It’s Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado. I am sitting on my couch in my striped blue-and-white pajamas, staring at two emails in my inbox inviting me to speak at tech events–one in the Bay Area, where my employer is located, and one in Boulder, where I currently live. Normally I would be thrilled to accept these invitations right away. I want to accept them. “Say yes to challenge” has become my motto throughout my career. This motto has undeniably served me. Outside of the office, pushing myself to be more visible, do more public speaking and share my ideas with the world has led to incredible opportunities, promotions, and career upleveling. But today, I can’t bring myself to hit “yes” in the reply fields. The duo of invites sits there another day unanswered.
On the coffee table next to the couch sits a bottle of prescription medication, one of a few meds I’ve been taking these past few weeks to heal from an illness. Being sick has meant that I can’t currently drink alcohol or coffee, dine at most restaurants, and that sometimes I don’t feel awesome. Thankfully, I am still able to work at full capacity, read, write, and organize Flatirons Tech events (come to our next event at Google in Boulder!). But I’ve become less social while convalescing, and networking has taken a backseat. It wasn’t until I got sick that I realized how much of tech networking is organized around imbibing caffeine, alcohol, or being “on” at an event. I know I am not alone in abstaining from drinking caffeine and alcohol, but it can sometimes seem that everyone in tech is throwing back either a Nitro coffee or a craft beer siphoned from a keg.
Around when I first started feeling under the weather, I gave a brief talk at Twitter Boulder. During the talk I smiled, trying my best to seem warm and inviting. Immediately after I got offstage, I slipped out of the event. I normally would stay and mingle with the audience, but I simply couldn’t. You may have seen the picture I tweeted and Instagrammed at the event, but you certainly didn’t see the reality of how terrible I was really feeling that day.
And that’s just it: in our current social media-driven world, we see only what others allow us to see. I see my colleagues and peers “crushing it” online, speaking at conferences, being out there in the industry, and they likely see the same of me. I feel pressure, as I’m sure others do, to always be “on” and constantly grow, innovate, and become a bigger force in the industry. But I frequently don’t know others’ private struggles, pains, illnesses, and challenges. And they don’t know of mine unless I share.
Being sick has brought up a flurry of doubts: Who am I in the tech world if I can’t have a drink at a tech meetup or enjoy a normal business lunch? How long will it take before I’m back to “myself” and am able to say yes to every career opportunity? What if I turn down opportunities and then people stop inviting me to speak at events–and what would that mean for my career?
These doubts spring from a dominant startup narrative of “keep growing and crushing it at all costs,” which is harmful to all of us. The “crush it” mindset means constantly seeking opportunities to be in public–public speaking, networking, conferences, as well as taking on so many challenges at work that we’re burning the midnight oil more often than not. Where does the pressure to “crush it” come from? Perhaps it is from the illusion that everyone else is crushing it, and if we don’t too, we’re going to miss out. For some of us, being a minority in tech adds another layer of constantly feeling a need to prove ourselves.
Tech is an incredibly important part of many of our lives, but it isn’t our whole lives, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling pressure to “crush it” no matter what.
My current health condition, I am told, will likely resolve within a few months. I know I am extremely lucky. Many people in tech silently deal with serious and/or chronic health issues, some of which take a long time to heal or will never fully heal. Others struggle with balancing careers and being a primary caregiver to parents, children or an ailing family member; dealing with a divorce, death or loss; a personal illness, or another significant life challenge. No matter our life situation, each of us will go through a period at some point that won’t enable us to follow the “crush it all the time” ethos. As an industry, we need to think about how we can build a tech culture that is more inclusive of everyone throughout the ups and downs of our lives.
Summoning my courage, I regretfully decline the invitations. I know there’s a lot more “crushing it” ahead–even if that isn’t right now.