This try! Swift NYC looks at open-source communities through the eyes of various mental well-being issues and struggles, shows various things that some communities already do, and introduces new initiatives from the Django community. This will hopefully inspire more communities to help foster healthy minds in a healthy environment.
I’m very happy to be here. I do want to mention my co-author of this talk who couldn’t be here: my dear friend, Mikey Ariel. We built this talk together, and it would not exist without her.
The point of this talk is to encourage trust and openness. We will touch on some sensitive subjects and maybe people will feel more courageous, to have personal conversations after this talk. Please handle whatever is shared with care, both during and after the talk.
Importance of Community (01:04)
None of us are alone. With many people that I meet, both in this community and the Django community, it sometimes feels like they have their entire life together. Everything at their work is wonderful and always works out. They get along wth any random person they meet instantly. They have an infinite number of friends; they’re always doing amazing new projects; everything just seems like completely smooth sailing for them.
But when I got to know some of these people better, they opened up to me and I found out how wrong I was for many of the people that I admired the most and sometimes even envied. I heard stories of depression, of OCD, of PTSD, crippling anxiety or sometimes even self-harm, and I felt completely blindsided again and again by how seriously some of these people are struggling. It makes me even more impressed by the things that they manage to do regardless.
But most of all, it’s left me increasingly thinking that I probably know very few people who never struggle with their well-being. Many of them simply haven’t felt comfortable enough to open up to me about it. No matter how successful someone may appear and how amazing their work is or how their creativity seems endless, they may very well be spending tremendous amounts of energy just to get through their daily life.
Our Struggles (02:46)
Around one in four people will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime. That could be something present your entire life, it could be development disorders, or it could be something that surfaces later, like burn-outs. Once it shows, it might affect the rest of your life or just a few years. It might be almost entirely resolved. But 100 people in this room will go through such an experience in their lifetime, or already have.
Many people also struggle with well-being without meeting requirements for a mental illness diagnosis. For example, in office workers, studies show that around 70% regularly experience physical symptoms due to stress, which means their stress level is so high that it results in poor sleeping and being excessively tired. Neck and back pain are very typical. That might not be a requirement for a mental illness diagnosis and it might not be so bad if it happens once in a while. But in the long term, such continued stress levels are absolutely harmful.
Even though a minority might experience an actual mental illness, a large majority will or already are suffering from issues that affect their well-being and have an impact on their life. However, it’s very ingrained in our culture, especially when it’s about mental well-being, that we hide those issues and just say, “No, no, I’m totally fine, I’m just tired. There’s nothing going on.”
The reality is, I know there are people in this community that are struggling. Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it’s a little. I know a few of these people and I’ve heard their stories, but I know there are many stories that I don’t know yet. If you’re struggling, it’s very likely that there are other people in this very room that know exactly how you feel and that understand. There are a bunch of people in this room that suffer from depression, people with low self esteem, people with anxiety, self identity issues, eating disorders–anything you can imagine.
And there are even more people that might not know exactly how you feel and don’t have exactly the same situation, but they know what it’s like to struggle. And I don’t know exactly who all these people are, but I know that they’re here.
At DjangoCon Europe 2015, there were free confidential counseling sessions available to all attendees, no questions asked. You would just take a sticky from a board and get a time slot. You didn’t need to tell them your name. One in 10 attendees used that service, and we got some anonymous data from the feedback people gave.
Of course, 25 minutes is nowhere near enough to solve serious issues, but it can help set people on a path towards feeling better, which might be better self care, different self care, perhaps traditionally, a combination of self care and professional help, anything like that.
My two favorites bits of feedback from the sessions were one person who said, “It’s been a relief to finally say these things to someone and have acknowledgement of the problem.” And another who said, “I found it useful and relaxed and I feel like I am not crazy or alone. This is normal!” They reflect very well how people felt about these sessions.
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It’s not an immediate fix to all your problems but it’s a place to say things out loud and not be afraid of being judged. To feel validated and acknowledged that problems are real, even if you know they might not be as serious as someone else’s. And that’s also a bit of what I’m trying to do here today.
I’m not a trained mental health professional. I can’t take away people’s stress, but like a short counseling session, even not being a professional, we can make a difference and that “we” includes you. It includes all of us, because we are a community and we can help by being considerate, empathetic, accepting, and understanding, and helping people who struggle feel validated and not alone, because none of us are alone.
Whether it’s struggling with multiple complicated serious disorders or just the stress sometimes taking a toll on you, the struggles are valid when they’re impacting your life. Know that whatever you’re struggling with, you aren’t crazy, you aren’t any less lovable, and most of all, you’re not alone in this community.
Helping Ourselves (07:30)
Let’s talk about the first steps we can take to help ourselves out of an area that’s troubling us.
The last thing most of us ever want to admit is that we’re struggling, that we’re not super-human and that we can be overwhelmed. But how do we end up overwhelmed? We’re functioning, responsible adults, yet it is so easy to end up in a situation where we’re constantly fighting ourselves to balance all our work, our projects, our friends, our hobbies and our sleep.
Many contributors get a lot of satisfaction from contributing to a community. But that’s exactly where the problem starts: because somewhere along the way, we forget that we need to help ourselves before we can help anyone else. And so whether that’s excitement about a new project, whether it’s an invitation to speak at a conference, to organize a conference, or an employer increasing your work load because you are the rock star that can do everything. It’s easy to get caught up in your own desire to contribute, to be a part of something and to help, that you lose control over time, energy and mental resources. And that is where things get dangerous.
In the end, participation in all the things that I like to do should not just create a positive impact on my community, on the world, or on my peers, but most of all on me. When I forget that, then being helpful doesn’t help me. And if that sounds selfish to you, consider that putting yourself first is not always selfish and can even save lives.
If you’ve ever flown before, you’ll remember the instructions of always putting your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. That’s because someone can become incapacitated quickly but there’s still a lot of time to help them. But if you try to help other people before you help yourself, you might become incapacitated yourself and then you can’t help anyone anymore.
If you put yourself first, there is still time to help someone else. If you put your own well being first, you can help others later. But if you only focus on others first, you might run out of air before you can help anyone.
Just Say No (09:53)
I’m also very much at risk of overcommitment because I either get very excited about things that I want to do and things that I want to participate in or I’m invited to participate in something and then I feel valued and appreciated for what I can do and that makes it very hard to turn down project offers, or step down from projects that I’m already a part of. But why is it so hard for us to say “no” and to say “no more”?
From my own experience and from what I’ve heard from many others, there are two very common reasons for this. One, we’re afraid that if we turn something down or step down, it means that we failed. And second, we’re afraid that if we turn things down or step down, people will respond in a negative way to that. So how can we address those fears and get the confidence to make our needed decisions?
When I asked Mikey to help me build this talk, she had just changed careers for the third time, moved to a different city and shifted from office work to home office work. She had about a million projects going, including a bunch of conferences of her own. And at some point, I had to confront Mikey with, in her own words, what she should have confronted herself with. She was dropping the ball on this project and endangering our entire collaboration and the whole talk because she tried to do too many things and therefore couldn’t manage to do any of them.
Fortunately, we’re very dear friends so when I approached her about this, we had a very productive and good conversation and she was able to admit that she had a problem. She set priorities for which of her products to drop and which to continue and fortunately for me, she continued this project, but it was not an easy choice.
We have to remember that sustainability isn’t only important for our open source projects but for the open sourcer too. This might be simpler than you think, because if I burn out, I am more or less useless to any project I’m currently a part of. I can’t let the short term satisfaction and validation get in the way of my long term well-being.
So you’ve looked at your project commitments and all your free time or whatever is left of that, and you realize that you really need to balance your life better. Now you need to communicate this to your peers, which brings us to the second reason of why saying no and no more is hard: What will people think?
Unfortunately, even after you admit to yourself that you need to trim down on your commitments, actually communicating this to your peers can seem like an even bigger hurdle. Long term open sourcers that I speak to encounter this especially, because people have built such expectations of them and their role in the community that they feel like the product will fail if they step down, and they can’t let the community down. Humans are social creatures.
A lot of us work in projects that don’t have a finite end. There’s no clear finish line. We’re always developing, it’s never entirely done; and that makes us more dependent on subjective feedback from our peers. If you combine that with a culture that encourages over-achievement a lot, it’s no wonder that we’re sometimes terrified of saying no or no more.
When I wrote Mikey about my big concerns about her participation in this talk, that was absolutely not an easy e-mail to write. I was very unhappy with how things were going at the time, annoyed with the lack of progress, and worried that we weren’t going to be able to do this. But I also know her very well and I was sure she didn’t do this because she didn’t care about me or because she didn’t care about the project.
What we do is not always who we are. In a community of volunteer contributors, which could be thousands of people working on an open source project, or two people working on a talk, being volunteers means nobody actually has to do anything.
We’re only doing this because we want to contribute. Because we both get and give great value doing it but all of it is at will, even more than our jobs. So if we suffer through our projects, our conferences or our responsibilities–if Mikey and I had let working on this talk damage our own well-being–then there would be no love in the creative process and we wouldn’t be serving anyone at all, let alone ourselves.
And it doesn’t matter how often people tell me it’s okay to step down, people will understand, just be honest. It’s so easy to come up with so many imaginary scenarios of how people are not going to understand or accept when you choose for yourself, but in reality, I’ve only heard positive stories of it being met with kindness, understanding and support. Our fear of the unknown is almost always worse than the actual consequences of our actions.
Even if some people are offended or angry that you’re letting them down, that is more indicative of their own fears and their own insecurities because it means they will need to make adjustments too. If we accept that we can only be helpful if we can retain our own health and balance, then we can face our fears with confidence.
Staying in roles that we can’t fulfill is like you’re licking the cookie so no one else can eat it, but I’m not eating it either, and it just goes to waste. So when I stay in a role that I can’t fulfill, I’m not able to do it myself, but I’m also not leaving space for anyone else, so in the end, I’m harming both the project and myself.
This actually happened to me two weeks ago. I’m the co-organizer of the Django: Under The Hood conference and my main job there is dealing with the Dutch people, because our conference is in Amsterdam and I’m the only Dutch speaker on the team.
So that means hotels, foods, legal stuff, visa letters, and also the conference party and it was actually not very easy because I couldn’t find a location that was as good as I wanted because the expectations were high. The budget was tiny; I would e-mail venues and they would say you can’t even afford the rent for our space let alone any food. And I was increasingly stressed out about it because it didn’t seem to be actually going anywhere.
I didn’t feel like I was getting a handle on it but I felt like I would be burdening all my friends if I dropped it. Also because none of the other organizers actually spoke Dutch, we would have to involve another Dutch person, which meant a new team member. What I was really doing was “licking the cookie.” I wasn’t making a party happen, but by taking that role, I wasn’t allowing anyone else to do it either.
So I told my friends that we needed to find someone else, maybe another local organizer and maybe someone in the existing team that can do it to help me manage things, especially the party. It was not an easy thing to do but my fellow organizers responded as you would hope, being very supportive, immediately helping me to manage that better.
Your own imagination of how others will respond is almost always worse than reality. This is an emoji in our Slack: The stroopwafel hearts, which you can use for your messages. But please remember to put on your own oxygen masks on first, otherwise you will run out of air before you can help anyone else, whether it’s taking a moment to think about whether you want to join this new project or accept organizing this new conference, or taking a moment to figure out which projects are draining you most and which you have to let go. Don’t let your fears paralyze you from taking care of yourself.
This almost sounds easy when I talk about it in this way but there are a lot of patterns in our community that push us more towards over-commitments.
My favorite is the GitHub contribution graph as it used to be. This was my graph when I first did this talk. That was before I opened up a whole bunch of code, so I almost only had private repositories and you can see my longest streak was one day. Like I never actually worked two days in a row, like I hadn’t actually contributed for months. This isn’t true: I was working in only private repos. Github improved this because this would basically make you think, why would anyone hire me? I don’t really do anything at all, why am I even still a Django core developer because I contribute nothing, almost? Github recognized this and recently improved this so they basically removed the whole bottom part here. They added the ability to add private repos. (This was after, but not necessarily because I complained about it, which caused some people to call me a “neo-liberal emotional jihadist” which I thought was pretty cool.)
Next I want to talk about asking for help because it can be really hard, I know, but it’s always okay. Asking for help isn’t just hard when it comes to well-being, but also when it comes to sprints.
At Django and a lot of other open source places, we run sprints where we spend one or two days contributing to Django together. There are both veteran contributors that have been with Django from the beginning but also a lot of first time contributors that often leave the event with their first contribution ever to an open source project. It’s a really good opportunity for them because there are experts on pretty much anything very close to them, but it can also be very daunting to ask for help if you’re stuck with something. Sometimes people don’t ask for help at all and they have a bad time.
Something we did at my conference last year was tell people that if you see someone with a sailor hat (like these two people here), then you can grab them at any time to ask absolutely anything. You are not disturbing them and they will not think your question is silly. They may not know the answer but they can help you find out who does. And that worked really well because it just means that people know that they’re not disrupting these people from their work. It also works really well for me because when I’m too tired or I have to do other things, then I can take my hat off and not be disturbed.
A Personal Example (21:00)
When I first started thinking about this talk–which was about one and a half years ago–it was a very incomplete set of ideas. There were some very good things in there and some of them made it until today, but it just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t a coherent story, there were things missing, I couldn’t figure out what they were and so it wasn’t really going anywhere.
About a year ago, I met my friend Mikey for the first time. We quickly clicked and at some point, I e-mailed her and said–this is the actual e-mail that I sent, I looked it up–“I have this half-assed idea for a talk and it’s full of holes and it’s either my best or my worst idea ever so far. So here’s a bunch of random incoherent ideas. I don’t think I can do this on my own. Also, it’s pretty terrifying so maybe you’ll join me and we can build this together.” She was very enthusiastic so in November, we finally started to work on this.
What it comes down to is this. If I had not asked Mikey to help me to build this talk, there would not be a talk at all. I would never have managed to do this on my own. And in that case, I would not be on this stage, I would not be in this country. Sometimes asking for help may seem like failing, like admitting that you can’t do it on your own. But that is not the same as failing. If I tried to organize a conference on my own, I think it might literally kill me. I do it with other people that support me and that I support as well, and we give and ask for help a lot.
The only way I would have failed was if I had not asked Mikey for any help on this talk. When we struggle with things, it’s very tempting to pretend they don’t exist. It’s like you can just forget about it for a moment if you don’t talk about it to anyone, then you can almost convince yourself no, nothing is going on, everything is fine, I’m just tired. And that can make asking for help really hard because it can make it seem more real.
But you don’t become depressed when you go and see a professional. Panic attacks are real, even if you manage to hide them from everyone else. And if you are not well and it is impacting your life, those issues are real, and they’re real whether you talk to your friends or not, whether you seek help or not, whether you take any action at all.
What you are doing when you ask for help is not making the issues more real than before, but you are taking responsibility for helping yourself. When you’re suffering from well-being issues, it may also occur to you that they don’t actually make any sense, and this can be really frustrating and confusing and can help you convince yourself that you don’t need any help because it is only just all in your head. But that doesn’t make it less of a problem.
Maybe everything in your life is going great, so it wouldn’t make any sense to feel depressed, but still you do. Or your workplace stress isn’t that high objectively, and it’s not that busy, but still you lose sleep over stress. So to ask for help, the way you feel doesn’t have to make any sense. Our minds do not behave rationally, so the things you struggle with don’t have to be rational at all and often, they won’t be. What makes it okay to ask for help is that you’re experiencing it and that it’s affecting your life.
Another reason it can be very scary to ask for help is that you might be afraid others will judge you, that they will think you are ridiculous, that you are over-reacting. When I asked Mikey to work with me on this talk, she could have said that this was an absolutely useless idea and why was I wasting her time on such a completely impossible plan. But in my experience, that is extremely rare and I’ve never actually encountered this in any open source community. Even if someone does ridicule you, it still isn’t wrong of you to ask. It just means this person is toxic and not really your friend.
I honestly have no idea how often I have asked for help from either my peers in this community or other communities–sometimes it’s with codes, sometimes it’s with organizing something, and sometimes it’s because I’m not feeling well. And I can tell you that after all the things I just told you, which are things I very strongly believe in, it is still sometimes very hard, even when I know it’s not failing, even when I know it’s okay if things don’t make sense and even knowing that the person that I ask is probably happy that I trusted them and asked them for help. But I almost never regretted it and it’s almost always been a great relief.
Don’t expect that asking for help will suddenly become easy but if you’re not sure, try to push yourself a little more to open up. Communities like this are a great place to do this and I’m going to talk a little bit more about helping in communities.
How Communities Can Help (26:18)
So far I’ve focused on how individuals can help themselves, but now I’d like to talk about how communities as a social and professional entity can support the well-being of team members.
I’m going to use a number of examples from the Django community because it is the community I am most closely involved in, and it’s also a very progressive community in being supportive and inclusive. But a lot of these things either come from other communities or have now been adopted by other communities.
Interestingly enough, none of the examples I’ll give you had any idea about supporting people who have well-being issues or improving people’s well-being. Many of them are just conceived from general diversity and inclusivity initiatives. But I’ve seen a lot of efforts–that, for example, aim to improve situation for gender minorities and to help them feel welcome and included–also expand to people who are in other ways struggling or different.
I often hear people say about the Python and Django community that they came for the technology but stayed for the community, and that is a type of positive atmosphere that we work very hard on. It’s important to all of us. There could be things like having a Slack channel in advance of the conference so people can meet and talk to each other, recognize a familiar face quicker. Or set up some kind of social event outside of the conference, which can make a huge difference to people who come alone, are shy, are socially anxious or things like that. Not just dumping them in the crowd, but having a way to interact with people in advance.
Another good idea is something that we happened to have tried at Swift here also: an introduction day or workshop so that people who are new to the technology or new to the community don’t feel like they have to start from scratch and have more confidence to come to an event. We try very hard to make everyone feel like we’re happy to have them in this community.
One of the most well known examples from the Django community is Django Girls, which offers free one day development courses to women. They’ve so far had 6,000 women attend their events in 70 countries. It’s a huge initiative and it started from just a single workshop. But most of all, it couldn’t have been so successful without such an overwhelmingly positive attitude from both the organizers and the local and global mentors who make a huge difference to how newcomers perceive Django, so things like imposter syndrome are also very common. I haven’t mentioned it before, but it’s super common and they have a very positive way of taking people into learning how to learn development in a way that just makes people feel comfortable much more than a lot of other projects.
Not all the people that are in these workshops then join the Django community, but there are a whole bunch of Django Girls alumnae that are now doing a lot of important work in the community. When people from this background join our community, they make our community happier and healthier as a whole.
There are smaller things you can do at events: quiet rooms is something I’m always very fond of, because conferences are super intense and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed. Most Django conferences will have a room where you’re not supposed to speak or have phone calls. There’s basically no sounds and so it is a great place for people who are more quickly overwhelmed from all the social intensity to cool down a little and have a moment of rest when they would otherwise have trouble keeping up, and maybe have to skip some of the conference.
We also have people who struggle with substance and alcohol abuse. At the last DjangoCon US, all the venue information included information about recovery meetings, especially those that are very welcoming to out of town visitors that just join for one meeting. That makes a huge difference to these people, not just because they can now find these meetings, but also because it shows that there are people in the organizing team that care about this and understand.
Programs to Help (31:19)
A very interesting approach to reducing risk of over-commitment came from the Django Software Foundation Code of Conduct committee, which deals with code of conduct issues in the wider community and supports organizers in dealing with them. This can be very emotionally taxing, so each member is only obligated to serve on the committee for a fixed period of time, with six months being the default. This allows members to step down from serving without feeling guilty and assumes opt-in membership instead of opt-out. By saying that people have to opt in if they want to stay, rather than opt out and explain themselves if they want to leave, the risk of over-commitment is much lower.
Another program that helps with over-commitment a lot is the Django Fellowship program, which is a program run by the Django Software Foundation where one contributor is paid to work on Django full-time. That frees them up to do time-critical work like security releases without adding to the stress of other contributors who do this next to their day job.
I mentioned counseling at DjangoCon Europe. Counseling is difficult to provide and you can do it on an ongoing basis, but that is not always what is needed. You may have seen recently a very sweet and powerful comic called “How to Care for a Sad Person” which shows how you can support someone in need without having to fix the immediate problem. Sometimes all we need is someone to understand and not judge and give us a hug, metaphorically or physically.
One of that plans that we’re working on is the Django Software Foundation well-being committee, which is going to be a peer support network for people from the Django community initially, but this can be expanded to other communities where people can go for support on basically any kind of well-being issue. It is not professional support, but it can be a first step to either give some guidelines on self-care or even just help people feel validated so that they will feel they can get professional care.
Basically, it would be providing peer support for community members that need to talk to someone who understands. This is currently focused on the Django community but there’s no reason it can’t be expanded to other communities once we get it up and running. You don’t always need to be a health care professional to make someone feel like a happy little sushi roll and that’s what we’re trying to push forward with this project.
No matter what you’re struggling with, that doesn’t make you any less lovable, but most of us don’t feel as loved as we actually are.
Organizing Conferences (34:07)
I’m one of the organizers of Django: Under the Hood. It’s a 300 person conference in Amsterdam, and my main task is dealing with Dutch people.
As some people in this room can probably tell you, organizing conferences can be immensely stressful. There’s so many things that you have to take care of: Venues, speakers, sponsors, food, attendee support, communication on your web site, booking flights for people and so much more. There’s always things that almost go horribly wrong during the conference.
This is something I do with a great team where I feel supported, so it is something that I can deal with, but most of all, all the effort and stress it involves is worth it when I get a “thank you” e-mail from someone. I feel totally overwhelmed, surprised, and very grateful.
“Thank you for caring. You are unbelievable. You are a bunch of the craziest, most positive people I’ve met. You inspire me to give back to the community even more. I wish I could express properly what I’m feeling right now.”
“May it always rain stroopwafels on you. But not all the time, that could be inconvenient. Only when you feel like having stroopwafels. Or someone you like feels like having stroopwafels. Or you just want to make it rain stroopwafels. Sending hugs, you crazy amazing people!”
Being able to make people feel like this is why I love organizing events. If you’ve done this in the past, you’ll know that the team is everything and it’s important to feel like you can ask for help or step back. Because even when you need help, even when you need to step back, even when you make mistakes and even when you sometimes flake, you’re probably a lot more appreciated than you think because almost all of us sometimes do this and the community is here to support us when that happens.
In reality, we don’t tend to tell people when they do things we’re very happy with, but we are very vocal about our dislike. But that feeling that you’re making a difference, that you work matters and it has value is incredibly important, whether it’s about code, or contributing to a community like the code of conduct committee, or anything else. Feeling like you’re making a difference is immensely important, especially to people who already struggle with their well-being.
Happiness Packets (36:33)
This is why we built open-source Happiness Packets. Openly expressing gratitude or appreciation can be very difficult, sometimes almost creepy, especially when you don’t know them very well and many of us come from cultures where it’s not the default to be open about that. It can feel uncomfortable. With open-source Happiness Packets, we try to make this easier.
It’s a very simple platform. You can anonymously share a message with someone if you want, but we encourage you to share a name. So far, a few hundred have been sent, a few of which are published on the site with permission, and we’re really excited to see where this will go. I’m sure that everyone in this room has people in this community that you are grateful to, that have made a difference for you, that you admire; so I would like to ask everyone to send two Happiness Packets because I’m sure you’ll be making a huge difference to not only yourself but also the person you’re sending it to.
People have tweeted: “I’ve received my first Happiness Packet and it put a huge smile on my face. If you want to show someone you appreciate them, send them one too.” “Speaking from experience, receiving a Happiness Packet is an amazingly fuzzy feeling. Go send one and make someone’s day.” And my favorite, “DjangoCon Europe received a Happiness Packet and I teared up at a bus stop while reading it.”
Mikey and I found a lot of resources while working on this talk, including all of the ones I mentioned, but there’s a lot more that would never fit into this talk. We made a GitHub repo (github.com/erikr/well-being) with all these slides, plus all the other resources that we found. Feel free to contribute things also.
The last thing I want to leave you with is this: Wanting to be happier never makes you selfish, negative, or ungrateful. You deserve to be as happy as you can be. Thank you very much.
About the content
This talk was delivered live in September 2016 at try! Swift NYC. The video was recorded, produced, and transcribed by Realm, and is published here with the permission of the conference organizers.