July 25-27, 2018 / Vancouver, BC

You Matter More Than The Cause - Jeff Eaton

September 7, 2016

Speaker - Jeff Eaton

What could be better than doing work that you believe *really matters?* Whether you’re pulling all-nighters for a new startup, burning the midnight oil on the project of your dreams, or helping launch a candidate into public office, it’s hard to beat the thrill of making a difference.

That passion has a dark side, though: When everyone’s giving 110%, the margin for error vanishes and the potential for burnout skyrockets. In this talk, we’ll look at the ways inspiring missions and the best intentions can backfire, learn to recognize the danger signs, and discuss how to protect ourselves and our teams.

Transcription coming soon

Hi. If anybody is curious, by the way, that’s Andrew Jackson up in the corner. For those who aren’t familiar with US history, he’s one of the worst humans ever. Just putting that out there. So naturally we put him on our $20 bill.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: He’s coming off. Not for long.

Yes! Yeah, so I won’t get into that. But yeah, the title of this — I do a little bit of a bait and switch, because the — I think the published title was, “We’re making a difference, one project at a time.”

But the actual title that I put on the slide was, “You Matter More Than The Cause.” And this is a little bit of a departure for me, because usually I’m talking about tech stuff or talking about digital strategy or I’m waving my arms vigorously and talking about content models at a bar. But this is not about technology in any way.

As Steve so wonderfully said, I’m @eaton, I work for a company called Lullabot. If you want to heckle me or disagree with me or whatever, I’m @eaton on Twitter.

And I think one of the cool things about this event and the work that we do and the kinds of things that we grapple with in the world of content, the world of design, in the world of digital products and stuff like that, is that the work really matters. Like whether we’re trying to figure out how to make sense of huge amounts of data and communicate things to people clearly so that they can learn and get insights, not just, you know, a pile of numbers, whether we’re, you know, helping people, you know, make sense of, you know, insane corporate, you know, jargon, and turn it into meaningful communication that, like, mortals can actually make sense of, or — one of my favorite projects in the past several years is to see, was what the UK government did.

They made a website that took the kinds of disciplines that we’re all a part of and made it much easier for an entire nation of people to engage with their government. Like, that’s huge! That’s like this super hero stuff that we were talking about yesterday. This is meaning, and this is purpose. And the intersection of the things that we work on together, those things really matter, and that’s what brings us here, and you know, I’ve always been very, very motivated by that sense of broader purpose. That’s actually me, at I think age 4 or 5. I took the super hero very, very seriously.

But! And this is a big but. There’s always a but to something like this. All the awesome power that meaning and purpose and especially a community of other like-minded people who are driving towards the same thing and supporting each other and encouraging each other and all heading towards those goals, there’s — there can be a real dark side to that, because — and to be clear I’m not just talking about a problem of like industries and business, like, making fake meaning and fake purpose and you know, hey, we can totally make the world better by making it incrementally easier in San Francisco to get takeout three seconds faster. OK, sure.

I’m talking about what happens when real genuine mission and purpose and chew meaning chews us up.

And this is something that’s near and dear to my heart. Because it’s something that affected me and people that I love and care about and that I’m in community with. I, like, probably more than a decade ago, now that I think about it, which is terrifying, I joined a really large project. It wasn’t as large then as it is now. But it was really cool. Because it was a bunch of people getting together and making stuff. Solving their own problems, but then seeing problems that other people had, and figuring out how they could just make the tools better so that everybody could go out and do more great stuff. It was super-super awesome. We even have like a cool origin story, how you know, the dorm room where the first version got cobbled together by a couple of students, and we had a somewhat charismatic, you know, figurehead founder and, you know, everybody says this about, like, you know, tech or business or whatever, but we had like a real legit community, like, you know, somebody I know, their laptop got stolen out of their car and this entire community rallied together and like just chipped in and bought this person a new laptop, just because you know, that’s how we roll.

[5:00]

It was so wonderful, so cool, and over time, over the years, like this really took off. The stuff that we were building, the stuff that we were making, more and more organizations started getting on board, more people started getting excited about it, conferences that we organized started growing radically, like the first one was like literally 12 people in the basement of a bar and we were like oh, we got to figure out how to do a conference for like 3,000 you know, this is big. And by that time, there were hundreds of volunteers, no, thousands of volunteers, all contributing time. It had grown to the point where they were people that their full-time jobs was working on this stuff and was awesome.

That’s actually a good friend of mine who’s one of the shine pillars of this community. And she is, I believe, screaming, I love this, as that picture was taken. The problem is, with that sort of camp-up, that like growth and all the momentum and everyone getting excited about how much of a difference we were making, the tension, the pressure that goes along with that, grows just as much, and as those tensions and pressures start to grow, there’s a lot of just human fault lines that can start to appear. You know, how are we going to do all of this stuff that needs to be done? Suddenly, as you know, your scope widens and the impact that you think you could have gets bigger, there’s so much work that goes along with that and you start asking questions, well, how are you working for the next version of the project? Are you going to be there for the all-night sprint that we’re pulling, and things like that and especially the organizations where there’s a lot of volunteer staff and paid staff. There is well, why are they getting paid to do this thing that I’m like doing on nights and weekends and then the paid staff well, hey, it must be a luxury to go off and stop doing it because you’re tired because you’re volunteer. This is my job. I’ got to keep this going. Nobody really intends it to be contentious like that, but it’s part of that pressure.

And over time, this kind of pressure generates really predictable responses and predictable patterns. The 110% people, you know, the ones who supernaturally can stay up for 18 hours a day and pound out work and catch a cat nap and wake up and have some coffee and go back at it again, those people become the lauded heroes of the community. Healthy boundaries start getting rarer and rarer and rarer, and in the worst case, sometimes you know, when people do exercise healthy boundaries like hey, I’ve got to go home, I’ve got to take a break, I’m getting fried here, it almost feels like betrayal. It’s like, man, why are they bailing out? We want to get this out the door, why are they taking the day off? And sometimes people burn out. That’s something we’ve seen of people. I’m just going to go collapse for like 6 months, I can’t do this again.

But then more of the people who are still there, they’ve got to pick up the slack, because things keep rolling, and looming over all this work is this cause. The meaning, the purpose, the whole reason why everybody was so stoked about getting into it in the first place. And if you stop to breathe, you’re not just pausing and you’re not just maybe falling a little behind on your work, you’re letting the team down. You’re letting other people who care about this mission down, and if you take a break, you’re not just leaving the work, you’re leaving us.

And if you leave, and you say, hey, I can’t do this anymore, I’ve got to take some time off, you’re leaving the cause behind. You’re leaving the meaning behind, and for some of us, well what got difficult was, that was leaving identity behind. Because when so much of us got, you know, so much of me got wrapped up in what we were accomplishing, this big picture, leaving that behind wasn’t just like leaving behind a particular set of tasks, it was leaving behind meaning and something that had really given shape and purpose and direction to the stuff that I did.

So, plot twist! I haven’t actually been talking about Drupal, the open source project that I joined. I’ve actually been talking about a job that I had before that. I was the webmaster for Willow Creek Church in Illinois. It’s one of the largest megachurches in North America. And it curiously enough, had a lot of the same dynamics. It’s a lot of, you know, similar background, like it was founded in the 1970s, in a movie theater. One of those churches.

[10:00]

It was the first — one of the first churches in North America that decided they were going to focus on people that didn’t go to church instead of saying, let’s make a church for church people, how about why aren’t people going to church? What could we do differently? What could do we do to make something special for. And it was a couple of 20-something kids who got together and started to do this, and now 20,000 people show up for their Easter service every year. When they decided they wanted to do an event where they got the whole congregation together, they had to rent out a stadium, which was just nutty, but — um, and they do really, really cool and important and amazing stuff. Not just churching, but like they’ve got so many people, they can do things like, well, who’s got a beater car that you don’t need and who’s an auto mechanic?

How about we just start repairing cars and giving them to single moms in the Chicago land area. That’s the kind of stuff they can do at that scale. They can do that, they can say, hey, we can set up a homeless shelter. They can throw huge amounts of folks at it and interestingly enough, they have the same kind of volunteer breakdown that that open source program did. Something like 20 to 1 ratio passionate volunteers and people who are on staff and they’ve got a huge well oiled machine to keep that pipeline of volunteers flowing and make sure that people get training in the stuff that they’re going to be doing and the thing is that it all matters so much. They’re doing good stuff. How do you say? Oh, I’m really tired. I don’t think single moms should get cars this week. I want to do Pokémon Go!

As a side note, “the Scientology Center is a great place to stock up on Poké Balls” is not a phrase I expected to say in 2016. But the interesting thing is it’s the same dynamic, because over all of this just work, is the mission. This thing that matters so much. Forget powering of web. We were literally talking about saving people’s souls and like getting people fed and it matters, like how do you say no, I want to sleep in today. How do you say, eh, I’m just not feeling it today when that’s the kind of stuff that’s on the line. We can’t.

And the thing is if you’re on the side of you know, the person who’s still showing up every day, it’s really hard to think, you know, man, if you didn’t help set up chairs, you just don’t love Jesus. Yeah, I can now pick out immediately who grew up in a small church. It’s like, yeah, chairs matter. And the thing is, is like at its best, this is something that’s self-imposed. It’s a kind of guilt that we carry around, because we care a lot about this mission and we want to do — and we want to help it. And at its worst, it’s something that it can be deliberately exploited by people who are you know nine levels up the chain and trying to wrangle the giant system and keep it rolling and they just want to make sure stuff keeps getting done and that can be exploited. Not just people are terrible, but because this is — well, it’s super-predictable. Because this is a human problem. The thing is this is not a problem for open source projects.

This is not a problem for churches. This is something that you see in like activist organizations, in political campaigns, in open source projects, in startups, in community theaters, you know, I mean anywhere where these kinds of dynamics are going on. The mission can really, really be a double-edged sword. The author, Christopher Hedges even says in his book war is a force that gives us meaning. He makes a strong case that this big overarching mission, something that gives us something bigger to be a part of is one of the reason that people’s passion for conflict at like a large scale is so easy to stoke, because it gives us something bigger to be a part of.

And this is heartbreaking, it is completely friggin’ heartbreaking, because the common factor here isn’t a particular kind of person or a particular kind of project. It’s a thing that’s bigger than everyday life. A purpose that is bigger than just clocking in and fixing bugs or getting a new wireframe out the door. Because those things can inspire us, they can motivate us, they can unite us and they can encourage us when the odds are long and the hours are long. But it can really bite, too. It’s interesting that I was doing some research when like burnout was a big topic in the Drupal community and it turns out that like four of the careers that are most at risk for burnout are social workers, doctors, teachers, and nurses.

[15:00]

And it’s fascinating, because those are all, like, missional work. You know? They’re things where caring about other people, and trying to build other people’s lives and help them, is literally the job. And that — that aspect of it can be really difficult.

The thing is that what’s rough is that it’s not that these people have been fooled. It’s not that we’re just pretending the work we do matters. Again, you know, if it’s all we were doing was, you know, making it incrementally easier to order takeout for, you know, the Bay Area, not having order takeout in the Bay Area, I’m not knocking it, it’s not that we’re fooling ourselves. These things do genuinely matter. How can I stop saving lives because I would like a vacation? How do I stop fixing bugs in the product I’m about to ship just because I want to see my son this weekend? How do I stop when the whole team depends on me? My friends who I care about?

The thing that’s really important to keep in mind is that even if we’re saving lives, even if we are literally making the difference between, you know, life and death for someone, taking care of ourselves matters just as much.

And I mean that’s — that’s a really difficult statement to make, because that’s hard to say that without feeling kind of like an asshole. But that’s one of the reasons that it’s so important for us to talk about this, because your health and wellbeing as a person, as an individual, matters even more, than your contribution to the mission. And one of the things that I was talking to a good friend about this, you know, during their time of huge burnout and existential crisis over this, the thing that I kept coming back to, if this project we’re working on can’t live without you if it can’t live without you burning yourself up to get it out the door, this project deserves to die.

It’s just OK. It failed. If the alternative is you burning up as a person, yeah, it’s not as important. so one of the things that I started thinking about, a couple of friends in these communities. We started talking a lot, is how do we break these cycles if it’s such a predictable pattern, if it happens all over the place, what kind of things can we do as individuals to start turning that knob away from burning people up to ship stuff?

How do we put out this giant tire fire? Like a lot of things, we do it on a very personal level and usually it’s with the people that we’re right next to. One of the things that came up a lot was, don’t glorify death marches, you know, that process of, you know, oh, hey, we’re late, and it really needs to get out by Wednesday, let’s not sleep. Let’s just do it. Yay, it will be fun, it will be like college.

Always a bad sign. Like my first real like tech job was like, right during like the last three and a half minutes of the dot-come boom working for a consultancy, and I remember thinking that it was so awesome that people were like sleeping under the desk. It’s hard core, they give you like Hot Pockets, and you know, my office has a futon and this is sweet, wow, no. The thing was that that kind of stuff was actually masking bad planning, understaffing, burnout, and you know, the sort of glorious bravado and machismo that came with that kind of overextending ourselves on a constant basis was really bad, and what I started learning was, those kinds of death march scenarios need to be a grave moment to reassess as a team, not a woohoo!! Nobody slept, we did it, yay! Don’t glorify them, even when they happen, don’t act like it’s some sort of glorious battle that was won. It was we managed to dodge a bullet, but we’ve got to make that not happen again.

[20:00]

And similarly, it’s when people on the team do exercise healthy boundaries and they do say hey, I can’t do this, I got to take a break, I’ve got to take a breather, we can’t punish that. And that’s really hard, especially if you’re one of the people who says, no, I can do this. Let’s stay in, and then one of your teammates says, yeah, no, I’m tagging out. It’s really hard not to push back and say, what gives? I’m not sleeping. It’s funny, a friend of mine, we — in a glorious display of optimism, seven of us decided we were going to write a book about Drupal together.

Haha! Wow! And we are still friends. That’s the best part. But during like one of the final deadline pushes, one of us like took a break and went out for the day and he saw a movie with his girlfriend and I was talking with my other friend and she was like, man, this suck, I’m resenting my friend for seeing a movie with his girlfriend. This is terrible. Because the problem wasn’t him doing that, it was the pressure that we were under. It was a deadline. It was — we were optimistic as hell and decided, oh, this will be great, we can totally do it by March. You know, in those moments sucking it up and saying, this scenario sucks but we don’t have to punish each other when we have healthy boundaries is really important.

Another one I found is when we find, like, workaholics that are those 110 percent people in an organization or in a project or whatever, it’s real easy to take them for granted. It’s real easy to go oh, aha! Bob will pick that up in between his like three hours of naps, you know, that keep him going. He’ll totally, you know, catch that. It’s very easy to take them for granted. But it’s also easy for them to start moving that needle for what the aggregate expectation is, of how much people will show up, how late people will stay. How many weekends they’ll sacrifice. So nudging them and talking to them and making sure they’re OK, even though they’re still cranking stuff out, is really important and it’s also to make sure that other people, just because, you know, Mac was willing to stay all night, that’s not like a thing we’re expecting of everybody. That’s really important.

Several years ago, there was one of our new developers — I was tasks with estimating how long it was going to take us to do a small project and he was tasked with doing the small project. Which, let me tell you which side of that it’s better to be on. And you know, as we were going through, it became obvious about maybe two weeks into it that I had underestimated some aspect of it. I know, shocking ! so in Friday we were talking about what our game plan was, and on Monday, I you know, logged on and he was like, OK, so I didn’t sleep this weekend, but it’s working!

And you know, initial reaction was woohoo!! And then it was like, oh, God, Garwin pretty much murdered himself because I blew an estimate, and I had to have a conversation with him. I was like, OK, one, wow. You did awesome. However, never do that again. Like, seriously. I messed up our estimation process. I low-balled how much work it would take us to do this. The solution to that is me talking to the client and saying, hey, I’m sorry, I misjudged this, we’re going to need to reshuffle these things, not you going without sleep for a weekend. So that magically everyone thinks that worked. Because again that goes back to not glorifying that death more thing. It took him a while to understand that but he appreciated it. If you’re somebody who’s running an organization or a project or whatever, one of the things that’s probably important to keep in mind is if your project or your company or your organization can’t survive without treating people like fungible resources that you plug in and charge a new intern, the problem isn’t that you need more dedicated passionate people, it’s that you need a business model that actually works, because that means the model isn’t working and you’re just using up people to shore things up.

[25:00]

I don’t have it with me but there’s a really interesting quote by the guy who started 37 signals which he specifically says that which is if the only way your business can survive is by treating people terribly, the problem is your business, not that your new hires don’t care enough and that’s on you to fix. It sounded way more harsh than I anticipated, but eh, what are you gonna do?

And finally, if you right now are in that position, or maybe in the future are in that position, if you’re the person who’s feeling like they’re about to get crushed, if you’re feeling like, you know, you want to just step back and breathe for a while, and just heal up, but you don’t want to let anybody down, you feel like you — you’d be doing something terrible by doing that, the first thing to remember is something that a really dear friend of mine who dealt a lot with just, you know, with just issues of guilt and you know, how do I determine what’s taking care of me and what’s just being selfish, one of the things she said is something that helped her is asking what would I say to a good friend of mine, to someone I cared for if they told me the kinds of things that I was thinking about myself in my head? What would I tell them? And she says, in like 99% of the time, my reaction would be, hm, yeah, you are a terrible person, yes, yes.

No! No! It would be God, no, yes, rest, you need to be OK to yourself. So try as much as you can in the middle of those crunches, in the middle of those tense pressure situations that think about yourself, the way you would think about a dear friend.

Yeah, my clicker just ain’t clicking.

Another important one is to recharge outside of your team and this is tricky, because who doesn’t like liking the people that you work with, you know? But that can also make it very, very difficult, when over time, your entire support network, or your hobbies, and your extracurricular activities essentially are all the same group, the same group you work with, the same group that’s also spending all their spare time working on these things, and it can make it very difficult when you do have to step back and you realize, wow, if I’m not going out for drinks and talking about stuff and you know, whiteboarding things late at night with my friends/coworkers/coconspirators, I just don’t do anything. Figuring out how to cultivate stuff outside of the mission is a really important part of being able to step back and step back in with the ebb and flow of what your energy and capabilities are.

And this is something that I think a lot of people have written about, and every airplane, you know, safety guide tells you, you know, put on your mask first. You know, you are not in a position to help the other people in the event of a disaster if you don’t make sure you’re OK first. Because then you can help other people. But if you go around, trying to put everybody else’s masks on, you’re going to pass out. That’s just the way low oxygen works. I’m no scientist but —

And that thing of taking care of yourself, as a critical prerequisite to helping others is something that’s very easy to overlook, because you are not an spendable resource. You are a human being who matters, just as much as that mission, and overlooking that so that a deliverable can be met or a wonderful outreach project can go dazzlingly, that doesn’t help anyone. It just hurts you. I think if I were to sum it up in one cliche, I guess, you are more than your output. You mean more, and the world is better for your presence, not just because of the labor that you provide, but because you are you. And you’re more than what you do. Fundamentally, you matter as a person, as a human being, more than whatever mission is currently motivating you. And you’re worth that. All of us are. Everyone is.

We help other people, because they’re worth it. We take care of ourselves, because we’re worth it, and overlooking one side of that is just as bad. That’s it. Thank you.