December 21, 2019

Learning From Pain

I bombed a job interview yesterday. It was rough.

My work is in software engineering, a field with notoriously difficult interviews. Typically, interviewees are asked to code solutions to tough problems (which usually have little to do with the day to day work) while being judged by individuals who have power over your acceptance into (or rejection from) The Club. If accepted into The Club you'll likely get great benefits, flexibility and high pay. The Club is tight-nit and probably meets up once or twice a year in some amazing place just to hang out. All expenses paid.

This may sound sarcastic but I'm also being truthful. These are really good jobs and a lot of people want them. The barrier is understandably high. It means that interviewers are judging carefully and constantly. They want to see how you problem solve. How you collaborate. How you deal with tough problems and if you know when to ask for help. Getting the right answer isn't always the most important thing but it does help.

Now, I'm an introverted and shy person. I'm also what Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby, calls a "slow thinker." When asked to solve a problem, I need time and space to reflect on it. If I know I'm being watched I feel like I'm being judged and if I feel like I'm being judged my mind will be consumed by it, leaving no space for contemplation.

This all means that, for me, interviewing is harder than any job I've ever had.

Judgement Is Scary

A couple years ago, when I decided I was going to attempt to climb Denali, it wasn't the mountain that scared me most, it was the people. I settled on doing it guided, which means experienced guides and random climbing partners. What would these people be like? Surely they'd all be more experienced than me and it would only be a matter of time before I made a stupid (or even dangerous) mistake in front of them, right?

I experience variations of this fear everywhere, not just the high stakes areas of life. Having to make a phone call to someone I don't know well. Interacting with my neighbors. Traveling to an unfamiliar place. Going to the grocery store in the tiny town I grew up in knowing that I'll run into someone I haven't spoken to in years. These all scare me.

Pain (And Fear) Is A Symptom

At it's most basic level, pain is either a sign that something is wrong and we need to change course or that we're on track and should lean in.

In his book Principles: Life and Work, modern day philosopher-investor Ray Dalio says that "pain + reflection = progress." Pain, be it from judgement, from failure, from hurting someone you love or from filleting your hand with a cheese grater, can spur positive action and growth.

For Denali, I used the fear I felt (and the pain it caused) to clarify how badly I wanted it. I was able to use that clarity to stack the deck in my favor by hiring a personal trainer, practicing the hell out of my rope and rescue skills and doing my best to talk to everyone on the trip as much as possible months in advance. In the end, I was a strong member of the team. Someone the guides sought out to lead often and help with decision making when necessary.

When we understand why something hurts so much we can use that knowledge to progress as both an individual and as a member of humanity. Sometimes it won't take much reflection (i.e. change your damn cheese grating technique!) but often it'll take a lot of thought...

Why did I say that hurtful thing to my partner?

Why does this failure to prove myself cause so much distress?

Digging deep enough can raise some seriously existential quandaries. It's scary but exciting. Constantly trying to answer these tough questions nudges us onto a virtuous path and what more could we ever hope to achieve than a virtuous life?

So, if you're feeling pain, ask the tough questions. Reflect. Perhaps you're on track after all and with new clarity you can be more sure of it than ever. If you really want the thing, do the work! The pain means you're headed somewhere and there's room for improvement. However, if you're just grating your hand into the chili, maybe it's time to try something different.

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