September 18, 2015
Regarding Imposter Syndrome, Learned Helplessness, and other new fun outcomes of a career change.
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What's this? Two entries at Jason Pettus' journal in two weeks? Can't be! And yet here we all are in this new reality, one in which I'm back out and being social on a regular basis again for the first time in years and years, which I thought would be a good excuse to get this personal journal of mine up and running again on a regular basis too. For those new to the game, I used to do a thousand-word update here every single day, and was one of those '90s success stories that at one time had something like 30,000 people a day reading it; but that's when I was young and thin and reckless and taking all these drugs and getting into all these adventures, and still trying to do creative confessional writing for a living for that matter, and now I'm old and fat and balding and don't do anything, and am trying to make a living running a small press and becoming a brand-new software developer, which means that by definition I am learning to make a new definition of my relationship with this journal, one that was defined for a long time by it simply being in remission, and now with me having to do a lot more thinking about what exactly I want to say here and what I want to share with the public.

Like here's an interesting thing I was talking about with my therapist the other day. Oh yes, that's new too; after a lifetime of not really trusting therapists or the act of therapy, I finally started taking advantage of one in DevBootcamp, who provides a free on-staff therapist to any student who wants to book a session, and it went so well that I'm now meeting up with E. out in the private world once every two or three weeks too. There are no "crises" in my life, no "problems" that I'm trying to "fix;" but I've discovered that I find it interesting and helpful to have someone around who I can just tell about the last few weeks of my life, and to sort of unpack it all by talking about it out loud with someone, especially someone who's taken a legally binding oath to not tell anyone else about, and who you never have to share time with hearing all their own personal stories.

Anyway, we were talking about how the job-seeking process has been going for me in the six weeks since I graduated DBC, which to be clear is generally going pretty well; but the process has made me realize for the first time that I have two leftover nagging psychological issues from my previous years working in corporate offices, which back then mostly involved things like office management, copywriting, graphic design, a little bit of marketing work, etc, all while I was still trying to pursue creative writing for a career and so didn't particularly want to be at that office in the first place. And we were discussing where the line lays with perhaps mentioning subjects like that here at my personal journal, which after all is public to anyone who wants to read it, including potential employers, versus perhaps holding it to myself, and talking about other things here instead. But ultimately I decided that it would be okay to mention them here, because they're not crippling issues -- they're just funny, interesting things that I'm noticing as I'm going through this job-seeking process, and it's fairly easy to overcome them if I just concentrate a bit, so it's not like I'm divulging something that would prevent me from actually holding a job or doing it well. And I bet that it's so common among people out changing careers and looking for their first paid gig in that new arena, that I thought it would be helpful to talk about it out loud in public, in the hopes that other people might be able to understand themselves better as a result.

One half of it is called "Imposter Syndrome," and is hugely widespread among people making a career change; it's simply the sinking feeling that you're not cut out for this new job, that you're only "pretending" to be qualified but eventually everyone will find out the ugly truth. And the problem with that is that you will often self-sabotage your own efforts because of it, for a common example like avoiding scheduling job interviews or whiteboarding challenges or hackathons at all, This is especially common among bootcamp graduates, I've learned not only from E. but from DevBootcamp's always indubitable career coach, Lia James, because of the nature of the beast; these places are trying to take an entire two-year associate degree's worth of information and cram it into the heads of non-programmers in just eighteen weeks, and even the best DBC students still only emerge on the other side as just barely qualified to take on their first junior developer job, which is why you're seeing more and more apprenticeship programs being instituted at tech companies as more and more bootcamp graduates start flooding the market. (This is sort of halfway between an internship and a salaried job; you receive about two-thirds of the usual pay, but only do it for three to six months, where the company acknowledges that you're not completely ready to jump into coding head-first yet, and does things like pair you up with a mentor, start you on light work, and require a lot of after-hours homework.) I'm really coming to appreciate how coding bootcamps don't really get you much more qualified than this, so it's a frightingly easy jump from that to feeling like you don't know what you're doing at all, that you're a big fraud always one day away from being found out and publicly humiliated as punishment.

Then the other half, sort of related (or at least, one paranoia easily feeds the other), is "Learned Helplessness;" most often applied to situations with a battered spouse, it can also apply to the corporate world, where you are forced to live in a world of shit for so long that you eventually learn to give up on it ever getting better, just assuming that the entire world is shit so why bother striving for more. And this can be a problem because you can also engage in self-destructive behavior through this; or even more worryingly for employers, bring your entire team down into the mud with you, feelings are particularly exacerbated if you're also feeling like you're not really qualified to be there in the first place. And brother, in some ways there's no other phrase to describe my average '90s corporate experience than "Learned Helplessness," just a series of Dilbert-esque absurdist nightmares in traditional run-down offices where nothing worked right, no one cared, and there was so little legitimate work to do that everyone instead engaged in endless petty office politics. Twenty fucking years of that, friend, will make even the best person get flinchingly nervous about being around that environment again.

But it's important to remember that this is the entire reason I decided to switch careers, here in 2015 when I've decided that I should get back into the much higher paying world of 9-to-5 jobs again; and that's what all these coffee meetups I've been doing over the last six weeks have been teaching me, that when you actually care about the thing you're doing as your day job, and spend a lot of effort and education into being qualified for it, people tend to be a lot happier and friendlier, offices are run in a much better way, and people are kept so incredibly busy with legitimate work to be done that they have almost no time to participate in office politics or comedically ludicrous Dilbert-like games. I've been meeting a bunch of truly fascinating people in my life over the last month and a half, and that has me really excited about getting into this industry for the first time, even if I do occasionally still wonder when the rug is going to be yanked out from under me and a booming voice will say, "Welcome to the real way tech companies work when no one is looking! BWAAH-HAAH-HHHaHH-HAAAAAHH!"

And as far as Imposters Syndrome, I just try to remember the things that E. and Lia have taught me about it -- that it's natural, that it's a fallacy that it can be easily overcome, that I would've never graduated DBC in the first place if I had been unskilled, that in fact I passed all the assessments with flying colors. And that a big positive when changing careers is precisely the opportunity to bring in everything you learned in your previous one, that this is often the exact kind of creative injection that lets tech companies go in totally new and lucrative directions. That I'm a fine programmer, and just need to learn how to let go of some of that fear.

So that's it for now on the job front; and one of the things I have decided about holding information back is that I won't be sharing any of the actual details at any point of how the job search is going, other than to say that things are from barely serious to very serious with a grand total of about five or six companies right now. As always, more anon.

- x -

So what's new at the arts center? New book is out this week, chumps, that's what's new! It is in fact our second annual "city all-star" student anthology, this year entitled The View From Here: Stories about Chicago Neighborhoods. I admit, it's a small miracle that the book even got made in the first place, given that I was attending DevBootcamp for 14 hours a day at the same time; but I have to say, I'm really happy for what it is, and love that it has such a strong emphasis on creative nonfiction pieces this year, due to the influence of this year's student editor, JH Palmer at Columbia College. This is giving us an excuse to go out and schedule a bunch of live events for the first time in months and months, including confirmed shows now at StoryStudio, City Lit Books, Columbia College, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Book Expo; so that's a really nice thing, to be spinning CCLaP's peripheral activities back up to full speed again, especially now that we have a standalone photo editor for our weekly magazine as well (giving The CCLaP Weekender now an entire external staff that works independently of me, making its weekly output almost a guarantee now without any skips), and now that we're back to updating our blog almost every day, since I'm now getting in a lot more reading time and review-writing time.

And what else? Putting the finishing touches on our next two books, Dan Falatko's "Millennial John Updike" novel Condominium, and Leland Cheuk's "Jonathan Franzen for Asian-Americans" dysfunctional family comedy The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. Starting to go down again to Hyde Park on Sundays for the first time in six months too, to have dinner and hang out with my friend Carrie and her sons. Trying to get back into Minecraft again (the boys and I are itching to finally raid an ocean temple for the first time), but am not finding the time to do so. Getting my hands wet with a LOT of JavaScript libraries right now, including Ember (for page layout), D3 (for sophisticated graphs and charts using real-time data), Phaser (for building App-Store-ready small videogames), jQuery and AJAX (for review, after learning both in DBC), Material Design (the design framework that fuels every Google app), and more. Um, thinking of finally starting up my long-awaited Friday night dinner party series at my fancy new apartment, with attendees each week being half from the arts, half from the tech world. Then more books. Then more coding. Then more job-searching. On and on and on. No time for crazy self-destructive adventures anymore, alas, but I hope this journal continues to retain some semblance of entertainment, and as always I'm glad you had a chance to stop by. We'll talk again in another week or two, I'm sure.

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