6 min read

Doing what works for you

Doing what works for you
Photo by Lidya Nada / Unsplash

I have often struggled with being okay with doing things my own way.

If I had to trace the reason I tend to feel this way, it is probably because I moved around a lot as a child. Before moving to America at the age of 8, my family also lived in China, Germany, and Singapore. This meant that I was constantly learning new languages, adapting to new cultures, and navigating new schools and social situations. This constant change meant that I became really good at asking myself questions like:

  • Who do I need to be to fit in here?
  • What does this group require from me?
  • What do I have to change about myself, so that I can meet other people’s expectations of me?

Being adaptable is a useful skill, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Sometimes I can become so focused on adapting to my environment, that I forget to pause and ask myself, “Is this environment working for me?”

The first time I really pondered this was when I started working with a career coach a couple years ago. She said something like, “If you place a rainforest plant in the desert, and it can’t survive as well as a cactus, you wouldn’t blame the plant, would you? So why do you blame yourself for being inadequate, just because you are in an environment that isn’t working for you?”

It took me a while to really internalize that insight. At first, I remember thinking, “If I bail on every job when things get tough, won’t I just end up unemployed? No job is perfect — what is she thinking?”

Overtime, I’ve come to realize that the problem wasn’t the environment, nor was it me. The real issue was that I was trying so hard to do things the way everyone else was doing it, and actively created a reality that didn’t align with my needs. As a result, I was hindering both my personal growth, and the people and environment around me.

Here what I’ve learned about my needs, and how I now do what works for me:

Reading on paper

I’m highly sensitive to my environment, and recently learned from Andre Sólo’s “Why Being Sensitive Is a Strength”, that this sensitivity can extend to our sensory input as well. This sensitivity could be why I prefer physical representations of things, like my index card task management system, over their digital counterparts.

I love reading and writing on paper. I keep colored pens and highlighters at my desk, and I often print out what I’m reading, including long emails.

I used to wonder if something was wrong with me. Why can everyone else effortlessly skim a Google doc on their laptop and absorb all the relevant insights, while my eyes seem to glaze over the words? This has been particularly frustrating in an environment like Google, where information is largely shared through lengthy documents.

Instead of forcing myself to read on a screen, I’ve embraced carrying stacks of paper. At work, I often have a design doc and a highlighter in my hand, alongside my laptop, to read in between meetings. When traveling, my backpack is filled with paper books. While a Kindle would be more convenient, reading on paper is what works for me.

Eating on a consistent schedule

I used to schedule lunch based on convenience and other meetings, but I now prioritize eating between 12:30pm — 1:30pm. I’ve noticed that if I don’t eat within this window, I don’t feel great for the rest of the day. My previous team used to eat lunch at 11:30am, and to join them, I’d adjust my eating schedule. This caused me to feel off for the rest of the day. Nowadays, I’ll prioritize the conversations and laughter from having lunch with your coworkers, and if I’ll prioritize myself by eating later when it suits me.

Learning through visuals and conversations

One of my favorite activities as an engineer is discussing technical designs and systems over a whiteboard. I love the flexibility a whiteboard gives you to create and toss out ideas, while keeping everyone on the same page. I’ve managed to create a similar experience remotely with coworkers using Google Docs and Slides. The important thing for me is being able to visually grasp what we are discussing, whether that’s drawing out the boxes of a system, reading the diff in the code we are discussing, or looking at the exact line of documentation that someone is referring to. I struggle to process information effectively when conversations are abstract, or solely discussed on comment threads in long documents.

I used to feel a sense of shame with this need to visualize and discuss things with others in order to understand something complex. I wish that I could be the type of engineer who effortlessly comprehends information, just by reading code and RFCs.

However, I’ve come to embrace my learning style. Several engineers on my team have told me that because I so often ask questions publicly and admit what I don’t know, they have felt more comfortable doing it too. They’ve also told me that whiteboarding sessions I’ve scheduled intended to help me learn, helped them make their own designs better too. It is wonderful knowing that doing what works for me helps others learn too.

Prioritizing my alone time

As an extrovert, I thrive on being around people whom I enjoy spending time with. I can easily have a full day of meetings, dinner plans every day after work, and still want to see my friends over the weekend. However, even though alone time isn’t a core need for me like it is for some introverted friends, it is still crucial for me to function at my best.

As my work responsibilities have grown, protecting my alone/focus time has become challenging. My calendar often ends up looking like Swiss cheese, with people scheduling over my designated blocks for individual contributor work. I find myself letting them.

I chose to work this holiday break between Christmas and New Years. I dedicated those three days to deepening my understanding of a specific part of our system, and pair programmed with someone on a new feature. I enjoyed the time so much that when the New Year’s holiday arrived, I couldn’t wait to go back to work and do it again.

This week my partner was out of town. I intentionally carved out time for more of that magical alone time. I kept Wednesday free of any meetings at work, and refrained from making after-work plans until Friday evening.

The outcome was remarkable. I finally got to write several documents that had been on my plate, which were important for my project’s long-term success. When Thursday came, I went back to the office and had an abundance of joy to share with those around me, because I had filled my own cup. Walking into a meeting with our executives on Friday, I felt this newfound confidence, because of the time I took to do that important work and really understand the value and gaps in our product.

I still struggle with saying no to meetings. I feel a sense of guilt because someone is expressing a need for my involvement, and I don’t want to make them feel undervalued or like I don’t care. However, I’m reminding myself that saying no when I need time to focus isn’t saying no. It is saying yes to what I believe matters most. Doing that not only serves me best, it serves everyone else too.

Adding in pink

The color pink makes me really happy. The gender gap persists in the tech industry, and I’ve noticed it correlates with a lack of pink. Incorporating pink into my work life feels empowering.

Earlier on in my career, I tried hard to conform to tech fashion culture. I almost never wear dresses or makeup to work, due to the stigma around appearing too feminine. Like many female engineers, I felt like I had to adopt a stereotypical developer look to be taken seriously.

I still default to less feminine attire at work than in my personal life, but I also know that comments about my appearance are inevitable, so I try to not let them hold too much weight. Instead, I focus on how I see myself, and how I want to show up.

In this case, this has involved adding a touch of pink to my work setup, which now includes a pink backpackmouse, and manila folders. I’m not aiming for a “Barbiecore” look, but these subtle additions serve as a reminder to give myself permission to embrace what works for me.

In his book “The Big Leap,” Gay Hendricks wrote:

If you focus for a moment, you can always find some place in you that feels good right now. Your task is to give the expanding positive feeling your full attention. When you do, you will find that it expands with your attention. Let yourself enjoy it as long as you possibly can.

My goal this year is to actively seek out more of these positive feelings. I want to create an environment that fosters my growth, so that these positive moments can flourish and expand, as I find new ways to do more of what works for me.