Bring the Pain

Learning is hard.

I’m not talking about casual, “oh that’s how Bob Ross turns that odd-shaped line into a tree” learning; or even “hey I was listening to my podcast the other day and they let me know that there’s actually only 8 species of bear in the world”; I’m talking about “you need to learn this new thing and be able to *do* it within a given period of time”, usually with a flavor of “for your job” or “for your life”. Requisite learning, not-necessarily-your-idea learning.

I’ve previously blogged about how I had to stumble through and learn a new query language and I hated every minute of it. It was such an unpleasant experience that the running joke with my teammates for about 6 or 8 months was how much I hated it. I use that query language every day though, and it allows me to do all kinds of analysis and make all kinds of cases that I would not be able to, or would be hyper-dependent on others to do. No pain, no gain.

The company I work for, like most major companies that hire a ton of engineering talent, looks for drive, initiative, and potential. The entire review system is based on ‘and what else could you do?’; you are measured on impact rather than delivery. (You can work all day and not deliver. You can deliver all day and have no impact. You are measured on impact.) The set of humans surrounding me are all people who are very used to being *good at a thing right away*, or getting good at it quickly.

When you’re in an environment with that level of expectation, and the culture is one of “growth mindset” (e.g., yes learning is hard but we lean into it), it can feel lonely. One is often looking across the Teams chat to identify if the person who is talking just naturally knows all that stuff (query language, given service architecture, etc.) or if they had a painful time drilling through it, too. Not unlike high school, where there was some subset of people who looked like they got effortless A’s (because you didn’t see the late nights, the weekends, the tutoring sessions, the agita. You saw the A’s.) You question if it’s just you, if you’re the odd person out, and this (unfairly) leads to impostor’s syndrome. I don’t belong here, I can’t do what these people do, how did I get here, etc.

There’s actually two things at work here: first, the invisible mountain those folks climbed or climb that you do not see (e.g., all the studying, or head banging, or side meetings with all kinds of other people to ask all of the questions), and second, comparing your step two to someone else’s step six. Or sixteen.

The only way to “get over” the idea of unseen investment is to acknowledge it exists regardless of admission. That is, not everyone shares their investment effort — some prefer to come off as “naturally good at things” and they may as yet be, or they may come from a culture where that is the expectation. I come from one where you share the investment and that potential embarrassment is the price of entry; I ask smart people stupid questions (thanks Ologies) and I share that I asked smart people stupid questions. The questions aren’t stupid and if it wasn’t evident to me/not easy to self-serve and find the information, there are others who are having the same problem. If there are others having the same problem they need to see that they aren’t the only ones. The struggle is real but it does not have to be lonely.

As a result, without knowledge of the hill that person climbed (the investment they had to make), it’s easy to assume they are on step 2 just like you; in fact they are on step 6. This sets up for unfair self-comparison and expectation, which can bleed into other areas (so and so got a promotion and it was *just so easy* for them).

I’m not saying there are not people who are just naturally good at things. There are, of course. Some of us though are “naturally good” at a thing because we have been doing it so long it is no longer painful: when I started in the corporate world (in 1994) I was not “naturally good” at anything. Now I am “naturally good” at organizing and streamlining things, making shiny power points and anvil-spotting, because I have spent 27 years doing that (in various capacities). It would be unfair for me-of-’94 (or ’98, or 2000, or even 2007) to compare myself to me-of-now, because me-of-now has literal years of investment, experience, embarrassment and failure to build on.

There are areas I’ve doggedly tried to learn and have not mastered — and that is what growth mindset is. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to suck, and I’m going to pursue it anyway because I will learn and grow, and I know that I can because I have done it before. I’m “naturally good” at “A”, but I still am learning “B” (and I frankly have no clue about “C”). The phrase “A Jack of all trades is a master of none” is only a partial quote: the actual quote is “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oft better than a master of one.” In our careers (and in our lives) we have the opportunity to sit tight and do just one thing, or go out and do and learn many things. In both there is opportunity to learn, and expand, and learn more — and it’s going to hurt. No pain, no gain.

Art and Artifice, Requirement and Request

This time last year, my brother, my son, and I were in Disneyland. It was the first time the three of us had been together, the first time we had been as adults (well, I had taken the kiddo but he hadn’t really been an adult until this time), and it was all the things I appreciate about Disneyland: a predictable experience, people on their best behavior, cleanliness, and a sincere acknowledgement that the world doesn’t actually work that way but wouldn’t it be lovely if it did? I love Disneyland. Yes, it is artifice and yes, it is not real. As active escapism goes, for me, it’s right up there in my top three. (Books are and forever shall be the top one.)

When I was a kid, I lived in California, and so a Disney trip was something that happened once a year with camp, and once a year with my family. As such, I would reliably get physically ill the night before – waves of nausea, I couldn’t eat, I was a jumble of nerves and had fitful sleep. As an adult this happens to me still; plus all of the associated accoutrements of generalized anxiety disorder: I am, as my husband puts it, constantly anvil-spotting. Imagine a videogame where you know you’ve entered the boss fight space by a change in the music — now imagine you hear that change in music but there is no boss fight to happen. You’re picking up the mail. You’re filling birdfeeders. You’ve just finished a day of meetings. It’s like your brain decides, “hey, everything’s going fine, let’s panic now: ok heart rate you go up, lungs? I want you to pretend like you can’t get air. Stomach — do that Disney thing. And then let’s just shut it off after about 10 minutes of googling panic attack symptoms. Sound good?”

I wasn’t formally diagnosed until two years ago, and before that I had already started to take this into my own hands as a project. If I would anvil spot, I would anvil spot my anvil-spotting. I talked to a therapist about the attacks (only long enough to talk about the physical bits, let’s just ignore the mind racy bits) and she suggested breathing exercises. I have a friend who is an amazing music teacher and specifically vocal coach (I have seen her in opera, I will go to anything she is in, ever) and had her teach me how to breathe. (She, being the smart cookie she is, also had me learn music theory, because she knows I like math). With the ability to reactively control an attack, things got better. When I actually got cognitive behavioral therapy, the proactive side of things got better.

To be clear: I’ve also learned to use this as a power: where I used to get caffeinated and reorganize friends’ garages or clean kitchens or such; now I am in a space to professionally execute in job whose whole purpose is to identify all of the things that can go wrong and come up with contingency plans.

Yes, I’m still fun at parties.

We are one year into the US general acknowledgement of the pandemic, about two weeks away from the anniversary of when it got real for most of us — we got sent home to work and ten million people got sent home to not work. (I am dripping with privilege, folks: I “get” to work from home, I still have my job; my kid is actually doing *better* in online schooling than in-person schooling, my expenses have gone down, etc. etc. It’s not fair. I know it’s not fair. I am trying to do things to help.) Our political system and the people in it very courteously (/s) displayed possibly the most effective and thorough civics lesson we had encountered in our generation: I would wager a majority of folks had no idea that the electoral college worked the way it did, or what the electors did, or when they met, or when and how the Senate and House met to vote and ratify, or all of the different deadlines with that, until 2020. Our financial and employment systems very courteously (/s) displayed the most effective and thorough economics lesson we had encountered in our generation (well that whole Great Recession should have learnt us but this was a step beyond): the stock market is not the economy and the job market is not the stock market. We learned that our most critical workforce is the least paid and provided for; we learned that nearly 40% of all landlords are mom-and-pop mortgagees that are left unsupported and whilst renters are randomly assisted (or not — moratoria or not, some landlords are engaging in good faith and some are not; some renters are engaging in good faith and some are not) no mortgage relief for these small-shop landlords exists. For all of you thinking landlords are large corporations, consider that friend of yours who elected to rent out their house while they moved to the Bay Area or Texas and rent an apartment — they are a landlord now.

Everywhere you look there is work to do, and/or opportunity: yes, there is value in framing these things with a silver lining (as in, identifying the things that are going well and recognizing them) but let’s not let that get in the way of the remaining work to be done.

As individuals, and as US Citizens, there is the temptation to indicate “well we voted and that’s that”; e.g., by voting I have exercised my voice and therefore I participated in the process and therefore I have done what can be done (protest aside). (When I say protest, I mean peaceful march, not breaking-and-entering, not threatening people with bodily harm, but instead I have snacks and a water bottle and I am using my voice and this sign to bring awareness to my cause). In addition to my consistent reminder that there are more elections than just the Presidential and MidTerm ones — for example Washingtonians our next one is in April — there are other ways you can influence the system. I’ve written before about how all politics are local and it’s still true. You may not like the person who was elected to represent you but they work for you and you get to tell them what your thoughts are and how you’d like them to proceed.

If you’ve tried that route and it’s still not working for you then you can get involved in the nonprofit space — there’s a lot of them out there and they’re probably doing a thing you’d like to support, either monetarily or with time (they may use your brawn, they may use your brains, they may use both).

If you’re not really into that sort of thing then see about local organizations of which you are already involved — maybe your local church, PTA, school, kids care center, etc. has something you can help with.

And if you are one of the millions of people who need this help I’m telling the other millions of people (well I know not millions of people will read this but let’s just pretend, shall we?) then know that there is help — albeit difficult to find. Start with your local library, believe it or not. King County Library System for example offers a whole lot more than books and periodicals – printing services, resume-writing classes, even help on filing your taxes. The King County Library System Foundation also offers literacy programs, and digital literacy and internet services for folks. Hopelink can help you with food, housing, financial services, employment help, transportation, and a whole lot more.

I do not suffer the illusion that some day we will all get to live in a cleanly-designed, hyper-efficient land of wonder and magic, where people are a shade nicer and things are a shade rosier (and with churros!). We will not get to live in Disneyland. We can, however, work to make it better.

After Life

(Note: This is the last one of these I’m going to write for a while. Not because they’re particularly depressing for me, but they can be a bit of a downer for others. Still, I’ve had a couple of people ask about “what happens next”, so without further ado, here’s what happens next.)

(Also note: this isn’t about the spiritual afterlife — the one that happens to your spirit when it leaves the body, if that is your belief. This is about what happens to others who are still in this life, when that happens, in a practical tactics sort of way.)

I once had a break of a whole week between two jobs — a real break, I had left company A and was moving to company B. In preparation for that I started a checklist of all the things I was going to do during that week — various house stuff, crafting projects, probably catching up on filing, reorganizing the pantry — and it grew. The checklist started about four weeks before the break, and about one week before the break, it was complete.

I had done all the things on the checklist.

It has taken me years to allow things to sit on a list for their appointed time, because my instinct is to do the thing if it can be done. This has historically resulted in manic cleaning fits, late-night papers, insomniac email, and associated unhealthy behaviors; I’m working on it. Still, I typically craft my resolutions for the New Year around Thanksgiving and start addressing them around mid-December.

I’ve had a will, and the standard, boilerplate living will/healthcare directive since I had my son. I felt like I had done all that needed to be done, things were addressed, and so if something were to happen to me, the “work” left to my estate would be trivial. My mom also had a will, a healthcare directive and healthcare power of attorney (that specifically named me). It took seven months from the time of her passing to the last bit of paperwork/administrative work to be complete.

(NOTE: I AM NOT A LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO TALK TO ONE). In the interest of preventing others from going through this same hassle (inasmuch as it can be avoided), I’m going to share some specific experiences and some guidance for you as you think about your own paperwork or guide a family member through theirs.

When my mom got put on hospice, the hospice team suggested reaching out to make pre-arrangements with a funeral home. We did do that, a local place that was hugely sympathetic and understanding (I had to do it virtually thanks to the viral outbreak), and walked me through the process. They had a lot of questions that were not answered in mom’s documents: did she want an obituary? Did she want a full or partial viewing? What kind of container did she want her remains in? Did she want them interred in a cemetery or to come home? And so forth. Learning: go talk to the local funeral home/investigate their site and look at their intake forms. It will give you an idea of the questions you should either have answered in your will or separate letter to whomever you want taking care of that.

When it happened, the home walked us through the initial administrative process, and we notified mom’s lawyer that she had passed. Both the home and the lawyer walked us through next steps, which included such things as “let us know” (the home) “how many death certificates you need”, and “get me a death certificate and the most recent bank and title statements of the joint properties listed in the community property agreement” (a thing my parents had in addition to their will, that was supposed to streamline the process and avoid a lengthy probate). Learning: each financial or legal institution you will deal with will want a *certified* death certificate. So each life insurance, bank, etc. Start with five if you can, or if things are super-tight, start with the one and then ask each office to send it back. (In Washington State, death certificates are about $20 each, and your funeral home can get them for you as part of their service).

About a month or so in to going through mom’s papers, we discovered not one but two ancient life insurance policies – one opened up as a “savings account” for her by her father when she was born (the kind you pay each year and then cash out at 21, except she didn’t) and one she opened when she was still married to my dad, her first husband.

The savings account one wanted not only a death certificate but receipts from the process, and when they made a copy error (I am not making this up) and copied the receipts over the death certificate they held up progress for FOUR MONTHS while they sent me form letters saying they hadn’t heard from me. (I’d call and they’d tell me the form letter wasn’t as specific as it could be and that they wanted a new death certificate. When I pointed out they already had one and that their copy error shouldn’t be my problem, they agreed and said they’d handle it. The next month I’d get another form letter saying they hadn’t heard from me. Repeat.) Learning: the Insurance companies aren’t just going to let you file a claim and receive the paperwork and have it be all fine, be prepared to spend some phone time and (in my case) know who the OIC (Office of the Insurance Commissioner) is in your state, the state the life insurance contract was opened in, and the state the insurance company operates in. (In my case, I ended up opening a complaint in California, Pennsylvania, and with the BBB).

For the one opened in her first marriage, the insurance company did NOT care that there was a will, that my mom had divorced my dad, and that my mom had remarried. The beneficiary in this policy was my dad, and so to my dad the payment would go. (Dad mailed the payment to my StepDad because my dads are cool). Learning: Check your beneficiaries, especially if you have had a life change. Those can override any sentiments in your will.

Additionally, with Life Insurance, the appreciation you get on it (e.g., if the policy matured N years ago and therefore has been collecting X interest since then) is taxable. Learning: Talk to an accountant/estate planner about how that works and/or talk to yours if you are on the receiving end about the tax implications so you’re ready. (Also, not every insurance company withholds anything from this payment. I have a letter from the “savings” insurance company saying they did. The actual check stub and accounting does not show this. I’m not saying that insurance company sucks, but I won’t be voluntarily doing business with an insurance company whose name rhymes with Detrimental).

(Incidentally, the local banks and mortgage company, the department of licensing and the social security office all went easy as pie.)

Dollars and cents aside, there’s then the physical artifacts: what do you want to become of your stuff? I’m not talking about the stuff you name-check in your will — the family opal ring or the signed print or such — I’m talking about your *stuff*. Your clothes, shoes, etc. mainly. In my mom’s case, she had a lot of nice, barely worn things from a stretch of cruising. The nice things got donated to a local women’s shelter, as did unopened extras of toiletries and such. There were also some not-nice things, and those went into the trash. (I don’t think my mom ever considered it but I think she would have agreed with a women’s shelter and would’ve disagreed on the “not nice” label). Learning: if you have a preference, spell out where you want your stuff to go. If you don’t, spell out that it’s up to the person executing the estate.

It probably comes as no surprise that I processed this grief the way I process most everything — there was an Excel spreadsheet, a detailed One Note; there was lots of productive activity, there was lots of avoidance of the icky, emotional deluge (which didn’t turn out to be much because, as I sorted out with my therapist, I’d been grieving since she got admitted to the hospital)– but I hope that the learnings from this will help you and/or yours in how you approach your preparations, perhaps as a New Years’ resolution.

Moral Support & Technical Leadership

I was fortunate enough to grow up with four parents — while most divorce stories in the late-70’s/early-80’s were full of the (very real, very ugly) drama of how divorce could be, for me, I netted a couple of extra parents and double presents on holidays and my birthday. Sure, when I screwed up I had twice as many people on my case, and they got along (at least in my youth) so it meant grounding at house A was continued at house B, but for the most part this was a good deal for me.

My step-mom (heretofore to also be referred to as mom, because she is; this is not the same mom that recently passed) did a lot of the raising (period) but especially at my dad’s house. My dad, who is awesome, was a Corporate Dad and had to travel a lot and stay late at the office and is probably the reason why I don’t really let work go (and why it’s important to me that work be good enough to not let go of). He would joke sometimes about providing moral support and technical leadership when it came to parenting, but to be honest he did exactly that and it was, for me, exactly what I needed. Sure, it took until I was about 27 to “grow up” but hey, better late than never.

I myself became a parent at 29 (very much planned, very much awesome) and then became a single parent at 32 (very much not planned, very much not awesome — at the time). As such, there I was, at 32, with a Real Big Person Corporate Job of my Own and an *almost* three year old, a mortgage, and a dog.

The three year old, who is now nearly 18, was a handful. In his early teens he was loathe to hear about his exploits but now we can all look back on them and smile; let’s just say my kid was *that* kid and the principal at his elementary school and I were on a first-name basis. I became intimately aware of how school administration functioned and how things got documented. Someday I’ll write up all about that — when I’m not on the PTA or affiliated with the district anymore. This is all to say that I got a call from the school, on some thing or other, at least every other day until he was five, at least twice a week until he was seven, and about once a week to two weeks until he was 9. He was a fireball of energy and had a low BS tolerance (as remains so), is intelligent and a big fan of the minimum effort for maximum return (which, as we all know, can get radically problematic if the initial effort is misjudged). Imagine having this parenting challenge while trying to work.

I owe *a lot* to two managers I had during this period, both of them men, for the trust and flexibility they extended to me. The work got done, absolutely, but I had the benefit of managers who understood if I had to leave *right now* because I just got a call, or if I needed to work from home here or there (before it was common or, as now, required). I was able to keep my job, and my *career*, because these folks understood that I would get the work done somehow (even if it was in the middle of the night while the kiddo slept) but just not right here or right now.

The fact of the matter is that while the calls came and when I’d have to go and get the boy from school, for the most part he was *in* school and so, as a single mom, I had the benefit of that “childcare” (the primary function of school is not child care — but I had the benefit of knowing my kid was in a safe place while I worked, and that safe place happened to be school). That plus this flexibility on the part of my management meant I was able to continue my career and find myself (as I have been these last few years) in what I would call a really good place.

Slightly over two million women in the United States have had to leave the workforce since COVID slammed onto these shores. Just under one million of those left in *September alone*. It’s not that these women didn’t also have super cool understanding bosses, it’s that trying to work from home and moderate your kids’ online learning — something *I never had to do* — is pretty much impossible. You can’t pay attention in the team meeting or edit your queries or write your spec if you are also on deck to make sure the kid isn’t also playing CoolMathGames on his computer (true story, my kid did this *in school* when he was in elementary school — and if you’re a parent of a kid between 5 and 15, chances are yours did too) and that she’s listening to the teacher and that they are using all the tools correctly and hey how’s that bandwidth going for you? The reality that in a dual-income household it’s typically the mom who takes on the rearing duties — either because of economics (dad makes more) or social placement (that’s the way it is in some families), women are facing a choice and the choice isn’t pretty.

For those whose initial response is “who cares, people have to do what is important for them, this doesn’t impact me because I’m not a woman/not a mom”, we should all care. We should all care, because:

  1. We (in the US) are likely to see a $1 trillion loss in GDP by 2030 because of this brain drain — for those fretting on the money we’re “spending” on battling the economic effects of COVID, understand this is money we’re “losing”, despite existing expenditures.
  2. Workplace diversity will reduce, which in turn has negative effects on productivity, financial targets, and employee engagement.
  3. Female-dominated industries, such as education, healthcare, services, and hospitality, impact not just women — a reduction in healthcare professionals for example means your elderly grandpa’s assisted living facility may have trouble hanging on to CNA’s (or nurses or doctors).
  4. This disproportionately impacts black women and further hinders racial equality and justice which further impacts everyone.

Those are just the dollars-and-cents/what’s-in-it-for-me reasons, ignoring those that center around “let’s not be assholes” and “life has enough drama already, let’s not add on to that”.

There’s two things we need here, then: firstly (and most obviously) we need a coherent pandemic response strategy that is comprehensive (addressing both the fiscal impacts of the pandemic but also the structural impacts), *and* we need better support structures and systems for working parents. Paid parental leave (as most countries have — this is not just a socialist country thing), federal support for child care costs (for those who ask “who pays for it?” — the answer is we already are *losing* that money (and possibly more) by the workforce drain) are two good first starts. (Childcare.gov already exists to help in this area, it just needs to be better-funded and expanded).

With the elections “over” (I put that in scarequotes because elections are a constant thing — your state will have more elections next year on all kinds of local issues, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking elections on even years are the only ones that matter ) the temptation is to say “well the incoming administration will just take care of it”. I mean sure, yes, let’s be optimistic but let’s also put some realism in our optimism. Here’s how one can be informed and move things along:

  1. Check out how your state uses the CARES act funding for child care. (You can see how much they got and how it is distributed). (You can get a review of the CARES act funding, en-toto, here (handy pdf on the site)).
  2. Check out how your state is approaching child care funding and distribution outside of the CARES act (Washington state example here)
  3. Write to your STATE and FEDERAL legislators.
    1. ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your state legislature is more agile than the federal one.
    2. You can find your state government websites here, which you can then look up your state legislators on. For Washington State, it’s here: House Senate
    3. You can find your federal legislators here: House Senate
    4. You can find a great guide on how to write to these folks here.
    5. You can ask your federal legislators what they are doing in addition to funding efforts such as this.
    6. You can ask your federal and state legislators what you can do as a citizen to help (guess what? You can start a dialogue with these folks. After all, they work for you, not the other way around).
  4. See what your workplace is doing. I am super-fortunate to work for a big company that is doing many productive things in this area, but engagement and reinforcement socially in the workplace is important.
  5. In preparation for the next election, pay attention to the stances (and voting records) of the people you are voting for. Don’t vote straight ticket.
    1. You read that right. Voting for a person simply because they are the party you tend to affinitize to does YOU a disservice. When you do that, you are making the assumption because their well-shared opinion on Topic X matches yours, that their not-so-well-shared-opinion on Topic Y matches yours. It may not.
    2. You can check out your federal legislator’s voting history here: House Senate. You may find it illuminating.

You may not be a mom, or a woman, or a parent; but we are all capable of moral support and technical leadership.

Stolen Identity and Next Steps

Well, it’s finally happened. Some enterprising twat has used my identity to do something naughty and it’s causing no small amount of consternation.

Like many in Washington, my information was used to file a false unemployment claim.  Some pseudo-human got hold of my social security number and my email, went to the ESD, and said they were me and that I was unemployed and “I can haz money now?”  I heard about this from my employer, who wanted to know if I really had filed for unemployment, while still employed.

  • Of course I couldn’t concentrate on anything after reading that email.
  • Of course I went and put a credit freeze with all three bureaus.
  • Of course I changed all my passwords.
  • Of course I filed this as a fraudulent claim with the ESD.

There’s a couple more things I didn’t realize I should do (that I have since done):

  • I have filed a police report (this can be done online!).
  • I’ve documented it with the FTC.

Going through all of this is a hassle of course, and on top of other things right now it’s quite unwelcome. Here’s the thing: I have resources, and time, and a really great employer who identified it and let me know it was happening, along with specific guidance on what to do next.  Given the size of this fraud (there’s thousands of fraudulent claims for state of WA right now) there are literally thousands of people dealing with this, and not all have time to deal with it or guidance to deal with it. So, if you or someone you know has discovered some sort of identity fraud, here’s some links and things to do:

  1. Put a credit freeze (free to do, and can be done online) on your credit with Equifax(yes, that Equifax), Experian, and TransUnion.
  2. File a fraudulent claim with the entity that was defrauded (in my case, it was the Washington state employment office– and it was filed online)
  3. File a police report (also online, non-emergency).
  4. Document it (online!) with the FTC.
  5. Call (or email, or go online) your banks and let them know, so they can guard on their end.
  6. Change all your passwords and/or your password algorithm.

Will this make you bulletproof to future fraud? No — shit can still happen. (Murphy’s Law is a law for a reason). No sense in making it easier for the assholes that do this.