines and a clear commitment to you, my readers, to publish something on a regular schedule, and on the downslope of the wave of hypomanic creative energy that generated all those ideas and that was, for a few weeks there, taking some of them somehow miraculously to completion, now on the side of the mountain that is slippery and shady and full of self-doubt — gridlock.
Okay then, so I acknowledge you, gridlock. I do not want to produce shitty work, incomplete work, work in which the thinking is muddled and the imagery strained and the flow choppy and the words uninspired.
Every single one of my creative and professional goals in this moment feels utterly unattainable and, indeed, insane.
Well, okay, woman, so what else is new? You are stuck and you don’t believe in yourself, and you have been here before, so what do you do?
You lower your standards. Oh, it’s not a whole essay? Who said you needed to produce a 3000 word essay every week, complete with a reference to a current event, a nugget of management advice, and a relevant Taylor Swift quote? Why not sometimes just some interesting links and two or three bon mots? Why not five half-thoughts and an irrelevant Taylor Swift lyric? What about something messy, like wet sourdough? What about something brief, like “I dropped my older child off at college last week and I have so many feelings from that that I would like to just sit with and honor rather than struggling to combine three different starts at an essay about grounding exercises, so see you next week.” What about a commitment to ship something, anything, every Tuesday?
Fucking iterate, bitch, you already know how to do this, you have done it all your life, you have tried and you keep trying at the things you think matter.
Here then, some pithy advice you could certainly apply to engineering management if you choose: if something is not working, you’re not managing to do a thing that you think you should do, first ask if you really should be trying to do it, because some things are too hard to do because you don’t care about them enough.
If you do care about it, and you want to do it, then the thing that might be stopping you is that the stakes are too high. That is certainly what has been stopping me these last few weeks. Lower the stakes, lower your standards.
Max and I have a jokey motto: “Good enough is good enough.” We’ll say it to each other over a slightly askew home improvement project or a half-assed plan or an overcooked piece of fish.
But sometimes even shitty is good enough. A lot of the time nothing more than showing up, really showing up, is good enough.
It’s easy to forget that on the downslope of the mountain, when everything tastes like dust and the ideas no longer crackle and the actual speed of my synapses seems to have slowed.
So, here I am showing up. I have some things I need to say and I care about saying them, I need to show up regularly so that the saying of them happens, and if giving myself permission to send out a shitty little missive full of half-baked thoughts is the thing I have to do then that is what I will try to do now, and if I need to change something later then I will change something later, I will keep trying new things, even though the terms ‘growth mindset’ and ‘learning into’ set my teeth on edge. (Fuck your growth mindset, I’ll say to a book I am reading for no possible other reason than personal growth.)
Allow me to get distracted by whether I should move the word “other” in the previous sentence.
And then to redirect myself to the goal at hand, which is to say something, to break my silent streak, to engage again with my audience, to try something different because I am stuck. Not to sit here for the fourth week in a row wondering which of my many half-baked thoughts I should bring to perfect completion, share like a wonderful, rare jewel. I don’t have any rare jewels for you this week, I just have to say something.
Say anything. Allow me to show up today as John Cusack, holding a boom box above my head, playing Taylor Swift singing about showing up even when you don’t know what to say2:
Allow me not to know what the hell I am doing here, writing these words down inside a walk-in closet filled with shoes. Allow me not to believe in myself, to hate every word I put down here, to hate the idea of sending these words out to you, when they sound to me so unimportant, so self-pitying, so self-involved.
There’s a quote from Jacques Derrida that I put at the beginning of my college thesis, back in 1997. I still think of it often. It was in a paper about apocalypse, it was about the impulse to continue to converse:
God and the sons of Shem having understood that a name wasn't worth it-and this would be absolute knowledge-they preferred to spend a little more time together, the time of a long colloquy with warriors in love with life, busy writing in all languages in order to make the conversation last, even if they didn't understand each other too well.
There are good reasons to keep the conversation going, to keep talking, even when we cannot see what it is we are trying to say.
See you next week.
I have a new article up on Leaddev about running great one on ones, check it out.
Coming up, I am also moderating a panel at LeadDev Live, about getting and working with feedback as an engineering leader. It’s free to sign up, and it’s sure to be an interesting discussion.
While I’m still not pursuing full-time work, I remain available for engineering management consulting on a limited basis. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more! I am also still offering my office hours for women and non-binary engineers, sign up here and please share with folks you think could benefit.
I am considering starting a totally different newsletter devoted entirely to brief mental health tips you’ll probably hate, from someone who also hates all mental health tips but then finds value in some of them anyway. Please smash that reply button if this is of interest to you and let me know.
Finally, 50,000 selfies later, I now do portrait photography and modeling. Get in touch if you’re in the Boston area and you want a portrait or you need a model.
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I’m not Catholic so I won’t say this feels like confession but it feels like what I see confession looking like in movies.