Saturday, May 27, 2017

Malformed objects: Despair, Imposter Syndrome, and Value

I try not to discuss specific details of my life, but this is important to the topic. I spent a little over 5 years working at Google, which is consistently touted as the best company ever and only hires the smarted people. I also was diagnosed with clinical depression during my time at Google.

I noticed a fair number of my co-workers were like me in that they appreciated positive feedback and collaborative efforts. But most of us are not as good at offering positive feedback, and most collaborative tasks were not well rewarded. This left me in an unfulfilled state, with this valley between my emotional needs and my tangible rewards. Were this the only factor, I think it would be tolerable, and I think that's where some of the modern workers end up.

But for me, the valley led to despair. It opened up a deeper wound of feeling insufficient. And all the initial validation from getting a job at "the best company on Earth" suddenly became an unshakable noose around my neck. I had to remain a Googler, I had to impress everyone, because if I didn't, what was I? I would be a failure. If I left, I would have to hang my head in shame as someone who couldn't live up to the measure of "smartest" and identify as a member of "the best company." Amidst some of the hardest emotional and spiritual conflicts of my life, I was shackled to this identity to validate my existence.

At Google, I was first introduced to the concept of Imposter Syndrome [ ]. It was eye-opening, because it was like the other side of the coin of depression. Depression told me I was insufficient, but I still had my job to try and counteract that. But through fighting depression with this work identity, I made the job my functional savior, and relied on praise and validation there to keep me buoyant. And like any addiction, I needed more and more praise to sustain the feeling.

What's also debilitating was that I felt worthless. Like my contributions were all false, flukes, and any moment people would see through the charade and realize the emperor was wearing no clothes. I even remember thinking that I didn't have Imposter Syndrome at first, because people who have it are competent, and I certainly wasn't competent. I think it's worth noting that I still feel this. It's a constant battle, and most days my internal narrator tells me that "you are not good enough at anything to have this, it's only for people who are skilled. You are stressed out because you know you are a charlatan."

If you search online for Imposter Syndrome, you'll find many articles about the topic. The struggle between a workplace demanding all your talent and a self drive to be the best you possibly can is draining, but it's in some ways reassuring that I'm not alone in this fight. Here's an article from my latest search, which does well to outline the negative internal voices, and some useful thoughts to hold on to:

The feeling also preys upon the desire to be the hero of the story. To "save the day," to be recognized as a household name and change the world so dramatically that everyone remembers and loves and worships my memory. It's a modern selfism, but also reminds me of what I was taught of the story of Beowulf. That the legendary deeds elevated him to a high status, and he would be remembered forever. His amazing deeds, retold in story, is was gave him immortality. Isn't that what I aspire to? Is that not what all tech workers aim for? Become immortalized through the power of achieving and the things we want, at being the best and having everyone agree.

As an imposter, especially one at Google, I watched my coworkers write articles features in the news, make programs that millions of users loved, speak at major conferences and events, and write books. All the while, I learned, and worked, and tried to do a good job, but never accomplished miracles. I was surrounded by technological immortals, and I was dirt. I felt I brought the whole collective down with my very presence there. Every day I'd stare in the mirror and ask myself "what could you possibly accomplish that would be worthwhile?" Actually, my internal dialogue was very caustic, but this is the basic concept. And that's primarily why I left Google.

A caveat: I feel it is also worth noting that I fear I have perceived Imposter Syndrome but that it's actually Dunning–Kruger effect [ ]. The simple explanation of that one is that I am far less competent than I think I am. Or, I believe I am superior when I am actually inferior.

Investigating Self-Worth

Leaving aside the assessment of what malady I have for the moment, let's dissect the general topic.

Imposter Syndrome and Despair/Depression are here byproducts of feeling like a broken tool. Using the object model I've used in previous articles, this is like a malformed object. Previously I mentioned corruption, and this is another form. The object should derive it's value from it's inheritance tree, and has a set of methods (also called functions, or an established way of accomplishing a task) that it uses to validate and interact. In this case, the calls are not returning properly, or the object no longer has the correct methods and therefore the results are flawed. Imposter syndrome is like a method that checks for the value of the work done, but always returns "false," or "you failed." Dunning-Kruger is like one that always returns "true" and "you succeeded" regardless of the outcome. It's almost a delusional state, because the object has a view of the status of the world that doesn't actually match the state of the world. Or, as from my experience, the flaw is not necessarily in the returned value, but in the comparison.

Just like objects in programming, you cannot compare two object to assert equality. And therefore comparison is also inexact if you try to analyze two different objects. The despair comes from comparing myself to others around me on a single axis, like publishing books or giving presentations, and determines I am not as well known, therefore I am insufficient. Insufficiency is akin to being worthless, or a failure, depending on the person.

But we're much more complicated objects and usually have some form of error correction, so where is the error correction here? In this case, if the object is sufficiently malformed, the correction cannot come from inside itself. So I cannot repair myself. If I were on my own, then this is the ultimate end, and as a damaged object my depression and despair would be correct in saying I'm worthless. But I'm not a standalone object, I'm part of a much bigger system. And these external objects have repair methods that can be used on my object, restoring me to functionality, or at least providing correction for the damaged pieces. Like a splint on a broken leg, this correction is external to the body but helps it repair, and restore functionality.

In the humanistic sense, society is that error correction. My friends and family act as that correction. If my work valuation method is diminished, then I can solicit my friends and family for valuation to augment the broken method. If those checks are working properly, it means there is a holistic definition of value I should be using. In the Instance of Eric case, my writing and my friendship with others are what people have told me helps measure my value. I contribute meaningfully to the lives of others, and even if I can't sense that, I see others around me who all agree. Therefore I can use their input to offset the dysfunctional internal voice I have.

In the spiritual sense, Christianity offers an even more augmented view by saying God gives us a new identity in Jesus, who made a new method for us to check our value. And unlike Dunning-Kruger where the result was true even if the value was not, this one returns true each time because God is setting a value for us externally to our object. (Or, we inherit from the object that always returns true. You can read my other post about that if you want a different way of describing it.) Paul writes in Galatians 3 a description that I like, about "putting on Christ" as though it's a covering, or in one of my favorite programming terms, "a layer of obfuscation." 

So my error handling to offset depression and workaholism is seeking valuation from additional sources, and looking for a quorum. I share this to help anyone reading it to hopefully battle these self worth struggles and know that you don't suffer alone. That's an important one for depression, but that's an even longer topic I hope to address later.