The Sweet Spot
On software development, engineering leadership, machine learning and all things shiny.

Overproduction and its discontents

I'm committing myself to an article a week on this blog while on paternity leave in early 2022. Today's topic is on how I'm recovering and reorienting myself after a disorienting 2021.

What made 2021 so difficult? 2020 was tough enough, but I felt like I ran it all on adrenaline and we survived. 2021 felt like it opened with a glimmer of hope but then it quickly fell apart again.

In some sense, 2021 was a big success. I got promoted at work; I had multiple speaking engagements and was able to move the needle on several important initiatives. I received validation of my work and my leadership. We welcomed our second child at the end of the year.

But in another sense, 2021 was incredibly draining. It was the year the world collectively realized that the pandemic was here to stay, and the psychic toll that took on us was heavy. It required we suffer through the ever-blurring line between personal and work life. It was hellish to figure out how to raise a young kid in these times.

One more: my family learned the news that my mom has late-stage pancreatic cancer. Suddenly the things that were important came into focus: family was the most important thing, and it was the most important thing to be close to her for however long we had.

And about our second-born: our first experience with our firstborn broke us - much of it due to our physical distance from family. We knew that the second time around needed to be closer to family - both for their help, but also their encouragement and love.

The conclusion was simple: we immediately made a move from Oakland to San Diego to be near my mom and the rest of our families in Southern California. Fortunately, there was the silver lining in COVID remote work - that such a move was possible without having to risk my job.

However, the increased concerns in my personal life started to also nudge into my work life. Working past 6PM wasn’t an option anymore - I was needed. I had to work later in the evenings to make up. I started to decline opportunities I would have jumped at before - conference speaking, or networking events. Side projects and professional reading lay fallow.

At first, it felt really shitty, like I was limiting my career growth due to the pesky realities of personal life. But upon reflection, I realized I was given the gift of focus, and the opportunity to say no.

Much of my early career had been characterized by me saying yes to any opportunity that came my way. The opportunity to jump into engineering management, or the opportunity to lead a big project for a big client, or take a speaking gig or do a conference talk. These things were all well and good. But the cost of saying yes to everything is that you are not in control of your own time, energy and emotional state.

I recently read an article by Steve Magness titled “Own Your Distractions So They Don’t Own You”. In it, the author discusses how our lizard brains fall prey to modern life in the “candy shop”, full of digital distraction. If we live without intentionality, we fritter away our energy and our health, far from our rooted center in healthy relationships.

So back to the work aspect of things. I titled this “Overproduction” because, well, I’ve frankly worked a lot this past year. Much of it has been incredibly fruitful, impactful and fulfilling. Some of it, if I’m being frank, has not been the best use of my time. I have been wondering how things would have turned out if I had been a better delegator, or used my “no” muscle more.

While I’m on paternity leave, my goal is to reorient myself both personally and professionally. I’ll speak to the latter here: I’m going to do a retrospective for myself on my work life. I need to figure out where I’m going, and what is worth my time, and what isn’t. I have less of it than ever these days, and the time I do have needs to be put to good use. We’ll see where that leads.

Until then, I have a few queued up posts that I’ve been working on that I’ll release weekly. Let me know what you think on Twitter at @andrewhao!

Liking what you read?

Accelerate your engineering leadership by receiving my monthly newsletter!

    At most 1 email a month. Unsubscribe at any time.