Sanity Check: This is Normal
The tech industry is known for its fast-paced exorbitant culture, which celebrates innovation, creativity, ingenuity, etc., all while crushing revenue models. While this may be true for some, even most tech companies, there is a very serious and real business side of leading this business. Many of the individuals working in tech are often confronted with the tricky balance that is often hard to reach within such a culture. Many technology professionals find themselves wondering at some point if it was all a dream, if perhaps they are losing their minds, or if the heydays of tech long passed them by. They are confused by the success, glory, and celebrations while the day-to-day obstacles mirror a struggling startup. This is, by very definition, a form of cognitive dissonance.
Well, I am here to offer a bit of a sanity check. This is indeed normal or at least expected while working in tech. Individuals, teams, departments, business units, and organizations are often faced with the harsh reality that while there is a need to be autonomous in building the applications and platforms of the future, this industry is becoming more regulated and competitive. A balance must be struck to maintain the level of performance and innovation required of our companies.
Here I will attempt to provide a few coping strategies for those lucky enough to have fallen in love with this industry but struggling with the reality of the work.
- Change pre-existing beliefs
- Add new beliefs
- Reduce the importance of the beliefs
Change Pre-Existing Beliefs
Individuals can choose to change their attitude, behavior, belief, etc., to make the relationship between what they thought it would be like to work in tech or on a team or within a particular department more aligned with the actual experience. This requires a bit of effort and conscious work. The behavior might be the most tangible thing that can be changed. However, that does not make it easy and can often prove difficult for a well-learned response or habit. Many self-improvement gurus have provided much insight into learning new practices and modifying a learned behavior. I will not try to go in-depth as this is most certainly not my area of expertise; however, here are a few bullet points that come from a few of the hundreds of self-improvement books I’ve read over the years.
- Redefine “must.” What is it that you associate with your role, your team, department, company that follows the word “must.” Very little of what one may think they “have” to do actually must be done that way. We all justify what it is we feel we must do with some level of rationalizing. Take a step back and investigate whether there may be other ways to accomplish the goal. Must is actually a feeling – one that results from a habit or routine. Decide that “must” is negotiable or even able to be eliminated.
- Identify the reward. This can be difficult to determine. It could be something as intangible as a feeling of control, relief, or to be the hero. This requires some real self-work and is not for the timid! What need is the belief you hold satisfying? Changing (or desiring to change) a pre-existing idea and resolve real cognitive dissonance, the reward is critical. Most won’t deny themselves the reward, so it is essential to identify it to gain the same thing based on new beliefs and understanding.
- Build a new routine. Change what used to be how you showed up, performed, got things done. Still getting things done (please get things done!) find new ways of accomplishing them. Create new routines that support your new belief/understanding of the work to be done while allowing that same feeling of reward to be met.
Add New Beliefs
Listen and accept new information as it becomes available. Dig deeper into the why of new information. It is a known fact that the more we study and learn about anything, the more confident we become in our own acceptance of this reality. Again, not for the timid, but inverting one’s thinking requires openness and a willingness to grow in this area. Adding new beliefs allows for a deeper understanding and increased awareness of precisely what is going on around us. For engineers especially, I have found that once this is established, they can start innovating, creating, and performing at high levels. The obstacle that was blocking them is removed, and they are able to resolve the cognitive dissonance that previously served as an obstacle to progress.
Reduce the importance of the beliefs, attitudes, “cognition.” Take a step back and evaluate the long-term significance of the very granular issues we often feel are impacting our mental health and how we deal with work. There is something to be said for the approach many people outside of tech take regarding their careers. Here are some actual actions that can be taken to help gain some perspective:
- Volunteer to work with underprivileged humans regularly – there is a lot of squishy positive things that can be said for volunteering. The key here to gain a real perspective is to get involved at a nonsuperficial level. Volunteering for a project or an afternoon is lovely and maybe an excellent way to start, but the long-term commitment keeps things front and center for a much more significant time. This changes a person, not just triggers an emotion.
- Expand your circle to include people from many industries outside of tech. Sometimes just hearing and knowing what modern work cultures are like can provide some perspective to the challenges a person is currently facing. It may even trigger more ideas and a bit of cross-pollination for others to consider improving, changing their work cultures. Getting to know others, not like ourselves, is always an excellent way to grow.
- Take time off! No, seriously, take some time off of work at least two weeks – consecutively in a row. While taking the time, you could work on the first two bullets of volunteering and expanding your circle. Perhaps checking in with a long-lost friend or family member. Reconnecting and strengthening a bond with someone you have not spoken to in some time. Paying closer attention to those around you every day.
The idea here is that you are getting outside of your own mind, self, and worries. Choosing to walk away from negative attachments to transient things that block progress, advancement, and opportunity. In some way, this could resolve the recurring dissonance we experience working in tech and possibly even providing a healthier approach to many things in life. The idea is that we remain working in an industry we know we are passionate about that has a long future and plenty to contribute while keeping a healthy perspective and approach to it. After all, we are in this for the long haul – burnout is not an option.
This is the way.
Sources I either copied and/or inspired my thought process:
- 7 Habits of High Effective People – FranklinCovey
- Change Any Habit Painlessly: 6 Tips by Jeff Haden
- Simply Psychology “Cognitive Dissonance” by Saul McLeod
- The ONE Thing by Gary Keller, Jay Papason