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Mentored by Wizards, Part 1 – “You’re Worthwhile”

When I graduated and started at Atomic, I had a lot of anxiety because I felt like I was surrounded by wizards. I’ve spent the last three years learning to think like a wizard, to conjure joy from pain and cast protection spells over the important things. I finally feel like I’ve grown into a bonafide wizard myself.

Looking back, I can see that I’ve made it this far, this fast because I’ve had a lot of excellent mentors. Atomic’s fifth core value is Teach and Learn, and people here really take it to heart.

In this series, I’d like to share some of the wisest things I’ve heard over the last three years, the ones that have stuck with me. I hope you can learn from them, too—and that you’ll be inspired to pass your own wisdom on to other developers. Sometimes, it’s the simple things we need to hear the most.

To start, I’d like to talk about how Atomic unlocked my capacity for learning. I have many stories about this, but these are two of my favorites.

“You can make mistakes, and I’ll still think you’re worthwhile.”

I came to Atomic with an incredibly deep fear of failure and a very shaky sense of self-worth. I was eager to prove myself and to gain the approval of other Atoms—especially those I looked up to as role models.

I was positively terrified of criticism. “Good job”s were everything to me. And, truthfully, a well-placed “good job” did temporarily placate my fears, but the self-judgment and insecurity always came back quickly when I made my next mistake.

I’d tell my teammates how upset I was about my failures, and they’d respond the way one would expect: “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine,” or maybe, “It’s okay, you’re human,” or even, “It looks fine to me.” I was glad to hear that they (seemingly) didn’t hate me, but I still felt like I had this big secret. I wasn’t good enough, my teammates either didn’t believe it or wouldn’t admit it, and it was only a matter of time until someone figured it out and decided to fire me.

Then one mentor did something unique: They validated my self-doubt. It happened in a conversation that looked like this:

“I don’t think my work is good enough.”
You’re right. That’s okay. I’m here to help you figure out how to make it better.”

I winced at the criticism, then took a deep breath. I was shocked to find that I felt…relieved?

My deepest fear had been realized, someone believed me, and my big secret was finally out. And yet, I wasn’t being fired, or rejected, or even reprimanded. I was being offered support and help from someone I deeply respected. I was still worth their time.

From that moment forward, my anxiety started to disintegrate. Things got easier. I became more confident. I thought maybe I was just getting better at my job, finally, and that was allowing me to relax.

But every once in a while, when things got hard, I’d get nervous about failing again. I thought perhaps I was slipping, or resting on my laurels. I’d go to my mentors (I had learned to accept more help from others by this time). They’d point me in the right direction, and I’d feel reassured enough to keep on trying and learning.

The reason that this one short conversation was so powerful became apparent to me many months later when I reflected on a different conversation we’d had, prior to the one I described above. It was a conversation about my professional development. In one sentence, this mentor proved that not only were they dedicated to teaching and learning, but they absolutely gave a shit.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a few months, and I think what might help you is…”

I’ve left off the rest of the quote because it doesn’t even matter. What made this conversation so amazing (granted, it was uncomfortable at the time because I was afraid it was a thinly-veiled, “You’re failing” conversation; see above) was that this mentor had seen me struggling, and had decided to try and do something about it. Not by prescribing one solution, or trying to be The Perfect Teacher, but by applying some basic reasoning informed by their own experience.

I was anxious, not stupid. I didn’t need to be left to wait it out, or “sink or swim,” or be sent back to school. I just needed someone to light a path for me, and to be there when I stumbled.

This is how teaching and learning works. It’s more than books, it’s more than experience, and it’s more than mindless pushing to be “better.” It’s looking carefully at the problem, trying out the best solution you can come up with, and taking notes for next time. That’s how magic happens. I think it’s how great consulting happens, too. More on both coming up in my next post!

This post is the first of a mini-series within a series. Here’s what I’ve written so far:

And be sure to check out Julia Evans’ zine that inspired the series. Hope you enjoy the ride!