Looking After Yourself

There have been a few development focused blog posts in the last few months that drew attention to do-gooders themselves, how it’s good for your career prospects and your professional effectiveness if you keep yourself in a steady, happy frame of mind – exercise, go out, laugh, look after animals/plants and all that good stuff. It’s certainly well worth remembering, particularly as winter settles down and the summer holidays dwindle into a tiny spot in the recess of your memory. As a concession to this I’ve just agreed to be shown around a gym for the first time in my life which goes against absolutely everything I believe in/will almost certainly be embarrassing as I have to wear shorts.

This is more or less how ridiculously thin my legs are.

The people who tend to get into aid or development work tend to be fairly high achievers; educated, determined, adaptable and adventurous – this is probably why getting a good development job can be as much fun as eating a pinecone. This is great for the industry; not everyone can commit to do-goodery but lots of us still want to help, it’s terrific that those who get the money or endorsements the public sends out are (often) highly qualified and motivated. The other side of this is that people like the ones I just described tend not to be very good at admitting fallibility or asking anyone for help – as Mindfulness for NGOs puts it,

…it is often committed and conscientious people, and ‘those whose level of self-confidence is closely dependent on their work-performance’ who are likely to burnout. In aid work many are highly committed and may feel there is no room to nourish themselves amidst conflict, poverty, or natural disasters.

The overwhelming nature of the work puts third sector workers at risk of dismissing stresses and strains as insignificant in the face of the suffering of those they seek to help, probably to the point that they cease to be particularly functional in that task. This is a problem in any line of work but particularly in one that so relies on the goodwill of those outside the system to support it: donors are likely to be fairly unsympathetic if their money goes missing on a project because the NGO staff fall to pieces, chances are, in fact, that they won’t donate again in the future – that would be pretty much all she wrote for that project unless they have infinitely forgiving benefactors. Let’s face it, there aren’t enough of those to go around (as I’ve written about before), certainly not in those areas of the sector that aren’t connected to the ‘big’ causes (i.e. cancer, orphans, humanitarian disasters etc). It’s interesting to see new projects and papers focusing on generating support systems that fit within the third sector framework – this thesis makes fascinating reading if you have a spare half hour or so.

This isn’t a new problem

The blogosphere went into something of a flurry over this obnoxiously titled post which attacked people in the tech industry who complain about burnout or stress in the meat-grinder of Silicon Valley (or those who dare to accuse the tech industry of institutional prejudice). Here, again, was the idea that if you complain, if you find yourself struggling, it doesn’t matter because your job is so much bigger than your weak, human emotions.

If you work at a startup and you think you’re working too hard and sacrificing too much, find a job somewhere else that will cater to your needs… Work hard. Cry less. And realize you’re part of history.

I am something of a sceptic when it comes to the benefits of this aggressive, elitist, politicised version of the pursuit of innovation (and I am not alone in that). Working in this way tends to narrow ambition and imagination because obsessive, 24 hour focus inherently rejects outside views, ideas or, truth be told, any objectivity whatsoever. Sometimes, the results are great. Often, however, these rushed-out results are money-driven, ignorant of what users need (let alone want) and leads to an almost never ending series of updates and fixes that try to hide the fact that the product itself was utter arse. These products and outcomes are often the result of them being made in a very special sort of vacuum that allows its inhabitants to congratulate each other for activities that are largely beneficial only to themselves – exactly the complaint levelled against city traders.

It seems to me that not only does something of a focus on your own well-being make you likely to be able to work more effectively it also allows you a chance to step back from your project and focus on something else. A little distance and perspective is likely to make you reassess not just how to be more effective in a day-to-day setting but also to analyse what you’re useful for in a bigger scale: not just ‘how can I do this project well?’ but ‘what project is the best fit for this situation?’

  1. Do-gooders: Taking care of yourself is useful not indulgent. It’s even worth wearing shorts for.
  2. Donors: Perhaps the global transparency movement isn’t the only useful way of combating third sector waste.

2 thoughts on “Looking After Yourself

  1. Thank you for using my blog as a source. I agree 100% with this post. The dialogue surrounding technology workers’ rights and workers’ rights in general seems to be enigmatic and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Minorities are all too familiar with the struggle for workers’ rights, regardless of how the meaning of the word “minority” has changed over generations.

    It’s also interesting that you mention this notion of volunteerism. My partner proposed this idea to me: that volunteerism is the province of the enfranchised rich who can afford to volunteer, as opposed to the poor who cannot afford to work for free.

    I’m not sure where you’re from but Latinos have a word for the phenomenon of “Machismo” that dominates the Corporate American landscape. The movie American Psycho strikes at the root of this quite well. There is the notion of being a “hero” with one’s work, but it is in the manner, context, or framework of something insidious, competitive, and soulless. The easpouse’s epic LiveJournal indictment of the video games industry and Jamie Zawinski’s well documented time at Netscape Communications in the Silicon Valley culture are all prime examples.

    I wouldn’t mind watching all the machismo and all the blame-the-victim hypotheses go down in a fiery inferno. Burn out and crunch time are not productive. Want to maximize profits? Pay attention to your employees’ welfare. Make it safe for them to blow the whistle. Let them create. Google knows this, for all its faults. When will they learn?

  2. Yes. But it’s important to remember that EAWs’ tendency to overdo it and burn out isn’t just because we skew toward the type A and overachievey. Not many of our HR departments and management structures consider staff care to be a priority.

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