Friday, October 30, 2015

You're not indispensable (except when you are)

When Jesse Noller's essay explaining why he had essentially left his software community made it to the top of Hacker News, I read it with great interest.

Noller was one of the pillars of the community, but by pouring all his time and energy into the community, he neglected his marriage and family, and ultimately lost both of them.

Here's a passage that really struck home for me:
"You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless. 
I stole time from my family, from work, from everything. I stole it from me, I gave time, emotion and empathy freely to anything and everyone. 
My values - what I should have been caring about - were, putting it bluntly, completely and totally fucked.
Online communities are an interesting animal; they’ve given me so much, and I’ve made friends all over the world. It’s opened career doors and more for me, it’s supported me when I’m or my family was down. 
However, “community” is not the gift that keeps on giving, it is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. If you don’t set clear and absolute boundaries, it will drain you dry and move on. 
I see the warning signs that were posted all over now, looking back. A good friend and mentor warned me, Dusty, my now ex-wife was telling me. The fact I had a rough relationship with my oldest daughter was telling me. All the signs were there. 
Take, take, take, give, give, give - for what? To change the world? Can a programming community change the world? Can it hug you when you’re sitting alone at night on the couch staring at a black TV? The friends you make, if you can touch them, can. 
Otherwise, No. 
Will it raise your daughters or be there for your wife? 
No. 
That was my job; and I bombed."
When I was a young employee of D. E. Shaw, I never took any vacation time, despite having an unlimited vacation policy.  I always felt I was too "indispensable" to be away from the office.

Of course, when I got the chicken pox, and was quarantined at home for two weeks (several of my co-workers hadn't had the disease, and during the Dark Ages, there was no chicken pox vaccine), the company somehow managed anyway.

It is very rare that you're truly indispensable at work, even if you're a founder CEO.  If you are, you've done a piss-poor job of building your management team.

In contrast, you truly are indispensable at home.  No number of nannies, cleaners, tutors, and other helpers can substitute for having a husband, a wife, a father, or a mother present.

There is a famous quote that most of you have heard that seems appropriate here.  It was spoken by Brian Dyson as part of a graduation speech at Georgia Tech in 1991:
"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air. 
You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same."
You're not indispensable.  Except when you are.