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Dealing with Failures and Setbacks in the Workplace? 30

madvenu asks: "How do the other geeks and managers(!) over here handle failures and depression? Especially with the current troubled climate... this question seems very relevant and apt. We are, after all, only human." This is the real, human side of this business. When you suffer a setback, you have to psych yourself up to tackle the next one, no matter what. How do YOU pick yourself up after a particularly bad day/week/month at the high-stress office?

"Recently, a friend and fellow Unix Sys Admin called up and told me she was feeling low and useless as she had not been able to successfully setup a Volume Manager on Solaris / Fiber GBIC /A5200 / Vertias via remote install !! She has 3 years of experience on various Unix systems and is good with sendmail, backups and the usual admin stuff, but this is the first time with Veritas & remote solaris installs for her. She has been trying for a couple of weeks and some snag or the other, together with all the incompatible 'patches' which crash the machine are making her tensed and sleepless. The typical late into the nights and early morning 2am installs and crashes and reinstalls and patching are also affecting her health and joy of life. Now, she is loosing confidence in herself and is beginning to doubt her own capabilities.
This is the same experience I have gone through before, but it was installations of OpenBSD or getting that particular hardware to work with Linux or trying to understand Emacs... that I would tire of late into the nights and start getting depressed as I would not find solutions and would wonder if I was good enough to do anything at all if I could not solve such "simple" things.I have found this syndrome occurs to me once in a while and I have not found any one solution. Usually I take time off and take things easy and tell myself that failing is not so bad after all....

So how do the slashdotters feel about this? Any tips from those great sysadmins and programmers who have built Linux and other opensource projects? What makes them keep going inspite of failures and depression? How do you do it?"

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Dealing with Failures and Setbacks in the Workplace?

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  • Repeat after me:

    I Just Work Here

    (this works only if you don't happen to own the company you work for)
  • by codexus ( 538087 ) on Friday November 23, 2001 @06:13AM (#2603152)
    Use Windows instead of Unix. Then you can blame all your failures on Microsoft like everyone else does.

    You didn't check that the backup procedure was actualy running and now it's too late? It's Windows fault.
    You haven't patched it in months and it's infected by a Code Red derivative? It's Windows fault.
    Your server isn't working as fast as it should and keeps crashing? It's Windows fault. (might be true this time)

    Blame it all on Windows and you'll feel much better. Ignorance is bliss :)
  • Start by figuring out where you went wrong, or by what is making you depressed. Ask yourself the following questions...

    Can you prevent it in the future? (e.g. if it was that you didn't check something, can you schedule and automated check in future so that it doesn't get overlooked)

    Can you do anything to halt the problem now? (e.g. I'm stressed because of project XYZ, can i delegate some of the tasks leaving me with less to concentrate on. If this stress is caused by others mistakes then educate them, if that fails then eliminate them)

    As for me I'm waiting to finish a project then I have a holiday so that's my coutner-measure.
  • Alcohol (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sydb ( 176695 ) <michael.wd21@co@uk> on Friday November 23, 2001 @06:52AM (#2603231)
    I go home, get drunk and beat up the wife / dog, though I don't recommend it.

    But seriously. What does a failure at work mean? At the end of the day, the responsibility is yours, and the only reasonable course of action is to change whatever caused the failure and reap the rewards. Be it changing working practices, learning something new, or getting a new job, whatever is necessary.

    Short term pick-me-up? Do something you are good at that's fun - play a round of quake, go for a fast cycle run, go watch a feel good film (Amelie was good).
  • by duffbeer703 ( 177751 ) on Friday November 23, 2001 @09:12AM (#2603487)
    ...and totally not worth it.

    Just go take a break, or do something else for a day or two to clear your mind. If some fascist management type is breathing down your neck, tell him to go away.

    Getting angry and upset over a computer is very childish. Don't even go there.
    • In America they have the right to bear arms. This means that everything is ultimately solvable by shooting something.

      While I would not advise gunning down your fellow workmates or passers-by, it HAS been tried on many occasions in the past by people in your state of mind.

      I'd like to try it myself sometime, but in Britain, we do not have any similar right.
    • ...and totally not worth it.
      Except it puts the bread on her table and the roof over her head. And for some people, one's ego and pride in their work is worth it, as well.

      Just go take a break, or do something else for a day or two to clear your mind.
      Something she has to do, because its currently not working, and sometimes a fresh look is the difference between sucess and failure.

      If some fascist management type is breathing down your neck, tell him to go away.
      In some cultures, it can mean the same as resigning (Your Asshole May Vary). In some places, it would not be a healthy thing to improperly phrase such a request, in this economy.

      Getting angry and upset over a computer is very childish. Don't even go there.
      Getting angry and upset is human, not childish. She needs to get help to fix her problem. There's her coworkers, Sun Support, and Sun Mananger's mailing list. []

      • Except it puts the bread on her table and the roof over her head. And for some people, one's ego and pride in their work is worth it, as well.
        ego and it's pride is exactly what should't be worth anything to you. especially if you're feeling down.

        Getting angry and upset is human, not childish.
        ego has nothing to do with being human. it's a damn virus _program_ being coded into us from the day we are born by others who are already infected.

    I send you this URL in order to have your advice. ;)
  • You can always throw money at a problem. That way, if it isn't fixed, it's either a financial or a vendor issue.
  • by dmorin ( 25609 ) <dmorin AT gmail DOT com> on Friday November 23, 2001 @03:02PM (#2604179) Homepage Journal
    Of course, there are different scales of failure. Some of them will get you fired, and there's not a whole lot you can do to fix it. Some will just get you a beating.

    As for the philosophy bit, I have one of those "classic wisdom" posters on my wall that says: Those who are victorious plan effectively and change decisively. They are like a great river that maintains its course but adjusts its flow...they have form but are formless. They are skilled in both planning and adapting and need not fear the result of a thousand battles; for they win in advance, defeating those that have already lost. - Sun Tzu." How I read that? If you have your long range vision and confidence in it, then you shouldn't fear temporary setbacks, but rather work through and around them.

    I think that the best managers won't beat you up too bad for failure -- they will instead focus on "What needs to be done to prevent this from happening again?" and that's where you need to be able to jump in and offer constructive ideas (not criticism of your teammates). After all, if your site was down for 8 hours last night, then yelling about it for 8 hours will not make that outage not have happened. Odds are that they are getting yelled at by their bosses, too, so they know that after they vent their anger at you, they have to have something to bring back to the boss as an answer.

  • For me, anything I try to say to myself gets interrupted by irrational whining about how it should've been different. So the easiest thing to do is just not think about it, by doing something else enjoyable. I've always liked a good book.

  • I had a short psychotic episode a couple weeks ago, for broadly similar reasons. I think "we geeks" tend to run best at higher stress levels than normal (i do); that added to the increased stress of "the times" is making for a lot of unhappy folks.

    I have no answers, yet; but I'm working on it. So far the best idea i've had is to just quit my job (self-employed) and start a church... we'll have egg tosses on Saturday and drink.

  • its the politics. the politics are insane at any corporation, and especially when you are going against the grain.

    it used to be fighting against IBM and the SNA mentality, to try to get TCP/IP based solutions in. now its fighting against MS and that whole mentality in order to get anything else in.

    and eventually like me, you get labeled. which is great fun. my favorite label that i was allegedly given - "brilliant, but dangerous" ok. its not like i work with anything lethal, how could i be dangerous? its just software fer chrissakes.
  • I think there's another interesting question around "what is the manager's role in helping people deal with burnout?" For example, if you're the manager of the sysadmin who's burning herself out trying to do the remote install, what should you do?

    Speaking from personal experience, I have had employees who - for various reasons - drove themselves into burnout mode. Usually those reasons had to do with someone trying to meet unrealistic deadlines or cope with too much work.

    One important lesson is to keep track of people working long hours and only encourage it when it's useful. Some specific times when it's not useful:

    when the person has a bug they can't solve. Bugs get solved when brainpower is applied, not when brute force is applied. No one has brainpower after 12 hours.

    when the person is frantically adding new features/code under deadline (they usually implement poorly/buggily)

    when the work will not be a quality piece. Lord knows there is nothing more depressing than working 18 hour days to get a half-baked product out the door - and then have to work 18 hour days to deal with the bugs!!!

    And finally, when you see someone burning themselves out, understand that management (ie, you) are probably responsible. You've either given them too much work, or you're distributing it poorly, or you've promised upper management too much. Realistic planning and resource utilization goes a long way to stopping burnout.

  • by dlek ( 324832 )

    We [geeks] all get this from time to time. Computer and software systems are getting more and more complex with every passing day, and it's difficult to keep up. More and more we have to specialize, and when we step outside our specialty, it can be an incredibly humbling experience.

    Sometimes you're on a deadline and can't just walk away for more than a few minutes. What I find most consistently useful is to grab some other challenge and meet it. You get a context-switch, which changes your focus--when you look back at the stumper, you see it differently--and you get a super-vital confidence boost.

    For example, recently I was rebuilding my Linux server. I'm not a server admin--this is more of a hobby--but nevertheless I expect myself to be able to build a relatively efficient, secure server. And migrating from Bind 8 to Bind 9 was driving me absolutely nutcakes, and I was starting to have serious self-loathing. So I built a PHP-MySQL app I'd been meaning to do for a while. It worked, I was happy, I was confident, and the whole Bind 9 thing wasn't bothering me anymore. So I went back to it.

    And the context-switch allowed me to see something I hadn't seen before: the best thing for my server wasn't to run my own DNS, but to use ZoneEdit. ;)

    I'd say the context-switch is important, but the really essential thing is to build the confidence back up with a success, no matter how small. That's a technique I find myself using at work all the time.

    Hope that helps... wish there was some way you could let us know how it's going!


  • Honestly. I realize and understand that a lot of us geeks tend to define ourselves by what we do/know, but it isn't worth getting depressed about some setbacks.

    Take a step back from what's causing the difficulty and regroup. Work on something else for a couple hours/days. If it's criticism from a project manager/client on a project, try not to take it personally. Pause for a minute and think about previous obstacles that you've overcome. Ask for help. There is no shame in asking someone "hey, can you give me a hand with this?" Often, I'll work out my problem just by describing it to someone else.

    This may sound wasteful, but when I've become completely frustrated with a piece of code (trying to make it work right), I just scrap it and start over. If it's so broken that I'm getting frustrated, it needs it anyway. Plus, it gets me back to the really "fun" stuff - work out the algorithm, write some pseudocode, hammer it into real code. It's a pick-me-up.

    Things I do:

    • After a really bad day/week, stop on the way home and pick up a 6-pack of Labatt Ice and drain it (or as much as possible) that night.
    • Take a weekend and hang out at the girlfriend's place with her family. Babysitting a 10-month-old for 6 hours will make you entirely forget about work.
    • Go out for a drive. Some of my best ideas have come to me while driving. Keep a pad of paper handy in the car.
    • Work on my truck (replacing perfectly servicable parts with upgrades).
    • Make other people happy. When I can make my troublesome clients happy, it takes a layer of stress off my life. Help another programmer with something they're having trouble with (just by answering a question or 2).
    • Treat yourself to that DVD/CD/Playstation2 game you've been thinking about getting.
    Or anything else that interests you.

    I also found that my general stress/depression level went up when I stopped exercising regularly.

    Most importantly, don't let a setback lower your self-esteem. One failure or setback does not make you a bad person. It means you're human, just like anyone else. Failure is a part of life. Those who have the most difficulty dealing with it are those who have hardly ever failed (you can't fail if you don't try something). It builds character - you will grow from the experience.

  • If you're consistently biting off more than you can chew, that's bound to have an effect on your morale. This is made worse by the relatively unintrospective nature of many geeks. Luckily, geek skills of analysis and frobbing [] can be applied; try treating yourself an optimization problem.

    The other thing that occurs to me is that disrupted sleep patterns and depression go hand in hand. If I'm feeling unreasonably melancholy, the first thing I'll do is get my sleep cycle back in sync, either via staying up all night or melatonin [].
  • To be honest, I'm in a different situation: I'm a researcher (PhD candidate) and a teacher (second and third year university courses, mostly) but I know the feeling of things going wrong. Some of things I deal with are:
    • a class lab that I wrote a month before and tested three times has an error in it that stops it from working.
    • one of my experiments just will not give me useable results, no matter how much I fiddle with it.
    • the people I am writing a paper with are nowhere to be found, and the deadline is one week away(!!!)
    Things I do to cope with these, include the following:
    • Drink a lot of beer. It is important to remember the following about this strategy, though:
      • I do it only with people I trust, and who will take care of me and not wind me up further
      • I don't do it too much. Alcohol does not make my problems go away, it just relaxes me for a little while and makes me better able to deal with them when the hangover's gone
    • Spend a quiet evening at home with my other half. This is especially helpful to both of us, since she's a researcher as well
    • Leave the thing that is winding me up, and work on something else. For this reason I always like to have several projects going at once, so I can easily switch to another when I get bored with one of them.
    • Read a book. A good, low brain power novel will do wonders for clearing your head.
    • Ask for help. I learned the hard way that letting my pride get in the way makes things worse in the long run. Knowing when to ask for help is one of the most important skills I've learned in the last few years.
    • Punch the wall. Really, really hard. It hurts like hell, but it's a great way to release stress and tension, It is important not to hit a thin bit of the wall, though, and not to do it more than once as this may lead to cracks (in the wall, or in your hand, depending on which is stronger / harder)

    Things I will not do, are the following:

    • Continue working on the thing that is getting me down. That will just depess me further, and make me completely unproductive
    • Drink on my own. One of my rules about alcohol is that I do not drink alone, and I don't drink to feel better about myself. Drink to relax, not improve your self-esteem.
    • Forget that no matter the problem I am dealing with now, I am still a good person, who has done a lot of good work and touched a lot of people. That might sound like touch-feely new age crap, but a positive self image is important.
    • Take out my stress and frustrations on other people. I often get tempted to snap at my friends, but I know that they are the ones who will help me through the rough patches.

    Like I said, I'm in a different situation, but I think a lot of these strategies are fairly universal.

  • When you start taking your job so seriously that it causes you distress or aggrivation of any kind, repeat the followin phrase until you get it:

    "It's just a fuckin' job. It's just a fuckin' job. It's just ... "
  • Something totally different...

    What do I mean by that? What I mean is try to learn or do something that you have thought about, maybe in passing, that you thought you could never really do - or didn't think you would need to know. Something totally unrelated to computers, maybe. Examples?

    Woodworking is a good starter - simple whittling with a knife can be something too. Or, try a form of crafting - say, animated automata constructs made from balsa! Or try plastic crafting - building and shaping plastic. Or glass blowing (and we all know where this could go!). How about gardening? Or go for the mechanical - learn to work on your car or truck. Or, try building new mechanical stuff from old junk (want a fun task - build an electric "car" using junked bicycles and a automobile starter motor). Which leads into the best (ok, that is my opinion) different thing to do of all:


    Something I am currently learning - but promises to open a whole new world for me. Currently, I am learning how to arc weld, as well a how to use a cutting torch properly (man, do I love the torch - burning through 1/2 inch plate steel is FUN). My last project was a small "pounding" table built from scrap - I plan on building a stand for it later. Nothing will take your mind off "geek" stuff faster than metalwork - because if you aren't focused on the craft, you can fuck up the work (and more likely, yourself) faster than anything. Seeing molten steel run is exciting - just don't let it hit your shoe! Recrafting steel with an arc welder is just as cool (or hot, depending on your viewpoint). I might even try my hand later at small scale blacksmithing and forging - perhaps even casting! All of this is hot, dirty, smelly, stinky work. But what you gain out of it is beyond compare - solid stuff. Heavy stuff. Stuff that will last the ages (ok, at least until someone comes along and takes a cutting torch to your stuff - heh).

    Those are my suggestions. Plus, you may come away with a skill that you can integrate into your regular geeky pursuits (I am a coder - I also know electronic design. I have built small robots. Now I am learning welding, etc. Hydraulics and pneumatics are easy to understand - see where I am going with this...?)....

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...