On community

As I’m writing these lines, I’m sitting at Munich Airport. I’m waiting for my flight home after spending the last two days on a pretty spontaneuos trip to Munich for JS Kongress. Despite knowing of the event, I hadn’t even thought about, let alone planned to go, since I wasn’t feeling very well (and even less social). Only in early November, I learned that a very lovely friend was going to be there, and suddenly had a chance (and a very good reason) to go as well. The conference itself was great, and there was a bunch of talks that I really enjoyed.

At and around the conference, there was also this very friend, as well as a few more wonderful women who I’ve known for a while, some even for years. Most of us live very far apart, and if we ever meet at all, we only ever meet at conferences. This conference was a chance to reconnect with them over walks and hot beverages and breaks between talks, and an opportunity to exchange stories: from our work, our public speaking, our lives. It left me with a very warm and fuzzy feeling, and, most importantly, with the feeling of community. These few days with these people were a tangible version of some thoughts that have been on my mind for a while now—thoughts about hard times, and about community.

This is what this post is about.—

This year of 2017 has been a pretty exhausting year for me (and as much as I wish that these remaining six weeks will turn everything around, I have a feeling that’s not going to happen). It’s been one of these years that start out pretty okay, until, suddenly, everything is very much not okay anymore. I had a bunch of heavy personal things going on, and was already pretty underwater by the time I went through a big role change at work, which by itself was more challenging for me than I’d expected. This change also meant not working so closely with my amazing team anymore (and there’s another story in here about what happens when, suddenly, you don’t have 14 direct reports anymore, heh), and instead started focusing on and building out my work with a whole new team of awesome team leads. All of this was incredibly exciting and a wonderful opportunity, but: change is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re already stressed out.

In the past, during times of stress and overwhelm, I’d go into survival mode: I’d bundle all my remaining resources, shut down everything that was not absolutely necessary, and retreat to myself in what I’d call cave mode. This would also mean that I’d cut any social ties, to the extent that friendships heavily suffered. For a long time, I’ve been working hard on combatting this behavioural pattern. But cutting back on social ties, neglecting friendships and companionship, is still something I easily fall back into in times like these.—

The realities of this industry don’t help with finding companionship: being a woman in tech in a management role can sometimes be a pretty lonely place to be in. There are still just not that many of us, and this also means that there’s only so many people who share our experiences. And while I interact a lot with people on a daily basis, I also work remotely (and from home), so social interactions don’t just happen, but need facilitation. Lastly, there’s the sheer reality of my work: my work is about 60-90% emotional labour, and this amount of emotional labour, together with some personal things™?, easily results in what I was for most of the last months:

a pretty weak basket case, mostly held together by carbs, Netflix, and anxiety.

Two months ago, I noticed what was happening: It had been ages since I’d looked into one of the countless community Slacks that I’m in, or chatted with someone in a role similar to mine, or even just joined one of my local Women in Tech groups for a night out. It was a time when I was struggling (with) myself, and found it incredibly hard to get out of my survival mode and engage with others out there. I was missing the feeling of connectedness, companionship, and community. The people I met at this conference were a wonderful reminder for me of how important community is.

The bad thing with systemic issues in an industry like the tech industry is that they’re systemic. The good (okay, “good” is a strong word, but you know what I mean) thing is that they are systemic. In societies where so many of us have been taught from early on that we’re less than, where we’ve been taught not to trust ourselves; in spaces where we’re pushed to work twice as hard to get half as far, and where we’re told that only the toughest make it through; and in an industry that keeps diminishing our experiences, qualifications, perspectives, identities, and us: community can also be about reality checks. Like so many of us, I too have inhaled and internalised the societal beliefs that there can only be so many of us that are “successful” (by whatever definition of “success” that you apply here), and that there can only be so many of us that “make it” . It took me a while to learn that all of these beliefs are fundamentally false, misleading, and that they’re robbing us of the greatness and wonderfulness that we can find when we overcome them—and it took me another while to understand how this needs to apply to my work.

For many of us, this is of an industry that we’re in regardless of (the crap, the bullshit, the microaggressions, the *-isms, the setbacks…), and, at the same time, because of (our strengths, our experiences, and all that we are). The people who are here with us are a reminder of the because. The companionship of people who have been or go through similar struggles as we do is a reminder that we’re not alone in those experiences, that we actually are all in this together. Under circumstances like these, there’s great consolation in community. Just the reminder of not being alone in all this can already take off the edge.

The times when we need this community the most will often also be the times when we don’t have the energy, time, emotional resources to engage with it. (And self care needs to take top priority no matter what—but I also needed to learn that there are also times when self care can mean longing for community, and working to find this community.)

All our perspectives and past experiences will differ, but more often than not, the realities we’re in will not differ so much, but will still be similar enough that we can lean in onto each other, learn from each other, move forward with each other.

But community is not just sitting around all our trash fires together to keep warm (while desperately trying not to get burnt)—it can also be this same community that shows us paths forward, give us perspectives for how it can be done (or at least ideas that may be worth a shot), that becomes about being and working together, building things together, and moving forward together.

I have been thinking about all this for a while now. I’ve also been working on incorporating this more into my work—connecting with women and non-binary people, to be in this together, and find ways to support each other and lift each other up. Practically, I asked women colleagues for chats over coffee (yes that also works in a distributed team), and am making a deliberate effort to work with them more closely whenever possible. I reached out to another woman in an engineering management role, and got a chance to speak with her. And I made an effort to reconnect with other women and non-binary people who I hadn’t been in touch with in a while—to move beyond my own old patterns, but, most of all, because I was wondering how much others were experiencing, feeling, the same or a similar way.

This was supposed to be a short, more philosophical note, and now turned into something much longer and vulnerable. It’s taken me a long time to accept my own vulnerability, and even more time to embrace it. What I’m working on now is being with this vulnerability at and in my work (but that, again, is another story for another time).

So often, we’re so caught up in treading water, and don’t notice the others around us doing just the same. For a long time, I haven’t really understood the joy and wonderfulness of community, and the power that comes with it. Now that I’m starting to understand it, I’ll keep trying to find my community. The sense and feeling of community, of connectedness, can change our perspectives. I still have a long way to go, but it has changed mine already. And I greatly hope that, no matter who you are, where you are, and what you do: I hope that, if you want, you will find yours as well.

By L.

I walk fast.

One comment

  1. “So often, we’re so caught up in treading water, and don’t notice the others around us doing just the same.” I feel that so much, Lena. Thank you for coming to JS Kongress and spending time there. It’s like when I really need other people, that’s when I feel the least inclined to reach out to them. It’s the opposite of what I want, but it’s exactly what I need.

    I try to keep a “hit list” of people to make time for and reach out to when I’m feeling like this, and make it a daily reminder: “Have you spent time with another good human being today?”

    It helps.

    Thank you for being here!

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