December 22, 2010 – 10:52 am

One of the things I’m thankful for – whether it’s from friends, illness acquaintances, or strangers, conversations or the written word – is when someone else holds up a mirror to your thoughts and lets you see more clearly what you’re thinking, and lets you know – by doing so – that you are not alone.

So, Sumana:

My birth family told me I could and should achieve great things, write books, get a Ph.D., without taking risks. Not all together like that, of course, that would sound ridiculous. And I was just precocious enough to be ridiculous to everyone normal, but never truly iconoclastic and self-propelled and genius-level enough; or maybe I would have been, if they’d given me space or freedom or uninterrupted solitude, or if I’d felt I had enough agency to take it myself. And oh what a textbook case I had of extrinsic motivation destroying intrinsic.

I mean, you never really know, right? Could you have done more under different circumstances, or is that just an excuse for not trying hard enough, or (more terrifying yet) not being smart enough to do it anyway – when you were younger? How much is nature, how much is nurture?

Big giant honkin’ fear of failure. Skill acquisition never made systematic sense to me; it was either under-my-nose No Big Deal or incomprehensible deep magic… debugging exhausted and humiliated me; I read it as constant failure topped by a meager teaspoon of success, instead of enjoying the challenge and reading each quest as a hero’s journey. When I read entrepreneurs saying that of course you’ll fail the first time you try something hard, or a comedian or chef saying that it’s freeing to have a fresh opportunity to fail and improve in every set and every dish, their perspective feels disorienting and freeing.

It was weird to watch my transition from intellectually knowing that FAIL FASTER! works for learning (high school) but not actually knowing how to do it when it counted (most of college), how to fail deeply rather than the little “whoops, I made a cute mistake doing things that surpass what I’m supposed to be able to do right now – I’ve stumbled but I’m still ridiculously far ahead!” mistakes that didn’t take me beyond my comfort zone at all – to falling behind to the point where I couldn’t hide or compensate for it any longer (end of college) to learning – slowly, painfully, still learning – how to find my metric for success and joy and motivation from within myself, rather than from the thousands of pressures that still slam against me from every direction every day.

And Terri, both for this post and the questions and uncertainty she had about whether it was worth posting:

…I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD…

You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority… Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?

So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.

Why don’t I do more for these causes?

Why? Because I’m tired. I want to live. I want to be myself and live. I want to be a {female, deaf, whatever} {engineer, hacker, FOSS contributor, geek, whatever} without having to ACTIVELY FIGHT! for the rights of $minoritygroup all the time. And look – I can’t be the only one who sometimes thinks this way: “If being a vocal advocate for $minority in $foo is an expected part of the job description when I take on $foo, I’m not gonna do it in the first place – why do I get all the extra baggage?” Except I’m part of the group that loved $foo more than they hated activism. So how many went the other way?

I know people say that things won’t change unless people speak up and take action, and they are right. But sometimes, just being there – even if you’re quiet – is enough, and has to be enough. Not enough when one straw more will break you; nobody owns your time and energy like that. Enough when you want it to be enough. Enough when you don’t want to do it in the first place.

I’d like to someday live my life and make my choices without guilt. I’ll have to be incredibly centered and internally strong for that, though; as a disabled minority female in tech and open source, plus Chinese-Filipino Catholic and dating someone who’s neither Chinese nor Catholic via a process markedly different from the style of courtship my family understands, I haven’t the slightest idea what it’s like to not have to weigh your choices against expectations at every turn. I’d like to have a day when I don’t have to choose between hurting myself, hurting somebody else, or blocking out one or more of the worlds I live in. I don’t expect that day to ever come, though. But it doesn’t mean I won’t keep working on it intermittently.

Despite the way this post sounds, I actually had a good day – Thailand is beautiful. More on that, perhaps, some other time.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Mirrors”

  2. I can’t possibly speak for anyone else, but I know if it weren’t for activism I wouldn’t have stuck with this field this long. If I were quietly sitting by myself and facing this culture, I’d have quietly slinked away, or else gone mad thinking the problem was me.

    I admire all the people who can quietly just *be* there; they have a level of strength and self-assurance that I lack. I need to have stereotype threat to fall back on when I feel incompetent for not being able to accomplish tasks that, chances are, no one else here was going to be able to do anyway. When I feel isolated and alone, or have to worry about going out to lunch with a married male coworker because “what if he thinks…” and “what if someone else thinks…”, or find my voice ignored in favor of those a register or two lower, I need to understand, intellectually, what the framework I’m operating in is.

    I think it’s a little different online. I could hide if I wanted to and even if I’m explicit about my gender (my twitter picture is non-subtle), I get people who have clearly forgotten that I don’t look like them. So online, mostly I feel invisible. In the physical world, though, I spend most of my life feeling like I don’t belong.

    Activism can certainly take time and effort, if that’s how you want to do it. It can be as simple as not ignoring things that happen in front of you, and in those situations I don’t think anyone can say for anyone else which is easier.

    I am on devchix, and I’m going to attend a new Women In Gaming group in Boston, but mostly I seek out those places because I want to have discussions that I should be able to have in mixed-gendered environments but can’t.

    By Beth on Dec 22, 2010

  3. pass it on

    By math games for kids on Jan 4, 2011

What do you think?