CORECURSIVE #096

Code as a Lifeline

Brain Injury Sparks Python Mastery

Code as a Lifeline

What if your dreams were suddenly ripped away? What if your talents vanished, your passions erased? That’s what happened to Jason McDonald when a traumatic brain injury at 16 ravaged his planned destiny of becoming a doctor. Jason painfully rebuilt his identity from scratch - relearning to read, write, even speak.

A serendipitous discovery of coding ignited a new passion within Jason. He dove into the world of Python, even writing a popular programming book. His is a story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit when faced with life-altering challenges. One that calls us to embrace our own vulnerabilities as gateways to growth.

Transcript

Note: This podcast is designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emphasis that’s not on the page

Intro

Adam: Hi, this is CoRecursive, and I’m Adam Gordon Bell.

Each episode is the story of a piece of software being built.

Today’s story actually is not about a piece of software being built. It’s about Jason McDonald and his unique path to becoming a software developer. It’s a story about adversity. It’s a story about change.

Jason: It’s a weird thing for your first full-time job to be as a senior engineer. I’m dealing with massive life changes, moving cross-country. I’m dealing with, you know, the lingering effects of the anxiety,

That’s just, that’s weird. That’s not a normal, that’s not a normal career progression, certainly.

Adam: Jason wrote a great book on Python development. Uh, and Jason also trained many people to code. He’s a great teacher. He’s a great organizer of projects. But yeah, today we are talking about Jason’s challenges managing his own brain. Today we’re talking about the struggles he had managing cognitive energy.

Jason: Unless you figure out how to address it, pay it down, and stop accruing more energy debt, you’re just going to continue to descend into discontentment and exhaustion. And at some point, you’re literally just going to run out of all enthusiasm for life altogether.

And that leads to depression. It leads to anxiety. Unchecked, it can even lead to suicide.

Adam: You know, dealing with burnout, dealing with stress. I think those are things we all face at times. But, but also something unique. Something that I hope you, you never have to deal with. Recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Imagine one day, all of a sudden, you know, just talking to people is hard.

Reading is a struggle. Just doing simple things you used to be able to do is like climbing a mountain. You’re in a world where everything just leads to frustration, where conversations drain you, where your brain isn’t working well, where forming words and making sentences, they feel like doing long division, and how will you get back to the function that you know that you used to have?

That’s Jason’s story that we’re gonna cover, and also coming out the other side of it, maybe, as a better person, maybe, with a better understanding of how your brain works.

Let’s start at the beginning, back when Jason McDonald was certain of one thing, that he was going to be a doctor.

Wanting to be a Doctor

Jason: That was my goal. I wanted to be a doctor, specifically in the words of five-year-old me, I want to be a pediatric trauma surgeon. Everyone would laugh at that, coming from a five-year-old, but I was dead serious. I collected medical textbooks.

You know, I owned a copy of Gray’s Anatomy at age eight. Gray’s Anatomy, in case anyone’s wondering, it’s not the TV show. It’s the medical textbook, which the TV show is named after.

I owned the textbook. I, but I spent hours going through those ‘cause it just fascinated me.

I wanted to be a doctor.

Adam: By the time Jason was in high school, he was ahead of the curve. He was homeschooled by his mom, he was acing biology, he was devouring book after book, and he got his sights set, he was, he was laser-focused on being a doctor. But life, as it often does, it threw him a curveball, and at 16, Jason takes a bad tumble down the stairs.

Jason: Hit my head on the banister, and basically, it was the right side of my brain that was injured. And I went from a 4.0 sophomore college-level reading to failing pre-K material.

Trying With TBI

Adam: All of a sudden, Jason’s life was different.

Jason: You’re trying to do things that should be easy. And at least you think they should be easy. They used to be easy, and now it just requires all of this energy. Just having a simple conversation now takes the same amount of energy as solving a quadratic equation in your head.

It hurts. You got a headache, you’re tired. It’s like, why is this so hard? All I want to do is tell someone what I want to have for lunch. Why is this so difficult?

Adam: A lot of traumatic brain injury survivors struggle with this. You need to use all your concentration just to do basic life functions.

Jason: And that doesn’t leave a lot left over for more advanced things, and so you’re just, you’re tired, and with tiredness comes just crankiness, and one gets really cranky after a head injury, like just really grumpy, and it’s not because we don’t appreciate the people around us, but just tired, just tired of trying to make our brain work.

It’s like, why can’t I remember something simple, or why can’t I do this basic thing? And you begin to feel defective, and it’s, it’s not a defect, it’s no different than a broken leg in that you just gotta stay off it for a while and then work through the physical therapy, but it’s a long and annoying process.

And it’s not like you can stay off your brain, that’s the other part of it. You have to think to live. So, it’s like having to walk on the leg constantly, and it hurts.

Fine Motor Skills

Adam: So here Jason is, 16, and all of a sudden he needs to start relearning everything. He needs to relearn reading and writing, but also more basic things like communicating. And doctors tell his mom that the key to getting this all to work is fine motor skills.

Jason: I did needlepoint for an hour, and then I was able to read two words

This is something. So I was doing needlepoint, I was doing cross-stitch, I was sculpting with clay, I was making models.

Anything I could do with my hands that involved like fine articulated work. So that was difficult. Talking backwards frequently was hard.

Adam: Talking backwards was frequently hard

Jason: Still happens to me now.

I would often say things backwards. I would have the words, like even right there. I’d have the words. And then I would mix them up inadvertently, and it was a lot worse then, like I, I tried to say something and it just wasn’t, wasn’t in order.

It didn’t make sense. And I would get frustrated because I’d get blank stares from people. I’m just like, how do you not understand me? It wasn’t them. It was just, I couldn’t figure out how to get things out straight. It still happens now and then, but nowhere near as much as it used to.

Day In The Life

Adam: Jason’s world transformed from being fixated on the path to becoming a doctor to, you know, focusing in on activities that used his hands. These activities became his therapy, helping him reclaim some of what was taken from him.

Jason: We had to do a lot more needlepoint, a lot more sculpting, a lot more fine motor skills.

I would try to do a little bit of that schoolwork. And then when I’d get tired, take a break, maybe take a nap. Took a lot of naps after the TBI.

Despair and Hope

Adam: The whole thing was a frustrating process. Not only was Jason lacking the skills he had before, but also the simplest of things could wear him out. Jason’s mom started looking for experts to help, and they ended up at the Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Jason: I’m not sure the guy actually believed me, first of all. But, I still remember sitting in his office and him saying, “Well, whatever deficit you think you have, you’re just going to have to live with it. So, if it’s really so bad, give up on college.””

And he walks out. And I, I, I wanted to die.

I was like, how, how am I supposed to function like this? Especially if no one’s going to believe me. I’ve, I’ve got a trained medical professional telling me, “This is your life. Get used to it.” And this is one of the reasons why the suicide rate is so high among TBI survivors.

It’s because there are a lot of medical professionals who will say things like that. They, they don’t believe that what you’re going through is real, or if it is real, it’s just, you’re just going to have to learn to live with it. And it’s not their brain, it’s not their body. So they just have this, this, this abhorrent lack of empathy.

But my mother, God bless her, did not accept that as the final answer. She was a medtech in the Air Force. She’s no, I know it’s possible to recover from a TBI. That, that there, what he just said is a lie. She made a deployment with a neuropsychologist, Dr. Sharon Ashman, also at Seattle Children’s.

And Sharon and her team spent like three hours assessing me. And her verdict at the end of it is, you know what, you used to be here. We’re going to do everything in our power to get you as close to where you were as we can. We’re not accepting the current state of things as final.

Adam: What Dr. Sharon Ashman said was, even people who are quite old and who’ve had a stroke, if they can put in the work, right, they can recover some function.

Jason: But she’s like, we’re, we’re not dealing with a 70-year-old brain. We’re dealing with a 16-year-old brain. It’s still forming. We can do something with this. And so she made it her goal to get me as close to what used to be my normal as she could. And so between her team and my mom, and my teachers at, at, at Columbia Virtual Academy who were advising my homeschooling curriculum, we worked out just this fairly complex program of fine motor skills and the academic curriculum and, and the coping mechanisms and counseling and all the things I needed to be able to recover.

All of the intellectual things aside, of here’s how we fix this practically, the first thing and the most, I would say the most important thing she did was hope because without hope, nothing else will work.

Frustrations

Adam: And so began two horrible years of Jason’s life, the rebuilding years.

Jason: It’s like trying to lift your arm, because you know you can lift your arm, and yet no matter how hard you try, you can’t lift it. It’s one of the most frustrating feelings in the world, because you know it’s there, it’s attached to you, but you can’t make it work, except instead of your arm, it’s your thoughts.

I was a voracious reader. I enjoyed, I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction. Kind of just had to set reading aside for a while, I just, I couldn’t, I couldn’t make sense of what was on the page.

Even, even, even like picture books just too, too hard. I couldn’t figure out what it said. And, you know, it’s not that I forgot the mechanics of learning, it’s that my brain was not able to process what was there.

You’re just like, why can’t I connect these two things? Looking at a page of written words, knowing I should be able to read this, and yet not being able to make heads or tails of the squiggles on the page is an absolutely terrifying feeling.

Grandparents Didn’t Understand

Adam: Not everyone got what Jason was dealing with. His grandparents just wanted him to shake it off, to go back to being normal. They didn’t really believe him.

Jason: Finally, I wound up saying, you know what, I, I don’t need you in my life. If this is the influence you’re going to be in my life, you’ve had a few years to figure this out. If this is the influence you’re going to be in my life, constantly criticizing the fact that I’m not where you think I should be yet, then there needs to be some distance there.

I love you. I forgive you, but that does not mean I need to keep you in my life.

Explaining TBI

Adam: But over time, Jason got better at explaining what was going on, for those who haven’t experienced it. He said, it’s sort of like being locked out of your house while renovations happen.

Jason: And by the time you finally fight your way past the barricade into your house, they have finished, and they have completely renovated your entire house, and nothing is where it was supposed to be.

You walk in the kitchen, it is now the bedroom. You walk into the bathroom, it is the back porch. And nothing is where you remember it. You’re finding things that are broken and missing. And if you just focus on that part, it’s going to drive you crazy. But, what I had to do was focus on the things that weren’t there before that are now there.

You go into what used to be the storage room and you now have a music conservatory. It’s like, where did this come from?

Time Lord

Adam: Strangely, the thing that really helped Jason come to terms with this all is the British TV show, Doctor Who.

Jason: Doctor Who is a low-budget BBC sci-fi that achieved a cult following on the basis that it just had a really creative plot. So it’s been running, uh, on and off since I believe the 1960s. And the basic premise of the show is that it follows an alien who calls himself the Doctor.

And he looks human, but he is actually from the planet Gallifrey. He’s a Time Lord. And Time Lords have a few little tricks up their sleeve, one of which is that when they are mortally wounded, they are able to regenerate, which is a little bit like a phoenix regenerating from flame, and whatever, but when they regenerate they change their face, they change their personality, but it’s still, it’s still them underneath.

It’s still them. It’s just they look very different. They act very different, but it’s just a kind of a different reflection of their of who they are.

And that, that’s also the reason why I use the analogy of Doctor Who is the doctor always has to learn who they are now.

And has to figure out like the Tenth Doctor once said, I don’t know what kind of man I am now. Am I grumpy? Am I jovial? Am I cranky? Am I fast? Am I slow? Am I brilliant? Am I stupid? I don’t know. I have to figure that out. And um, that’s what it’s like after TBI. You don’t know what kind of person you are anymore.

And so it becomes kind of that process of relearning who you are and then focusing on what can I do now that I couldn’t do before.

Learning Code

Adam: So Jason has done a lot of recovery now. He’s a new, reborn Doctor Who, and he’s trying to figure out what type of person he is. And then he finds something.

Jason: So before the head injury, I had tried to code, I tried software engineering. I tried them because I’d wanted to make educational games. That was kind of a hobby. ‘Cause I’d played them so much.

I have a huge collection of 1990s Learning Company and Broderbund games.

Carmen Sandiego is my all-time favorite. I have played through Great Chase Through Time at least 50 times. I love that game.

So at one point, I tried to learn Python and it just did not make sense. I was going through it going, this is just, it made about as much sense as math did to me.

It’s like I could figure this out, but this is really, I feel like I’m, I feel like I’m taking my teeth out with a spoon. This is not fun. I don’t want to do this. So I set it aside and swore I would never code.

Adam: But then Jason had the head injury. And part of his recovery process was going back to those same educational games. And after about two years, he was back doing his high school level material. Sure, exhaustion was still a factor, but he’s nearing the end of his high school curriculum.

Jason: I thought, you know, I’d like to make a game. That’d be cool. That’d be a cool senior project. Let’s make, let’s make a game. But I couldn’t find game-making software that would do what I want.

And mom’s like, well, you, maybe you should just code it yourself. I’m like, people with college degrees code. I mean, like you have to go to college to learn it. This is for like super smart people. I can’t code. And mom’s like, I think you could. So she bought me “Sams Teach Yourself Visual Basic .NET in 24 Hours.”

And she said, let’s just do this together. Just try it out. And then when we get through the whole book, if you still don’t want to code, you don’t have to code. This is part of your schoolwork now.

Adam: One of the first things that Jason learned in that book is how to make a Windows dialog box. If you know VB.NET, it’s got this design surface, and you know you can drag a button, add it, and then click on the button and add the code behind. You can set the size of the button through the UI or the color or the text.

It’s exciting! There’s excitement, you know, the first time you run your program and it pops up with that button you added, with that message that you put there.

Jason: Exactly. Yeah, that, that was, that was the moment I was hooked. Was the first time I created a dialog box. And it pops up, says, Hello world. I’m like, I did something. Those dialog boxes I’ve been seeing my entire time using computers with the OK button. That is not just any OK button, that’s my OK button.

I made that. And that, that feeling of raw power in my hand—I can make anything—was just exhilarating, and I, I was hooked. And it was because of the traumatic brain injury that math and computer science and, and, and the sort of logical empirical things just made sense to me where biology had used to make sense. Now math made sense.

And I fell in love with coding and couldn’t get enough. I taught myself from that one book.

I went from there and I learned the—I picked up, actually I still have it—I still have Visual Basic 2010 sitting on my shelf behind me there. I picked up that book and just, just chewed through it and learned all these different techniques.

Couldn’t have done that without the head injury.

The Excitment of Python

Adam: Here’s the interesting part.

Coding with Jason’s new brain, it didn’t wear him out. You know, it didn’t drain him like some other activities. It seemed to energize him. And so he kept at it. At some point, he moved past .NET for his game engine. He switched to C++. He switched to Python. And meanwhile, in his previous life, Jason knew all about IRC because his mom had run an IRC-based writing workshop back when he was a kid.

Jason: So my first instinct when I was looking through how do you get help about Python, I see IRC, I’m like, there you go.

I picked up Python in the summer of 2011, and, uh, logged into the chat room because I couldn’t figure out how to, um, how to instantiate a data type.

I’ve been working with Visual Basic up to that point. Everything was in data types to me. So I log in and I say, how do you define a data type on a variable? And I still remember the first IRC response I ever got was, you’re a data type. And uh, for some reason at that point, I fell in love with Python.

Because just sort of that snarky, irreverent, pedantic sort of approach to things just kind of spoke to my heart. And, the person who said that, he was not being unkind, his screen name is Habnabit, and um, he’s on the Python IRC channel, he’s a perennial there, and he went on to explain very, very adeptly that uh, oh, you don’t need to declare data types in Python.

It figures it out from the data you pass in. Really? Wow. This is like magic. It took me a while to get my head wrapped around that paradigm, but I, I stayed in that IRC room and I basically lived there for a few years with just like absorbing everything I possibly could from the conversations.

So I learned Tkinter, the GUI framework, and then I started learning WX Widgets. And then I started learning the Qt library.

And along the way, I’m building like, ‘cause I learn by building, so I’m building all these little applications or whatever, as I go, just these small projects, just to—a few of them are still floating around out there actually. Although they shall remain unnamed because frankly, I think several of them need to be shot.

Learning is Hard

Adam: So through all this, Jason’s at university. He starts in computer science. He switches to communications. He has ups and he has downs. But his real love is the coding. He’s diving into C++. He’s diving into Python. He’s hanging out on the Python IRC. And most importantly, he’s just building stuff. But his past .NET experience and his kind of unique learning style made some things difficult.

Jason: I had learned the empirically right way of doing things in .NET, in Visual Basic. So I kept trying to apply those patterns to Python, um, because it’s what I knew. And I knew it wasn’t the right way of doing it, but I couldn’t figure out the way I was supposed to do it just from looking at the source code.

And Python has a lot of things, but their documentation is not particularly insightful if you’re trying to pick it up from another language. You have to know what you’re looking for. And to make sense of the Python documentation, you almost have to know Python.

At the same time, I’m noticing in IRC that the same questions keep being asked over and over and over.

People keep asking the same things. And I was learning a lot of, a lot of my stuff about Python from what people were asking.

Adam: So Jason starts tracking the things people are asking for in IRC and compiling his own version of an FAQ.

He publishes it as a series on Dev.to. That’s dev. to, if you’re not familiar. I Just thought, well, I’ll just put it out there. Someone will find it. Maybe I can start throwing these links in, in IRC feed. And then I have a friend of mine message me one day and he says, have you seen the Google News feed? I said, I uh, No, I don’t follow the Google News feed.

Jason: He said, you’re in it. My article had actually hit trending. One of my Dead Simple Python articles had actually started trending. It was on the Google News feed as, as Have you missed this yet? I’m like, are you serious? So, I began to realize I had written something that was actually providing a lot of value.

Adam: Jason was already writing technical content at this point. He had even talked to an editor about possibly writing a C++ book.

Jason: This editor, who shall remain nameless, he sees this, this article series, he goes by the way that you can make a book out of that. I’m like, I guess I could, I hadn’t thought of it. Like it had never occurred to me before that it was worthy of publication outside of the internet.

I wind up dropping a note to No Starch Press. Cause I, I own with No Starch Press books. I love the publishers. I’m like, I. I, I should do that. So I drop a note to No Starch Press. I’m like, Hey, this is something that you would not 24 hours later, hear back from one of their editors is yes, let’s do this.

This is perfect. I went up on a phone call with Bill Pollock that same week. And he’s yeah, I’m looking at this article. So this is great. This is exactly the sort of material we need. I have not seen a Python book like this because it wasn’t a Python book for someone who never coded before.

It was a Python book for someone who knew how to code. And just didn’t know Python. It was that, that gap. So I began writing that book and I found the guys in IRC who always argued with me. Every time I tried to answer a question, they’d come along and go, well, technically, and make some sort of really pedantic correction that would almost just really annoy you.

And I said, Hey, will you edit my book? Because I know if you guys edit it, it’s going to be correct, because they didn’t even agree with each other.

I became a Python expert in the course of writing this. I went from being a halfway decent Python coder to being an expert in the language just because I had to research and write all of these really fiddly examples.

TBI Informed Writing

Adam: Writing examples is hard. From writing my own tutorials, I’ve learned that you don’t always want an expert teaching you. An expert can be out of touch with the problems that new learners have. That was not Jason’s problem.

Jason: I had never lost touch with the frustrating period of trying to learn coding or trying to learn Python where, I mean, I once spent an entire day just trying to figure out how to run a Python program because believe it or not, nobody wrote that down.

Search the internet. You will not find a tutorial that says, “Here’s how you run a Python program.”

Adam: Everyone tells you how to run a single file, but they tend to skip over what you do when you get to multiple files.

Jason: I’m like, “Alright, chapter two. Here’s how you run Python code because no one had ever told me. I had to figure it out by asking the IRC room. Like, how am I supposed to run this?”

They’re like, “You don’t know?” “No, I’ve never used Python before. How do you run the code?” “Python space dash M space, the name of the directory containing your code, which should have a dunder init.py file and all of the other files. And then you also need to have an entry point here to find this is thanks.”

“Why has no one ever written this down?” “Well, I guess we just never thought of it.”

I remember what it was like to not understand. So it gave me the empathy. I guess that’s what it comes down to. It gave me the empathy to think, “Oh, maybe this isn’t so obvious. Maybe someone needs to write this down so they don’t have to struggle where I struggled,” because that’s a weird thing about our society, isn’t it?

A lot of people, when they struggle, they feel like it is now their right to cause other people to struggle in the same way they did. “Well, I, quote, ‘earned my stripes,’ and so you have to as well.” And I think there’s almost something a little nefarious about it. It’s, “I had to deal with a boot in my neck for five years, and I just comforted myself by telling myself, ‘It’ll be my turn to put my boot in someone else’s neck eventually,’ and you’re not gonna take that away from me.”

It’s no, just don’t perpetrate the cycle.

Learning Your Strengths

Adam: So Jason spends tons of time writing his Python book, “Dead Simple Python.” Years, really. And he learns a lot from it, and not just about Python.

Jason: This is definitely underscored this concept for me that we often frame things like dyslexia, like ADHD, like autism, like Tourette’s, traumatic brain injuries. We frame these as disabilities. That’s the word we use, “disability.”

That’s what it’s legally defined as. That’s what all the legislation is called.

That’s what your HR department is going to call it. That’s what your doc is going to call it. But it’s a bit of a misnomer because every brain has its challenges. Our society is tuned to compensate for and hide one set of challenges. What we refer to as a neuro normal person. Now, by the way, you’ve never actually met anyone who’s normal.

Because neural normal is just kind of the average of the trends. And so this is that middle of the bell curve for everything composite into one person. That’s a normal person. You’ve never met one. There are people who are more towards the middle of that. And society’s tuned to kind of hide the challenges that they have.

Adam: It’s true, right? A society where most people were blind would be set up to serve the majority blind people, which would mean it would be very supportive and necessarily mask some of the sight deficits. Jason says it’s the same for our current world. It’s masking the deficits of the people that we consider normal.

Jason: When somebody is missing or has something different than the majority, then that’s when it stands out and we label that as a disability.

What I’ve learned to see it as, what I’ve helped other people to see it as, is actually a superpower. Every one of these brain wirings I described has unique strengths. They have unique weaknesses and they have unique strengths. A normal brain has unique strengths and unique weaknesses as well. Learning to live with it is not just a matter of accepting, “I am broken.”

In fact, broken is the wrong perspective. I’m not broken, I’m different. I could write “Dead Simple Python” because of the TBI. Not in spite of it, because of it. If I hadn’t had the TBI, that book would not exist.

So it was learning that your unique brain has a superpower.

It has an ability that most people don’t have. Recognizing that, learning to capitalize on that, but then also learning that that superpower brings with it the ability to overcome your challenges. So you learn to use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses.

Interview Troubles

Adam: So Jason toiled away on the book, and after university, he started job hunting. But his uniqueness caused some trouble. His resume is not typical, and he sometimes hit snags during the interview process.

Jason: I had interviewed for a job and I had passed the technical interview. I knew I had passed the technical interview because I can read people.

And the three people, the three software engineers who had interviewed me, were ecstatic. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, she said, ‘Oh, we’re, we’re going to recommend how are you? This is, this is you, you. You’re going to be such a great fit for this team. We’re so excited.’ By the way, he’s, he, he’s written books too.”

“Oh my gosh, you guys are just going to hit it off. This is going to be great and you can help with this.” They’re going on about imagining what it’s going to be like having me on the team. And they’re ecstatic and they’re excited. And then the next day I get the call back from the HR person who’s coordinating the interviews.

And she said, “Oh, we decided not to move forward with your application. The technical team felt that you don’t have enough experience.”

I’m like, “No, they didn’t say that. Someone else put the kibosh on it.” And I genuinely believe it was because of my background. I knew everything they wanted me to know. I went right down the checklist. I proved it. I passed the technical interview. I answered every question, solved every coding challenge.

They were excited to bring me on. A person who had never spoken to me had simply decided they didn’t want me.

Adam: What Jason figures is that someone saw his resume, someone who didn’t get a chance to meet him, and felt like, “Hey, this guy’s not right for the job. He’s not one of us. He’s an other.”

Jason: All othering really is, is where you say, “You’re not part of my group. You’re part of the other group.”

Whether it’s an identity crisis or an unwillingness to recognize privilege, they have to find something that says, “I am worthy of this.” So they pick whatever it is. “I’m college educated. I’m white. I’m middle class. I’m American. I am a C developer. I code in Vim. I, whatever it is.” And then they decide from there, “If that is what makes me special, then if you don’t have it, you’re not special.”

So now they have to attack, they have to denigrate, they have to gatekeep. They can’t let them into the room, they can’t give them a chance, because if the other group gets in the room and proves they’re every bit as smart, then that ruins the narrative. So they have to keep them out. That’s all gatekeeping is.

Burn Out

Adam: So Jason’s trying to find work, and he’s getting a lot of rejections, and that can take its toll. Along the way, he starts having panic attacks. Then he gets diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder.

And then something in his personal life happens. Something that, you know, we discuss, but he doesn’t want to talk about. But I’ll just say it’s something that’s really, really traumatic. Something that you wouldn’t wish on anyone. And that traumatic event makes him feel unsafe on like a moment to moment basis, and things really start to spiral.

Jason: So if you’ve never had an anxiety disorder, then imagine if you’re watching like an exciting or a scary movie, and the moment where the monster pops up and that initial feeling where your brain is going, do I attack?

Do I run away, or do I just freeze and hope it doesn’t see me?

Now, take that moment, that second in time. For a normal panic attack, you stretch that out for five minutes. It just doesn’t go away, and so you’re paralyzed because you’re trying to process this, and everything suddenly feels terrifying, like a threat.

You don’t feel safe, you’re anxious, you’re tense, you’re ready to jump out the nearest window to survive. That sort of feeling, over something that isn’t the monster jumping out from behind the couch, but from not remembering the combination for your locker,

that’s a panic attack. So imagine being in that wound-up state where it’s hard to breathe, your heart is racing, and you just can’t—is it?

Oh, imagine that for three months.

Adam: Prolonged stress, severe emotional trauma, they can injure your brain, just like a blow to the head, you know? Think of victims of PTSD and the challenges that they face. Jason, going through this experience, he feels changed. And more and more, he doesn’t really recognize himself. But he does find a job.

He gets a job working for Canonical. It’s a great company. And he moves cross country to take it.

Senior Engineer Struggles

Jason: It’s a weird thing for your first full-time job to be as a senior engineer.

That’s just, that’s weird. That’s

not a normal, that’s not a normal career progression, certainly. So, I’m dealing with massive life changes. I’m dealing with moving cross country. I’m dealing with the lingering effects of the anxiety, all these things. I can’t sort out why I keep burning out. We shipped the Ubuntu operating system to the cloud providers. If something breaks, you’ve got to figure that out yesterday. And so it was a lot of hurried debugging with limited insights into what was broken.

Not a great fit for me. I did well enough at it, but it just, and so I wound up switching to finding a coding job, switching to that. My boss, Eric at Canonical, was very supportive. He said, “You do great at this job, but I can see the job is not great for you.”

So he was very supportive of my finding somewhere that would work for me.

Adam: Jason loved coding, right? The excitement of it sustained him through so much. But now, something had changed.

Jason: Something’s wrong. It’s not clicking anymore. I can do it. I can do it really well. No one can argue with my technical ability, but why am I not enjoying it anymore? Why am I exhausted at the end of every workday? It wasn’t until I was working on this one project, where I had struggled for two hours to solve a bug.

And I solved it. And it worked. And instead of getting that moment of, “Yes! I solved it. I’m brilliant.”

What I got instead was, “That solve wasn’t worth two hours,” and I just sat there, wanting to cry. I’m like, this is why I keep burning out. I haven’t felt that exhilaration of, “I solved it,” since 2018.

And that’s when I realized, I don’t like coding anymore. It’s not that I can’t do it; it’s not even that I don’t prefer it. It’s the fact that it takes more energy now. And so I wanted to be using all of my survival energy just to code.

And then I can’t even make a simple meal.

Burnout vs Passion

Adam: This is basically burnout, right? This is the world grinding you down. But Jason, because of his time from 16 to 18, because of his time he spent recovering, he’s tuned into this process, right? He had days before where just doing some basic needlepoint, doing some learning games would exhaust him. And so he recognizes this feeling.

He understands what’s happening because he’s been here before. But the problem is, the thing that once gave him strength, the thing that helped him in the past, is now the very thing that’s wearing him down.

Jason: The thing to remember is that there is an actual scientifically measurable upper limit to how much cognitive energy you have a day. It is a function of your metabolism and several other factors. Your brain can actually only do so much. It’s almost like a capacity on a generator. Once you exceed that capacity, the generator’s circuits are going to blow every single time.

It doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t exceed a certain capacity. When you are not aligned with your passions and your strengths, it’s going to take a lot more cognitive energy to do that task. Now, we all have things that we don’t like. We all have things that we have to do that don’t align with our strengths.

I’m not a fan of washing dishes, but I do it every day. But… The more time you spend doing something that you just don’t have a passion for, the more energy you’re using. And if you remember that you have a finite amount of energy, you’re using up energy that you could be using for other things and need to be using for other things.

So you’re not just taking away from your emotional contentment. You’re actually taking away from the energy you need to survive. This is why a lot of people come home, fall on the couch, and binge-watch Netflix because they are just out of energy. The brain is out of gas and goes, “I can do nothing else.”

And that leads to higher stress and higher stress leads to health problems. It reduces your quality of life. It negatively impacts your relationships.

It’s going to affect everybody around you when you’re out of energy.

The Way Out

Adam: Jason says, though, there is a way out of burnout.

Jason: It’s our job to recognize where we are passionate and where we are skilled and where we’re not. And to start that conversation, we have to lead that conversation.

To even the best employer, we’re still just names in an HR system. We’re still just numbers on a spreadsheet. They don’t know us as people a lot of the time.

Even the best companies don’t have a magic lens to see inside of our brains. So giving ourselves grace and recognizing that the fact we’re burning out, it’s not because we’re bad, we’re not broken. We’re not defective. We’re just different. Everybody’s different. Everyone struggles. Everyone has something in their life that doesn’t make sense. The question isn’t really whether or not we’ve struggled. The question is whether or not we are willing to admit it, willing to remember it. And then it’s also a matter of if we’re willing to then apply it to other situations.

Self Examination

Adam: And so Jason starts examining himself. He starts reflecting on his work and on his energy levels.

Jason: What are all the moments in my career, in my life, that I feel alive, happy? And I thought, well, there was the time I organized that one project that was overdue, and the project manager had been left out of the loop on everything. And so, didn’t have the context to catch up. I got that project done. That felt good. Organizing six different teams and getting that done was amazing. There was the time I wrote that policy document, and we implemented it on the team, and our quality and our response times got way better.

What do you look forward to? When you get that email that says, “Could you do X,” and you get excited, what is that?

Figure that out because we all have that. Write your own ideal job description. And then work with your supervisor, work with your manager to say, “I’m noticing that I’m struggling in this area. I can do it, but I’m exhausted afterward,

but where I am invigorated is when I’m able to do this and this and this and this and this.” And a good manager, a good supervisor will go,

“Okay, noted. Let’s see if we can move it in.” It takes time. It’s not an instant thing, but a good manager will help you steer you in the direction of your strengths.

And as I started looking, and I went, “Wait a minute, what I’m doing is no longer software engineering.”

“I’m a business analyst. I’m a software engineering manager. I’m a project manager. I’m a facilitator. That’s what I like.” And once I realized that, I started rearranging my role in different projects, and I started putting myself where I was doing more facilitation than coding, and the burnout started resolving. I started finding that I was enjoying going to work, and I was enjoying doing things, and my productivity was going up, and I had energy for other things.

Knows Yourself

Adam: So now Jason knows himself, right? He’s recovered. He’s on the mend. He knows his strengths. He knows what energizes him, and he knows what wears him down. And you know what? He made it through this burnout using the skills he learned recovering from a brain injury. Those tools, that self-awareness, they might have been what saved him here.

Which brings to mind an interesting question.

Jason: So a lot of people have asked me, “Would you change your TBI if you could?” I’m like, “No, actually, I wouldn’t,” because the version of me between age two and age 16 could not have done what I did. I did not have that personality. There are skills and abilities that I gained as a result of that TBI that I would never have had.

Sure, maybe I would have saved some lives, but you know what? I would have been arrogant. I would have been insufferable. I don’t think I would have been the sort of person that I would have wanted to be around now. And I wouldn’t trade this.

Because, yeah, the things I found in that remodeled house are far better than the things I had before.

Zen of Python

Adam: Jason found out who he was, again. And for me, it draws attention to the fact that we’re always changing, right? We all become different people. I haven’t been through what he’s been through, but I have, over the course of my life, lost abilities, gained new ones, things I loved that I don’t like anymore, and new things that excite me.

Part of life is changing, right? And for Jason, things kept changing. He lost his job in the recent tech layoffs. And now he’s job hunting again. But not for a programming job. That’s his previous incarnation. Right? He’s different now. He’s now energized by leading teams and managing projects. So if you’re hiring, look him up.

And if you want to learn Python, check out his book. It’s still a fantastic book, and even though Jason’s different now, he still loves the zen of Python.

Jason: Beautiful is better than ugly. Explicit is better than implicit.

Simple is better than complex. Complex is better than complicated.

Flat is better than nested. Sparse is better than dense.

Readability counts.

Special cases aren’t special enough to break the rules, although practicality beats purity.

Errors should never pass silently unless explicitly silenced.

In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.

There should be one, and preferably only one, obvious way to do it.

Although that way may not be obvious at first, unless you’re Dutch.

Now is better than never. Although never is often better than right now.

If the implementation is hard to explain, it may be a bad idea.

If the implementation is easy to explain, it may be a good idea.

Namespaces are one honking great idea. Let’s do more of those.

Ending

Adam: That’s the episode. And if you like the sound of that, you might like Jason’s book, Dead Simple Python.

Also, check out the CoRecursive newsletter. It comes out monthly. It’ll tell you some behind-the-scenes about the latest episodes.

And I’d like to say thank you so much to the people who support the podcast. If you want to support it, you can go to CoRecursive.com/supporters. And you know, donate some monthly money, and that helps me keep going and helps me justify to my wife all the time I spend talking into this microphone and interviewing people.

So thank you so much to everybody who supports the podcast, and until next time, thank you so much for listening.

Support CoRecursive

Hello,
I make CoRecursive because I love it when someone shares the details behind some project, some bug, or some incident with me.

No other podcast was telling stories quite like I wanted to hear.

Right now this is all done by just me and I love doing it, but it's also exhausting.

Recommending the show to others and contributing to this patreon are the biggest things you can do to help out.

Whatever you can do to help, I truly appreciate it!

Thanks! Adam Gordon Bell

Audio Player
back 15
forward 60s
00:00
00:00
44:11

Code as a Lifeline