Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

Category: Personal Reflection (page 1 of 2)

Of Glory Hounds, Fine Speeches, and the High Road

When it comes to the workplace, I’m a very apolitical person.

I’m not talking conservative vs. liberal; I’m referring to to the interpersonal shuffling for exalted status that exists in pretty much any corporation. You may know these folks as glory hounds: those who are primarily (and often obsessively) concerned with their standing, status, and visibility among their supervisors and their peers. Glory hounds play this intricate, interlaced game of politics to push through their own agendas and build their legacies. Sometimes it’s intensely obvious; most times, it’s subtle, like a faint vibration in the floor.

So long as the games of the glory hounds don’t intersect my world, I can live with it. However, once my time, my projects, and my (and my team’s) reputation come under (direct or indirect) assault by a glory hound’s agenda, I start to seethe.

I don’t like these games. They frustrate me.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought on how to deal with the glory hounds. They’re certainly not going away, and outward opposition to their plans and schemes isn’t always going to win me (or my team) any favors. And yet, I have sparse appetite for wading into their pool and playing along in corporate “Keeping Up With the Joneses.”

Over the past year, I’ve been working my way steadily through the Old Testament to become more versed in God’s word. I’m currently in Job. If you’re not familiar with this book of the Bible, Job is a “righteous and blameless man” whose family, livelihood, and ultimately, his health, are taken from him to showcase his steadfast obedience to God. Throughout the book, several of his closest friends come to counsel him, assuming that some sinful act of his has let to his current state (and obviously not being terribly helpful). Job replies back to each, increasingly frustrated, fearful, and confused with God, but never once vilifying or defying Him. Job finally gets to plead his case to God directly, but that’s not where I’m going here.

About a third of the way through the book (Job 16:3-5), Job scolds his friends, illustrating how he would take the high road with them, despite their accusations and comments:

Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing?

I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you.

But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief.

This last verse is what got me.

In reading this passage, I saw that the glory hounds can have their “long-winded” and “fine” speeches; they can push their agenda past, over, and through my working life. I, however, can make the choice to do better, through kindness, empathy, and encouragement. I don’t have to play along, or even to “play nice.” I can choose to be uplifting and even-keeled (“authentically nice”) in my actions and my reactions.

There’s another verse from Ephesians 4:29 that supports this practice:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

It’s tempting to push back against the glory hounds, to slander them, to gossip about them, and to frustrate their plans out of spite. But I believe I’ve found a method of coexisting with them in a manner that will truly uplift those around me in the workplace while stripping away emotions and thoughts that are simply mental clutter.

To quote the famous line from Wargames, “the only winning move is not to play.” I won’t play the games of the glory hounds, but instead I can walk the high road with humility, and truly live it.

“Never read the comments” … and product reviews?

Over the weekend, I had a thought regarding the Internet age adage “never read the comments” and product reviews. Aren’t reviews, in a sense, comments on a product? If we’re advised by the wise sages of the internets to not read them, how are we supposed to make what we feel as educated decisions on something that’s going to cost us time, money, or both?

Let’s start with comments.

I most always read the comments, or, at least the first few of them. Why? It’s the commentary, y’all!

In enough cases to warrant reading said comments, I’ve found enough enlightenment and details in back-and-forth discourse between commenters (and more fun if the original poster or author chimes in) to enrich the article, essay, diatribe, etc. The glaring exception is YouTube videos, which are riddled with spamvertisements.

I also use comments as a bellwether of the source document’s tone and agenda. You can tell a lot about an article by what chatter it stirs up in the digital pot, such as its reputation, its readership, and its (though I’ve grown to dislike this term) authenticity.

Now, for reviews.

As a general practice, whenever I see product reviews for something on, say, Amazon, I go and read both the “most recent” and “most helpful” sets to get a general consensus.

“Most recent” tells me whether there are problems or improvements that may affect my decision to buy this product. You see this a lot on the Apple App Store when a particular app pushes out an update. In that regard, low ratings due to past grumbling about quality or performance may now be fixed with a new version. It could also tell me whether the product has consistent problems back through time.

I take the “most helpful” reviews with a mighty strong grain of salt. There’s been quite an influx of “professional reviewers” getting paid to “gloss up” a product’s overall rating, and that unfortunately muddies up the waters. Professionally-written reviews are not always explicitly marked as such, but they always seem to have the same glossy platitudes in their writing style; they’re all trying to tell (or sell) the same story.

Here’s the flip side: I find that too many reviews are full of “complaint noise:” users or consumers who have no effective way of getting to the manufacturer or creator other than posting negative reviews, or, those who are confused or ill-informed about the proper use of what they purchased.

A good example I found just the other day is the Disney XD app for iOS, which I downloaded to watch the latest episode of Star Wars Rebels. A good percentage of the reviews were low- or one-starred. The 10 most recent reviews seemed to be written by a lot of tweens and teenagers looking to stream Disney XD shows but getting deflected by an internet service provider login or parental restrictions. Having an ISP and being a parent myself, I don’t have those obstacles and, as a result, their experiences aren’t reflective of my own.

OK, so comments are often noisy and argumentative and reviews suffer from authenticity issues and grumbling. Should we start saying “never read the comments or the reviews?”

I say “no.”

In this day and age, it’s good to see differing perspectives and opinions, so long as you, the reader, have the discipline to read objectively, not get pulled down in the abyss of petty arguments or controversies, and dive no deeper than page or two of the paginated results.

“Don’t give in to hate,” as Master Obi-Wan Kenobi once said.

Imposter Syndrome and the Fear of Critical Failure

Something that I’ve been struggling with for some time now is a nagging “background noise” of smallness and mediocrity often triggered by what I read and observe online (in particular, Facebook and Twitter). A tweet I came across the other day pointed me to a name and definition that I had never associated with my own feelings: “imposter syndrome.”

Here’s how the good folks at Wikipedia define imposter syndrome:

“Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.” (“Imposter Syndrome,” cited April 17, 2015)

I’ve written before about the slippery slope of careless comparisons, and how one can never expect to keep up with a curated life. Still, I’ve found it exceptionally difficult to shake off the cloak of inferiority that comes with imposter syndrome. Because folks are curating the highlights (or lowlights) of their lives, you never see the whole picture … mostly, the mundane middle stuff that is the majority of what makes up a person. Awareness of my mundane moments is what I feel contributes strongly to the feeling that I’m not worthy or deserving of the things I have, say, or do. This is a classic fool’s errand! If everyone else presents themselves as polarized highs and lows, of course they’ll seem so much more talented or deserving than me.

That’s why I found the following diagram, which was included in that tweet, so illuminating. It really nails down what I feel versus what’s really going on. I’m not some subset of someone else. I share an overlapping set of attributes, beliefs, and talents. The strengths and depths of where we overlap can and do differ, but that doesn’t diminish who I am or who you are.

Imposter Syndrome diagram

Now, the second part of my thinking today is a personal fear that often collaborates with imposter syndrome: what I call the “fear of critical failure.”

In role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, you roll a 20-sided die to determine how well you accomplish an action, goal, or task. A higher number yields a better result. A roll of 20 is called a “critical hit” or “critical success,” and is usually accompanied by an extra bonus for doing an amazing feat. A roll of 1, on the other hand, is a “critical failure,” which produces a “comedy of errors” type of result (your character trips, drops their sword, etc.) that simply wouldn’t happen if you merely rolled lower than necessary for a successful outcome.

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“Fear of critical failure” is drawn from, and stacked upon, my misguided sense of imposter syndrome. As a self-perceived “imposter,” I’m already running the risk of being “unmasked” or “found out” as inferior or unskilled. Add the fear of a critical failure into the mix, and it’s all paranoia and madness. It can range from the vital (fear that I missed a critical step in selling a house) to the ordinary (fear that I’ll botch an opportunity to get a better deal on my cable bill). It’s made me risk-averse, and, frankly, a bit of a coward. I’ve missed chances to save money, fight for my convictions, and be a good example for my family.

And so, finding this message on Twitter has been so immensely helpful as a reminder … and as a mantra.

So, why I am telling you all of this? Two reasons:

First, writing is therapy for me. Getting my thoughts organized into a coherent structure, like this essay, helps me better sort out the mish-mash in my head. When I can better identify what’s swirling around inside, I can formulate a plan of attack to prevent these thoughts from affecting my daily life. It’s also helpful from a personal accountability aspect. When I choose to make something public, it’s harder for me to simply ignore my problems and retreat into old habits.

Second, it’s the hope that I can help someone who’s struggling with similar issues. I’ve come to believe that each of us has purpose in life … not just a singular, overarching objective, but many overlapping reasons for being that connect us to others, whether we realize it or not. Also, finding out that you’re not alone in your struggles is undeniably helpful. I have a very bad habit of not reaching out for help, whether that’s family, friends, or faith, so I want to do what I can to ask for help on a regular basis, even if it’s just the hope that someone will read this and connect with it … and, in turn, help someone who may not know how to ask themselves.

Thanks for taking the time to read this today.


Author’s note: If either of the images shown in this essay are yours, or you know whose they are, please let me know and I’ll be happy to give the proper credit that’s due.

Stepping Away from the Abyss

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I’ve had a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction in the back of my mind for some time … a near-constant hum, like a distant machine that’s switched on in the background of your awareness. I figured out part of this sensation earlier this year by taking time off from a hobby that chewed up far more of my time and brain power than it should have, but some of these these feelings of disconnection still remained, quietly humming.

I’ve known for a few years now that social media use can lead to a sense of mental separation. If you’re not present and not paying attention, you start to think that everyone on these channels knows more than you, is having more fun than you, and is more talented than you. If you’re not careful, you start to feel small. Boring. Insignificant. Unheard. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is famously quoted, “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

It’s not true. None of those feelings are true.

A lot of what you read, see, and watch are curated, hand-picked pieces of a life: the best of times, the worst of times. Everyone’s starring, directing, and producing their own entertainment channels, and it’s an unconscious competition to outshine everyone else. I’ve fallen victim to it quite a bit. “I have all these followers. Why doesn’t anyone reply to what I post? Am I talking about the right things? Am I boring? What should I be talking about?”

I finally realized yesterday that the source of my disconnection is this: I’ve been putting too much importance and too much emphasis on distant (weak) relationships, rather than the close (strong) ones. It’s absolutely backwards to stress over some sort of “legacy” on Twitter when I should be strengthening the connections with my family and inner circle of friends. I have a wife and children who are so happy when I come home from work and spend time with them on days off, and colleagues at the office who trust and value my thoughts and talents. Fussing about whether I’m funny enough, interesting enough, or worth talking to on Twitter, when I have so much to be grateful for in my “real life,” is bordering on low-level madness.

I’ve said many times in the past that I love Twitter, but that is a false statement. As my church’s pastor said to us in one of his summer sermons, words like “love” are charged with immense power and should not be used for trivial or material things. Let me say then, that I enjoy Twitter, but I love my family and my friends. I will continue to enjoy Twitter, but for what it is, not for the displaced need for connection that I’ve been using it for to date. I want the folks close at hand to be my focus.

I’m no stranger to self-doubt and have dealt with confidence issues throughout my life. To this day, I continue to learn and practice strengthening my faith, my listening skills, and my sense of self-worth. Realizing now where I truly need to put my focus is another step away from the abyss and towards peace and enlightenment.

My “A-ha” Moment About the “Spiral of Envy”

Today’s entry from Mark Schaefer’s {grow} blog, “Facebook, the ‘spiral of envy,’ and our Botox life,” put into succinct words precisely what has nagged and pulled at me about social media for the past two years. The crux of Mark’s essay was that we put so much gleam and shine on our online lives that it drives others into this descent into digital madness, where we constantly feel the need to one-up our friends, or we succumb to the illusion that our world is a grayer, less exciting version of what we see on Facebook, et al. One of the commenters labeled this the “Jones effect” (as in “keeping up with the Joneses”), and that’s the perfect way to describe it. It’s an dramatic arms race: our friends showcase their (so-called) awesome lives, and we feel we need to make ours more awesome as a result. No wonder folks get all bent out of joint in these realms.

This phenomenon affected me in the latter way: feeling what I was doing here was less important and less worthy than what others were saying out there. I’ve written a few times about the so-called “silent partners” in our online relationships: those folks who follow you on Twitter or friend you on Facebook, and yet never seem to either read, acknowledge, or respond to you from that point forward. I couldn’t figure it out, despite my best efforts, and I dropped my usage to the ultimate bare minimum for several months last year as a result. Now I have something I can use to identify this sensation, and it makes that much more sense.

People put so much guilt around our online relationships. You do it, and others around you do it. Don’t dare unfollow someone on Twitter or unfriend someone on Facebook lest they find out! Better to use some curated list or hide posts instead. It’s all so much unnecessary subterfuge. We need to be honest and just realize that we’re all people. We post because we want a reaction. Sometimes they’re trivial things, but we want a reaction all the same. So, it seems natural that people will decide to share things that are the pinnacle of wit, wisdom, weariness, or woe. Mark’s right: we don’t hear about the paint drying or toddler accidents; that’s the unattractive back alley side of life. But, we also need to realize that not everyone wants to hear those shards of our shiny lives, so it shouldn’t faze us if some folks tune out.

Your life is awesome. Perhaps not today, but your life is awesome. Don’t let those shiny “Botox lives” tell you otherwise.

 

What a Difference a Year Makes

What a difference a year makes.

Next month will mark a full year since I succeeded my previous boss as leader of my work’s web team. If you had asked me two years ago whether I’d want to move ahead in my career as a manager/leader or stay in the trenches as a dyed-in-the-wool developer, I wouldn’t have hesitated to tell you I had no desire to administrate. I liked being the specialist, where I could touch the raw code and pixels. I didn’t want to get involved in all the diplomatic back-and-forth that often accompanies a leading role. But, when my boss announced she was moving onward last November, duty called and I accepted the stripe on my sleeve. I’m really glad I did.

Turns out, I actually like management. It’s been gratifying to take the reins on projects and tasks now under my stewardship, building on relationships I had started in my developer years to carry them forward. I’ve also enjoyed taking on career development, making sure the developers on my team have all the tools, resources, and time they need to succeed in their projects and expand their professional expertise. The amount of time I actually touch code these days has decreased to less than 10% (and social media even less, but I’ll get to that in a moment), but that’s OK; my duties are elsewhere now. I’ve learned to rely upon and trust the expert opinions of my staff to carry out the objectives and strategies we craft together. Delegation, something I thought I would have a hard time getting used to, is now working smoothly.

Now comes the hard part. Yes, I’m enjoying management, but the amount of time I have on my hands to handle the “one true love” from my past life, social media, has dwindled dramatically. Whether or not you’ve noticed, this blog has also floundered. I always knew that social media was a time-consuming effort in order to get it done properly, but I’ve come to fully respect the sheer amount of dedication and regimented time management it often requires. I’ve had to peel back my level of involvement to a supervisory and technical support role while others, including some amazingly talented and level-headed junior staffers, have done the heavy lifting.

As with anything else in life, this transition has been a balancing act. Balancing projects, tasks, personnel, time, and making hard choices based on the “situation on the ground.” Have I given up social media altogether? Hardly, but I’m much quieter on Twitter, Facebook, et al. these days. I still have no Pinterest to speak of. I’ve found less to take away from new media these days, but, as an article I read today from Frank Strong aptly indicates, “you get out of social media what you put into it.” It is what it is.

As the saying goes, “change comes from within,” but it also came come from without, your environment shaping your evolution. This past year has been must that for me. An evolution.

The Social Media Neophyte Who Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Image credit: Unknown; source: http://englishihonorsmythology.wikispaces.com/Icarus

I love social media. Ever since my first tweet in June 2009, I’ve learned an immense amount about the mechanics, arcana, and vagaries of these networks and their inhabitants. I’ve become an “expert neophyte” of sorts, and my experiences have become beneficial for both my career and my colleagues. Along with my first love, Twitter, I hold digital citizenships in Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Tumblr, WordPress, and Google+. My time spent in social media been equal parts amazing and enriching, but I’ve also found how overwhelming it can be if you’re not careful.

Around July of last year, shortly after I joined the hordes charging into the virgin wilderness of Google+, I had enough. I’d spent too many hours stressing over whether I was as knowledgable, “authentic,” and influential as I should be. I flipped back and forth between networks constantly, checking what I missed since my last visit and who had interacted with me in the interim. I was also in the midst of a years-long, strenuous redesign project where I was a key technical lead, and I simply had fewer and fewer cycles to spare for my alter egos. One day, I simply dropped off the grid. I posted nothing to Twitter for weeks, kept a lazy, glazed eye on Facebook, and put all my other presences, including this blog, in stasis.

I had burned myself out. I had flown too close to the sun.

It took me eight months to understand that my personal limit for fully-engaged social networks is two. I can maintain a presence in a few ancillary networks as well, but if I spend more than a cursory amount of time there, I feel the psychic strain from spreading myself too thin. I realized how easy it can be to get mired in keeping up with the digital Joneses: crafting the next clever blog post or witty comment, absorbing all the latest articles on Pinterest, getting the next Foursquare badge, or sustaining a Klout score. One simply can’t read, write, like, comment on, or share everything. It seems stupefyingly obvious, but I found that you really do start seeing trees instead of a forest if you’re not careful.

So, I’ve narrowed my focus back down to the essentials: Twitter for news, trends, professional connections, and real-time conversations, and Facebook to share life’s little snippets with family and friends. LinkedIn is delegated to my digital Rolodex; Foursquare an idle curiosity best suited for waiting at airport terminals; Tumblr a rare time waster; Google+ purely for research on how it works. Don’t even get me started about my feelings on Pinterest, Instagram, or the other new kids on the social media block.

I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and Facebook. To me, they’re now among the “established” social networks. As much as the landscape has changed over the past several years (AOL to LiveJournal to Friendster to MySpace and so on), I can’t shake the sensation that they’re here for the long run. As such, it will take a great deal of convincing for me to pull up stakes and move to another digital country. Because that is the choice I’m making from here on out: rather than collect more and more social profiles, I’ll replace them, swap them out. But it has to be worth it.

No more double-ended candles for me. I love social media too much to burn out again.

Another New Social Media Network? Sorry, But I’m Not Pinterested

Over the past several weeks, the dominating social media trend has been Pinterest, an “online pinboard.” In essence, Pinterest allows you to share and organize batches of images in a multi-column format. Like other networks, users can like your images, follow your feed, and comment. My initial impression of it is a Tumblr blog on steroids, showcasing a virtual parade of photographs, illustrations, and diagrams in streams of Polaroid-style boxes.

Pinterest is yet another “niche” or “boutique” style social network. We had plenty of those last year, most notably Quora (a knowledge-sharing service similar to Yahoo! Answers) and Empire Avenue (where you could buy and sell “stock” in key influencers). The social media echo chamber was full of folks talking endlessly about how individuals, companies, and brands needed to pay attention to the influx of activity here and how they could make the best use of them.

Pinterest is the new Quora, it seems. There’s plenty of fervor about it, with many chiming in with their thoughts, projections, and predictions. Much has also been discussed about reports that Pinterest is “driving more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit, and YouTube.”

Pinterest seems nice enough. The layout is clean, and it’s easier to scan through than Tumblr or similar services. Here’s the thing, though: I have to confess that I’m not really interested (or, should I say, “pinterested”) in taking on a new social media network.

I remain a relative newbie to the social media multiverse. I only joined Twitter and LinkedIn in July 2009, Facebook in September 2010, and Tumblr and Google+ in June 2011. I maintain a presence in Foursquare, have an Evernote account, and, of course, this blog you see here. Midway through last year, I came to discover how monumental the effort of maintain multiple social personalities can be, especially if you’re being present and engaged on each one versus auto-posting.

I get that companies need to be aware of new opportunities, and that exploring new avenues to share ideas, expand brand awareness, and building revenue are quite important. For me at the practitioner level, however, taking on new networks is less desirable purely by virtue of time and resources. Social media is not free, and folks like me (who wear quite a lot of hats) feel that pinch more than the “ideators” or marketing experts out the in wild.

These networks are communities. I’m not being social if I’m simply taking up digital space with land grab accounts and one-way, automated postings. I need to be quite certain that the time and energy that I’d invest in learning and participating in a new network, especially for my company, is worth the effort. I have no interest in half-hearted efforts. There’s also the danger of success to be mindful of. As Margie Clayman warned in her latest post, “Before you try something, you need to consider what will happen if it actually works really well.”

So, will Pinterest be the “game changer” that many think it will be? Like anything else, time will tell. Saying that anything is the next big thing is a risky venture at best, and I’m not partial to crow. I’ll certainly key an eye on the horizon for what’s next, but you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as enthusiastic as others. I have lots to do.

Update (2-24-12): Hollis Thomases wrote a superb article for Inc. titled “4 Things Pinterest Isn’t Saying” that ties in nicely with some of the points I’ve outlined. Pay close attention to the “fair warnings” section, in which Hollis offers level-headed advice on proceeding with Pinterest, or any new social network for that matter.

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