In 1997 I was in my first year of college. Instead of the feelings of excitement and anxiety, that were the norm of young students, it was for me a time of loneliness and shame. I felt stigmatized and broken. Little did I know it at the time but these traumatic events would empower me to create the safe and successful culture at Envy Labs and then Code School. I want to show you how one lead to another, with the hope it might help you in your journey.
My Unfortunate Events
Two things happened in my life almost simultaneously; First, I came out to my parents that I had been experimenting with my sexuality, and I was bisexual. Unfortunately, they reacted in a somewhat less than supportive manner, which in turn made me feel ashamed for being who I was. Second, I was confronted by my roommate and Residential Assistant (RA) about something they found on my computer (If we have a beer together sometime, feel free to ask me about it). They jumped to conclusions, treated me like I was a bad person, forced me out of my dorm, and started an avalanche of self-doubt and shame in me. A shame I wasn’t comfortable speaking to anyone about.
In response I retreated into myself, and started wearing a lot of black clothing. At the time if you’d asked me why I’d have told you that it was because I admired the people I found at Goth clubs, they apologized to no one for who they were and how they looked. This would have been a lie.
The Underlying Fear
Last year, I took an Authentic Leadership course where I was introduced to the idea that the complexity of an individual can be described by an internal cast of characters. Bear with me, we each have voices in our head, some are positive and some are negative. For example, when I’m passionate about a particular blog post I’ve written it’s my perfectionist voice that tells me, “It could have been better.” or, “You could have made it more exciting, no one is even going to care.”
I learned that by identifying the “traitor voices” that make me feel bad, like the perfectionist voice, I can learn to be more self-aware and quiet them. I can confront the perfectionist and tell him that it’s better to do something imperfectly than nothing flawlessly.It's better to do something imperfectly, than nothing flawlessly.Click To Tweet
During the course I discovered what I refer to as my “victim traitor”. When I’m in social situations, it’s my victim voice that tells me it’s only a matter of time before someone discovers I’m a bad person. It’s only a matter of time before they judge me. When I get rejected by people it’s my victim voice that tells me that I’m broken and unlovable.
In college, my victim traitor had a loud voice. The black clothing was a defense mechanism. If I dressed in a way that showed I was broken and different I was robbing people of the chance to pass judgment on me. If I advertise my defects in my clothing then I won’t have to feel rejected when people discover how broken I am.
Stronger in Numbers
Despite all this, I managed to graduate with a Computer Engineering degree thanks to three important factors. First was joining GALA, the GLBTQ group on campus where I surrounded myself with others who also (sometimes) felt persecuted. I was comforted by being among people who I could trust to be open-minded, safe, and non-judgemental.
The second was the San Francisco Bay area goth scene. Every Monday, Wednesday, and often Saturday night I would put on my best black velvet and vinyl and dance my ass off at the local clubs. At the clubs I felt like I was surrounded by other outcasts. I felt like I belonged and I would often get kind words about my outfits and makeup. To this day one corner of my closet is all black, and I still enjoy dancing at goth clubs in Florida.
The third was performing as Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Every other Saturday night my Junior year I would strut my stuff on a stage in downtown San Jose, in front of 100+ people. The acceptance and positive energy I received from performing boosted my self-esteem. I performed for a good four years with the Bawdy Caste in San Jose, which still exists today.
Performing lead me to petition my parents to stay in school an extra year to minor in Theatre before I graduated. Thankfully my parents supported me in this.
Starting Envy Labs
Envy Labs, the web development consultancy, began in 2009 with one email to a few developers I respected. It had this question:
“What would be your optimal work environment?”
I’d had four different full-time jobs after college and I knew that none of them had an optimal work environment. Many of my friends also reported working for companies where they were overworked and undervalued. So a few of those friends and I got together and created Envy Labs, which is now known as Made with Envy.
What we did differently from the start at Envy Labs:
- We paid for every hour an employee worked, unlike most overworked salaried positions.
- We set aside time for education.
- We went to conferences as a team.
- We encouraged participation in the wider tech community.
- We socialized outside of work.
- We listened to each other and made decisions as a team.
One of our core values at Envy was “Practice Transparency.” To me that meant being completely open with everyone about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Every Monday morning we would stand before the team and give updates on each phase of our projects. This was just one of many ways we built trust through transparency.
I also held monthly 1 on 1 meetings with everyone on the team, especially as we got bigger, to ensure that everyone felt they were being listened to. I was always afraid that I’d discover that someone was unhappy with the company and wanted to leave, so I kept a close eye on everyone to make sure they enjoyed their time at Envy.
More than anything, I cared a lot about creating a safe and positive space. A space where people could be themselves and know they were valued. A space where they weren’t afraid of being judged unfairly, as I had been in the past.
There’s likely more I could have done. Hah! There’s that perfectionist voice again.
Traitors Can Become Allies
Another idea that came from my leadership workshop was that traitor voices can also become ally voices. The same victim voice that makes me worry you’re going to reject me, is also the ally voice who wants to create spaces where people can be themselves without fear of judgment. It’s the same voice that says “You should probably speak to Tim today, he seemed a little off in that meeting.” or “I need to talk to Joe and Jim individually because I can tell they’ve lost respect for each other.”
It’s that voice that tells me to put people ahead of other business priorities. People come first, and my fourth founder’s talk goes into all sorts of ways we’ve done this at Code School.
Reframing the Event
It wasn’t until after the leadership seminar a year ago that I started telling more people about my college story. By god it wasn’t easy, but when it was met with true empathy and compassion I healed a little inside. It helped me reframe the story.
Instead of being a series of tragic events that left me feeling ashamed, I can see it as a series of unfortunate events that I had the strength to overcome. I sought out support when I needed it, and I still managed to graduate. These experiences made me strong.
It was also these experiences that empowered me to create the winning work cultures at Envy Labs and Code School. It was this strength that helped me put people first and create a safe work environment where people can be creative and do their best work.
Every story about your failure and rejection has an alternate version filled with strength and resilience begging to be re-told. You have the power to reshape the story in your mind, and make it a survival story instead of a story of defeat.Every failure story in your life has an alternate version full of strength begging to be re-toldClick To Tweet
If you have a similar story about how shame led to strength which helped you succeed, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
A Special Thanks
Just over a year before I left Code School, as the company was approaching 50 employees, we made an amazing hire. Sarah Doss became the first person in our new Human Resources department.
One of the first things she did was do 1 on 1 meetings with everyone. It quickly became apparent that she had a magnificent talent for listening to people. People opened up to her and felt safe going to her when something wasn’t right or no one else was listening. She sat in on meetings to help determine what would make them function better and helped us keep an eye on morale.
It was so gratifying to find someone who cared as much as I do about creating a safe work environment. Without her it would have been much harder to move on from Code School. She’s my ally there now, nurturing the culture and keeping the space safe and judgement free.
Thank you Sarah.
P.S. My parents have since apologized and made amends for how they responded to the situation when I was in college. ?