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?

It doesn't matter who he is, only that he needs help.

by jesse in

It doesn't matter what "community" he is part of, nor who he is. He's a hacker, a father of two beautiful girls and a husband. He's being robbed of his life, and his daughters robbed of their father.

What matters is we can help. All of us - some of us (me) have been lucky enough to get help and support when we needed it most from people we didn't expect it from. To this day, I can't think about that without tears coming to my eyes. I can not imagine his pain - and I can not put myself in his shoes - it is place I dare not go.

We can help him; we can help his family. Even if only a little, and even though we know what the future will hold.

Read what he has written; help him if you can and are able.

Even if you can not help him financially; help him with words: Sometimes words are all we can pass on, but they're powerful and they mean more than you could possibly imagine. When you're in a dark and hopeless place, kind words and wishes of hope can mean the difference between retaining hope and sanity and giving up.

A letter to my love, my friend, my wife.

by jesse in

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A letter to my love, my friend, my wife and my partner - Dusty:

I know it's the day before Valentines - some things can't wait just for a day.

Ten years - that's how long we've been with one another. Ten years feels like a lifetime - so much has changed - our lives altered in subtle - and not so subtle ways by the gentle currents of each other. In the time I've known you, we have both changed for the better - we compliment and act as one another's confidant, friend, partner and lovers.

"The most powerful symptom of love is a tenderness which becomes at times almost insupportable." - Victor Hugo


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We've been through our times of trial - little things like accidentally renting an apartment in a war zone (my bad!) - and much bigger things from health, to finances, to not know what we were doing or where we were going. We both know that this past year has been probably the one most filled with trials and tribulations.

We've sat across from one another not knowing what we were going to do, we've held each others hands watching our infant daughter laying in a hospital bed - I've held your hand at your bedside in watching your pain and not knowing what to do about it, except to sit there and watch your pain. We've been through a lot in ten years.

Despite the trials - we have made each other stronger. You have changed who I am in such fundamental and subtle ways, that I attribute much of who I am now, to you. You have made me happier, stronger, more empathetic - you have also given me the cherished gift of your love, your tears and support in my times of pain.

You have given me more than just your love; you gave me our first daughter Abby - who might as well be a tiny clone of myself in female form (god help us all), who despite her willfulness and strong personality makes my heart jump each time I hear her laugh, each time she runs to me and hugs me and tell me she loves me.

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Abby is almost five! Five years old! All parents gush about how smart their children are - but we both know there's something special and unique about her. There's more to her than a pushy 4.5 year old, there's something magical about her that we both see. I can not verbalize or put to words my thanks to you for her. She's a gift you've given to me.

Then there is Addison, our bubbling eight month old. What can I say about someone who greats me with a smile and a laugh whether it's five in the morning, or me just coming home from a hard day at work?

Addison is more than a gift; she's a blessing - the past year shows that even in our darkest hours, sitting there in a hospital not knowing what will happen, something watches over us. Addison's happiness and flourishing is not just due to doctors, or therapists - it's directly tied to the amazing love and care you provide to her.

Every time I look at Addison, I see an extension of you - your smile, your happiness (and when she giggles when she rams me with her walker, your sense of humor). Addison is again, a gift and blessing you've given me.

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You've given me so much; you've changed me so much. You've made me look outside of myself and think of others - you, our daughters, you've driven me to try to change the world and help as many people as I can. You've driven me to be better - a better man, a better husband, father and human.

Times change - people change. We have our hard times - we have those times when we both want to go lock ourselves in the bathroom just to get a moment of quiet. We have times when we just don't know what will come, and times when we wish what had came had not. We have persevered over the hard times we've faced until now, and those hard times we face now, we face together, as one.

You are beautiful - you always have been, you are strong - you are honest and critical. I might say half-jokingly that you're my better half some times - but you really and truly are (You are also better looking than me!).

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You, and the gifts have given me - our daughters, have given me more than a reason to just keep working, just to keep moving from day to day. You've given me a reason to truly live, to truly push myself beyond anything I could have imagined eleven years ago. You've given me a place and arms to cry in, to laugh in, and to grow in. You've given me a view of life, of living, of loving I never dreamed of having.

I know that once again we face hard times. I thought that perhaps this year might be a little easier on us - but so far, we both know it isn't, and there are probably harder times coming for us. I am sorry that I can not always give to you all the things you so richly deserve - I'd give you anything, I'd buy you anything if I could. I am sorry I don't have anything I can give you today other than my words - darn those hard times!

My gift to you is this - my expression of how much I truly value you, cherish you and how grateful I am - in spite of all the hard times - the good times, the memories, our daughters and most importantly our love. I am but a broken man, but with you I am whole.

Thank you for being who you are.

Thank you for being with me.

Thank you for loving me.

Thank you for letting me love you in return.


p.s. Churchill loves you too:

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2011 In Review: The Python Portion

by jesse in , , ,

As I said in my post this morning - "2011 in Review: The Personal Portion" - it's that time where we're all taking stock and reflecting back on 2011.

In this post's case, I'm taking stock of the things that changed for me - things that stick out in my mind and projects I've either started, floundered or run completely into ground.

Design and Experience Matter

Perhaps the biggest shift for me in Python-as-a-whole is a movement more towards the social / management aspects. I'm a Python Software Foundation board member, so obviously me needing to take a "bigger view" isn't that surprising. What has been surprising to me is that everywhere I turn, I see things we as a whole can do better.

Now, before you think I'm about to go off the deep end; let me assure you - I wouldn't trade the community I'm lucky to be part of for anything, as I've said more eloquently before. However, only a fool believes that anything is perfect, and only the insane only focus on the flaws.

Taking a step back, I've seen more and more things that I think we can do a better job at, and these realizations all revolve around my continued "transition" from more back-end to more front-end design and coding. As I've become more focused on the users/community and those who are new, I've grown to internalize the fact that design and experience matter not only in code, and in a GUI, but they matter to a community and language as a whole.

I've spent the better part of this past year focused on issues around this - encouraging people to get involved in the "softer" side of things - helping out with documentation, mentorship and education, trying to get people to think more about one another and those just getting started and introduced to things.

I think that we as a community - and I mean everyone - from Django to Plone, from Twisted to Tornado, from PyPy to cPython can take a look at the "more human" aspects and find things to improve. Sometimes it requires fresh eyes to show you what's broken - people who do code reviews regularly know this.

For an example, look at Kenneth Reitz' Requests module - billed as "HTTP for Humans" - this might be a perfect example of the point I'm trying to get across. Built on top of "less friendly" libraries, it's API is a joy to use. It's simple, it's clear - the documentation is well done and the entire project feels very welcoming. Perhaps "Welcoming" is the best word for what I'm looking for.

I get stuck in wanting to fix "all the things" - and I can't help but get mired down in the details of how we make everything more welcoming and the experience better, how do we lower the barrier and reduce friction. The result is that I've broken my promises to myself and taken on more things than I can possibly hope to do justice.

How do we make things more welcoming, how do we help the new people, how do we help those of us growing stuck in our ways to find and explore new things? How can we do this as a community to lift us all up? What I think we need is a series of small, positive changes. Little things like, say:

  • User friendly READMEs and Documentation. Yes - I said friendly - don't assume your users are magical super smart engineers and users. While the article is more web focused, I enjoyed "The Myth of the Sophisticated User" - please don't assume people are running bleeding edge version of everything, and please don't assume everyone knows 20 years of Python package development.
  • Mentorship! Set up something within your project or team that is focused on mentoring people to a point where that person is comfortable to be a contributor.
  • Stop the vitriol. If you find yourself angry when you're typing that reply to a mailing list; walk away. If you see others being hostile or just flat out rude, call them out on it (privately first, no reason to be a jerk). Aim to be polite and welcoming.
  • The next time you're putting something up on the web? Take a moment to think about or learn about making something - yes - pretty and usable. Even if it's something simple, take a moment to realize that you're building something that may be your future user's first experience with you. It may be as simple as picking up "Design for Hackers" (which I quite liked) or just going with something with sane defaults - like twitter bootstrap.
  • Speaking of sane defaults - please be opinionated. When a new user wants to install something, don't give them the complete history of packaging, just gently explain to them how to do it. Even if I don't agree with the way you do that, it's a far cry from 20 years of development history being dumped on someone when a simple pip install <blah> could work. The same goes for your software: Pick sane, rational defaults and abstract away as much as you can. Put examples of usage before the API in documentation.
  • APIs and syntax matter: your communications channels to your users are APIs and syntax just as much as your actual code and libraries.

Moving on - I hate to say it this way; but think of the Users and target audience. Remember, you - the person reading this - and I - are in a tiny minority of the population where software (for the most part) isn't magic, we understand history and we're very tolerant of unfriendly things and failures because that's how we "grew up".

Not everyone knows how to build an interpreter; or a web framework - it doesn't mean they still can't contribute.

The Python Software Foundation

As most of you know - I am one of the directors of the Python Software Foundation, and have been the past two years. 2011 was another year where the PSF got to do some pretty cool things. I've been stressing and pushing more and more that the PSF has to be focused not just on the "IP" of Python, or just on cPython development - we have to take a larger view of the entire community - this means encouraging projects such as PyPy, outreach workshops, conferences, etc via grants and support.

You should really take a look at the Python Software Foundation's blog - Doug Hellmann, Brian Curtin and others have done their best to document and showcase what the PSF has been up to, and where we're trying to help.

My primary focus has been encouraging things such as the Outreach and Education committee, and working behind the scenes with a lot of people to improve the infrastructure. More recently I've been working on a project which should hopefully become public soon - but is tied to my first point about Design and Experience and the PSF.

I want the PSF to grow in the good works it performs - more grants as we can afford it, getting better hosting for things as needed, helping out projects like Read The Docs or helping push forward Python 3. The PSF is the Python Software Foundation - we need and should be supporting and helping everything from PyPy to PyPI, cPython to Scipy.

I think the best way for me to help here is to pick up where I left off documenting the PSF. Once again - the design and interface matter.

The Sprints Committee

As part of my board work back in 2010 I helped start the Python Sprints project - and under Brian Curtin's guidance in 2011, it has continued to make small donations in places it matters. In 2012, I'd like to see if I can spin back around and help it grow more and flourish, perhaps even be able to provide more money where it's needed. It's growth has been slow - but that's also due to us seeing less sprints overall it seems.

Started as a side project (yes. another one. sigh.) Get Python 3 is meant to serve as a pile of information and resources about Python 3 - and as many of the aspects of Python 3 as possible. Where to get funding, how to port, what is ported. I've actually gotten some excellent help from others (see github) and I'm hoping to grow it more. I've gotten pretty good feedback on it - and I never turn down a patch!

Python (Core) Mentorship

Driven from my experience with the first point about being welcoming, I've done my best to spin up the Python Core Mentorship group, a team / list focused on mentoring new people into contributing to core Python. To quote the home page:

The mission of the Python Core Mentor Program is to provide an open and welcoming place to connect students, programmers – and anyone interested in contributing to the Python Core development. This project is based on the idea that the best way to welcome new people into any project is a venue which connects them to a variety of mentors who can assist in guiding them through the contribution process, including discussions on lists such as python-dev, and python-ideas, the bug tracker, mercurial questions, code reviews, etc.

While traffic is low, I think it has done it's job - as with everything else on my list, I'd like to see growth - as it is, due to everything else on my plate, others have stepped up to help lead and guide the group. As it is, I've run into a case where as I've found with many other projects like this - people are already "tapped out" - myself included. More on resource contention later - and I should really do a poll and gauge the list for the relative level of success they feel the group has engendered.

Python Speed Project

Another side-burner project is the project - this one makes me sad(der) than my other time-starved projects. While we have finally been able to set it up as a PyPy build slave and have it feeding results to (see the speed-python results), it has not taken off as much as I hoped. We have a beast of a machine (see my initial announcement) - but we've hit the resource wall like everything else. Not enough people with enough time and the right skills.

The Elephant in the room: PyCon 2012

My single biggest project this year has been getting PyCon 2012 ready to fly - everything from getting the new website launched, the staff assembled, writing a code of conduct, and providing white-glove service and support (and getting) our amazing list of sponsors.

I can't really estimate how many hours I've "worked" on Python - but I can tell you every hour has been worth it. Even though it's sucked my time from other things and projects, it looks like it's going to be an amazing conference. We have robots, we have amazing talks, amazing keynote and plenary speakers (Paul Graham and Stormy Peters for starters). We have awesome tutorials and even more to come.

PyCon represents the single biggest "community act" that the Python Software Foundation performs - not only does the PSF fund PyCon, but it manages it, assumes the risk, etc. I wrote about it in detail in my post "Making the Case for Sponsorship" and in the "Everybody Pays" post. I'm hoping to continue to write up more and more of the details of the inner workings of PyCon, as I think it's an important series of data points and lessons. Remember - any funds "left" from PyCon go the PSF which allow the foundation to issue grants to other conferences, to developers, groups and workshops. It helps us help you.

PyCon 2012 is the thing I am most proud of; we have 80 sponsors and partners (Such as OpenHatch and PyLadies), we have a solid team of organizers working together to bring PyCon 2012 to fruition. We have a robust financial aid program as is tradition. I can only hope that I have the tenacity and will to see it come together and be able to look at a sea of 1500 Pythonistas - new and old in Santa Clara.

ps: You can register here. :)

Blood from a Stone

How do you get more time from people who are busy? Time and Time again, I've found myself asking that question. Each one of the projects I've listed has hit the same issue over and over again. How do you get the volunteers necessary to help? Heck, even my call for help with multiprocessing in August fell on a mostly flat note - probably due to me.

I no longer feel "ok" asking for help with new projects simply due to the fact that I know everyone is busy - it's insane of me to ask people to take their time away from their projects or families or jobs.

What that means however is that I have completely failed in the not-taking-on-new-things department - and I don't see this changing much without me flat out learning to tell myself "no". I believe in this community - I believe in the people, the friends I have, the language and everything involved. It's not just another tool for me; it never has been. I'm still learning, and mostly failing (or flailing, depends on where I'm standing).

Finishing this one off

Looking at the list I've typed out above, I suddenly have the feeling that I didn't actually do much last year, I know thats wrong (a nasty look from my family members would easily remind me of that). I have been able to help out where I can making things more friendly, more welcoming and to reach out when and where I can to offer help, and support.

I've watched the community change in some dramatic ways, I've looked on as PyPy has gained amazing momentum, more and more vendors and companies have come out with Python support and stating that they're using Python (and are hiring). I've gotten to work with PSF members, the board, and many, many others - all I can do is keep at it, and hope I do things justice.