069: Identity Is An Arrow with Avdi Grimm

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Support for the Greater Than Code podcast comes from the O’Reilly Fluent and Velocity conferences. Join over 4,000 developers and engineers in San Jose, California, June 11 – 14th. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to attend 2 essential technology conferences under one roof! Learn more about the Super Bronze pass at oreilly.com/bettertogether.


Janelle Klein | Rein Henrichs | Coraline Ada Ehmke | Jessica Kerr

Guest Starring:

Avdi Grimm: @avdi | avdi.codes | RubyTapas

Greater Than Code Episode 002:
Neutralizing Impostor Syndrome with Avdi Grimm

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Show Notes:

01:52 – Avdi’s Superpower: The Power of Inspiration, RubyConfIndia, and International Conferences vs Domestic

04:28 – The Pursuit of a Fixed Life: Achieving or Avoiding Stasis

Blog Post: I was trying to end my life

08:40 – Living in the Future and Having Goals

16:36 – Hitting Career Stasis vs Identity Stasis

25:23 – Becoming a Visible Person in Tech

31:27 – Encouraging and Inspiring People to Find Their Potential and Value

44:23 – Being Authentic and Transparent to the World


Coraline: Identity matters.

Rein: How identity and society interact: Symbolic Interactionism. Also, having therapeutic relationships.

Jessica: Two energies, internally, of being ‘grounded’ and ‘inspired’ and those feeding into ‘connection’, together. Also, we have identity in the now and in the future.

The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Janelle: Being present and listening, connecting, and internalizing to form new thoughts you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Avdi: Identity in the now and identity in the future forms an arrow.


CORALINE:  Support for the Greater Than Code podcast comes from the O’Reilly Fluent and Velocity Conferences. Join over 4,000 developers and engineers in San Jose, California June 11th to 14th. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to attend two essential technology conferences under one roof. Learn more about the Super Bronze pass at OReilly.com/BetterTogether.

JANELLE:  Hi and welcome to episode 69 of Greater Than Code. And I’m Janelle Klein and here with my fabulous co-host, Rein Henrichs.

REIN:  Fabulous, I like that. Thank you. I am here with Coraline Ehmke.

CORALINE:  And we have a great guest on the program today. I’m super excited. We have Avdi Grimm! Avdi, why don’t you introduce yourself?

AVDI:  Hi. I’m Avdi. And I think this is my second time on the show. So, I’m really happy to be back. And I don’t know what I am, title-wise. I know you’re supposed to have a title on these things. But what I stick on my blog right now is Code Minister. And sometimes that feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. But mostly I run my mouth about software and other things.

CORALINE:  You’ve been known to write a book or two.

AVDI:  I have. I’ve written a few books, mostly, pretty much all about Ruby. And I don’t know. I speak at conferences. And I run a subscription screencast service, which is actually my day job for Ruby developers. That’s called Ruby Tapas and it can be found at RubyTapas.com. And I’m incredibly good at promoting my own stuff, as you can see.

CORALINE:  Avdi, we’re really happy to have you back. We had a great conversation last time and we have some new stuff to talk about today that I’m looking forward to. And if I had my way, you’d be a guest on the podcast every week. So Avdi, you’ve answered this question before, but I think your answer has changed. What is your superpower and how did you develop it?

AVDI:  What I would like my superpower to be I think is the power of inspiring people. I don’t feel super qualified to say whether I actually have that superpower. I think that’s for other people to decide. But I certainly try to have it.

REIN:  Well, as one data point, you have inspired me in a number of ways.

AVDI:  Yay!

CORALINE:  So, what are you doing these days?

AVDI:  Besides running my screencast, I’m also running a course right now on ‘The Object-Oriented Mindset’. Besides that, I am learning to be a single dad, trying to learn to be a master of slow cooker dinners, and just generally not having a lot of time.

CORALINE:  You were recently at RubyConf India, right?

AVDI:  Yes. Yes, I just got back from that.

CORALINE:  What was that like?

AVDI:  It was a lot of fun. It was a very interesting experience for me personally because it was the first time I’d been back to India since I was 13 years old. I visited a few times as a child. And so, it was seeing a different part of India. It was seeing a different side of India, because I’d never really seen the international business traveler side of India before. And it was also seeing India 25 years later. And it was really, really terrific. More familiar than I actually kind of expected it to be. And also really cool coming back and just getting to hang out with the Ruby community there, which is super, super gung-ho and really, really welcoming and nice.

CORALINE:  One of the things that strikes me about international conferences is how the tenor of those conferences is really tied to the programming culture in that particular country. I know RubyKaigi for example is like an extremely technical conference whereas Ruby conferences in the States tend to have a blend of so-called soft and hard talks. What was the conference like in India?

AVDI:  It really felt a lot like the conferences that I went to in the States several years ago, back when they were still more technically-oriented. There was some human-side stuff but it was pretty technical. And everyone’s still very excited about the language. And yeah, it kind of felt like a little bit of a time travel, in a good way.

CORALINE:  Does that mean you miss the conferences being more technical?

AVDI:  I don’t know. Something could feel like a trip back without being like, “Oh, I wish things were that way.” It was good for what it is. And I like the way conferences have gotten since then over here. I don’t know. It all works. I don’t have strong opinions, if you can’t tell. At least not about this. I have strong opinions about some things.

JANELLE:  So recently, I read this blog post you wrote titled ‘I was trying to end my life’. Will you mind explaining a little bit about this? It’s one of those things that was jarring and made me rethink so many things. So, I’d love to dig into that.

AVDI:  Yeah. I should specify that this was one of my personal journal blog posts. This was not a technical blog post at all. It came out of a lot of introspecting and reconsidering that I’ve been doing lately as a result of personal and family changes in my life. And I realized that I had spent maybe 15 or so years of my life on a very specific track. I had been very goal-oriented. I didn’t see myself as like those goal-oriented people. But I really had been. And it was all about achieving stasis, achieving a very fixed point. I wanted to have a very specific way of living in the world and way of living with my family. And I wanted to have a house on the hill in the woods with a big family around me. And I wanted to sort of retreat away from the world and up above the world a little bit and move into this lifestyle of more contemplation and thinking and writing. And I think I had really looked at other people who did that who seemed like they made a shift like that at some point in their lives with a certain amount of envy. Except I had that envy from when I was very young. And I was really just trying to build everything I had done, everything career-wise that I had done, was just trying to build towards this fixed point past which nothing would change. And I made it there. I got to that point. And then things fell apart. But as a result of things falling apart, I realized that maybe trying to pursue that kind of stasis was not such a good idea in the first place.

JANELLE:  Building toward a fixed point. It’s interesting to me because in my own life, I specifically shot for a goal, if you will, that I couldn’t reach within my lifetime. It would take multiple generations even to reach. And I think one of the reasons for that was avoiding this goal of stasis. A friend of mine recently described me as a knowledge optimizer in that I get joy and satisfaction out of new learning, new clarity, new movement, if you will, within myself. And so, I started shifting the way that I think about myself interacting with the world as like an arrow. And so, my definition of perfection became this perfect arrow, if you will, as opposed to a perfect goal. It was all oriented toward, “How do I optimize for movement?” And I wish Jessica were here. Hopefully she’ll show up pretty soon. But we’ve spent a lot of time talking about stasis. And the idea of stasis is mathematically death.

And recently I found myself in this mode where I was chasing this future, chasing this goal that was so far out there though that I was missing my whole life. And my head was always in the future instead of being present in the moment and stuff, too. And it seems like there’s a lot of overlap in terms of how the games we play, how the goals we choose, end up affecting our experience right now. And so, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this idea. I know I’m kind of like rambling now. I don’t even know where I’m necessarily going with this. But it seems like the games that we play, whether that game be a fixed goal, a fixed point in time, or some arrow that we try and achieve, some identity that we try and achieve – it ends up fundamentally framing and changing our first person experience. I’m wondering how that pursuit of stasis affects you on a day-to-day basis. How do you feel like you experience life?

AVDI:  You know, I really liked what you said about – well, I really identify with what you said about living in the future. Because that’s one of the other realizations that I’ve had, is that I’ve spent a lot of time living in the future mentally. And I think that’s part of the answer to your question. My experience of life as a result of this pursuit of a fixed point, of a very set idea of what my life would look like meant that I spent a whole lot of time mentally living in that future. Dreaming of what that would look like, how it would feel.

There are folks that will say that in order to achieve something in life, you really have to visualize. And I think I was really good at visualizing it. But I think it’s also important to time-box your visualization, I guess, because I think for me it was always very easy to slip into a mindset of, “I’m not going to do anything right now.” None of these fun things that I can imagine doing in that life, I’m not going to try to do any of them now. I’m just going to put them all off. I’m going to put off all these activities with the kids. I’m going to put off these idealized picture of maybe playing a board game with the kids everyday or something like that, or going hiking every week with them, or things like that. And it was very easy to just put all of that off. And it wasn’t just stuff with the kids. It was everything. Anything that was part of that idealized future life was like, “Well, I can just put that in the box with all the other future stuff and fantasize about it but not bother doing it now.” Because right now it’s all about the effort. It’s all about the push. It’s all about the striving. It’s all about the countdown and just getting to the end of this trail.

CORALINE:  This is really interesting to me, because I am not generally speaking a goal-oriented person. But I’ve realized through this conversation that I actually have two goals now. The first goal is finishing my first book. And the second goal comes from an experience I had with my girlfriend when we were in Sweden over New Year’s Eve. We kind of decided that when I’m done with my current job, I would move to Sweden with her and we would buy a house in the forest. And I haven’t really thought about what life would be like after I get there. But knowing that there is this thing that I want to do in the future, I’m finding really motivating because I feel like I’ve been very present in my life and very present with the things that I work on. But this feels like for the first time, I’m working towards something. And that’s really an unusual kind of feeling for me.

AVDI:  Yeah, having a goal, it’s a double-edged sword, I think. Because you’re right. It can be really empowering and it can really make good thing happen. I can look back at my life and I can see all of the things that flowed out of my having this goal. I can see the wonderful changes that happened to my career because I realized that my career as it stood at one point would not be sufficient to get me there. And I can see all of the human interactions that I’ve had as a result of deliberately raising my profile as part of pursuing this goal. And I just can see myself becoming more of a competent and ‘on top of things’ person as a result of needing to make this happen. So, it’s hard to say, “Oh, I regret pushing so hard towards that point of stasis,” because all of these things have come out of it. But at the same time, I can also look back and see I spent a lot of time, I spent a lot of those years really just living in the future and not living that moment.

REIN:  What I’m hearing from a few people here is that there’s a tension between living in the now, being present in the current moment – which you can only feel things now, so if you want to be in touch with your feelings, you have to be present – versus living in the future, planning for the future.

JANELLE:  Do you find joy in the moment in living in your dreams in the future?

AVDI:  No. I mean, if you’re talking about like, I haven’t gotten there and I’m imagining it, not really, no.

JANELLE:  So, it’s just tension, dissonance, like, “What is now isn’t good enough,” that drives you…

AVDI:  Yeah. It’s almost comparable to the new message notification on Facebook and every other app under the sun. So, I was reading about dopamine. And apparently dopamine isn’t – it was originally billed as the pleasure chemical or whatever. But it’s really more complicated than that. It’s really more like triggers expectation, not pleasure. And it’s the same kind of thing. It’s like you’re getting expectation. And that makes you want more expectation. But you’re not actually getting the pleasure.

JANELLE:  That’s really interesting. Because I think one thing that’s different is that when I’ve gotten lost in my dreams in future-land, I found myself getting lots of joy out of dreaming. Like imagining this world in my head and getting so lost in that, that in a way, that I could be present in my dreams, if that makes sense.

REIN:  Virginia Satir talks about there being two kinds of energies. There’s the energy of being grounded and then there’s the energy of inspiration. And that these two energies combine – and this is a little bit [wee-wee] but it resonates with me somewhat – these two energies combine to create a third energy which is the energy of being connected to other people. I’m wondering if that relates to being grounded in the present moment but being inspired by our goals for the future and how that opens up possibilities for us.

AVDI:  That seems really plausible. I don’t feel like I have good insights beyond that about this right now, because I feel like I have good experience of failing at a lot of this stuff recently and not good experiences of finding a better balance.

JANELLE:  I think the thing is that when you have this goal in the future, you have that pull, that drive, that in the moment you feel that motivation. You feel alive because of that pull. And so, I think when we get to a point, you mentioned hitting that point where the thing was done. You hit that endpoint and then it’s like, “What now? I have no more goal.” And my husband the other day was talking about, he’d spent years working on perfecting build deployment infrastructure tooling and figuring out how to solve this set of problems in a clean, elegant way. And he’s been kind of working and obsessed with this problem for years. And then I came back from vacation and he’s like, figured it out. It’s beautiful. I don’t know what I’m going to do next. It was like this endpoint that all of his passion was all of a sudden gone until he had to find the next thing.

AVDI:  Yeah. So, I will say that I have had that experience in software a lot. I’ve had that experience of once I solve the problem, it’s not interesting anymore and I just feel a little bit disappointed. I did not experience – reaching my goals, I didn’t experience that, that way. Hitting the goal I think felt awesome. And living in it felt really great. And it didn’t fall apart because suddenly I was dissatisfied or anything like that. But at the same time, I will say that living in it did not feel terribly generative. I found myself going around and around on a lot of ideas, but not producing as much as I had in moments of scrabbling and desperation, which is a very difficult realization for me. Because I really don’t like the idea that in order to get things done, I need to be in one of those moments of scrabbling and desperation. But yeah, it did feel like I started going around in circles a bit more, just in my ideas and what I wanted to do next. It didn’t feel bad. It felt good to be there. But in retrospect, if I had been there for a long time, I think my output would have stagnated. And I think that’s been one of the realizations of seeing it fall apart is realizing that maybe it wasn’t as good for me as I thought it was.

JANELLE:  One thing that seems fundamentally different here is in the case of software and solving a problem and hitting some endpoint with a problem. It’s fundamentally different than hitting some endpoint with your identity. And I think that’s where this stands out to me of, if I have a picture of who I am and who I’m supposed to be and I’m aiming to check off all those boxes so I am that thing, it’s like trying to define everything you are in terms of this system of shapes. That seems to be the main contrast I am drawing here, is there’s a fundamental difference between pursuing stasis in your identity versus pursuing stasis in some kind of software goal. Do you feel like these things that you’ve sort of defined yourself as your identity capture who you are? Or do you find yourself wanting to sort of shed that as a skin, if you will?

AVDI:  I think the latter. Now, I find myself kind of wanting to shed some of that. I think in my personal development it was very easy to cloak some of my desires in the guise of working towards that goal. So, I was able to tell myself that all of the career moves I was making and everything else was solely in service of bringing my family to a certain point. And I think that I’ve shortchanged myself to some degree in that, because I would not admit to myself that I had work I wanted to do in the world beyond my family. I had dials that I wanted to move that really had very little to do with my family. And it’s actually still very difficult for me to say stuff like that, because I’ve spent a very long time defining myself in terms of, “I do what I do to reach this point with my family, full stop.”

REIN:  It sounds like we all have some agreement that a way that we like to live is to be moving towards a goal that inspires us while enjoying the journey along the way. And that if any of those pieces are missing, then something feels missing. It’s hard to [inaudible] where you are if you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t think that you’ll be in a better place when you get there.

CORALINE:  When I started my transition, I was working with a therapist, a gender therapist. Actually, this was before I started my transition. It was when I was trying to decide if transition was going to be a good thing for me. And once I started, I described the experience I was having to her as falling down a mountain. I felt like I suddenly had all this momentum and I really couldn’t control it. And it was pretty scary, the rate at which change was happening, the rate at which my identity was shifting was accelerating and unstoppable. And I was happy for the outcome, for the eventual outcome that I could see but the process was very scary. And she said to me, “Coraline, don’t fall down the mountain. Stop and enjoy the view along the way.” And I really tried to do that. I think I lied when I said I’m not a goal-oriented person because I have had some pretty big goals in my life, actually. One of the things I worried about after I completed my transition was I worried that I would feel ungrounded. I had this big change I wanted to make and it’s one of the biggest changes that you can make. And I was worried that on the other side of that, I would feel like I was lacking in motivation. What I’ve actually discovered is that identity is not static. And I achieved a transformation that I wanted. But the transformation is still happening, just in smaller and less drastic ways.

REIN:  So, when you were talking about falling down the mountain, it seemed like you’d go whichever way you wanted. Was that like possibilities?

CORALINE:  No. I couldn’t go where I wanted. I was…

REIN:  So, you had a lot of momentum but you couldn’t control it?

CORALINE:  Exactly, exactly.

REIN:  What was downhill? I’m trying to understand. What did falling mean?

CORALINE:  It was gravity. I was being pulled. Like once I decided the direction that I wanted to go in, gravity became this ever-growing force pulling me toward that point.

REIN:  So, you were sort of like a snowball.

CORALINE:  Yeah. Yeah, very much so. And I felt like I couldn’t control it because one thing had to happen after another. I started hormones. My body started changing. That set a timer on how long I could present male in the world without people wondering why I had breasts. This whole chain reaction started happening. And I was accelerating toward a point that I wanted to get to. But I felt very out of control of the process.

REIN:  I think you just unlocked a really important thing, which is that feeling of control that we have in the present.

CORALINE:  Do you think we really have control in the present or is that an illusion?

REIN:  I think we have control over some things and when we lose that feeling of control – we can often have control over our reactions to the things that happen to us – and when we lose that feeling of control, it can be very disorienting.

CORALINE:  My friend [Oren Shaw] related something that – we were talking about emotions and feeling. We were talking about depression in particular – and she said her therapist gave her this tool, this way of thinking about emotions. You can picture yourself in a train station. And your emotions are the trains that are inbound and outbound. And the train is there and you can see the train. But it’s up to you as to whether or not you get on it and how far you ride it.

JANELLE:  I think this also goes back to the identity thing of having a crisp identity, having a story that we’re aiming for. The perfect picket fences, the life in the woods, whatever it is. We’ve got this story of how the future is going to go and that gives us a sense of control over our life. If we’ve got a clear, crisp vision that we’re aiming for, if all the little pieces that happen along the way fall in support of that vision, doesn’t that give us a sense of control over our life?

AVDI:  It does, and that was very much a part of it for me. It was very much about having a sense of control. Having a sense of impact, a sense of, “I can make a plan and I can execute it.” I can actually cause this thing to happen in the world. You know, when it comes to identity, that’s definitely one of the things that’s come out of it. You were talking about having a crisp sense of identity. And I think one of the realizations that I’ve had as fallout from this is just that I don’t think that’s a thing that I can really reasonably have. I’ve pursued it for a long time. You know, I tried over and over. I think this was something else that I wrote around the time that I wrote that article, is that I’ve tried over and over in my life to ask, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I now? Who do I want to be? Who am I now?” And I think I’ve finally realized that it’s a pointless question. There’s only what I’m doing right now. That’s it.

JESSICA:  Or where am I going? What am I doing differently?

AVDI:  Yeah. How am I course-correcting?

JANELLE:  Yeah. I found myself asking the same question over and over again as well. But I haven’t found it to come to a point of pointlessness. It’s more so that I started redefining the way that I defined things as opposed to trying to put myself into categories to define, “What are my vectors? What are my first principles? What do I believe in? How do I see the world?” Those are the kinds of things that I started – because at the end of the day, everyone we interact with in the world, we simplify via some kind of mechanisms of identity to make sense of people, to make sense of ourselves, to interact with the world. And it’s just part of being human. You can’t take that sense-making layer away. So, I think when we’re asking these questions over and over again in the same way that in software we shift from practices to first principles, I think we need to do the same thing with identity where we start off trying to define things in terms of ourselves, in terms of what we’re doing, how we’re acting, and putting ourselves into categories. But at some point we have to evolve toward identity as first principles, identity as vectors of how we are changing, how we are flowing, what type of impact we are having by the way that we are being in the world.

AVDI:  Yeah, that makes sense.

CORALINE:  Avdi, you said that one of your goals earlier on was becoming a visible person in tech. And you’ve certainly achieved that goal. You’re very well-known, especially in the Ruby community. I’m curious as to what you thought that would be like versus the reality of what it’s actually like.

AVDI:  Okay, good question. And I’ll rollback a little bit and I’ll say I hear, I’ve seen a lot of origin stories of visible people in tech or in any environment that say, they go something like “This was all sort of a surprise to me. I didn’t expect this to happen. It just sort of happened.” And it’s true that for me, that was not the case. It was something that I did choose to cultivate. And we can talk about the why’s and wherefore’s if you want. But as far as your question, what did I think it would be like versus what is it like, I don’t think that there’s too much of a difference. I don’t think there’s too much of a divide or a space between what I imagined and what it is. I think I was reasonably well-prepared for what I was getting into.

CORALINE:  I feel like I was trying to become more visible and more public. And I didn’t anticipate the amount of abuse and harassment I would have to put up with as a result. But I have no regrets. And one of the side-effects that I was hoping for would be the ability to travel a lot more, because I love traveling. And I’ve been all over the world now and I continue to travel. So, that’s been very good for me. But were there any downsides to becoming well-known that you’ve experienced?

AVDI:  It’s difficult to identify a significant one. I have been extraordinarily lucky and privileged in my own career so far. There are parts of it that I set myself to, but I certainly, I couldn’t set an intention not to be harassed. And yet here I am for the most part not harassed. And like I said, that’s just purely luck and privilege. Okay. Downsides. And this may just be me. This may not be what it’s like for other people. When somebody says to me, “I really liked that thing you did,” or, “That thing you did changed my life,” which I’m incredibly lucky to hear very often, what I hear in my head is, “Now you have to exceed that. Now you have to do something better.” Rationally, I know that’s not what they’re saying. But that’s what I hear. So, if you want to identify a downside or at least a difficult side, I guess it’s that. It’s the sense sometimes that I’m only as good as whatever I did yesterday. And if I blew somebody’s mind with a talk or something, then I need to find some way of blowing it further open the next time around. And I don’t think that that’s really a 100% bad thing. But it can certainly, if you’re not careful, it can get to you.

JESSICA:  Maybe it’s their turn to blow yours.

AVDI:  Yeah. And that’s something that I like doing a lot, is just encouraging. One of the wonderful things about being, having a higher profile is you get a lot of opportunities to encourage other people and to lift up other people. You get to see, “Okay, I can see the potential.” Somebody thinks that they have nothing to say but they clearly have something to say and being able to say, “You know, you really need to get up here and start saying what you have to say,” is a wonderful position to be in. And it’s just a privilege to watch that happening.

REIN:  One thing that I think is interesting to me about this idea that you have to do better than you did yesterday is that this implies that there’s just one direction that we’re moving in. That doing better just means going farther in that direction.

AVDI:  Well, I should clarify that it doesn’t mean that to me.

REIN:  Okay.

AVDI:  For me, doing better can often mean that I should find a way to change direction. Because when somebody who creates anything, whatever the art form or whatever their line of work, just keeps going in the same direction, it often gets tiresome after a while. And it isn’t impressive anymore. It isn’t mind-blowing. It isn’t exciting. And so, I think that’s probably the most stressful thing about it, is the sense that to exceed yourself, you can’t just do that thing you did only turned up to 11. You have to reduce yourself to first principles and say, “What am I missing? What have I missed? What is the direction that I’ve missed out on?” because that’s where you surprise people. And that’s where you delight people, is when you discover a direction that they hadn’t even expected you to go in. And it’s good. But it’s really easy to put an expectation on yourself of doing that one thing, only better, because you know how to go in that direction. But putting an expectation on yourself of a new direction is scary, because it’s like, “I don’t know where that’s going to come from.” And I don’t know at what moment, in what bath or on what walk or in what conversation the right idea is going to pop out. And am I going to identify it at the time or is it just not going to come at all?

REIN:  I think another way to think of that is you’re opening up new parts of yourself to other people.

CORALINE:  And that’s scary as fuck.

REIN:  Yeah.

JANELLE:  Do you find yourself – with all these expectations you put on yourself, I hear this reoccurring theme of, “Wherever I am now isn’t good enough.” And do you find yourself putting so many expectations on yourself that you end up collapsing under the stress of the self-imposed expectations?

AVDI:  No. Not yet.

REIN:  Next question.

AVDI:  No, I mean this is me. This is who I am. I was born with an overactive sense of what is possible for me. And so, for the most part I constantly do believe that that next direction is going to come, that that next level is going to come, that I’m going to make it. That said, I often believe it a lot harder in the morning and by the time 8 o’clock rolls around, sometimes I’m feeling a little discouraged.

JESSICA:  That’s 8 AM, right?


JESSICA:  Oh. I thought with four kids, I was expecting the AM.

AVDI:  Well yeah, there are days when by 8 AM some of that self-belief has already eroded.

JANELLE:  So, what kind of things do you do to encourage other people to be inspired and to find their potential and things like that? You mentioned that you try to inspire people, but it’s a judgement that’s up to them. And given all of these discoveries you’ve made in your own life, I’m curious to know how your beliefs about that have changed through this experience.

AVDI:  That’s a good question. The dumbest thing I’ve tried to do to inspire people is just post pretty pictures every morning that say, “Good morning.” But there are a lot of little things. When I’m speaking at a conference, I take that responsibility really seriously. And for me, the speaking part of it often isn’t even the most important part of it. For me, it’s the importance of being available and present to everyone, to all the attendees, during the whole conference. And that’s a context in which I really try very hard, like I said, to be present for people, to be available if somebody wants to ask about whether it’s a technical question or whether it’s a question about career choices or, “How did you decide to do X in your career?” or they want to talk to me about a topic that’s of interest to them. And I realize that they have an interesting experience that other people don’t have and I try to encourage them to write about it or to submit a talk about it or something like that. Or if people are looking for some encouragement in becoming a speaker themselves, all these little things that I really try to be very present for when I’m out in public at software events. So, that’s one of the things that I try to do. I also try to just make myself available. Like if somebody emails me with questions about any of that stuff that I just talked about, I try to be available in that way as well and try to be encouraging. I try to do things like review people’s talk submissions if they ask, and…

CORALINE:  You did that for me.

AVDI:  Yeah. Oh yeah, that’s right. And try to just make sure that they have something that’s going to really bring out what they’re talking about and get accepted. And by the way, how did that work out?

CORALINE:  I got accepted for a different talk.

AVDI:  Oh, okay.

CORALINE:  But I had five submissions. So, I always take a shotgun approach to CFPs.

AVDI:  Yeah, which is the right [inaudible].

CORALINE:  And I was happy that one of them got in.

AVDI:  Yeah, well congratulations.


REIN:  Can I just highlight something that you sort of moved pretty quickly by, which is being present for other people and how much of a gift that is.

AVDI:  Here is the best way I can explain that. In the Ruby community, anyone who entered the Ruby community in my era and was involved in the community probably has a memory of being at a conference with Jim Weirich who is no longer with us. But for those who don’t know Jim Weirich, I’m not sure how to sum him up but he was like the soul of the Ruby community, almost. He was the man…

REIN:  He was like the Mister Rogers of the Ruby community.

AVDI:  Yeah, yeah. I mean, this guy who is just full, just absolutely full of curiosity and infectious joy. He had this laugh that anybody would recognize. And everybody has a memory, who was at conferences in that era, has a memory of talking with him for five minutes and feeling like they were the only person in the room. And the way I think about it is, that was incredibly powerful and moving for a lot of people. And now that he’s gone, those of us who are left need to be the Jim Weirich we want to see in the world. And so, that’s basically how I look at that.

REIN:  It’s incredible to me that you can make such a deep and impactful connection with another person just by doing that, just by being present for them.

AVDI:  Yeah. And I doubt he was as self-conscious about exactly what he was doing. That was just the way he was. But I don’t know. Maybe for some of us, it doesn’t come as naturally and some of us actually [inaudible] do it.

REIN:  Can I tell you a quick Mister Rogers story that’s relevant?

AVDI:  Sure. Please.

REIN:  So, there was a kid who was going through a lot and was very depressed. And the only thing that kept him going mentally was watching the Mister Rogers show. And he had a chance to meet Fred Rogers. And Fred Rogers talked to him for a little while. And then he said, “I want you to do me a favor. I want you to pray for me,” to the kid. And there was a journalist there who heard this and who later asked Mr. Rogers about it. And I’m not religious, but this story still touches me. And the journalist said, “Hey, I really thought it was a great idea where you asked the kid to pray for you because then that would,” et cetera, et cetera. And Fred Rogers just said, “Oh, no. I wanted him to pray for me. That was all I was thinking about. I thought someone who’s been through so much must be close to God. And I want him to talk to God.”

AVDI:  Hmm, yeah. And that’s like the real energy of presence, too, is not making a plan, not coming up with a scheme in the moment to say the right thing, but just being present and just being there and saying the right thing because you’re there with them.

REIN:  Being actually authentic rather than trying to be authentic.

AVDI:  Yeah.

JESSICA:  There’s something about being authentic like that and people look at it. That journalist looked at it and said, “Wow, you had a positive effect on that kid’s world. You changed something for him.” And Mr. Rogers was like, he was just saying what he really felt. There’s something about being authentic like that, that can change people without you trying to change people, that can be beautiful.

AVDI:  Yeah, and I think, I don’t know. There’s also a connection here with just in that story, it’s about Mr. Rogers really just giving value to that interaction and that child, granting that child his value. And maybe one of the ways that we do find identity, one of the ways that I find identity anyway, is I think ti’s almost defined externally in a way. Because it’s not found in, “I decide to be a certain way.” It’s not found in, “I write a list of values and mission statements.” It’s found in what people see in me in those moments, what people take away from me in those moments. That’s the real identity. And in a sense, so we’re talking about the sense, the experience of being a public figure. It’s still a very small way. It’s within a very small community. I wouldn’t say that I’m famous. But that experience of being a public figure is for me the experience of being created by a community. In a sense, I’m not self-created entirely. But I am, I don’t know. I’m created in part by that community. And I don’t know what else to say about that, but it’s an interesting and I guess remarkable experience.

CORALINE:  I have had the exact opposite experience. People have expectations of me based on things that I say and things that I do that are orthogonal to who I really am. And I remember when I first met my girlfriend, she knew me from Twitter and from Slack communities that we were both in. And after the fact, she said, “I expected you to be this really hardline militant declarative kind of person. And actually, your’e very sweet and kind and immediately made me feel connected and safe and welcome and comfortable and relaxed.” So, I think there can be a disconnect between who the community makes us out to be and who we really are. And I’ve tried deliberately to tone my shit down because I have my strong opinions and I have my values that I hold and that I act on, but that’s not the complete picture.

JESSICA:  Because to be genuine means not just to say what you feel the way you express it in your own head. It means to look at the way what you say and what you do is perceived by others.

AVDI:  Right.

JESSICA:  Because your’e trying to convey a message that exists in your head. And in order to do that, you have to change how you present it depending on how it’s perceived. So, the listeners are part of the message, too. And to get it right, you have to iterate like that.

AVDI:  Yeah, because intent isn’t magic.

JESSICA:  Yeah. And being true to yourself is in fact changing the way you act depending on the way the world reacts to you, in order to get the message right.

AVDI:  Yeah. And also, I think that being true to yourself is seeing yourself, sometimes it’s seeing yourself reflected in the world and realizing that that’s not who you want to see reflected in the world. And so, sometimes the world can help you become more authentic because it helps you realize things about yourself that you weren’t seeing internally. On the other hand, people can certainly push you to be something that you’re not and I think that’s something that we have to confront as well. And I think it’s also, like my way of being in the world is very much to try to bring my personal self and my public self into alignment, into coherence, as little space between them as possible. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily the right way of being in the world. It’s just my way. And I guess I want to get that out as well.

JANELLE:  It’s really interesting listening to this, because I had a similar reaction of feeling like I’ve oriented around the polar opposite in that I spent so many years trying to be what everyone else wanted me to be. And I’d find myself in a crowded room and feeling totally and utterly alone. It didn’t matter how many people I talked to, because I shut down so much of myself that I always felt disconnected and alone trying to be a certain shape, being a shape that fit in. And so, I got to this point – this was really last year that I ran off the opposite edge of the cliff of, “I’m not going to be in resistance to myself anymore.” I’m going to be who I am regardless of what anybody thinks. I’m going to let myself out and be me and be me from a standpoint of being in congruence on the outside of who I feel like I am on the inside, regardless of my environment. And so, when I went to that extreme and decided, “I’m not going to give a shit about what everyone else thinks,” man, the kind of rejection that comes from that is hard to take. But at the same time, feeling like I was honoring myself gave me a sense of peace. And so, I’ve been reorienting around that, because it was so easy for me to get lost in the reflections and lose myself in the process.

AVDI:  Do you feel like you’ve developed a new community around the people that are accepting of your authenticity?

JANELLE:  Yeah. Basically what happened is I realized that I had no friends. I mean, no real friends, because I hadn’t really opened myself up and being me. And in order to get real friends and have real connections with people, I went to this extreme of just completely dropping my guard. But what I found was when I did that, is there were a lot of people that reciprocated in kind, that were tired of wearing masks, that they were tired of trying to be what everyone else wanted them to be, too. And so, that became its own tribe of authenticity. But as opposed to just, “We’re going to say whatever pops into our head regardless of what that is,” we also had this culture of acceptance and unconditional love. We’re just all kind of souls in the world trying to figure out life. And so, that path of self-discovery, of know thyself, of understand what are my unique special things, became very self-centered/oriented, right? As opposed to, how does the world see me? What are those reflections? That, “Who am I? Who am I?” came down to, “What is the energy that pours from my soul? What is my creativity? What is my gift?”

AVDI:  That just sounds like a really powerful experience. It sounds scary, but powerful. And you’ve made me think of something else on the thread of what do I do to try and inspire people? Which for some reason, I didn’t really think about earlier, which is – so Janelle, you’ve brought up one of the blog posts that I wrote about this experience, the experiences I’ve been having. And one of the things that I do very deliberately is I do a lot of writing about my internal state. And I do a lot of writing about feelings and mental health and whatever is going on, which often involves some really difficult feelings. And I do that partly because it’s authentic for me to do that. I’ve always felt better when I can be transparent to the world and it feels good to be known. And I don’t expect that to be the right way for everyone in the world. It just works for me.

But I also do it because every time I do that, every time I write an article about heartbreak or about overwhelmed or any of these uncomfortable things, and put it out into my world, which is a software world – it’s a world of people that are mostly talking to each other because of code – I always get responses that are very grateful. I hear back from people that felt validated, that felt seen, that felt like it was okay the way they felt because somebody else out there feels the same way. And I’ve had people say things like, “It helped get me through a really difficult time.” And so, another reason that I very deliberately write this stuff out there publicly is because I know it has that effect. So yes, revealing your heart and revealing your soul can definitely have blowback. But it also, you also suddenly see these lights, these lights out there in the darkness that light up in sympathy to whatever energy you’re putting out. And I think that’s important.

REIN:  It’s healing.

AVDI:  Yeah.

CORALINE:  I think it’s important for people who have the privilege of being able to safely do that, to do that.

AVDI:  Oh, right. That’s where I was going to go with that. Thank you, Coraline. I knew I had one other thing I wanted to say about that. And I do it because I can, because I am in a position where I don’t actually get a lot of blowback for writing about this difficult stuff. And I know that not everyone is in that position. There are a lot of people out there that face actual career blowback for writing about this kind of stuff. And that sucks. It’s wrong. But if I can put some of these feelings out there from my position of relatively not having to face somebody being like, passing over my resume because, “He seems like a well-qualified developer but he seems kind of unstable,” then that’s what I’m going to do.

JESSICA:  Well Avdi, I think that’s really great and a [service] to the community and also to all of us as humans to make it more normal to talk about struggles. Life is psychologically difficult for everyone. And most of us don’t talk about it. But we would benefit if we could. But like you said, It’s not safe. There’s a lot of topics like that. Like for me, it was miscarriage. I had a miscarriage and I talked about it and like, you’re not supposed to. People avoid telling people they’re pregnant because then they might have to talk about a miscarriage. But it was super healing to do that. And everybody that I talked to was like, “Oh yeah, we had one too.” You would never know how common that was. You never realize how many people in your circle have that. There’s value in taking a risk and talking about something that isn’t a normal thing to talk about but is a huge opportunity to form connection. I recommend it. It’s a little scary, until you do it a couple of times and find out how rewarding it is. And then it gets lets scary.

JANELLE:  I was just thinking, I mean in this transition I made, even if I end up getting rejected a hundred times over, for the one or two amazing friends I’ve made in the process of it, it’s totally worth it.

JESSICA:  The trick is being able to let go of those little failures and hold onto the big successes. That’s hard. But it’s fun when you could do it.

AVDI:  Yeah, it is hard. Especially when you have people who you hold in some regard who say that you’re wrong for saying the things that you’re saying or say that you’re wrong for feeling the things that you’re feeling. I know personally, I do struggle with – since I don’t trust myself, since I don’t necessarily believe everything that comes out of my mouth to be correct, it’s just what I think is right at the time – I struggle with saying, “Well, this person is smart and this person says that this is wrong or this is the wrong direction,” or something like that, and, “What if they’re right?” And it’s scary.

JANELLE:  Why is it scary, thought? I mean, it’s an opportunity to learn something when people have different eyes and perspectives. Why does that have to be a scary thing?

AVDI:  I think that for me, I still have a lingering sense of objective rightness and wrongness. Intellectually, I’ve really distanced myself from that idea because it’s kind of ridiculous. But still, way deep down, I still have that sense of, “I could be getting it right or I could be getting it wrong.” And where ‘it’ is just life. I could be getting life right. I could be getting it wrong. I could be interpreting things correctly or incorrectly. I could be setting the right direction or the wrong direction. That whole thing that society sets you up with really early on where it’s like, “Get into the right college or you’re going to go to the wrong direction.” And it’s everything out from there is just right direction/wrong direction. So yeah, I struggle with still having that very deep sense built into my thinking of trying to plot myself, my thoughts and my decisions and my values on a graph of right decision versus wrong decision. It’s hard to get away from.

REIN:  For me, I think it’s scary because truly connecting with another person requires vulnerability. If you open up deep parts of yourself to another person, then there’s the possibility that you can be hurt in those parts that you’ve made available to them. And that’s for me, often terrifying.

AVDI:  Yeah.

JANELLE:  I think it’s just that of the connections I’ve made, the real connections I’ve made, even that, the pain is worth it. And I think after getting hurt really badly in that, it makes it easier for me to go, “The pain’s totally worth it.” Because I can look back at those experiences with gratitude about how various people have just fundamentally changed my life and changed the way I think, changed the way I look at everything and changed who I am inside. And I’m grateful for those experiences. I wouldn’t trade them for anything, even though they may have ended or had tragic parts to them or whatever. And I’m going to live and I’m going to die. And so, the question becomes, “What do I want to do with my life? Who do I want to be? What kind of impact do I want to have on the world?” And so, with regards to inspiring people, I try and help people to see themselves, see their gifts, see that creativity and spark the eyes that are unique to them. Because I think clarity in our identity is something we all need to understand how we fit into the world.

And there’s a death that comes with stasis. And there’s a death that comes with invisibility. And there’s multiple ways to become invisible. So, one way is becoming invisible with the reflections. Other people not seeing us, and so we become invisible. And another way we become invisible is when we let everyone else define who we are.

AVDI:  I’d like to hear more about how you help people see the spark in themselves.

JANELLE:  What I tend to do at a simple level is just, I look at those moments when people light up with joy when they talk about something. They get all excited and it’s like this little kid energy comes out of them. And you see that sparkle and shine in them for an instant. And I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to help people recognize, “Hey, there’s that thing. That thing that just made you light up inside with joy.” And if you do more of that, if you align more with that energy, maybe that’s what your alignment and calling is, focusing more on those things.

I find that joy is sourced from creativity. And so, I have a very artist-oriented kind of view of the world that is very self-centric in that way. And so, when I meet other people and try and understand who they are, I build a model of their identity based on two things. So, one of them is, what are their unique eyes? How do they see the world that is different how I see the world? What are the shapes, the lenses that they look through such that when we see together, we’ll be able to see further together? And so, different people have a different set of experiences. And all of those different shapes bring that unique perspective to the table.

And then the other thing is that creative talent, that fire, that joy that shines through those shapes. And when people are in alignment with their creative fire, and at the same time you have that generativity and synthesis of ideas from all these different perspectives, I’ve come to find that simply admiring people, admiring their gifts, admiring what they bring to the table, helps people to shift more toward that alignment and see themselves, see how they fit into the world.

AVDI:  I wish more programmers would look at what they do from an artist mindset, from that mindset of it being a creative act. I realize you’re not just bringing it to programming, but I think that’s a really useful energy to cultivate.

CORALINE:  So, we’ve talked about an awful lot today and a lot of it’s been very personal. And I really appreciate Avdi, your openness with all of the things you’ve gone through and all the thinking you’ve been doing. And the thing that really resonated with me the most was the discussion about identity. I recently decided to change my Twitter bio. The header on my Twitter was a quote from a right-wing news source talking about me. And part of my bio talked about being a notorious SJW and crediting that to the Breitbart article, one of the other Breitbart articles about me. And I realized that I’m more than that, and it seemed really reductionist. So, I labored over it and I finally changed my Twitter bio to something like I listed my accomplishments: Ruby Hero, speaker, writer, software developer. And then I ended with ‘leading a transparent life but not invisible’.

REIN:  That’s great.

CORALINE:  And I’m not done with it yet. I’m still trying to figure out. It’s really hard to summarize who I am and who I aspire to be in so few characters. But I think it’s really important to reflect on identity, the identity that we have for ourselves and that we strive toward. And also the identity that’s bestowed upon us by the community. So, I want to think more about that.

REIN:  I have actually two things from this conversation that are really important to me. And I hope you’ll all indulge me. I’ll try to be quick. One is we were talking about identity and how that interacts with society. And I just wanted to mention a sociological framework for this, which has the annoyingly technical name of symbolic interactionism. And what it’s about is the assumption that people construct meaning through communication, through their interactions with other people. And that our self-concept, our beliefs about ourselves, our motivation for behavior, and that every person has a unique relationship between themselves and society.

And the other is going back to Virginia Satir, she describes the things that are necessary for a therapeutic relationship. And this is interesting for me, because we hit on all of them without knowing we were doing it. The first is acknowledging the inherent value in each person. The second is being completely present. And the third is being what she calls congruent, which means bringing your whole self to the interaction, which means aligning how you feel with what you say and how you act. And for her, in her family therapy model, these are the things that have to be in place before you can begin a healing relationship.

JESSICA:  Is that a therapeutic relationship in the sense of therapist or in the sense of any people interacting?

REIN:  In the sense of she was a family therapist, but she also felt that in her words, “If you can heal the family, you can heal the world.” So for her, it was more than just about family therapy.

JESSICA:  So Rein, you said something earlier also from Virginia Satir that is what I wanted to come back to, which is the two energies internally of being grounded and inspired. And those feeding into the third energy of connection, together. Right now I’m in the process of reading ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ by Ursula K. Le Guin, which was recommended by Michael Feathers. And one of the themes in the book is are we here to change the world? To impose our will and make it better? That would be the impact, the inspiration side of that energy. Or are we here to just be and be part of it and go with the flow? And that would be the grounded side, the grounded side of understanding where we are and being okay with where we are. And then the inspiration side of wanting things to be different and having that tension and taking action. And I firmly believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle. And the book so far goes into this little bit about we are part of the world and we are in the world. And we don’t exist outside the world but the world wouldn’t be whole without us either. So, there’s a balance between influencing the people around us and the world around us, and also living within it. We and the world change each other. And I think that’s the piece that makes it okay to try to move the world in a direction we want, because the world also moves us. Which goes back to that feedback loop that Coraline mentioned and Avdi experienced with when we listen to how our actions affect others and let that change us, then we’re all in this together and we’re a part of it and we’re both going with the flow and having an impact. And I find life in that.

JANELLE:  So, I’ve been doing something different here. Normally during reflections I sit here and think about what it is I want to say. And instead of doing that, I decided I would just be present and listen to all your reflections and have no idea what I’m going to say before I open my mouth and start to say something. But what’s interesting from that experience is during that time when I was listening, I was connecting and internalizing these things and forming new thoughts that I wouldn’t have otherwise if I was sitting back thinking about what I was going to say. And the pattern I keep seeing across all of these things is this dichotomy between living in the present versus living in the future. Being grounded versus inspiration. Stasis versus movement. And in the moment, we have a desire to feel that motivation of movement. And so, there’s always this anchoring around the future that has to be there in order to not die in the present. And so, I don’t know if it’s really that we need to aim for something in the middle. I think it’s that we need both. We need both simultaneously. We need to be in the present and in the future simultaneously. I mean, when it comes back to identity, maybe that’s the key, is that we have an identity in the future. We have an identity in the now. And it’s maintaining that tension and dissonance between those things that ultimately defines who we are.

AVDI:  Honestly, I think my reflection – i’ve thought about a few things but it really just proceeds forward from Janelle, what you just said. I think when you have that identity in the present and an identity in the future, the line that connects the two forms an arrow. And I think that maybe where I’m coming to now is a sense that my identity is less of a place and less of a fixed point and that it is an arrow. And if I find the right congruence, maybe, I can actually feel myself being pulled along by that arrow. I can feel that lifting energy instead of the tiring, exhausting, striving energy. And maybe that’s part of discovering who I need to be.

JANELLE:  A pull, not a push?

AVDI:  Yeah.

CORALINE:  Thank you, Avdi.

AVDI:  Thank you.


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