Community, Maslow & Boundaries

by Jesse Noller in ,

In my last post I opened up a fair amount of personal "stuff" much like one of those superfund sites "opens up". I meant it as a start to unwindind the good, the bad and the ugly I see in myself, what happened and moreso, what I mentor and guide people now to avoid.

I promised to unpack, bit by bit individual components of things so this is the start.


First up, by way of an apology, my last post didn't make it clear that I don't blame a/the communities I am and have been involved in for what happened. Communities are what they are - they are tribes of semi-like minded people grouped around a thing.

In tech, these tribes tend toward stasis - this means if you're "trying to fight the good fight" (whatever that may mean) you spend the majority of your time well, fighting.

I like to think I "won" some of the fights to make "my" corner of the world a better place. Except I made the same error I have made, time and again, in my life.

I didn't pick what fights to fight.

Let me be clear - without my involvement in the Python/PyCon/PSF community, activity on twitter, hacker news, et al my career and "me" would not be where it is. A lot of people (shockingly) look up to me. Hence me publicly admitting that I fucked up.

If I had not gotten involved, fought for what I did, did what I did I would not have:

  • A network of friends, albeit distant and not "tangible" spanning the globe.
  • The career/position I have now: or have come to the realization that I deeply and truly believe in being a leader of people (not a "manager" - more on that another time).
  • Would not have had the support through some truly dark times (see: "the impossibility of it's going to be ok")
  • Would not have had the sheer plethora of opportunities I have had, and continue to have.
  • Would not have the breadth of knowledge I have today

So I have a lot to thank many of you for - Jacob, Alex, Guido, Van, Jessica, and many others. Many people reached out to me and told me I was a mentor or inspiration to them after my last post; let me be clear - each person I have interacted with has been a mentor to me.

Yes - I have a lot to thank a lot of people for. But I can take a step back and admit that "fighting large scale fights of philosophy, politics and human motivation" is a sinkhole. Unless you have good personal boundaries and a clear objective for success (e.g. desired outcome) you will find yourself crashing upon the rocks of stasis and status quo while ignoring things that are more important.

We work in a society that raises up "rockstars" - be they creators of tools, languages, codes of conduct, etc. In a work/business context they are known as "leaders". We place them on some higher plane for being able to be the outspoken, passionate ones filled with an unflinching belief of what's right. This is normal human behavior - there have been many posts written about cults of personality, etc but the simple fact is this is normal human psychology.

So no, without the communities I still love, I would not have what I have. Where I fucked up is not having boundaries. Not saying "not my circus, not my monkeys". Not closing my email or delegating more in the community and focusing on work, family, friendships.

We have a word for that: addiction.


As somewhat of a sociology geek; I can see patterns in behaviors of groups and people (including intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. But it's really simple:


Yeah I just cited Maslow. 10 points to griffindor. You should already understand what this is. Where communities - online tribes, social media, etc come in, at least in my case is that:

  1. Prior to heavy involvement, I was stuck somewhere in the bottom.
  2. While having personal relationships (e.g. a mate) helped "move up the stack" the allure of triabalism is that it's like mainlining the top 3 layers.

When you take someone (me) who, from a very early age was on the career obsessed track (bottom layer), to the negation of fulfilling this set of needs through somewhat normal means, finding a tribe with open and welcoming arms who wants/needs help, who is friendly, who don't judge you (well...) is a bit like a drug addict finding an infinite fast way to get high all the time.

Online tribes, the communities I got involved in were my way of "moving up" this heirarchy of needs. I felt needed, I felt like I had social belonging, friends. I had acceptance.

Those mental reinforcements, that addiction to the "fast path" still maintain within me today. Except now I'm trying to focused on doing it right, vs doing it "fast". But you should be able to see the same patterns within yourself, if, like me, you have your tribe that reinforces your self-actualization.

I mention this because, quite simply, we, as humans confuse intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivations dangerously easy. Whether its our tribes or our job, it's easily to blur (see: overjustification) "I am doing this for me and my self satisfaction" and "I am doing this because I will get cheese at the end of this and they need it from me".

And that's the mental trap I fell into. The dopamine highs of arguing endlessly on the internet, of running a conference, of being "loved" were so strong they overrode "real life".

I did that. Not you.

There aren't any easy answers - from a comment this week when Hacker News picked up my last post (comment, mine):

Factor in the following: my ex and I are still best friends and confidants. As we went through this little slice of hell, what was best for our kids above what was best for us was top of mind.

Now, factor in the following: I've learned - the hard way - that investing yourself into certain things can net you things you didn't have. For example, without dumping all into the community, I wouldn't be where I am in my career, and I would not have discovered things about what I want to do in that career.

Now factor in what I described is the sign of an extremely obsessive, insecure, and potentially depressed personality with no actual definition of "self" outside of community, work, and kids. Literally - now that I've set boundaries I'm busy looking around saying "Uh. Shit. Who am I?"

Now factor in the strict clinical definition of what you go through in a divorce - it's akin to significant loss (e.g a death in the family). You go through (as I am) many stages of that including grief, depression, etc. I'm somewhere in the no man's land without an end in sight just as of yet.

Now factor in the severe anxiety and depression that comes with all of that. Yes - I could quit my job and move just to be near my girls. However not being physically or mentally fit outside of my definition of self in my career I would be throwing myself into a position of not "not moving on my own terms".

Think of it like this: I agreed, with my ex, that this would be the best course of action for now. Just up and moving wouldn't solve the root cause of why we separated, it would just solve one aspect of "me". This would result in a probable mis-directed resentment on my part towards my ex, my children and others.

Therefore, while given the information you gleaned you may be correct albeit callous, you are right that there are many more factors in a situation like this to be taken into account.

Net-net - mental health is hard. Recovery is hard - you can't tell a depressed person to "just don't be sad" and you can tell a person with an addiction (such as I've gone through) to just "give it up" without a goal, or a process by which to solve the root cause.

I fell into a trap - no sense of "self" - no sense of belonging. Few friends but having the gift of being able to empathize wholly with people (but not being able to shut that off; their desires became mine). I saw the warning signs; for example this quote from "On Family, Cranking and Changing":

As I've worked to improve my awareness of this - I've noticed how bad I've been/gotten. This is why "Cranking" hit me so hard. My ability to balance my time and attention effectively, while also spending it on the things that matter most has been grossly out of alignment. My iPhone has been a surgical attachment - I reply almost in real time to email work, or non-work related. When I should be sitting on the couch comforting my wife, or watching a movie (even though we've seen Tinkerbell 900 times) with my daughter, I'm sitting on my laptop turning a crank of some sort (for what it's worth - I'm writing this while my wife and daughter are sleeping). Instead of focusing on them, though I love them dearly, I would do anything for them, I'm turning cranks

Addiction to ambition, to belonging, to cranking is a thing.


So, what have I gotten to learn the hard way? A lot. Too much if you ask me when it's Sunday night at 9pm and crushing lonliness grabs my chest and I lie in the dark crying (hey, dudes, it's ok to cry ok?).

I learned too little, too late that boundaries really matter, and unless you set them, recognize addiction and motivations for what they are (with help) you're going to have a real bad time.

What have I done to fix this over the past two years?

  • I set strict do not disturb rules on my devices that silence them at 6pm, every night.
  • I don't work - unless absolutely nessecary - on the weekends.
  • I made peace about arguing on the internet; it's not worth it, it's not rewarding.
  • I am seeing therapists.
  • When I am with my girls I shut everything off. I don't multitask.
  • I mentor the people around me, and the people I lead not to make the same mistakes I did.
  • I encourage people to walk away, spend time with their families. If I catch them online I ask "hows the kid/wife/husband/spouse" vs "what are you working on".
  • I try to reward myself reasonably and rationally.

That said, I'm still incredibly insecure. I'm still terrified of the world in many ways. I've spent over a decade defined by my job, my family, my tribe that now that I'm compartmentalized away from it all saying hi to someone in a coffee shop is like asking me to eat live spiders.

I love my daughters. I love my team/job. I know that. The jury is out on whether I can crawl back of Maslow's stupid pyramid and love myself.

By way of closing this monster of a post out, I'm going to apologize in advance to XKCD for doing this (and if Randall asks me to take it down, I will) but I think it may provide some much needed context for you, and me.

For example, this is one of those seminal comics from XKCD:


LOL RITE? You say. You just spent like, 10 hours arguing about a patch, or some theory about distributed systems and someone is wrong! LOLOLOLOLOLOL.

Here. Let me fix that for you:


Suddenly, it's not funny. In fact replace "come read me a book" with your wife asking you to come hold the baby. Replace it with your boss asking you to "be at work and not arguing on the internet". Replace it with a friend asking you to come have coffee in meatspace.

Replace it with reading Dr. Seuss to a four year old who thinks you're god.

It's not funny now, is it?