CocoaLove and CBT

I was lucky enough to get to CocoaLove last weekend (Cocoa is what people use to program Macs and iOS devices). Curtis Herbert from Philly Cocoaheads organized a great conference (with help of some amazing volunteers). CocoaLove was about what happens in the programmer and not about what happens in Xcode.

There was not a single technical presentation in the whole weekend. This made the talks very personal and, more often than not, completely about our psychology. The talks I liked the best were even more squarely in the wheel house of how emotions and automatic thinking affect us. Since the talks were of such quality, and also so personal, I bet that each attendee had a different subset of talks that really spoke to them.

You Are a Human Animal

William Van Hecke's talk Your App is Good and You Should Feel Good was an exploration of the human brain as a machine that has a lot of out-of-date features. He put forth the idea that through being aware of what your mind does well and where you need to find 'work arounds' that you can lead a happier work and home life. Being humble to the fact that you are a flawed human animal can lead you to a more compassionate way of taking care of yourself. 

William, specifically, talked about actions he took in order to reduce some of his uncontrollable / automatic responses. One was to change his view of Twitter so he never saw when someone joined Twitter and what their follower count was. He found he was treating people differently based on these factors without wanting to. Being humble to the fact he could not keep himself (or really his brain) from reading those numbers and then being biased he went ahead and just hid them (using a local css file).

William was hitting on something a bunch of the talks hit on. He was taking a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach to yourself. Hacking your thoughts and behaviors to achieve an outcome which reduces your suffering.

Bad Code ≠ Bad Person

In Laura Savino's talk Hate the Code, Love the Coder she hit on this same theme. Laura talked about her struggle with anger at other people's code. She also talked about concerns of how her work would be perceived by others. Both of these were terribly unproductive feelings for her and she, through life experience, began to try and find ways out of the feelings that made her suffer.

First she hit on something that I found really important in my years of middle management, which is to stop moralizing bad performance. When you think this person did bad work and so this person is bad you begin a destructive cycle. When you are a manager the cycle usually ends with the person quitting or you firing them.

The cycle involves you beginning to socially ostracize the person because of their poor work product. Laura's example of this was not wanting to invite someone to lunch just because of their opinion on how to handle string constants vs. just using literals.  When you socially begin to push someone away they will, most likely, lose motivation and begin doing worse work. Thats is where the cycle can lead to a firing or quitting (and a lot of hurt feelings all around!). The way to counteract this cycle is to embrace the person more. Regular one-on-one meetings can be helpful to keep it from getting terrible, but everyday conversation about non-work topics is even more important.

Laura didn't like how this made her feel, she knew that much, but had not figured out how to overcome the feelings. Practicing CBT folks know that anger is, for most of us, the hardest emotion to get control of. Her brother is, to put it mildly, an avid outdoorsman. She ended up helping do some trail maintenance. She was a beginner and found that even after she was taught how to do it she still sucked at it and needed lots of oversight and help. This gave her an emotional touch stone to remember what it feels like to be on the 'making poor code' side. It helped enliven her empathy.

This reminded me of something I was terrible at until my manager, Anna Chagnon, pointed it out to me. I tend to compare my greatest strengths against peers and employees. That isn't fair. She taught me to take each person and measure them as a person and not relative to yourself. Laura hit this theme as well saying that no matter how much you dislike their work product find something to like about them (even if its superficial).

Laura's last ah-ha moment was that by teaching someone something that you suddenly become an ally in their success. She found this when teaching foreign language, something she excels at, to normal ability students.

Laura's approach to finding ways to empathize and get into a sympathetic relationship with those that made her angry was amazing.

Luckily You Are Not What You Feel

Soroush Khanlou in his talk Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt hit on the theme of automatic talk and how it can cripple your spirit and productivity. He specifically talked about Imposter Syndrome and his journey working on a CBT approach to it. He did the cognitive approach by learning about the syndrome and learning about how to see his thoughts as something that did not define him, but instead as mis-firing of his thought process. (This is a wonderful skill to hone. You can't always control the thought, but often you can train yourself to not react as much to the thought.) He did the behavior approach by checking in with his manager more often through 1-1 chats which kept him grounded in the reality of the person who actually could fire him and not stuck in his mind's version of that relationship.

He reminded me of my own struggles with feelings, in my case anxiety, which kept me suffering. One of the tools which really helped me a lot is something called triple column technique which I learned from a wonderful CBT book called The Feeling Good Handbook (you can get it used on Amazon for pennies since its been around for 25 years). I highly recommend it for all of the above speakers and anyone who suffers more than they would like from negative self-talk or out-of-control feelings.

The basics of the technique is that you take those thoughts that make you suffer and pull apart what is irrational about them and then write a rational response. It sounds like affirmations, but it isn't. It is much more powerful. One of the things that is great about the technique is that after using it for a couple of weeks it begins to reduce the instances of particular automatic thoughts (or negative self-talk) that are causing you to suffer. Its also a wonderful adjunct to talk therapy. I have used an OmniOutliner document to do my triple column in since about 2006. I don't do it every day anymore, but knowing I have a tool that is powerful against my drunken monkey mind is very comforting.