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Things to say when you're mad

I can stop when I want to

Can stop when I wish

I can stop, stop, stop any time.

And what a good feeling to feel like this

And know that the feeling is really mine.

Know that there's something deep inside

That helps us become what we can.

For a girl can be someday a woman

And a boy can be someday a man.

From “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?", by Fred Rogers (1968)

(Fred Rogers sang this song to Senator John O. Pastore, Democrat of Rhode Island, during Roger's Congressional testimony about PBS's significance on May 1st, 1969. Senator Pastore consequently changed his position on PBS and voted to retain PBS's full funding of 20 million against President Richard Nixon's proposed reduction to 10 million.)

I recently watched “Won't You Be My Neighbor?", a documentary about Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger's Neighborhood”, and I'm kind of gobsmacked at how many childhood lessons I've forgotten or haven't learned and internalized.

I get really mad about things sometimes. Some days I also feel blue. I became a software engineer in part because I like having concrete solutions and tractable problems. You have a problem, it can be fixed in the first place, the fix is doable, and when you apply a solution, the problem stays fixed (there may be new problems, but that's a different concern, different because you can identify them as arising only after you've fixed the previous problem).

Yeah, that's not how the world works. Many times, there is no solution to a given problem. Maybe it's an open-ended problem that is difficult to define. Maybe the solution is too complicated to implement. Maybe other people don't prioritize solving the problem at all, or solving it the way you want. The most frustrating class of problems to me are those that start off tractable (e.g. technical challenges), and remain unfixed to the point of becoming intractable (e.g. cultural or even ethical challenges). From talking with others in the same industry, I don't think I'm alone in this regard.

It's important to learn how to live with intractable challenges (while also identifying which challenges are acceptable and which ones are not) not only because they will always exist, but because life's pain will otherwise always map to internal suffering, and it doesn't do to suffer, especially to suffer alone or without purpose.

It's hard to manage one's feelings, particularly since people work best when their emotional and logical sides align with one another. Simply repressing feelings isn't a sustainable solution, and giving up isn't practical in all cases. It's kind of dented my pride a bit to know I'm not great at this, since I pride myself on doing things that are hard and worthwhile. It's also important because for the vast majority of jobs, 80+% of success is psychology, and knowing what buttons to press, in what order, for which temperaments, is the key to getting people to listen to you and do what you want. The vast majority of jobs are implementation efforts, and all successful implementation efforts are multi-person achievements.

Anyways, before I go off the deep end. One friend and mentor I admire practices some verbal cues to effectively commit the brain to positive thinking, and I'd like to share them here. My understanding is you vomit the phrase in front of somebody else and then have to come up with something to say before the pause becomes too long and they think you're weird. Here are some examples:

  • “I'm really curious, …": Use this if somebody said something just batshit insane. This helps frame the conversation as one where you are seeking to learn and not force a conflict when you're choking on your sushi, which could result in regret. It also internally engenders humility, curiosity, and resourcefulness. The other person can take the prompt and elaborate more with context, or repeat themselves to confirm the batshit insanity for the record.

    If you can't think of anything to say afterwards, because the thing they said just struck you dumb, you can append the sane default "… could you elaborate on that statement?". Pretty safe, all things considered.

  • “I'd love to …": Adopt this phrase if you're really not looking forward to doing something. Tossing this out onto the floor will force you to say something positive about the thing you're hating, and that forces you to think something positive about the thing you're hating. For example, if you're not looking forward to working with a dick, you can append the phrase "… work with you to …" and that will make you think of why it's important to succeed at working with this dick (like "… understand this component so that I can independently iterate on it so we can get this shipped and move on.").

  • “I'm really {grateful|fortunate} that …": Practice this phrase if you're feeling blue or seeing red and you think your sadness or anger will tinge what you say next. Saying this forces you to find something to be grateful for about the topic at hand. The benefit is you can keep the gratitude after you've said the statement 🙃

    If you need more time to think about something you're grateful or fortunate for, you can append the statement "… I have the opportunity to …" and keep frantically searching up the tree of relevant events until you find something to be grateful for (e.g. ".. work with you to find a solution to this problem” is pretty non-committal, communicates intention to find and build alignment, and defuses any standing tension. It might be weird to just say this out of context, so please substitute your own sane default here.)

  • “The truth is, …": Apply this phrase if your emotions cloud the definition between truth and hyperbole. In the heat of the moment, things may (usually) seem worse than they really are, and forcing yourself to state hard truths without the hyperbole gives the impression that you're grounded and pragmatic, which makes it easier for everybody to rally around you and build alignment around your vision.

Some phrases I explicitly wouldn't use are:

  • “I {feel|think} that …": Generally, if you are asserting something, you should assertively state it and refrain from saying this entirely Otherwise, others may think you're proposing something that you might not fully support yourself, which is generally a precursor to them getting thrown under the bus if they committed and it didn't work out 🙂 🚌 🙃

    If you're not fully comfortable with doing something, you should explicitly state you're not comfortable, then explictly state why you are doing that action in the first place, what other options you have considered and ruled out and why, and what observables (actionables or deliverables) you expect from executing on that action. Better to resolve a maybe to a right or wrong decision, and iterate on your own heuristics if you're wrong.

  • “But …: This helps set up a conflict. Replace with the conjunction “And so …" in order to bridge between, instead of wall off, what they said and what you are following up with (which doesn't need to change by switching conjunctions).

Sometimes, things won't turn out to be okay, and that's fine (or it isn't fine, and wasn't fine to begin with, and now you're unhappy on top of it not being fine 🎉). But with these tactical cognitive tools, you can better prepare yourself for what the world may throw your way.

And of course, you don't always have to be angry or sad to use these phrases. You can be cheerful too and these phrases will serve as a helpful reminder to stay positive.

I've learned that's one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself.