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Recognizing learned helplessness

One of the most useful blog posts I’ve read is Dan Luu on what he calls “normalization of deviance”. It covers a lot of different ways that the collective lowering and raising of standards can occur in large organizations. A hypothetical conversation described in the post is something I want to talk about more:

*new person joins*
new person: WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF
old hands: yeah we know we're concerned about it
new person: WTF WTF wTF wtf wtf w...
*new person gets used to it*
*new person #2 joins*
new person #2: WTF WTF WTF WTF
new person: yeah we know. we're concerned about it.

A lot of “war stories” from companies begin this way. The bit in this flow I have found painful and want to talk about more is

*new person gets used to it*

A technical term for this is learned helplessness. All animals learn what in their environment they can and cannot change, and we will give up trying to change what we cannot control regardless of how painful the situation is. The term is typically used to describe much more pernicious situations than bad engineering conditions at a company, but it still applies.

Seniority doesn’t necessarily mean better problem recognition. The most useful signal for damaging parts of your workflow comes from new sets of eyes, no matter their level or previous domain experience. That they can see these problems most clearly is in tension with the desire to not rock the boat while still green in a role.

People who recognize broken systems may try to fix them. If it’s the sort of system that requires the VP’s hammer, from paucity of support or strength of opposition they give up or burn out. They don’t tilt at that windmill again. Bitterness at a failure or a lack of support lingers, and what’s learned about the company and wider organization can carry over to future projects.

Knowing this is happening helps! It’s easy to carry bitterness of past work around. While it can feel important to be right in all discussions, it’s more important to be kind. Stop yourself before you’re a “selfless jerk," isolated in your quest to be a martyr for the company. This is where self-awareness and knowing what’s happening helps course-correct.

It is okay to give up and move on from certain battles. Not everything can be fixed, but bringing frustration into future projects isn’t helpful or a sign of grizzled wisdom. Don’t let toxicity drag you down.