Failure, anxiety, and shame: approaching suffering in software development

Failure, anxiety, and shame: approaching suffering in software development

I will discuss three kinds of suffering we all experience at work: the suffering of failure, uncertainty, and insufficiency. We all have setbacks, we all experience risk and change, and we all worry that we are not good enough. All three kinds of suffering are inevitable, and they are necessary. When we become friends with the way we suffer in our work, when we become confident that we can tolerate our suffering, we can stop running from it. When we stop running, we actually suffer less, and we have more room for living. That is, the better we are able to tolerate feeling bad, the more successful we will be. I will offer tools for increasing your tolerance for suffering in the service of learning, growing, and accomplishing things you value.

Delivered at Railsconf 2019


Amy Isikoff Newell

May 02, 2019


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    @amynewell railsconf2019 What we’ll cover • Understand the problem: Suffering

    at work is inevitable, but our usual approaches make things worse. • Recognize some types of suffering at work. • Learn some skills to navigate suffering better.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Our usual responses to pain • Blame others

    and lash out - creating more pain • Blame ourselves and feel self-hatred or despair - this is paralyzing • Numb ourselves: with alcohol, other drugs, shopping, overwork, etc.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 –Tara Brach “The boundary to what we can

    accept is the boundary to our own freedom.”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 The problem with dealing with our pain this

    way is not that these approaches are bad. It’s that they cause more pain.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 “Failure is not an option!” as a slogan

    is offensive; the reality is that failure is inevitable.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Pain is not an unfortunate side effect of

    learning from failure. It is how we learn from failure.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 It’s easy to learn the wrong lesson from

    failure: don’t try. We need to skillfully manage our failure so we learn how to do better next time, not to give up.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 • “I’m anxious about the upcoming reorg” •

    “This is a big project I’m uncertain of being able to deliver on time.” • “I’m worried about releasing this without testing it more”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 –Brené Brown, Daring Greatly “the intensely painful feeling

    or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 As software engineers, shame often appears as the

    fear that we are not smart and we don’t get things done.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 What shame looks like • “Why can’t I

    stay focused longer?” • “I should be learning that new framework. I’m falling behind.” • “I should be able to fix this bug.”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Shame: I’m unworthy and bad and can’t get

    better. Skillfully moving past shame: I’m okay as a I am, but I can change how I behave.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 So… • Failure helps us learn • Anxiety

    helps us deal with risk • Shame may mask guilt, which may help us change our behavior
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 But… how do we navigate these painful emotions

    skillfully, so that we get whatever benefit they bring, while creating as little additional pain as possible?
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Remember: Pain is Temporary • “If you don’t

    like the weather, wait a minute.” • Remember other times you’ve been in pain like this and that it ended. • Pay attention to when the pain lessens or ends, and appreciate that moment. • As we become more skillful with our pain, it won’t last as long. (Fewer second arrows)
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Remember: you are not alone • “Suffering is

    part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move.” - Pema Chodron • Other people also experience suffering. • It’s completely normal.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Share your pain • “I feel really anxious

    about this release” • “I feel ashamed I don’t understand Elasticsearch better by now, and it’s made it hard for me to ask for help on this bug.” • “I feel like I’m doing a lousy job” • “I can’t stop thinking about how I screwed up that query and it caused the users table to lock up in production”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Orient toward your values • Remember where you

    are going and why it matters to you. What is the suffering enabling? • Use that knowledge to move through your pain rather than running from it.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Recognize Allow Investigate Nurture RAIN - Tara Brach

    Radical Compassion (Viking, 2020)
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Recognize • Identify when you’re feeling pain. •

    This means you have to pay attention to how you’re feeling. • Notice the moment you reach for someone to blame or something to take the edge of or fall into self-hatred, and notice you’re suffering in that moment. • We feel emotional suffering in our bodies!
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Allow • Drop your stories about how you

    “should” feel • Don’t try to change what you’re feeling • Research shows trying to change what you feel makes the feeling more intense, not less so. • Don’t blame yourself for how you feel • Just let it be
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Investigate • Be curious about the pain •

    See that it’s not always the same; it moves • Feel it in your body • Watch the thoughts and stories that go along with it • Don’t get caught up in it
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Nurture: Mindful self-compassion • Treat yourself as you

    would a friend in pain • Wish yourself well. • “May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be free from pain.”
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 You will be a better team member because:

    • You’ll have more empathy for others • You will take your pain out on your coworkers less Becoming a better developer:
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 You will be more productive, because your pain

    will lose its grip on you. Becoming a better developer:
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Life hurts, we’re all in this together, stop

    running from the pain, pay attention, and be compassionate to yourself and to others.
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    @amynewell railsconf2019 Resources • Brené Brown on Shame: •

    Tara Brach on RAIN: • Practicing Self-Compassion: • Practicing gratitude: uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf • The Princess Bride, 20th Century Fox, 1987
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