A Different Ethos

Posted by Thomas Gideon on 24 February 2016

I attended my first JavaScript conference last year, in May. Over all the experience was great. The talks were interesting, the venue was amazing, the programming was incredible well done, and there was plenty of time to meet and chat with other developers. One moment very early on stands out in my memory, though.

After the opening keynote, I settled in to listen to my first talk. I tweeted about how I felt the speaker was inexpert and hoped their talk would improve with practice. One of the organizers immediately responded, to point out how difficult it can be even for an experienced speaker. They asked that everyone be supportive of the courage it took to give a talk. I back pedaled, emphasizing that I wasn't trying to be mean spirited. I was defensive, explaining I sincerely believed the speaker would get better with more practice. I was uncomfortable with acting without thought even if I could rationalize my intent. That dissonance was the first I felt when interacting with the current, larger community of JavaScript programmers.

To resolve that dissonance, I could have withdrawn, stuck to my meager rationalization. Mostly informed by some even earlier professional lessons about the value of empathy, I decided to take more care the rest of the weekend. I tried to pay attention to my intentions first then observe my actions closely to be sure they represented those intentions as well as I could manage. That conference experience was the first of many encounters with this community that have taught me some valuable lessons over this past year. Together they seemed to reveal a different sort of ethos from the development communities I came up in. Not everyone in my generation is a fan. You'll hear or read criticism of tone policing. Often the idea of meritocracy gets brought up, as if some vague notion of inherent merit absolves a person of being aware of how their words and actions affect others.

When I was younger, I was angry. A lot. Angry and if I am honest with myself, entitled. Because I had taught myself everything I knew. I built some considerable software projects with that knowledge. I guess I felt I was owed something, something more than the pay for doing that work. Meritocracy? In my experience I increasingly believe that is just another label for that sense of entitlement.

That realization took some time. I used to think merit was the same thing as hard work. It really isn't, hard work is hard work. Merit is entirely subjective and judgmental. That may be fine when considering situations where some qualitative basis for additional recognition might be required in a field of people working hard already. The vagueness of merit is a problem where it used to control entry into that field, suggesting that such gatekeeping is done on some objective, rational basis when it really is not.

A younger version of myself would not have agreed. At one time, I would have thought this was just arguing semantics. Clearer merit is an empirical measure. Any attempt to say otherwise is just sour grapes over not passing muster. Worse it is an attempt to dilute the term and how it is put into practice. With the benefit of experience, I realized a few things. First that I am not trying to persuade any one of anything. This distinction is about my own understanding and hence how it informs my own choices and actions. Second is that being clear eyed about what requires analytical reasoning versus emotional intelligence is very important to those choices and their effects on those around me.

I listened to a talk about non-violent communication that really crystallized this for me. This is a way of listening that tries to respect feelings without evaluation or judgment. It is a way of talking based on sharing observations and making active requests based on our own needs. I have been meaning to learn more but the idea that a tool like this can be effective while just being inwardly focused is powerful. It resonates with other things I have learned recently, about how we really cannot truly control anything that happens in our life, at most we can control our reactions. It may sound passive, like abdicating the driver's seat. Really it is an acknowledgement that the wheels, levers and buttons we can reach from that seat really don't amount to much. For our mental health and that of those we care about, far better to find ways to be calm, to be happy, and try to really understand the world around us as it is rather than how we would wish it to be.

I continue to learn from this community, mostly through talks by prominent members and interviews on podcasts. The core ethos isn't always the actual subject but what impresses me is that it almost always seems to be present in some way. I feel pretty fortunate to have stumbled into these opportunities to learn about something so ephemeral yet so critical, especially this late in my career. I am inspired to think very careful about the spaces I have a hand in creating, big and small, and all the things I have read over the years about how to instill and nourish the best sorts of ethos in them.