There’s a trend. There’s definitely a trend I keep observing these days. Highly motivated Software Engineer, a rockstar, one pushing the boundaries of innovation and melting the limits of implementation, eventually ends up drowning. Drowning in their own frustration.
It starts harmless. Slightly decreased motivation, a few harsh words against management here and there, but nothing too serious. They’ve been there and they’ll get out. Business as usual. But then they become angry. They become resentful. They start shouting at their manager, swearing at higher ups, trying to explain that if we keep going this route we’ll end up drowning! System will start falling apart! Is anyone even listening?! Anyone??
Nope! They’ve been frustrated in the past, and you just let them vent for a bit and they eventually come to their senses. That’s a long-proven strategy. Ignore a problem until it stops being a problem and auto-magically fixes itself, right? Wrong! Of course it’s damn wrong! That frustration keeps piling up, until they (the engineer) actually learn something – they learn that there’s no point. Nobody listens. You tried talking, shouting, showcasing, … but nope. It’s a wall. A management wall. That cold blooded room where common sense is left at the entrance and cash-interest is the only one allowed in. They don’t listen; or care. Whatever it is – the only scenario is – you, an engineer, learn that no one cares. So you stop caring as well.
Except that you CAN NOT NOT care! And that’s the biggest issue. What got you a status of a rockstar is the fact that you CARE. You CARE about business. You CARE about that code. You CARE about your project, your client and, yes, the revenue. You care and, to make it even worse, you can’t stop caring! And now you’re in a real pickle because you DON’T WANT TO CARE, but you still DO CARE. You want to tell them what they are doing, but nobody will listen, so you pretend not to care. And that circle keeps getting more and more complicated. And you keep getting yourself deeper and deeper into that shit.
You know what this whole process resembles? It resembles a quicksand. If you try getting out forcefully – you drown. If you do nothing – you drown. So, what in the world is there that you can do against this complicated situation? Interestingly enough, I think the similarity with “how to escape the quicksand” is actually 1 on 1 with a rockstar engineer whose drowning due to seemingly bad management decisions. So I decided to google for “how to escape the quicksand” and transform those steps into real actionable steps of what you can do as a person currently going through drowning process. For extra fun, I’d suggest you open and read this article in parallel, which outlines the steps of getting out of actual quicksand.
How to escape from quicksand?
Again, this is not something that I made up. Rather, it’s literally a first thing that you get when googling for “how to get out of quicksand” (I pasted a link above). So, how do you get out?
Step #1 – drop EVERYTHING
Such an easy and yet important step. In order to get out, you MUST drop EVERYTHING. Everything that you’re carrying with you.
You need to drop pretty much every assumption, belief and thought. Old habits as well. Everything. And by “dropping”, I don’t really mean “forgetting”, because, it’s not really possible to do it, especially if you’re actively trying. No. What I mean by “dropping” is – start with every assumption and belief that you have, and rethink it. Is it still valid? Does it still matter? Can you do without it? Give it a shot. It’s a process, but a well worthy one!
I’ll give you an example. This one is so typical that I’m sure at least some of you will identify – “Our management shouldn’t be doing this. It’s like they WANT us to fail”. That’s a belief you hold, whether you like it or not. And that’s your backpack, really. That belief might have had some value in the past, but is it still valid? Are you sure? Does your management REALLY want to destroy the company? Or is there something else? Question it! But drop the ASSUMPTION. Drop that backpack and start light. Start by questioning.
Here’s another one – “This should be easier. it was easy in the past!”. Well, I’m sure it WAS and it served it’s purpose in the past, but is it still true? I can tell you point blank that any company and I mean ANY company will likely change a lot within a 6 month to 1 year period. So anything that used to be true in the past might be completely untrue now.
Drop that backpack! Question those beliefs that are pushing you down! Make yourself lighter because that’s a first step towards escaping the quicksand.
Step #2 – move horizontally
Let me quote the original source first: “If you feel your feet getting stuck, take a quick couple of steps backward before the quicksand takes hold. It usually takes a minute for the mix to liquify, which means the best method of getting yourself unstuck is to not get stuck in the first place“.
What does that mean? It means to take a moment, and even a step back if needed. Rethink everything, but by all means – keep moving! You don’t want to end up being stuck in the overthinking loop. Pause, ponder, but keep making those baby steps. Keep moving or else the sand will liquify and pull you even deeper.
What are some baby steps that you can take? Talk to friends, visit your family, go out to nature, start exercising, eat healthier, read some motivational blog; maybe even consider visiting a therapist. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep moving in order to avoid getting stuck!
Step #3 – lay back & roll
Well, sometimes you are so deep in that sand that even making those baby steps seems impossible. Yes, you’re pretty messed up, but that’s OK. I’ve been there. Some of the people you know were there. It’s OK. You will be out.
What you want to do in this situation is – take a short breath, cry if you need, but just, you know, accept that you’re too deep inside that shit. Sometimes acceptance is really the first step towards making a progress. Cry if you need, shout, smack, punch, scream, … It’s OK, and it will pass.
Once you do recollect a bit of yourself – go back and reread previous step.
Step #4 – take your time
Let me quote the original source again: “If you’re stuck in quicksand, frantic movements will only hurt your cause. Whatever you do, do it slowly. Slow movements will prevent you from agitating the quicksand; vibrations caused by rapid movements can turn otherwise relatively firm ground into more quicksand”.
I really can’t emphasize this one enough. You really need to understand that it takes time to get out of it. Yes, it sucks, I know. Doubly so if you used to be can-do-anything kind of achiever. It sucks. And I’ve been there. But you really need to take it slow. Accept it, suck it up and follow the above-mentioned process. It might take more than you anticipated, but it will get you out. I myself being a living example. It does get better and you can get out. I promise!
Escaping deep quicksand
“But but but”, one might ask, “what if you’re really deep into that shit”? Well, it boils down to same tactics, but takes some additional steps. Let’s outline them.
Step #1 – Relax
It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. It’s like calming down an infuriated person by telling them to relax. It never works.
It’s not about going from furious to calm in a second. No. It’s more about accepting your fate and taking time to pause & ponder. It will take time and you won’t be able to do anything by frantically swinging your hands & feet. You really need to calm the heck down.
Step #2 – Get on your back and “swim”
This one makes no sense, right? How do you swim through something that you ended up being stuck in in the first place? Well, you do it by laying down, accepting the fate and “going with the flow”.
It’s really amazing and, yes, counter-intuitive, but the sooner you start going with the flow, the better your chances of getting into a position to move out. Is your boss a jerk? Well, screw it and just keep doing what they want without thinking much about it. Is the management a bunch of crazy Ill-fated dick-heads who have no idea what they are doing? Screw it and just follow their orders!
You really need to focus on preserving your energy, getting to a more relaxed state and, from there, following the above-mentioned steps.
Step #3 – Use a stick
“Carry a walking stick any time you’re in quicksand country”. Sounds stupid but it really makes sense, you know. If you’re walking a dangerous road, and software engineering career definitely is one, carry a damn stick with you! I’m using therapy as that stick, but you are free to choose your own assistance; as long as you make sure you have it!
Step #4 – Take frequent breaks
Getting out of quicksand is exhausting. If you try muscling it through, you’ll end up even deeper. You need to plan for frequent breaks along the way. As I said before – it takes time, probably more than you’d like, but follow the process and eventually – you’ll be out!
Last but not least – trust the process! Good luck!
Other stuff you might like:
- What should I do if I can’t (or don’t want to) afford therapy?
- Q&A on Mental Health – Part 1
- How long is your NEVER?