This is not exactly what I said at WordCamp US 2016, but it is a great deal of it.
I started my slides for WordCamp US so many times, I probably have enough content for a week of blog posts. The weight of what I was going to say there sat on my shoulders like I’m Atlas. Trying to dredge up the pain from the rejection and harassment I’ve felt over the years, all in order to write, reminds me of the carrion birds, ripping apart Prometheus, while he heals only to be torn anew each day, all for presenting humanity with the gift of fire.
Perception: We Are What We Code
Too often, when we think about our contributions to WordPress, we think of them in the literal terms. I have written code. I have fixed CSS. I have beta tested. I have created a plugin, a theme, a blog, a store, a book, a career. We make the fatal mistake of boiling down what we are to one thing. The contribution. The code.
Reality: We Are What We Create
We forget something crucial, that these creations are just that, creations! We have invented something out of nothing, purely with the power of our minds! We’re artists and dreamers and believers and builders. Anyone who’s studied art, music, journalism, knows that there’s a strange dissociation that we have to build in our hearts. The separation between what we create and who we are and what the reviews will be.
We Can’t See the Forest For the Trees
Artists are, often, seen as temperamental. Capricious creatures who fall to the whim of our desires and passions. People who obsess over one thing to the exclusion of others. Who trash hotels when frustrated. Who lash out. Who take the rejection of a bad review so closely, so personally, they cannot separate themselves from their art.
If you saw my talk at WordCamp Europe earlier in 2016, or read my post about it, that sounds familiar. We, we contributors to open source, are exactly the same. Which is why it is hard, so so hard, to separate our hearts from our heads. We wanted to bring fire to earth. We wanted to share our joy. We wanted to do the right thing and change 26% of the Internet for the better. Give or take.
Instead, we’re told our code sucks. If we don’t offer free help for our work, we’re called greedy and vain. Being driven to fix one part of WordPress is wasting our time, no one uses it. Creating new features? We should fix what’s broken, even if we don’t know how. We are pulled by a million masters, our users, and we can never do enough.
And what about when our contributions are less visible? What about the people who spend hours making sure this WordCamp flowed smoothly? The ones who ensure funding? The one who fixed the inline documentation for core? The people in the support forums who help people for free? The people who review your themes and plugins and try and keep things fair for all. Oh, oh yes. I know that one.
The problem here is that we all do things for good. Everyone you see at a WordCamp, everyone who is a speaker, a volunteer, a contributor, is doing this for good reasons. Maybe not entirely altruistic, we’re not all socialists and software communists like me, but I promise you, every single one of us who steps up and does things for the greater good of WordPress is doing so with the best intentions. We care.
And they don’t see that.
“Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.”
— Aral Vorkosigan in A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold
One of the points I wanted to address in my talk was that there are a LOT of days when you know you’ve done the right thing, and your reputation tanks. While a lot of people here like me, appreciate my work, and respect me, I’m not so naive as to think that’s universal. I know very well that there are people who watched my talk, who read this blog, who dislike me for, say, closing their plugin or deleting their reviews. Or worse, not deleting a review.
The Cost of The Greater Good
I want to say the good of the many outweighs the good of the one, or the few. And there are days where you’re the one. You’re the 20% minority. These days, as my father taught me, will outweigh the ones where you are praised, thanked, lauded, and cherished. It’s the dark part of human nature. You will, you WILL do things for the best intentions, and you will NOT be appreciated for it.
What you do when these things happen? Well you have choices, like I mentioned this summer. And there are downsides to each one. Otto, who’s somewhere around here, spends time talking me down from correcting people. I have a strong urge to “Well, Actually…” the people who insist I have evil in my heart and I’m power hungry. Other people listen to me vent a little. And sometimes I subtweet.
But this is the part that hurts. You can’t win. It’s impossible. People won’t believe you if you defend yourself. They won’t accept your explanations, they’ll see them as excuses. Silence will be seen as proof they were right. Fighting back? A show of weakness or a cover up. There is, literally, no way to win it. Ever.
Outsmart, Outplay, Outlast
Outsmarting them can be a pyretic win. Outplaying? You can try but I wouldn’t. But what if you keep going. Then the win is not a win but sort of an eventuality. Awesome, I know.
You can’t teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and annoys the pig. That’s a Southernism from my inlaws. There are some people you just can’t reach, no matter what you do. That’s where the remark of “I’m sorry you feel that way.” comes from. When I say that, I’m not giving up, I’m accepting futility.
And yet. You know that saying? The one about serenity and accepting what we cannot change? I hate it. I don’t believe there’s a single thing we cannot change, just perhaps not as quickly as we’d like. Accepting futility means I accept that there is no way I can, right now, explain myself well enough to change a mind. Yet.
It’s not about being smarter than someone else, it’s about being smarter than yourself
If you can convince yourself not to be stupid, you will protect yourself from just about everything. Outsmarting yourself is hard, though. You want to believe that you’re right. You have to remember that there is always someone smarter than you, somewhere. And no one is stupider than past you. That’s why we leave ourselves notes in documentation. To make sure future you remembers. Not being stupid means not picking fights. It means recognizing when you’re wrong.
The secret behind outplaying is you’re outplaying your own tendencies and habits. You know yourself. You know when you snap off a reply you shouldn’t, or when your humor is more biting than it should be. You have to play yourself and not do those things. Fool yourself and you’re the fool, but play to your strengths and you can keep yourself humble while preventing your inclination to be stupid.
If you outlive everyone, then you get to write the history. That takes a lot, A LOT of patience. More than most of us have. And it requires being able to tell someone you’re sorry you can’t help them, or you’re sorry they feel that way, and you walk away. And you wait. And wait. And wait. The being quiet part is the hardest, because people like to fill silence, especially you. But you must wait to survive.
Survival is not about the Fittest
I could tell you how I survive. I could tell you to subtweet, to blog, to scream, to ride your bicycle until your lungs feel inadequate and your legs are on fire and your blood pounds so much, your Apple Watch wonders if you’re having a heart attack. I could tell you to talk to someone, a loved one or a professional, and maybe to try meditation. The Breathe app? Pretty nifty.
Remember how I said everyone at a WordCamp wants to make WordPress better? And remember how I said you’re not code? I lied a little. You ARE code in that you, me, everybody is WordPress. And while I cannot tell you the right answer for you and how YOU can survive the storm and the hate that you will face, I can tell you that you are not alone. That you are one of us. And that WE are here too.
As a team we are stronger. We can rely on each other. We can lean on each other. We can take our shared love of sports, or food, or a same birthday, and find connections with each other.
What I Don’t Know…
The one thing I cannot tell you is why people hate. I don’t understand it myself. I suspect I never will. But what I can tell you is that we are better together. The way to make it past the hate is together. I am strong, mentally, because I turn to my community, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly, and ask for help. There’s no shame in that.