How to lessen fear of public vlogging

Public vlogging is like public speaking. Except it might be worse. At least with public speaking, you’re talking to people. With public vlogging, you’re talking to a camera. I’ll let you decide which is worse…

There was a time when talking into a mobile phone was weird because you don’t look like you’re talking to anyone. Now everyone and their grandmother is on a mobile phone. There might come a time when recording videos is commonplace, whether at home or in public.

Do we still have those guys with Bluetooth earpieces?

Responsibility culture

Clearly yesterday’s article struck a nerve. I usually have zero comments on my articles. But for yesterday’s article, I had 2 people commenting! That’s like an increase of 2/0 = infinity percent! Marketing and business people will kill for this kind of return.

I want to thank James Carman and William Saunders for their comments. I’ll return to their comments in a bit, with a bit more clarification about that story. But first, let me tell you another story.

“Don’t say sorry.”

“Vincent, I just want you to know something.” I felt my stomach twisting a little. “This can’t be good,” I thought. She spoke in barely a whisper, like she was afraid other people might overhear her, and I suck at phone conversations, so it’s doubly worse. “You shouldn’t say sorry to those people. It makes you look weak, and they will take advantage of you.”

Those aren’t the exact words, but the essence is there.

This happened like 3 or 4 years ago (I think). I was working as a Systems Analyst, but for expediency’s sake, just take it as I’m responsible for anything tech-related, unless otherwise stated. I work in a small team, as in like me and my supervisor. I mention this because my supervisor gave me a lot of autonomy on how I work. Basically, she just told me “Vincent, I need you to do this.”, or asked for input “Can we do this?”, or “How long would it take?”, and then just let me do my thing. Because she had her own stuff to do.

I know there are people out there who say that managers (or people in managerial positions, say a supervisor) of programmers should be protecting programmers from being disturbed (for lack of a better word). People like Joel Spolsky or Michael Lopp. I support this in general. It’s just that sometimes, the situation doesn’t quite allow that. My supervisor already shielded me from a number of (unnecessary) meetings (for me) and does most of the documentation (for the design, not the code).

So what usually happened was that whenever tech-related problems came up, they email my supervisor. Typically, it’s so technical that she would route that email to me. Eventually, the users learnt that I’m the ultimate person to solve their problems, so they skipped my supervisor. If the task in the email was too big or involved, I will let my supervisor know and let her decide if I should proceed. Otherwise I just solved the problem, sent an email to the user(s) and CC my supervisor (just so she knew about it).

Well, some problem cropped up. I can’t remember if it affected customers or internal users. Ok, it probably affected paying customers, otherwise it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. It might have involved customers in that million dollar deal thing I worked on. I don’t think it was entirely a mistake on my part, but I don’t think that’s important. I felt the important thing was to solve the problem, and then move on.

I solved the problem, and sent an email telling the people involved that the problem’s solved. I also apologised that the problem cropped up. I treat myself as a business working within a business (my employer). If your customer had a problem with your products or services, would you make it right and apologise? I would. It really doesn’t matter if it’s your fault or not. The customer typically doesn’t want to blame you specifically. The customer just wants the problem to be fixed. At least that’s what I’ve learnt from reading business and marketing books.

Apparently, one of the users was concerned for me (thank you!). She called me up personally, and advised me to not apologise. It might make me easier for other people to pin the blame on me (whenever technical problems crop up).

Anyway, I believed that if a program or application was under my care, then I’m responsible for it. It didn’t matter that the source code was written by someone else. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have full control over where the program resided, or what it did, or why it sometimes had problems. I took responsibility for it. I think I read Seth Godin write something on it. Maybe this one.

In our current economic situation, it’s ever easier to blame other people than to take responsibility. Taking responsibility means putting yourself on the line. It’s frightening. Which reminds me of another story. I was once in charge of a task force to find out “why people are afraid to speak up”. I’ll tell you that story another time.

The point is that the corporate culture (back then. I don’t know about now since I left the company) had an in-built blame culture based on fear. I was trying to spread a culture of responsibility, hopefully by being an example. With that, I return to the comments left by James and William.

On blame culture

If you skipped all the way down here, this is the story I told. James said,

Your story is a key example of why I am willing to take a pay cut, rather than work for a business like that.

First off, that company I worked for wasn’t too bad. The department I worked in had very little office politics (such as it was). Maybe it was that my team worked in a different location than headquarters. I typically go to the office with the feeling that I’m making a difference to my users. Even if I don’t directly contribute to the bottom line, I think of it as helping my users, who do contribute to the bottom line (the sales staff particularly).

That said, William had this to say,

That situation would make me want to quit. Large scale operational inefficiency goes way above/beyond people in our position, yet can sometimes directly impede us getting our jobs done. […] Really I think it should not be your concern how much the man-hours cost to get what you need done, especially since a whole team of people seemed to be fine with lobbing a bunch of blame your way.

The blame part happened because in the meeting, other departments were involved. Now that outsourcing project involved taking a bunch of the company’s work functions and bundling them together to be handled by the Cheng Du staff. Many other departments were involved. I got dragged along because the program I’m responsible for (see, see?) was involved (albeit a small part).

My supervisor was a nice person. It just so happened that she wasn’t around that day. My associate director and senior manager weren’t even involved in that program I’m in charge of. They might have gone along to the meeting just to see what the offshoring project was about, and my (program’s) involvement gave them an excuse to join (I don’t know about their intentions, so don’t quote me on this).

So when all eyes turned to me, I took the heat. I don’t remember feeling indignant about it. Just a kind of all-round-sucky feeling. I’m not saying this to protect my behind, or to not burn any bridges. My superiors were generally nice people. It just so happened that those people at the meeting wanted to point their blame cannon and fire at someone. I was the most dispensable. I was even the youngest at the meeting if I recall (have I mentioned my boyishly good looks? *smile*). Someone had to be responsible, and I decided stopping the blame game right then would move the meeting along the fastest. I even took notes on what I could do to improve the situation (that’s what the pen and notepad was for).

With regards to that $375 thing, it turns out to be some company policy. It’s an internal charges thing, and I charged at that rate too (or more specifically, my department charged that. Everyone charged at that rate). Even though opening up network ports and granting network access should be easily done (by a competent network administrator) within say, half an hour, the policy seemed to be that a minimum of 4 hours effort be charged. I’ve learnt to “bunch” up my requests when possible.

I’ve been “consulted” by my supervisor on how long a project would take. I’d give an estimate, say 5 days, and she would charge the department I’m to help. My department technically earned about 30 grand. I don’t get a single cent from that. It’s a “passing money from the right pocket to the left pocket” thing.

And yes, I’ve written such technical requests and viewed requests to my team/department before. That’s why I know the rates.

Dang, I should probably be a millionaire by now.

Big numbers are not scary

Because they’re still numbers. You’re scared of them because you’re not used to seeing them on a regular basis.

The recent announcement of the US public debt being in the neighbourhood of 14+ trillion had caused some waves. You can relate with 0 to 20 easily. You can count reasonably well to 100. You might even be fairly good at handling numbers of up to 10 grand.

But a trillion? Your hands start to sweat.

People’s reaction to numbers seem to increase with the magnitude of the numbers, particularly if there’s a dollar, pound or yen sign attached to it (or any other monetary sign).

Well, the numbers are just going to grow. The earth’s population is going to grow. From what I understand, debt (not just that of US) will continue to grow (it has to, to keep the economy growing. It has to do with international borrowing or some such. Hey, I’m not an economist). The size of your computer’s storage capacity will grow.

So deal with it.

When I heard about the US public debt amount, I was only mildly surprised. I think it has to do with my exposure to numbers. And not just because I have a background in maths. Look, my first job had me looking at data that are 7 or 8 figures. And they’re of debt. I got quickly blasé about millions of dollars (of debt no less) within a month or two.

Then somewhere down the line, I was associated with a million dollar deal, of which I was tasked to create a website for a customer. And the crux of the deal seemed to hinge somewhat on my website. I had to design the website’s look (Ha! Me! Web designer!), craft a good login system, write it for security (because the website’s public), deal with SSL certificates, map the public web URL and the private subdomain IP address (oh networking stuff!), make it look somewhat like the competitor’s (because the sales team convinced the customer to switch providers), design the backend database, write the programs that will feed the database all of the transactional data (and plan the schedules for running the programs). Basically, almost everything technical, that’s me.

Oh and I had to do it within 1 month (it was the holiday December season too). Because that’s how long the sales team gave me for when the customer wanted it done. And I did it, even as I managed to handle tasks given to me by my ex-manager (long story) as well as my own tasks. And I still managed to do tech support. “The network is not working.” I went and checked, and plugged out the LAN cable, blew off any dust, plugged it back in, and the network’s back on. I’m not kidding.

Where was I?

That million dollar contract website also had to handle millions of satellite call transaction data. You see a million here, a million there, and suddenly big numbers aren’t so scary.

Then there’s the fact that my salesperson brother tells me stories about his work and customers. His company has a VIP pass that you can have only if you spent more than 600 grand a year. This means you’ll probably have spent upwards of, if not more than, a million dollars a year at the store. My brother has a personal sales target of over a million dollars a year.

My point isn’t to be insensitive to big numbers, even financial ones. The point is to not be scared of them. Fear is crystallised when you can find words to describe it. It’s even worse when fear can be numerically measured.

As my maths professor once said, “Keep cool and calm” on the subject of solving a nasty problem. “Then just do it.”

On fear and pain

So I listened to a podcast by Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann, called Back to Work. This particular episode (16) was called Bracing for the Blow.

One of the things they talked about in the episode was Dan’s visit to the dentist. You might have winced at the word. Apparently, the word “dentist” evokes all sorts of memories and sounds and feelings, most of which are unpleasant and possibly painful. This might happen even if you don’t particularly have an unpleasant visit to the dentist.

Oh right, Dan’s visit. He needed a cavity filled, and he decided to forgo anaesthetic. Just to see what it’s like.

While Dan and Merlin discussed the merits of being mindful to the situation (dentist’s visit) and not letting that affect you, they didn’t bring up reasons why people are so fearful of dentist visits (other than painful memories). So here’s my take. Have you clipped your fingernails and toenails? No, don’t answer that, I’ll assume a yes (because the alternative is a little unpleasant to contemplate…). Have you ever accidentally clipped a bit of the flesh? It hurts, right? That didn’t stop you from clipping nails in the future, did it?

That’s because those regions of pain were far removed from the supreme seat of your senses: your brain. More precisely, your eyes. If you’re blind, then it’s your brain, because that’s where you (most familiarly) process thoughts, sensations, and yes, pain.

The reason why a dental visit is so frightening, is because what’s happening is so close to your brain. It is so close to your eyes, but you can’t see what the dentist is doing, even though you know you’re in good hands. The drilling, the picking and cleaning of teeth, the whirring of the brush. They’re all happening right inside of you, inside your skull.

I’d be interested to find out if blind people have this fear of visiting a dentist, given statistical normalisation. If they can’t see, then a lot of sensations come through feeling. You don’t know for sure if there’s something sharp in front of you, but you stretch out your hands anyway and feel for it, because you won’t know otherwise. Would a dentist fiddling in your mouth feel very different from what you normally feel going about your life?

Taking out an entire toenail

Just so you know, when I was 8 or 9 years old (less than 10 anyway), I had an ingrown toenail. Basically, the toenail started cutting into the flesh. No don’t google for pictures…

Anyway, the doctor suggested the most extreme method of dealing with the problem: taking out the entire toenail. The doctor scheduled an 11pm operation, and so little 8 year old me had anaesthetic injected into my big toe. Then the doctor proceeded to clip the entire toenail out from the base. Oh stop cringing. I could feel the doctor snipping the toenail, but I didn’t dare look. It wasn’t really painful, but the sensation was… weird to say the least.

After the operation, I was brought home by my dad, limping because of the big wad of bandage and gauze on my big toe. It wasn’t until I got home and lying on my mattress trying to sleep, that the pain came. Man was it painful! I slept in fits that night, even with painkillers in my system. Because there was this giant wad of pain at the extreme end of my body. Even though it’s the furthest removed from my brain, it doesn’t stop the pain signals from travelling any slower, ok?

Alright, you can cringe now. Oh don’t be a wuss…

And by the way, my dad found out a much less painful way of dealing with the problem. When my big toenail grew out, the ingrown toenail problem came back. Maybe it’s my shoes or something. So my dad took me to a different doctor. This doctor also scheduled an appointment for an operation.

I can feel you holding your breath. Breathe.

What the doctor did was take a small pair of scissors and carefully cut out the part where the nail was cutting into the flesh. You cut it at an angle almost parallel to the growth direction of the nail, snipping out only a small section. Then you let the nail grow out and slowly edge out the flesh so it’s no longer cutting into it.

So my dad bought a small pair of scissors. When a toenail (it always seem to be the same big toe…) cuts uncomfortably painfully into my flesh, I would snip out a small section of the nail. It’s not a hard “operation”. Beats paying a doctor to do it, right?

Psychological pain

In our modern times, we seldom feel actual physical pain. Most of our pains are psychological. Our fears arising from those psychological pains increase in strength in proportion to how much importance we place on what we hold dear.

I was going to squeeze the word “propinquity” somewhere there… I’ll just let you think about that last sentence of the previous paragraph.

Fear of your own thoughts

Do you think? I mean like sit there quietly and think. Maybe it’s to solve a maths problem. Maybe it’s to come up with a few points to a PowerPoint presentation. Maybe it’s to reflect on a painting you saw in a museum last week.

Have you ever had a fear that you’re not doing anything productive while you’re thinking? Because you don’t seem to be doing anything. Because you’re not scribbling something, reading something, researching on the Internet, writing an article, or hammering a nail (hey I’ve got engineers reading my blog, maybe there are home builders too…).

Are you afraid of being alone with your own thoughts? Or even simply being alone?

The other day, there was a scheduled power cut at my apartment block. Since I couldn’t do any work (no power means no computer and no Internet), I thought I’d go to the library instead. As I got ready to leave, the power cut at exactly 9am, as scheduled. I know, because the fish tank in the living room turned silent. The pumps and filters that kept the fish tank aerated and clean stopped working. I remembered it clearly, because the silence was almost deafening. I don’t remember my house being that quiet.

Have you ever tried meditation? For our purposes, let’s say it involves sitting in a quiet place, and to not think of anything or to think of only one thing. And let me tell you, thinking of nothing or only one thing is harder than you imagine. The easiest method is to just focus on your breathing. You’re not supposed to worry (or even register in your mind) about the laundry not being done, the itch on your back, the wind blowing through the window, or the minute hairs moving on your hand.

Why is it hard? Because your brain, given little external stimuli, will start feeding you with something, anything. Under those circumstances, your brain can only feed you thoughts.

I bring up meditation because deep thinking resembles it. I remember asking my university professor something (can’t remember the question though), and he sat in his chair, leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and just stayed there. Motionless. After maybe 10 or 15 seconds, he looked up and answered me.

Sometimes, I stay motionless when I was programming. I could be staring into the screen or off into the empty space for up to half an hour. Maybe designing a user interface, maybe pondering a piece of code, maybe just figuring out the best method to solve a problem. I had to remember to swivel in my chair or drum my fingers or something, so my colleagues know I’m alive (or still working).

The whole point is, can you do sustained thinking? 15 minutes? Half an hour? I believe this is important. Our problems are getting more complex. Attention spans seem to be getting shorter. The amount of information we’re allowing ourselves to consume is growing exponentially. Thinking is hard, so we allow others to think for us. I doubt the time needed to think can be as short as that needed to type out a Tweet… oh look, squirrel!

Figuring out who you are

You have to watch this video first. It’ll be one of the most thought-provoking 40 minutes of your life:

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now) from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.

I’m scared. I’m deathly afraid actually. Remember the ebook I’m writing, “Discipline and Deflection”?

Well, I started off thinking, “I want to help people. I seem to have a knack for handling many small tasks, answering emails, replying to user queries, generating ad-hoc reports from databases. Stuff like that. And I still manage to write code, roll the applications out to production, and maintain legacy code. I should totally write something about handling interruptions!”

That went off to an immense spurt of creative energy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Maybe I could write that, what reference could I use to illustrate my point and so on. I would be jotting down notes on my paper pad. I would be typing in tidbits of inspiration on my iPhone if I’m travelling.

As I thought and planned and wrote and thought some more, I had this increasing feeling of “This is so lame! How could anyone possibly benefit from this? This doesn’t make sense!”

And I got scared. What the heck was I doing? How could I possibly think I’m good enough to teach anyone about handling interruptions?

So I changed course. I thought about it real hard, and hit upon the idea that I’m not really writing about handling interruptions per se, but about controlling one’s self. It’s about self-control. It’s about controlling the emotions you’re feeling, thoughts you’re having and actions you’re taking. It’s not about suppressing those emotions, nor feel guilty about having flighty fantasies, nor getting depressed over the things you’ve done. It’s about not reacting to your emotions, which govern your thoughts, which compel your actions.

It’s about self-control, about self-awareness, and about how to use that knowledge to better yourself, in math, in programming, in whatever you set your mind to do.

And I got really scared after that. Because I felt like I was becoming one of those fake self-help people Merlin was talking about in his video. Because that piece of work I have in my computer right now, that ebook I’m going to publish, has little to do with math. Or programming. The concepts’ relation to each other seem as weak as molecular bonds.

But I used them. I figured them out myself. And they worked for me. But that doesn’t make me an expert in any way. And so I’m afraid. Of sounding like I know what I’m doing. I don’t.

Mostly, I just intuit things to their conclusion. This seems to run counter to the logical processes that are math and programming. I use intuition and logical thinking in tandem and in equal parts to solve problems.

I was so scared that while writing this article, I had to get away from the keyboard, and since I was also hungry, I mixed up a protein shake to drink (it was about 11pm and I didn’t want to eat anything heavy). The act of mixing, drinking the shake, and washing up calmed me a little. Which is important.

Because…

Most of all, I’m scared because I have no idea how that piece of work is going to help you. I know you’re a smart person. Which adds to my fear. What can I possibly teach an intelligent person on how to stay calm, how to maintain discipline, how to follow through on the task at hand even with interruptions and distractions? Will that even help you in your work?

In any case, I’m still going to finish that ebook. Even if it doesn’t help you. Even if you think it’s lame. Even if you think that makes me a fake self-help guru.

Because I have a compulsion to finish it. I have to write it. It’s driving me insane.

I’m going to stop here. I know you probably have some really useful work you need to get done. Still, a comment or an email with your thoughts on the matter is very much appreciated. Thank you.