Today it’s Time to Talk Day, a campaign to make people aware of mental health issues and to get people talking about them. I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety in the past 15 years or so, but have to admit I’ve never talked to a professional about it or even really considered it a mental health “issue” I have. Looking back though I’m realising maybe I should have – maybe I could have made it easier for myself if I had. I guess part of me just thought that this is what being a grown-up means, that everyone experienced these things but I just wasn’t good enough at coping with them. And that in itself is why I’m writing this – if it helps only one single person out there, that alone means this post was worth writing.
Being “perfect” and Imposter syndrome
I think my anxiety started in the final years of high school. Before those final 2 years, I thought school was pretty easy. I’ve got an awesome short term memory, so memorising stuff for exams wasn’t very challenging, and I always considered myself in the top of the class. In those final years though, things changed – I still was getting high marks and performing well, but it took way more time and effort than it did before and I put a ton of pressure on myself to be that ‘perfect’ student again. I started feeling anxious and bad whenever I got a bad grade, leading to me putting even more pressure on myself, creating this continuous loop of pushing myself maybe a bit too hard.
And that only got worse when I went to university. I decided to study Computer Science without having programmed anything before in my life (well, except for my graphical calculator) and I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff my peers already knew. Compared to them, I felt so inadequate – maybe I had made the wrong decision and I should have studied something else? Despite feeling like that, I kept pushing myself trying yet again to be that ‘perfect’ student even though I knew I could never be as good as my peers. And thanks to all my hard work, I did keep getting high marks for exams and assignments. I knew I wasn’t bad, but somehow I felt like it was just luck, that one day someone would expose me for the fraud I actually was.
At its worse, it would come on as full-on episodes of anxiety – I’d be sitting in the computer lab with a ton of other students around me, reading through the latest practical assignment and just freeze, knowing I didn’t know how to solve this problem. My chest would go all tight, my face and neck would go all red and splotchy, and the sound of my way-too-loud beating heart would drown out all the noise around me.
I now know that this is what is called Imposter Syndrome, but at the time I thought I was the only one feeling like this. Realizing that most people I know, even those who are way more experienced than I am, have dealt with imposter syndrome was a huge eye-opener to me. Hearing how I wasn’t the only person that has this and talking to others about their own experiences has been the main thing that has helped me deal with this type of anxiety. Knowing that most of us are ‘imposters’ and just trying the best we can has taken away that feeling that I don’t belong.
Throughout the years it’s gotten a whole lot less, but I’ll still have days where I don’t feel good enough – that I’m not doing the best I can. I’ll get stuck in loops of self doubt and blame for not having done more. It’s not quite Imposter Syndrome, but it still is anxiety about how I assume I should be. Especially after a day that hasn’t gone quite as I thought it would, I’ll get easily stuck in thinking of all the other ways I could have done something, replaying events over and over in my head.
The Worst Case Scenario Thinker
Tied to that is that there’s always this part of my brain that for any situation will try to come up with all possible outcomes – going down every path, be it good or bad. I’ll imagine all the ways past conversations could have gone, or how future conversations might go and (from a code perspective) come up with most edge cases before it’s needed. It’s a great skill to have (especially for work and board games), but only when I can reign it in and actually turn it into something I can act on.
In the worst case scenario though my worst case scenario thinker will focus way too much on the negative, coming up with a ton of unlikely and bad scenarios, causing me to freeze up and get massive panic attacks based on ‘what might happen’. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights where my mind has gone down the rabbit hole of doom and dread, conjuring up the worst things I can think of.
Nowadays it mainly happens to me when I’m doing stuff not part of my routine, like when I’m going on holiday. I’ll get super anxious just thinking about all the things I’ll forget to pack, how I’m going to miss my flights, how the airline will lose my luggage, how my flat will be burgled while I’m away, how the pet sitter will forget to feed my cats, how I’ll get lost and not find my way back to my hotel, how my bag, passport and money will be stolen, how… etc etc. I know most of it is unlikely and won’t happen, but it’s so easy to get trapped in thinking of all the negative that ‘could’ occur.
Understanding, compartmentalising and reflecting
For me, there have been 3 things that have helped a lot with how I deal with anxiety. The first is understanding. Identifying when I’m having a panic attack and understanding why it’s happening and what has triggered it, means I can try to stop my mind from going down the rabbit hole. I find the psychology of emotions fascinating (my master’s thesis was on facial expression recognition), and being able to learn what our brains do when we experience anxiety has helped me a lot (I find a good place to start is Emotional Intelligence from Daniel Goleman).
The second thing is compartmentalising. I’ll always have these parts of my brain that will pipe up at completely the wrong moments and I’ve accepted that they will always be there. I’ve realised though that I don’t always have to listen to them at that moment: I’ll acknowledge they’re there, then mentally shove it in a box and put it aside to open up later. I’ll never completely forget about that box though, and I will always get around to dealing with those thoughts and issues, but I’ll do it at a time when it works for me (rather than say in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep).
The third is reflecting. I wrote an entire article about doing personal retrospectives for 12 Devs during Christmas, so won’t go into too much detail here. Reflection for me is sitting down and taking the time just to think about all the things I’ve done and what I could have done differently. It’s a time to open the box with all the thoughts I had and to go through them. The main thing is doing it when it feels right to me – when I feel I have the right type of mind to deal with the issues.
I know these are just the things that I do and I have no idea whether or not they will help anyone else, but it might help just hearing how other people deal with stuff. I also know my version of anxiety isn’t as extreme as it can be for others, yet it will be more than what most people typically encounter. Anxiety is something that I know I need to deal with on a regular basis, and I know it will never fully go away for me. But talking about it, however hard and embarrassing and weird it might be, does help.
I’ve had several conversations in the past few weeks, where people are surprised to find out that I’ve haven’t been doing conference talks for that long. For some reason, most of them assumed that I’d been doing these talks for years and years, and that I’m a massively ‘experienced’ conference speaker. Spoiler alert: I’m not.
It’s only midway 2014 when I told myself I’d try to do a year of not saying ‘no’ to things that scared me, that I started putting myself forward as a conference speaker and started submitting talks to CFPs. That conference “season” I ended up doing Electromagnetic Field, DDD East Anglia, Hackference and Future of Web Apps; those were my first proper conference talks. It’s not that I hadn’t given presentations before that (I had done a handful of lightning talks the year before), but this was the first year that I was speaking at events where people actually paid to attend and see me (among others) speak.
I realized that even though I hadn’t been doing conference talks before that, I’ve managed to do a ton of different things in the past years to slowly build the skills I now rely on. Public speaking is a BIG SCARY THING (for me it was at least) and if you had told me 10 years ago that I would be doing it on a regular basis and actually enjoy it, I would have called you crazy. So I thought I’d share my experiences about how I got to where I am today. This isn’t going to be a post with clear actions on what to do to become better at public speaking (there’s enough of those out there), rather it’s a collection of thoughts, memories and stuff from me about it all.
To make a cheesy analogy (cause all good posts need a cheesy analogy): giving a conference talk is like jumping off a diving board doing back flips into the pool. Sure, some people might have the guts to just jump off the board and see what happens. Others might do it and be immediately awesome at it. Me though? I had to learn the basics like how to
swim not drown and how to dive. Plus I needed to psych myself up to climb that ladder and get on the board in the first place.
I hated public speaking. I knew that I couldn’t get away from giving presentations, but for years I always dreaded having to do them. I don’t remember the number of presentations I had to give at high school and university, but I do remember never liking them and only giving them when given no choice. Whenever we worked in groups, I was completely happy with letting someone else stand in the spotlight and talk about our work.
Everything about talks terrified me: having to speak in front of strangers, having to speak in front of a lot of people, coming up with what you are going to say, making sure what you say is sensible and delivering what you want to say in the best possible way. There are so many aspects to giving a good talk and all of them felt terrifying to me. I was the type of person that already felt uncomfortable with speaking to a random shop assistant when doing groceries, so giving a talk? Yeah. Not. My. Thing.
Attending meetups – how to talk to strangers
In 2007 Cristiano and I moved to London. We didn’t know that many people here, so we started going to meetups, conferences and other tech events. I still remember when I went to my first GirlGeekDinner and being so so awkward at it: standing in the corner, having no idea who to talk to and doubting whether anyone would even want to talk to me.
I’m a massive introvert, so networking, meeting new people, talking to strangers: it doesn’t come naturally to me at all. The more you do it though, the easier it gets. Even now I notice that when I haven’t done a meetup with new people for a few weeks, I need to get back into the right how-to-network mindset, like it’s a muscle I haven’t flexed for a while. Similarly if I’ve done too many events in too short a time, I’ll reach a certain point where I just don’t have the energy anymore to be social and deal with new people. And that’s okay. But you need to build it up, keep at it, and figure out what your own limits are.
BarCamp – you don’t need to be an expert
In that same year I got introduced to the idea of BarCamps, an unconference. Unlike normal conferences, where there are special speakers and a curated schedule announced before the day, with a BarCamp the schedule and sessions are created by all the attendees. Cristiano had been to BarCampLondon2 and we had both gotten tickets to BarCampBrighton later that year. At the time though I didn’t completely understand what a BarCamp was and what it meant I needed to do: only the day before did I realize that I HAD to do a session, which I interpreted as “give a talk” (later on I found out that “doing a session” could also be things like running a discussion or a show-and-tell; it didn’t necessarily have to be a presentation). I couldn’t deal with it: having to give a presentation with less than 24 hours notice? I broke down in tears and refused flat out to do it.
Despite that, the next day I still attended the BarCamp, fully expecting and dreading the disappointment of others when they found out I didn’t want to present. And then I actually went to some sessions… BarCamp is one of the most supportive and useful events that I’ve been to; it’s all about sharing what you know with others, no matter how knowledgeable you are on the subject. BarCamp taught me that everyone has something worth talking about: you don’t need to be an expert to talk about the things that interest you. Besides that, the informality of the event creates a relaxed and fun environment, meaning there’s no pressure to give the “perfect” talk.
From 2007 to 2010 I attended all the BarCamps that I could, attempting to do sessions at all of them. Most weren’t very good or that well prepared (case in point: this video), but despite that I know that people enjoyed them. Plus every single time, I got just that little bit better at speaking in front of people.
That first BarCamp I went to? I ended up making some slides during the overnight and gave a last minute talk on the second day.
Hackdays – how to present in front of a lot of people
The other type of event I started attending around the same time were hackdays (also known as hackathons, although I personally really prefer the term ‘hackday’, but that’s a post for another time). At these you form teams for an entire weekend/24 hours to hack something together. At the end of the 24 hours, everyone gets together to present what they’ve built. And depending on the type of hackday, there are various prizes people can win.
Hackdays are a great place to try out new stuff and learn new skills. Just like with BarCamps, most people are extremely supportive and willing to help you learn. The first couple of hackdays I went to I ended up forming a team with friends and let them do the presenting. But as I went to more of them, I ended up having more ideas and hacks that I was did on my own. There were several early hackdays though where I didn’t end up presenting what I built, mainly cause I didn’t think my hacks were good enough. Why show how little I got done? Eventually though I realized that didn’t matter: you had an idea which you worked on for an entire weekended and you should show what you have done!
Doing these short pitches is one of the things that got me comfortable with speaking in front of lots of people. You typically only have a 1 or 2 minutes to talk through your idea, meaning you learn to focus on getting your point across quickly.
Writing blog posts – how to tell a story
I admit: not every blog post on this blog is of the highest storytelling quality, but doing this blog for the past 8 years has taught me a couple of things. Firstly, the ability to recognize what makes a good blog post. There’s a little voice in the back of my head constantly going “Wouldn’t that work as a post?” or “What would happen if you combine this idea with that one? New blog post!”. With almost everything I come across a part of me is thinking about how to turn it into a story. And the same applies when considering talks. Not every blog post works as a talk, and not every talk works as a post. But being able to identify there’s a story there that’s worth telling is the same in both cases.
The second thing is the ability of actually telling that story. Throughout the years I’ve slowly learnt what I like and look for in blog posts, and how to apply that to my own posts. The key things I’ve found is understanding who your audience is, why they should be reading your post and what are they taking away from it. From there, you can derive the main structure of your post, framing the story in the right way. I could do an entire post on storytelling alone, but being able to write blog posts and tell a good story has been super useful in creating talks.
I guess what I’m trying to get at with this post is this: right now you might feel like you’re never ever going to want to willingly give a presentation. There might be different reasons and fears keeping you from doing them. Figuring out exactly what fears you have though means that you can come up with smaller and easier ways to get over them. Scared of talking to people you don’t know? Start going to meetups with friends and try to talk to 1 new person. Scared of talking in front of a lot of people? Try to find something lowkey that allows you to talk in front of a big group.
We need more diverse speakers in our industry. But that also means we need more people and more events to help create those speakers.
So here’s my slightly belated New Year’s Resolution: I want my 2016 to be all about helping others get into public speaking. To start things off, I’m mentoring next Saturday at ScotlandJS’s Diversity Workshop at the FutureLearn offices. If you have a talk idea and what help developing it, sign up and come along! Even if you don’t have an idea or don’t feel like you’re ready to give a talk yet, feel free to come to the event – doing the workshop doesn’t mean you’re committing to giving a talk.
Besides that I’ll be organizing another BarCampLondon this year with Geeks of London. We don’t have a date, a venue or any sponsors yet, but I know how much BarCamp helped me in the past and I think it’s an event our community needs. I’ll also be organizing more Thunderclouds this year to get more people comfortable with and learning how to do lightning talks.
Giving a talk can be a big scary thing, but maybe if we all pitch in and help out, we can make it not that big and not that scary.
I love my collection of geeky earrings. I’ve been slowly adding to it over the past couple of years and they keep being noticed by people! Even though I’ve blogged about a couple of these in the past, I’ve been asked so often where I get my earrings from, so here’s a list of my favourites and where to get them.
Starting off with some disappointing news: these are my absolute favourites, but I’m really sad to discover the etsy store doesn’t exist anymore. At the time they were available in gold or silver colour from etsy store DoubleBJewelry for £8.35/$12.50. This is also the same place I got my origami airplane earrings from. I’ve contacted the store owner to see what happened with the store, so fingers crossed that it still exists somewhere!
Paragon & Renegade
Want the Mass Effect equivalent of an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulder? You can get these earrings from Sanshee.com for only $15.99.
Pow & Bam
The earrings to wear when you’re off to see the latest Marvel or DC movie! You can get them from etsy store laonato for only £7.90. This store has sooo many other geeky earrings to choose from – I’ve also got the UFO and Robot set and the Rocket and Planet set, while I’ve just ordered three new ones too: the Lego blocks, the Balloons and the Zigzag which sort of looks like the FutureLearn logo. See that’s what happens when you end up writing a post about pretty earrings: more pretty earrings.
Twitter @ & #
My final favourite pair is actually the first geeky set that I ever got (thanks Betsy!): Twitter earrings! It’s mainly thanks to these that I realized geeky earrings were a thing and ended up collecting them. You can get them from etsy store DaliaShamirJewelry for £27.
So what are your favourite geeky earrings? Are there any that I really should get? Or do you know of others that I should blog about? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.
Lovely ad about a girl and her snowman:
On Monday we watched this great talk by Lily Dart as a Talks We Love session at FutureLearn, where we pick a talk that someone has seen and then discuss with everyone what we might want to change in our own team. I love the points that Lily makes about how everyone in the company is responsible for the user experience, not just the “user experience” designers:
Last year on Halloween I thought I’d have some fun with my Twitter stream and live-tweeted an improvised story about me being in a zombie apocalypse type world. It was so much fun to do, that this year I thought I should do something a bit more elaborate. Only… I pretty much forgot about it up until last Friday. Oops.
I still thought it would be fun to do, so late Friday night I started planning. What would this story be about? I brainstormed some general storylines I could use: another zombie apocalypse, a virus outbreak, a vampire attack, a haunted mansion, an escape room (since I’m addicted to them)… hmm, what about an Alternate Reality Game leading to a haunted escape room? What if I could make it a bit more interactive and get people on Twitter helping me solve clues? That’s the initial idea I came up with, and I started creating several puzzles and riddles I could use during the day.
Reading the end result (see previous post) you can see that the initial idea did adapt a lot. I pretty much just started tweeting on Saturday without any real plan on how the story would evolve or even how it would end. That’s definitely the fun part though: coming up with the story on the fly and just improvising as you go along!
I did visit all the places I mention in the story though: all the photos I took were on the day itself, albeit an hour or so before I sent the tweets. I quickly realised in the morning that just staying still, waiting for people to respond with solutions, wasn’t that handy, especially since I was meeting with friends for lunch (hence the long and slightly awkward encounter with the Swedish tourists). So instead I started taking photos earlier and doing the tweets “delayed” and adaptable to those following the story. One of the things that I completely forgot though was how early it gets dark! There were a bunch of photos I took that I ended up not being able to use, cause of that.
In the end I had come up with way more material than I could use, and I ran out of time to use it all. I still have several prepared puzzles and riddles, and I’ve got an entire backstory figured out about what happened. Rather than throw it all away though, and leave the story hanging on an incomplete note, I thought it would be fun to take it a step further: could I continue the story over 2-4 Saturdays in the next couple of months, and actually plan it out better?
So that’s what I’ll be doing: The Others Episode 2 will take place in a few weeks time (I’ve got my eye on November 28th) and will pick up where the previous “episode” left off. It again will contain puzzles, riddles and ways for you as a reader to get involved in the story and influence its outcome. Want to hear more? Sign up below to get notified when the next episode starts!
It would be great to hear what people thought of the first episode. Did you like how it unfolded? Did you enjoy the puzzles? Did you follow along during the day/night, or did you read it at a later point? Did you like the Twitter polls? I really want to know what people enjoyed and what they didn’t, so I can adapt the next one!
I’d also love to get actual London museums or other interesting places/sights involved in this! I really like the idea of people learning more about the history of London through games likes this and it’s one of the things I want to highlight more in the following episodes. If anyone is working for a museum or something like that and would like to get involved, email me at email@example.com.
Last year on Halloween I thought I’d have some fun with my Twitter stream and live-tweeted an improvised story about me being in a zombie apocalypse type world. It was so much fun to do, that this year I thought I should do something a bit more elaborate. I’ve written a Behind The Scenes post about how I came up with the story and what I’ve planned for the next episodes, but if you’re just interested in the story, here’s Episode 1:
I can’t believe it’s been more than 1.5 months since I last blogged here! There has been so much stuff that has happened the past few months, that I still have to write about and I know I really should. Next to that I did a crazy Twitter story thing yesterday for Halloween (more about that later – but here’s the gist of it) and I realized: I miss writing.
I started this blog 8 years ago to highlight cool stuff that I came across – doing reviews of movies, books and games, featuring fun and interesting products like jewellery and posters, and sharing videos and other blog posts I like. Throughout those years though, I’ve noticed I love the art of telling a good story. Lately I’ve been mainly doing that through talks I’m giving at conferences and blog posts that I’m working on for the FutureLearn blog. I’ve rarely used this blog to tell those type of stories. Besides the sporadic longer thought pieces, my blog posts typically tend to be quick and easy posts that don’t require too much brain power to create (or read). And I think that might be the reason I’ve started drifting away from writing here.
So how can I change that? What should I do to get back into writing more here?
My “solution”? I’m going to see if I can my own take on the National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) challenge. Rather than do the traditional write a post every day, I thought I’d stick closer to the challenge of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): write 20,000 words on this blog this month.
I don’t want to focus on just creating more posts again, I want to focus on telling good stories.
So: challenge accepted! Wish me luck.
And by the way? This post? It’s only 304 words long. 1.52% done, 98.48% to go!
Two days ago I gave a talk at State of the Browser about having imposter syndrome and how to create a culture of learning. Here’s the video:
If you want to check out the full slides, here they are (without all the pretty animations though):
I was so nervous about it all, but I’m quite proud with how it all turned out. I think it’s the nicest bit of storytelling I’ve done and they’re the prettiest slides I’ve ever made! Plus it’s been awesome seeing the reactions and hearing the stories from people who have seen the talk.
Imposter syndrome is something that more and more people are talking about, but I think it tends to quite often be from the point of view of the individual: what are the things that we each should do to stop imposter syndrome happening in ourselves? Since there are so many people that have this though, I think it’s much more interesting to get people thinking about the things we call could do. I hope my talk has given some ideas of how we can help each other, but I’d love to hear what other people think!