Fears

May 12, 2015

I’m afraid of a lot of things. Or, I’m often afraid of things. I have some issues with anxiety. The anxieties aren’t constantly in my way; they’re more like electric fences that keep me in line. I can go through my everyday life without thinking of them, but when I venture outside what I’m comfortable with I start to get crackles of sparks down my spine and in the pit of my stomach, and then usually I back away. So the anxiety doesn’t have to get very intense: it does its job by merely hinting.

The monsters in my Anxiety Closet are only trying to be helpful, really, only trying to keep me safe. To put it in terms of moody ‘80s pop music: if you go to a club and you leave on your own and you cry and you want to die, you might in the future come up with good reasons not to go and repeat that disaster. Even if it just happened once, years and years ago. But as the same source put it a few years later, shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.

Last week I went to a conference, CocoaConf. It was in Portland, nominally speaking, although all I saw was the airport (nice carpet!) and the hotel a mile away. I think I spent five minutes in the outside air. But the conference! It was very nice, small-scale, and amateurish in the best way, i.e. people doing what they did for love more than money. The atmosphere was inclusive and safe, and maybe for this reason it had significantly more women attendees and speakers than other tech conferences I’ve been to. There were many excellent talks: some laser-focused on interesting tech topics I immediately bookmarked (VIPER! Reactive Cocoa!) and some that meandered like rivers without immediately making it clear where they were going (Korean plosive phonemes? A visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem?) but ended up at very satisfying destinations. None of the talks made me feel like my time was being wasted, which is more than I can say of WWDC.

And there was my talk too. Not as high profile, just a half hour at lunchtime as a perk of of my employer being a sponsor. And not as philosophical, since said employer flew me there to talk specifically about the product I work on. Now, I confess that I sometimes brag about how public speaking doesn’t faze me at all anymore, not since I presented in front of 3,000 developers at WWDC or recited Wordsworth before the crowned heads of Europe or whatever. It’s basically true (the not being fazed, not the Wordsworth), and it’s a thought that makes me feel good because it shows that I can learn, and that in particular I can learn social things that don’t come naturally to me. I’ve become the type of highly evolved introvert who can for limited periods of time convincingly imitate an extrovert.

Except … this talk was seriously giving me the heebie-jeebies. For at least a week beforehand. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was mostly because it was expected to be largely a demo. As anyone who works in software knows, live demos are dangerous. (A marketing manager I once worked with in the ‘90s had a demo crash spectacularly on her at a very important trade show, and literally fainted dead away onstage like a Victorian heroine.) Of course, you can reduce the risk by demoing stable, well-tested software. So I started coding my demo app a full week before, and kept tinkering with it even in my hotel room. And you should always, always run through the entire demo from start to finish during practice. So I made sure not to do that: I only tested it in bits and pieces.

Why didn’t I follow Demo Best Practices like a logical worker bee? Because I was anxious! The thought of running through the whole demo to find a bug made me think of the prospect of the demo bombing onstage. “But Jens,” you say, “that’s not the same thing. If you find the bug in practice, no one laughs at you and you get to fix it before you do it for real.” If only anxiety worked that way – most often the part of oneself that’s anxious is like a small child and doesn’t do very well at logical reasoning. It simply jumps to the idea of failing in public and pulls the plug on anything that resembles that idea, even practicing.

(There’s also an element of a common developer syndrome that I’m sure has a clever name I don’t know: when you’ve built something yourself and you know what its weak spots are, you start subconsciously avoiding those weak spots. It’s like building a house and knowing that the 3rd step on the staircase has a dodgy plank in it, so you skip that step whenever you use the stairs. Or it’s like that Far Side cartoon where the suburban family has a crocodile pit in the middle of their living room but everyone just knows to avoid it. This is a key reason why it’s so difficult to QA your own code.)

I was getting really freaked out by this talk. Two days before I left for the conference I called in sick and spent a long time in bed trying not to wake up. This helped a lot, actually; at least I felt much more rested afterwards and got most of my slides done. And on the first day of the conference I retreated back to my hotel room after lunch and took a longer-than-necessary nap. Then that night of course I stayed up late futzing with the slides and the demo code. But still not running the demo all the way through.

By now it will be pure anticlimax to reveal that the demo didn’t work perfectly. Almost all of it went fine … just not the part that replicated the data between the two instances of the database, which is probably the most important feature I was showing off. So there I was, up on stage in front of thousands dozens of people, poking at the computer trying and failing to get the data from window A to magically show up in window B.

But!! I didn’t swoon. The earth did not open up and swallow me. The audience didn’t boo, nor did Nelson Muntz stand up and laugh at me. Everyone remained patient, and I felt sort of annoyed and disappointed with myself. Then I worked around the problem and continued with the demo and finished the talk. People applauded, and a few good questions were asked. The end.

The moral of the story is that often the thing you are (OK, I am) afraid of isn’t nearly as unpleasant as the prior worrying was. And that worrying about the bad thing can actively make the bad thing more likely to occur. (That’s two morals. You get one free.)

And the happy ending [doesn’t that traditionally come before the moral? —Ed.] is that, now that the talk is over, I feel much better – not just because I don’t have it hanging over me, but because it seems like I’ve worked through something inside, that I’ve made some headway on subduing my fears. I’m not naïve enough to think this will magically be permanent, but it’s something to build on. Every few years I realize that I’ve been in a rut, and do something to get out of it; it’s time to do that. I’ve been isolating myself in a lot of ways, so now I come out and face the world again. Hello, world.