August 17, 2018

I'm finding London easier

In December I wrote about how painful I had found it to leave York, move to London by myself, and start putting this new phase of life together. And this seemed strange, because I was evidently doing well and enjoying work and I did not objectively feel lonely.

I’ve been learning about an area of psychology called attachment theory, and it turns out that people don’t work that way. Something called the Dependency Paradox describes how people without reliable relationships can struggle to feel comfortable in their independence, whereas once those relationships are settled and reliable the same people will be independent and unconcerned. This lack is why I was feeling so upset for a time, but also why things have felt dramatically lighter in recent months.

It’s been hard. I’ve been pursuing a lot of difficult angles. At times I’ve been talking about the same areas with multiple people: the past with my therapist, the present with my mentors, and the future with my line manager. This seems like one of the side effects of a relationship-based culture.

I don’t know where I first came across the concept of a relationship-based culture, but I’ve found it useful in understanding why I like GDS whereas other large organisations seemed quite oppressive from the outside. Rather than following a strict hierarchy or playing fixed roles, we do our best to contribute as best we can in the ways that we best can. Much of that is by forming strong relationships with those around us, and that directly links to the relationships going on in our life outside work.

This can go too far. I cringe when people describe hierarchied work-focused groups as being a community, because they intentionally have formal power imbalances and that’s not what I expect from a community. In practice our tech communities feel more like guilds. It’s a tricky issue: to call them communities is to minimise the power imbalances; to call them guilds risks maximising it.

Power is an area I’ve been learning to understand more. A few months I was remarked to that my opinions often ‘saved lives’ and I could do with being more persuasive. This took me out of nowhere, because I felt that I did contribute my opinions fully. But as best I understand it, this is because human beings often respond more to displays of confidence than to the reasoned quality of ideas. I despair a little at humanity over this but I also recognise that people get tired, are doing their best, and I can’t change humanity. So I had to get better at that–and then I could use that persuasion to ensure that quieter but better ideas got heard (not just my own–those of others!) This inner frustration is ironic, considering how much time I spent trying to explain to engineers that people are not purely rational and act in paradoxical ways if you do not appreciate the role of their personalities. But, well, I am autistic.

Some of this makes me uncomfortable. Knowing how to communicate assertively can be repurposed to communicate aggressively or manipulatively, and our own moral compass and the reactions of others is all we have to go on. Human interaction is often in shades of grey. Observe how common extremely assertive (and aggressive) communication is amongst London commuters. This is a bit dreadful for someone from quiet Northern cities, but it is efficient because it stops things getting personal, clearly sets expectations, and keeps people focused on getting where they are going. A mentor describes the difference between assertion and aggression as, “assertiveness is getting your strongly held opinions across without suppressing those of others.”

These areas are interesting. They’ve kept me busy. I have some clear goals now for how to develop my people, organisational and leadership skills further. Best of all I have three people that I feel like I can rely on seeing every week or two, and thirty I can rely on seeing about. Those attachments are important, because people are not like feet.

It had been quite distressing to see my insecurities rising since I moved down. But it’s made me stronger. I know my triggers a lot better now, and the traumatic experiences behind them. I’ve also learned how much of a liability unhappy relationships can be, and have an inner sense-of-safety to help me exit them.

I know from experience and understanding that insecure people can make terrible leaders. Power imbalances can bring out their worst. But those experiences have been with people who were unaware, in denial, or not seeing someone about it. I know my self-esteem needs work, and I’m working on it.