please scream outside your heart
on silent burnout, our unhealthy obsession with certainty and validation, and the gap between the outer image of a career and the inner reality
I have written many rewrites to get this letter to you. The uncertainty and burnout that I know many of us feel right now is lonely and frightening. It startles me still—writing candidly about my own silent burnout and fear of uncertainty, heightened by the unhealthy ways I’ve been programmed (in large part, by the technology I use) to make the uncertain certain, to validate the parts of me that feel invalid. Still, I write, because I believe writing is a sword that can cut through the darkness, because I believe that too many of us, particularly tech professionals, are suffering in silence, and because I believe we shouldn’t have to navigate through the uncertainty and burnout alone.
At the start of 2021, I felt disconnected from my body, wondering whether I had deliberately shut down my nervous system to protect myself from feeling the pain of anxiety. After all, the first week of January was anything but chill, joining a union in my workplace and watching an insurrection unfold, live! from the mutating backdrop of covid. For much of the year, I stared blankly into screens, advocating for changes within big tech (where a common point of division was that we couldn’t agree that we all held too much power), while simultaneously advocating for changes within my family (where the one point that united us was that we all agreed big tech holds too much power!) I thrashed between the screens, caught in the middle of the hellshow called the United States. I knew that I needed to take care of myself, but I didn’t always know how to take care of myself. How do you seek support when everyone around you is suffering in their own quiet way?
In July, I resigned from my role as a Design Lead at Google, a privilege to say for many reasons, and a decision I had been toiling over for two years. (A familiar toiling that Former Google VP Jessica Powell experienced–Am I really googling how to leave my job at Google?) After carving a plan to get out of the toiling, a five-year chapter came to an end, one that started with me strapping into a roller coaster, wide-eyed and terrified, then it became exhilarating and fun as I traveled the world! Presented on stages! Learned from incredible people! Told that I had the coolest! job! ever! and I did! But that only makes it worse when the track takes a turn, and when it did, I returned right back where I started, my hair whipped in every direction. When it was time to get off the ride, I hit the resignation button (there is, actually, a button) and on a warm, bright sunny day, I stepped inside a vacant, dimly lit,
Spirit Halloween office, returned my badge and laptop, and drove away, screaming out loud in the car for the first time in years.
I became a tumbleweed blowing in The Great Resignation wind, one that I anticipate will keep blowing beyond 2021. The moment I resigned, I instantly lost touch with a lot of people I cared about and it surfaced more grief than I expected. Grief is an important note that is missing from The Great Resignation discourse, and to the people I’m still in touch with, I’m grateful, more than you know. In the weeks that followed, there were a lot of people who were quite curious to know why I resigned, from old friends to news reporters to my gynecologist, who inquired about my decision as she spread my numb body out like a spider on a cold hospital table. “May I ask…” she started to say, peering her eyes over her glasses, “Did you leave for ethical reasons?” But the most surprising moment was when I shared the news with my mom, cracking the ice between us. “Oh, good!” she replied, cheerily. “We were afraid to tell you, but we’ve been using DuckDuckGo for a while now!”
In the loneliest hours of 2021, I listened, on repeat, to a modern remix of the song ‘Freedom,’ by Christine and the Queens, originally written and performed by the late, great George Michael. He wrote the song after growing weary of the pressures of the music industry and fame, reckoning with the dissonance between the outer image of his career and the inner reality, which struck a chord inside my own screaming heart. In 1990, he told the Los Angeles Times, "At some point in your career, the situation between yourself and the camera reverses. For a certain number of years, you court it and you need it, but ultimately, it needs you more and it's a bit like a relationship. The minute that happens, it turns you off...and it does feel like it is taking something from you." Bless you, brilliant ghost of George Michael past, for helping me take these lies and make them true somehow!
At times, the anxiety and grief still lingers (but hey, at least I can feel again?) and I’m more triggered than ever by LinkedIn. (Why am I still using this hellsite?) But it is one of the better decisions I’ve made, not only for myself, but hopefully, even if in small ways, for others, as I redistribute my labor, creativity, and energy in a new direction of service. Two days after resigning, I participated in a writer’s workshop with publisher Tin House, a vibe that helped me unlock a new level of consciousness that is hard to find in the underworld of tech. I’ve partnered with organizations to lead UX strategy on projects related to financial inclusion and land restoration. I’m crafting new coursework, one called ‘Design in a World of Chaos and Uncertainty,’ which I’ll be teaching at universities next year and hope to teach at workplaces, too. I’m learning how to take care of a new puppy who still loves to chew on all of my technology. I’m learning how to reconnect with my family in healthier ways. I’m learning how to swim again, reclaiming a connection to every muscle in my body. But most of all, I’m learning how to take care of myself and recognize what I’m truly capable of, lessons I couldn’t see in the silent tunnel of burnout.
I’m not endorsing that you should quit your job or leave big tech or sell your company, but I believe there’s an opportunity for us to unlearn the harmful ways we’ve been programmed to navigate uncertainty and burnout. I know that I’ve been programmed, maybe you have too, to obsessssss over the uncertainty, hammering away at it as the burnout slowly creeps in. It’s no wonder that this would be the case in late-stage-surveillance-capitalism, when the driving force of many tech products we use and create hinge on providing certainty–more specifically, on providing data–and helping you make sense of that data so you can feel more certain. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is power, but I can’t help but wonder, are we paying enough attention to how an over-reliance on certainty, the constant quest to be in-the-know, might be causing paranoia? Perhaps enough to make us forget how to navigate uncertainty in healthier ways?
How many followers do you have on Instagram? Do you know the exact number? Why was there a decrease in the number of followers yesterday? Who was it that unfollowed you? Who was it that gave you a negative review? How many times did your subscribers click that link you shared? When did they click it? How many times did they click it? How many users joined the platform yesterday? Why was there a dip in engagement between December 9 and December 10? Did you see my post about that time I donated a kidney? If you saw it, why didn’t you like it? Bloody hell, are people really unsubscribing from your tool or content because it needs more data? Or because that tool or content creator is obsessively asking these questions? Mom says it’s the latter.
Across the tech industry, I suspect that, deep inside our screaming tech worker hearts, most of us know this madness needs to change, but we burn out trying to change it. We bring back the ghost of Albert Einstein, dressing up our bios and pitch decks with the phrase, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts!” But at the end of the day, we only pay attention to what we can measure because that’s what we're paid to do. We try to navigate uncertainty by conducting experiments, but that experiment better fucking work, or your chances for promotion will dwindle. It is only when a launch is successful that we give ourselves the permission to talk about our failures. We promise to iterate on a solution, but there’s no time to iterate, the engineers must be writing code at all times which means that the deadline to send in final designs or product requirements documents is already past due before you even started. If you’re an engineer, there’s no time to build what’s been designed, and even less time to explain to your cross-functional partners why it’s not feasible to build right now. Even when conducting ambiguous research like forecasting what the next TikTok will be or demystifying Gen Z (spoiler alert: they think you’re trying too hard), there is that inevitable moment when the most influential person in the room, strained with their own immense pressures, leans into the
table screen and asks, “But what are the iNSigHTs that will stand the test of time?” To which I imagine clearing my throat, pressing that hot red unmute button, and asking, “How much time do we even have left on this burning planet? Does any of this matter?”
We run, as fast as we can, from uncertainty, because it unearths the deepest fears about ourselves, puncturing straight to the heart of our imposter syndromes like a needle to a balloon. I have feared, and still fear, that I can’t afford to come across as uncertain, because there’s people who are looking to me for an immediate solution, because I have about thirty seconds in this meeting to be curious and ask questions before I get interrupted, because I’ve seen when the courageous statement ‘I’m not sure about this’ gets translated into feedback like, “if you had heightened confidence, you could have more impact.” (Are you screaming out loud yet?) I’m exhausted from all the ways that people–especially women and AFAB people, BIPOC people, queer and trans people, disabled and neurodivergent people–are told they need to be more confident. It is dangerous to assume that practicing curiosity, humility, and honesty in the face of uncertainty are traits that can’t add value to a greater goal. (There are books out there that demonstrate how it’s more effective to celebrate our strengths rather than telling people they need more confidence.) Through all of this strife, is it truly the uncertainty that leads to the burnout, or is it our hell bent control to make things certain, to project an image of positivity and confidence at all times?
To unlearn these harmful patterns, I suppose it starts with recognizing the cause and effect of it all. The more I rely on certainty (and validation), the more I focus on satisfying the urge for more of it. The more I seek to satisfy the urge, the more singular my focus becomes. The more singular my focus, the more distracted I get on efforts that satisfy my own urge, but may not be the best contribution for all of us. The more distracted I get, the more disconnected I become from the world around me. The more disconnected I become, the smaller my world gets. The smaller my world gets, the more rigid my perspective. The more rigid my perspective, the more I lose my imagination. The more I lose my imagination, the more frightened I am. The more frightened I am, the less I live.
Luckily, I haven’t lost my imagination yet, so here goes. I imagine a future with more leaders like Timnit Gebru who are designing new structures to redistribute power and knowledge. I imagine a healthier balance between the things we know and the things we cannot, and maybe shouldn’t, know. I imagine an industry that isn’t afraid to recognize when an obsession over certainty and validation may cause harm, both in the technology we create and within ourselves. I imagine an incentive structure that actively rewards learning from our failures. I imagine a process where everyone on the team spends more time listening than producing. I imagine a time when you and I are doing our best work (four days a week!) because we’re living our most true life.
I have hope that what I imagine for this industry is not far from reality, and that in some spaces, a renewed practice is already sprouting. Even after experiencing burnout with the music industry, George Michael remarked, “I still believe that music is one of the greatest gifts…” Burnout doesn’t always lead to despair, but if we’re not careful, it’s easy for the burnout to become despair, especially when we’re navigating through it alone. I hope that in 2022, you’re screaming outside your heart, and that as you identify a way forward, while it may be frightening and uncertain, may it also be, perhaps, liberating.
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