Amy Isikoff Newell
Okay, first of all, I am not going bald.
Well, rather, there is absolutely zero objective evidence that I am going bald. No excessive clumps of hair in the bathtub drain. When I look at photos of myself (which there are, naturally, a lot of, since apparently a large part of my creative energy now goes to boot-forward fashion selfies on an instagram account largely followed by women who know me and men who are really, really into boots), there is no difference in how my hair looks now vs. how it looked three weeks ago, when I was not convinced I was going bald. People who touch my hair a lot also confirm that I still have an awful lot of hair. So that’s the objective truth of the matter.
Nevertheless, a couple of weeks ago, for no particular reason (stress, probably), I experienced a momentary sensation of lightness on my head and my mind caught onto it, like a fishing hook catching on to seaweed at the bottom of a river, and the sensation of lightness bloomed into a constant, ongoing sensation of lightness which bloomed into a thought that will not die, that I am losing all my hair, that I will soon be bald.
“Fine,” I say to myself. If you go totally bald you will just turn even more into Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek and invest in a lot of amazing wigs.”
“Fine,” I say, “Be that way. Obsess about this thing now until you get tired of it. I hear your anxiety and your conviction and I honor it and I am not going to keep giving energy to it, either feeding or fighting it. I’m just gonna sit here waiting till that seaweed decomposes and my mind floats free again.”
Yes, this is very enlightened and mature of me, and yet it is still quite exhausting, because every time I move my head I am struck again by how light it feels, as if I just got a haircut, which I did not, which makes me think about how I must be losing my hair, which I am not.
Why am I telling you about this? I’m funemployed, shouldn’t I be telling you about hot tips for building a great engineering culture, or the 17 factors I consider when needing to reorganize teams to most effectively perform the work before them? (It’s really 17, and yes it is a little insane. But people seem to think I am good at it, so.)
I’m telling you because this is a hot tip about leadership, even though it doesn’t look like one yet. That is how I roll. Keep reading, I swear there’s a payoff.
So, the DSM 5, a book I love to hate, probably wouldn’t technically classify this particular delusion as a delusion. It is perhaps closer to hypochondria, which is now not even hypochondria in the DSM 5, but two separate disorders, somatic symptom disorder, and illness anxiety disorder. But it is to some extent delusional. It is also very much an obsession, and if it was all you knew about me and my mind you might wonder if I perhaps have OCD.
Personally, I would prefer any of the following diagnoses to the one I actually have, which is bipolar disorder (specifically type 2, which is DSM-5 296.89 - it’s so fun to have a special number!): hysteria, neurasthenia, “nerves”, “poorly”, “sickly”, or manic-depressive, which sounds more glamorous than any of the others. Like maybe I’m actually Richard Byron. (Narrator: she is not.)
Diagnoses codes are good for getting insurance to pay for things, and they’re good for requesting accommodations, and they’re good for offering some possible directions to move toward for treatments and mitigation. But they don’t much reflect the reality of lived experience, which is not a bunch of tiny checkboxes.
Whatever you’d call this particular problem, the problem that I think I am going bald, even though I am not, it clearly represents some failure of my mind to correctly apprehend reality. The good news for me is that some of the ways my mind screws up reality are so obvious that they offer ample opportunity to notice this about my mind. The other good news is that I have, for whatever reason, been able to take advantage of this opportunity, and can, usually, notice the thing my mind is doing, and pay attention to that, rather than to the content of what my mind is doing it with.
This is a master move of mental jujitsu, no doubt about it. The content of my bodily panics has changed over the years, although variations tend to recur. This variation is new – I have not thought before that I was going bald. But in kind, it is is the same as many others. It is unfortunate that most of my bodily panics start out, at least, being juuuust plausible enough to hook me – it’s at least possible that I could be losing my hair, from stress, it’s just overwhelmingly more likely that I have come to believe I am losing my hair from stress because I have been stressed, and most of my stress responses are bizarre mental things.
The one before this one was exceptional (for me) in its implausibility, but, and here’s the thing, it was no less exhausting. In January 2020 I got a crown on one of my bicuspids, and of course, as crowns do, it didn’t feel like my own tooth for a while. But then, for whatever reason, that feeling spread. One day I woke up and it was as though all my teeth were someone else’s. My entire mouth felt unfamiliar. Just before the pandemic started I did a standup set that was meant to include a joke about this but I cut the joke because I was afraid of going over 5 minutes, which I had been told was a terrible mistake that would cause you never to be invited to perform again. The joke was this: My teeth felt unfamiliar. It was like someone had come into my bedroom in the middle of the night and replaced them all with someone else’s teeth. But, I knew this couldn’t be true, because that sounds like an awful lot of dental work, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of dental work that would be covered by insurance, and I had not received a bill.
Hahaha my teeth must be my own teeth despite how they feel because no dentist has billed me for replacing them. Hahahahaha.
It sucked nonetheless though, and while it faded, sometimes it falls on me again, within the space of thirty seconds, and my teeth are no longer my own, and my hair is falling out, and actually I guess I’m some sort of rotting frankenstein corpse, and so on.
Naturally writing about the teeth situation reminded some neurons in my brain what that felt like and my teeth no longer feel like my own.
That was an awfully long story about how you seem to be completely, wildly, utterly insane, Amy. Yes, that’s true, and yes, I kinda am, but I also make my bed every day, take my meds at 9pm every night, and at one point in the not distant past was carrying 15 direct reports while also parenting two teenagers IN A PANDEMIC and doing mental health advocacy work and the tiniest bit of local politics on the side. I’m what’s called high-functioning, a topic I will take up for another day, it’s not what I want to talk about now, what I want to talk about now is Reality.
Everybody’s brain makes shit up. Our nerves are sending us information constantly, from all over, all the time — so much information. Most of it we don’t pay any attention to, because it is not important. Sometimes we end up paying attention to something that is not important anyway, like the way our teeth feel in our mouths or the way our hair feels on our head, and because we are paying attention, it feels wrong or new. It might not be either wrong or new. It might just be information that is making it into your conscious awareness that didn’t before, for what might be completely unknowable reasons. Once that information appears in our conscious awareness, we can’t help but tell stories about it. That’s what our consciousness does. Then the stories and the information they are based on feed on each other and the connections in your brain that link the information to the stories and predict the future outcome grow stronger. It’s like digging channels for water, the deeper they get the more water flows through them.
So how do you interrupt the cycle? What you can’t do is yank your mind away from it, that only gets you more stuck, puts more energy in. But you can tell different stories about the information, and you can direct your attention to other information instead.
The story I tell about my hair loss is that the thing I am going through is not a new thing. The sensation of lightness is new, yes. But the feeling of being caught, that is not new. I have seen my mind do it again and again, and again, and so I trust that my story about hair loss is not, in fact, a story about hair loss, it is a story about what my mind does under stress, and it always ends with the particular obsession fading eventually, maybe not gone forever, but taking less space and less energy. It fades in part because I tell myself this story about it. I tell myself that it feels like this is very important information but it is not, it is information it is okay for my brain not to bring constantly to my attention, I have evaluated it and determined it to be “not a bug”, and every time my mind opens a new ticket about the sensation, I politely thank my mind for its input and reassure it that all is still well. “Your feedback is important to us but also we will be taking no action at all regarding the issue where you’re sure you’re going bald.”
Then there’s the other part: attention. This hair loss thing wants all of my mind, every core, 100% CPU. Giving it all that attention, again, just feeds it, and yet yankking the attention away forcibly is just another way of giving it attention. (Don’t think of an elephant, and so on).
I need to gently move my attention elsewhere.
(Wait, Amy, are you just describing the process of mindfulness? Yes, yes I am. I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for 18 years now, and I have read many books on the matter, and sat in many different meditation rooms. This is a thing I know something about.)
Now let’s talk about attention. In the case where I’m going bald, I’ve started to pay too much attention to something that, after carefully examining the information, is not, in fact important.
But most of what our minds do at any time is ignore most of the information they are getting from their bodies and their senses. It’s too much, and most of it is unimportant. Somewhere under our consciousness we use the information to make choices we don’t ever even notice are choices, and we make snap judgments about whether the information merits further choicemaking at a conscious level, in which case we become conscious of it. Yes, now I’m just offering you a summary of Thinking, Fast and Slow. You’re welcome.
The piece here that I think is important, the one that leads back to leadership, is that our minds do not tell us about things we do not think are important. The way we indicate to our own minds (let alone to other peoples’!) that we want some information to be passed through to our consciousness is by paying attention to the thing we are looking for, EVEN IF WE DO NOT YET SEE IT.
Here’s an example. I just came back from a vacation in New Hampshire. I spent a bunch of time on a riverbank, on my stomach, staring at about one square foot of sand in front of me. Really, really close up. I didn’t know what I would find, but I knew it would be something. It was. I found the tiniest sprouts of plants, single wisps of moss, small holes, ants, different kinds of grains of sand. Tiny spiders. And then, as I kept looking, two new kinds of insect: some tiny things that looked exactly like grains of sand only they were moving obviously like insects, and then, a bit later, some unbelievably small but very bright red little mites. How come I didn’t see the little grains of sand bugs or the little red mites before? Because my brain didn’t think such small things were very important, so it WASN’T BOTHERING TO TELL ME ABOUT THEM. I told my brain I thought these small things were important by staring at the sand for a long time just waiting to see what I would see, confident there was more there than I thought.
Here’s the other thing. The next day, I went back down to the beach and sat down to stare at the sand again. I knew the sand bugs and the mites would be there, but I couldn’t see them. I waited and waited. “I don’t see the red mites” I said, in distress. And suddenly, I saw red mites everywhere.
I told my brain I cared about something and then it let me see the thing.
Sometimes I’ll say I noticed a thing and other people will say they didn’t. Then I have to determine if I’m making it up entirely (like going bald) or if it’s something I am noticing because it’s something I think is important, because I am paying attention and the other people are not.
This is a problem that we all have, to build some footholds to anchor ourselves to Reality, and it is a real problem and it is not so easy to solve. You get into questions about how you determine if your own perceptions are based in reality or the stories you’re telling are based in reality, and trying to triangulate all your own information from your own lived experience as well as with everything you know to be objectively true about the world, as well as whatever alternate perspectives you can obtain from those around you, and, and, squaring it all with what you know of how your own mind works.
Is this a kind of thing you tend to pay too much attention to? Is this something your mind tricks you on, one of the ways you get hooked or misled by your own self? Or is this something you’ve never noticed before, and thus it seems new, but maybe it isn’t new, maybe you just started noticing it, and maybe it is important and you want to keep noticing it. When other people say they don’t notice the thing and you are making it up, are they gaslighting you or do they in fact not see the thing, and do they not see it because it’s not there or because they aren’t looking for it?
And, further, how much responsibility does someone have for the consequences when they didn’t notice a thing because they weren’t looking for it? How much responsibility do you have for not noticing something because you weren’t looking for it? The simple answer to that question (I think) is that it depends on how much you should have known to look. You should look for your own bias in hiring and promotions, for example, because broad, objective evidence shows that it is there and if you are hiring you are responsible for paying attention to it. The harder answer is that there will always be things that you didn’t know to notice, and you’ll realize later that you didn’t notice those things and that you caused harm because of it, and you can apologize and promise to do better but you are still responsible for the harm and yeah, it can make it hard to sleep at night sometimes.)
Here is the important thing for leaders.
(Actually, it is an important thing for everyone but if I say leaders I make it crystal clear I am not peddling some woo-woo touchy feely advice just for the fun of it that doesn’t have anything to do with businesses or leadership, I make it crystal clear that I’m speaking to people who have power and need to pay attention so as not to misuse it, I tie this long meditation on attention and Reality to the daily facts of working with others.)
But here it is: you should know, generally, the things your mind thinks are important to bring to your attention, the ones your mind get hooked on even when it shouldn’t, and the kinds of things you have not thought were important but would like to, so that you can notice those things. At work this might look like deciding to pay attention to how your most senior engineer treats your most junior one. It might look like paying attention to someone’s feelings whose feelings you haven’t previously considered. It definitely should look like asking other people what you aren’t seeing, the unknown unknowns (the mites I didn’t know existed), and beyond that, reminding yourself that those things are things you care about going forward, if you would like to keep seeing (hey, where are the red mites? I saw them before – are they gone, or did I just quit paying attention to them again?).
This dovetails with a lot of the stuff I wrote about in my article about power, which I would like you to go read now if you haven’t, in which I talk about how important it is to keep paying attention to your power, because it’s easy to ignore. Or rather, it points to the importance of paying attention, real attention, to the people with less power than you, who your mind probably considers to be less important and hence does not bother to give you information about.
The more information you have about the people you are leading the better you can be as a leader, but if you direct all your attention to the people who are leading you, or to your own self, you will not get that information. Not only because those you lead will not tell you, but because even if they told you you would not hear, or you would not believe.
Which brings me to my Taylor Swift lyric of the week, from her song Exile, on her album Folklore, a duet, in which Bon Iver sings, presumably about his lover’s departure: “Cause you never gave a warning sign” and Taylor Swift sings “I gave so many signs” like over and over again, exasperated with how many signs she gave that he wasn’t paying attention to and so didn’t see.
What are the signs you don’t see? What are the ones you don’t even know how to look for (ask someone else!) ?
What do you want to commit to paying attention to?
If you feel like sharing, just smash that reply button and let me know what you want to pay more attention to in your life?
Well, that was a lot. Here’s the poem of the week
“To be of use” by Marge Piercy: “The pitcher cries out for water to carry/ and a person for work that is real.”
What is the work (paid or not) that feels realest to you? Want to share? Smash that reply button (yes I have watched a lot of youtubers with one of my children) and tell me all about it.
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