Fear-driven development

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Twice burnt, getting the hang of this fire thing.

There’s a thing I’m wary of with both companies and developers: when they seem to operate mostly on fear. In the case of companies, fear can lead to heavy screening during the hiring process, heavy-handed, detail-oriented project management or distrust towards employees. To my mind, these things either come from the basic mode of operation of some founding member or from cultural scars caused by a bad hire, a runaway project or very anxious management. Admittedly, there are projects where detailed specifications make sense. There are roles where screening is more important. There are entry-level garbage jobs where mutual distrust is possibly unavoidable at a certain level. However, I believe that, ultimately, all of these are detrimental practices.

Note: This post was originally published in the newsletter all about 90 weekly issues ago. I try to pick out some of the best ones for refinement and public publishing. Hope you enjoy. Much thanks to Cornelia Kelinske for helping me with the editing on this.

On the developer side I have seen developers, both employed and independent, that negotiate from a position of past wrong-doings. “Never this again.. I refuse to ..” They try to negotiate away future discomfort based on previous experiences and, to my understanding, a fear of repeating that bad experience. With people, I find this fear much more understandable. But whenever I act from this perspective I find it ends up being short-sighted. I should definitely learn what I dislike and want to avoid from bad experiences. I just no longer believe I can encode a perfect heuristic for that in contract terms or handshakes. There are an endless number of potential pains that can land on me in my work; enumerating them is pointless.

Actually, I think it’s even beyond pointless. Because you spend your leverage and career capital on promises that no organization is truly capable of keeping. “No crunch” or maybe “no calls during my vacation” are certainly reasonable demands. But will your employer let their business go to hell before they breach those terms? I doubt it.

Instead, I try to do what my first psychotherapist told me as I was working on recovering from burnout: I focus on “What do you feel?” When something comes up, I try not to just think it through, but instead, I ask myself: “what do you feel?” and I register those feelings. If I get the feeling that this is not how I want things, that’s a signal that I should push back, negotiate or at least air my concerns.

I can’t remove all the discomforts of my life, I can’t negotiate myself away from every imposition or nervous manager I might encounter. Organizations may have their scars; so do developers. I have mine. But I find fear makes us short-sighted and inflexible. Fear is pretty much completely ineffective as a driver for meaningful change. By leaning into new situations, despite the base level of discomfort it entails, I have achieved so many more of the things I want. I earn more, I work less, the work I do is more meaningful and I am much less supervised and/or micro-managed. And when things I don’t appreciate or accept come gliding in, I deal with them then and there.

This doesn’t remove the risk of unpleasant or bad things happening. But in my experience, neither does negotiating based on past hurt. It is better to negotiate for the things you want than to negotiate for what you want to protect yourself from. Because you can actually get the former. The latter is all about managing the situation as it arises.

I don’t want to operate on fear, worry or hesitation. I want to act based on consideration, intentional choices and steady commitments made through clear negotiation. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fear, worry or hesitation. I can be quite anxious. But for me, the way through that is not about building myself a fort. It is about making sure I’m an active participant in the outcome. That’s what I try for. I recommend others to at least give it a shot. Or get a therapist, maybe there are other recommendations for you.

If you find this interesting I cover this type of ground in my newsletter on a regular basis. You can find the newsletter here. If you have questions or feedback you can reach me at lars@underjord.io or as @lawik.

Underjord is a 4 people team doing Elixir consulting and contract work. If you like the writing you should really try the code. See our services for more information.

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