How much are you willing to put up with?

6 minute read article Leadership   Technology   Agile   Wisdom Comments

A few years ago, when I was looking for a new opportunity, one of my friends reached out:

You should come work here. They could really use the help, but I gotta warn you, it’s a bit of a dumpster fire.

When I decided to apply, interview for, and accept a position at that particular company, I was looking forward to working with a good friend, and I was excited about making things better.

The Mother of All Dumpster Fires

It was only a matter of days before I realized that what he described as a “bit of a dumpster fire” was in fact much more than that, at least in my estimation. On day five, a mass layoff occurred. It came as a surprise to people, including my boss. Several members of his team (and my future team) were laid off. We found out from a Powerpoint presentation during an all-hands meeting.

I have since described it in much more colorful terms: a train carrying a load of dumpster fires that crashed into another dumpster fire, burning and spewing toxic chemicals, poisoning everyone and everything around.

Harsh? Maybe.

I ended up leaving after only a few months because the older I get, the less tolerance I have for bullshit and toxic environments and boy was this place toxic. I have never worked in a place where executives shit talked the staff as much as they did at that place. It was a systemic issue with the example set by the CTO. Awesome. I should be clear - it was never about the people I worked with, it was about leadership that let things get to a point of high toxicity and low morale.

Even the friend who convinced me to join left the company because he was making no progress and was tired of battling against the dysfunction and toxicity.

Tolerance Level

We both had different levels of what we were willing to tolerate. I’m willing to stay and fight if I believe I can make a difference. I didn’t see it there. He did, at least for a while. He strapped on the gas mask and waded in, trying to make things better, and to some extent, he did.

I have a lot of friends who have a high level of tolerance and are able to put their heads down, keep their mouths shut, and just grind it out. Occasionally they’ll come up for air, maybe bitch a little, but then go right back to it. I’ve always struggled with that. It has cost me at times, but the peace of mind I gained was always worth it.

A couple nights ago, a friend and I were chatting in Discord and he dropped this gem on me:

Life is too short to dread going to work. Fuck all that.

My goal at this stage of my career is to work with smart people on cool things. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, and I’m closer to that goal today than I have been in a few years.

The Dip

Many years ago, I read Seth Godin’s book ‘The Dip.’ It’s a great book; short and very easy to read. The premise of the book is that sometimes it’s ok to quit, but you need to know when; it’s strategic quitting.

We all go through the excitement of starting or learning something new. With almost everything we do, there comes a time when we end up hitting what he calls ‘The Dip’ - the trough where things start to get tough, where it feels like a slog.

It’s the space between being a beginner and mastering the subject.

It’s the space between starting a new meetup and the point where you have more return attendees than new each meeting.

It’s the space between starting a new job and finally understanding the culture and politics of a new employer.

It’s the space between picking up a guitar for the first time and having the callouses form on your finger tips so they stop hurting so much.

It’s the space between “Hello, World” and your first real world application.

It’s where the hard work occurs.

It’s where most of us quit whether we should or not, and most times before we really have enough information to make an informed decision.

One quote from early in the book has always stood out to me:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

Sometimes it’s ok to quit. Sometimes you realize it’s not worth spending time on, or losing sleep on, or spending all sorts of energy bitching about it.

It’s when the new meetup just can’t sustain itself.

It’s when you’re excited about a new job but then hit the wall of toxicity that you COULD try to change but realize it’ll take years to make any real impact and you’re not getting any younger and you just want to be able to sleep at night without having nightmares about work.

It’s that time when you’re learning to play guitar and your fingers are just starting to callous and you’re starting to make something resembling music but you realize it’s not bringing you joy.

There are the times when you realize the new language you’re learning doesn’t have the adoption level it needs to have to spend any more time on it.

Sticking With It

When you know the economy and job market are tough, but you know it’ll get better so you stick with the job even though you don’t feel productive because there’s not a ton to do and your confidence has been shaken by a recent failure. Stick with it because it WILL get better.

The times when what you’re doing really starts to sound like music! That’s when you stick with it.

There are those times when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, when the syntax and intricacies of a new language start to click into place, when you feel like you’re really getting it. Those are the times to stick.

Sometimes it’s tough to stick with the right stuff when it doesn’t feel right, when you’re in The Dip and things feel hopeless.

If it is worth doing, there’s probably a Dip

Being in a supportive environment helps. I can tolerate a lot more if I have people around me who want to see me succeed. These are the times I’m grateful for a solid network of friends and coworkers, when I’m grateful for a supportive family.

It’s those unsupportive, toxic environments that make it tough to tolerate even the small things because those small things add up to big things and the bigger things add up to even bigger things.

When I hear friends struggling with something, I ask them

How much can you tolerate?

When I am struggling, I ask myself the same question.

So? How much can you tolerate? Can you get through The Dip? Is it even worth it to try?

A Final Thought

I was about to publish this post when I remembered a talk my friend Elizabeth gave at the Kalamazoo X Conference years ago. It’s relevant.

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