Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Let Go or Be Dragged

"Let go or be dragged"

Zen proverb

A few days back I read something on a Hacker News thread that kind of resonated with me:

I’m not going to claim to be the most workaholic person ever – I’ve certainly known a lot of people who work far harder than me. But I do recognize that I have this problem of emotional attachment to a project, especially if I’m the main person responsible for it. When working on anything you of course need a certain amount of drive or passion that commits you to the project and pushes you to do the best work you can, but there’s a line you can cross where it becomes unhealthy for you. It’s when the project and the stress that comes with it starts to take over your life, such that it starts eating up your personal time and you can’t get it out of your mind and maybe you even start having nightmares about it.

The key to realize this is happening and take a step back and think about whether you need to let go of things for a while. Maybe take some time off even. Learn to compartmentalize and set aside work when you leave the office. Emotional detachment is a skill I still have to learn and master, but it’s essential. Otherwise (as the quoted zen proverb states), you get dragged. That means the stress starts to cascade through your personal life and your health and that can’t be good for you. As the HN thread notes, work is not the end-all and be-all of life, and on your deathbed you won’t wish you had worked more.

“But how can I possibly scale back my involvement, there’s so much stuff to do!”. Delegate. Ask for help. Ask to adjust the schedule. Trust your team to get things done. Find a better approach. Regardless, you shouldn’t sacrifice your well-being for the sake of work. As the airline safety videos tell you, you have to take care of your own oxygen mask before taking care of others!

I actually find this to be a problem with me with personal matters as well, not just with work. I tend to get attached to particular problems or issues and won’t give it a rest until I’ve somehow managed to resolve the issue. Most of the time this isn’t a big problem (I rarely have big personal issues), but some time ago a close friend and I drifted apart because I was insisting that she should follow my advice. I don’t regret giving my advice – I still think I was right – but I do regret pushing so hard for it, it was her life to live, not mine. (This particular situation led to the creation of one of my personal rules: Don’t insist on helping people who don’t want to be helped.)

A small side note: I binged seasons 3-7 of Parks and Recreation lately (seasons 1-2 weren’t very good sadly). While I’ve always considered myself most similar to the characters of Ron (loves breakfast food, hates government inefficiency, prefers substance over form) and Ben (nerdy, loves pop culture and boardgames and Batman), I realized after this rewatch that I also embody one of the character Leslie’s worst traits. And that trait is the inability to detach from her work and even her personal problems. She gets a certain tunnel vision when she’s focused on a particular issue and tenaciously never lets go of it. Granted, she does get a lot of stuff done over the course of the series, but more than once the other characters have had to point out how her overzealousness creates problems.

So yes, letting go. I don’t consider myself super religious, but there’s a prayer I like, called the serenity prayer, that I think kind of embodies the kind of personal detachment I want to strive for:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

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