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Staying Positive

In a departure from the usual techy stuff, I'm going to post about something quite close to my heart. Staying positive. I'm quite an upbeat and positive person, but that wasn't always the case. It took borderline work burnout and serious illness to get me to sort my shit out.

So, a bit of background. Back in early 2005, I'd pretty much burnt myself out working myself to the bone as the lead programmer at an ambitious startup, for an extremely demanding boss. I was so miserable, that I seriously considered sacking off web development entirely, and retraining to do something completely different (top of my list was touring road crew, but the missus vetoed that one).

Several of my self employed friends (none of whom work in web) inspired me to try my hand at freelance, it was something that I'd always fancied, but I didn't think I was good enough. After a couple of months, I'd fallen back in live with web dev, and I realised it was the toxic working environment that burnt me out, not the industry. All was good, until I got ill. I had a wracking cough that just wouldn't quit, and I had no energy. For almost a year, I was a complete medical mystery, until in 2006, after some surgical exploration, I was diagnosed with Stage IVB Hodgkins Lymphoma (an immune system Cancer). As bad new goes, that's up there with "yup, your house is built on a spooky burial ground".

It was at this point, I started my journey to being more positive. 12 months of being a medical mystery is RUBBISH. Had I been any good at music, I'd have written some killer blues songs. As I led in bed with the Oncologist explaining my diagnosis, I was actually happy, I think he thought I'd lost the plot. But actually finding out that my illness had a name, and could be fought was enormously liberating. From that point on, I focused on the positives. Throughout the six months of chemo I had, I remained positive and upbeat, much more so than I would have imagined possible. Having a health scare like that really made me focus on what was actually important. I've learnt a lot from the experience, and some of the inspiring people that I met along the way.

Right, enough background! Staying positive is all about realising what's important, what you do and don't have control over, and looking for the opportunity when things go bad.

Realising What's Important

We live in extremely information rich times. Most of us carry devices around in our pockets that are more powerful than the first 7/8 computers I owned, COMBINED. The entirety of the internet is at our fingertips, and it's easy to get overloaded with information, making it hard to focus on what really matters. It works for work as well as personal stuff. Learn to filter out the stuff that doesn't matter and focus on the things that do. Stop spending all your time reading about other people's lives, and concentrate on your own.

With work it's easy to get caught up in the bigger picture and get sidetracked. Break your project down into smaller parts so you can concentrate on the individual pieces and it gets simpler. Also, learn to filter the important stuff from a client brief. It's sometimes easy to get really caught up on a feature that's actually pretty inconsequential.


People have a tendency to stress about things they have absolutely no control over, and worry about some nebulous future event. I find the trick is to focus on what you're doing now. It's also important to realise that there are some things you have very little control over and just accept it and take charge of the things that you can.

One example of this would be me worrying about relapse. I know people who have literally lost their mind worrying about getting ill again after recovering from Cancer. They constantly fret about every little thing they do, terrified that they're making it more likely they'll get sick again. I look at it this way, as long as I avoid anything too stupid (smoking, hanging out in chemical plants without a mask, swimming in Benzene), I'm probably good. I'd rather enjoy the extra time I have, than lock myself up an be paralyzed with fear about being ill again.

You can plan for some eventualities, but accept that sometimes things happen for no real reason!

Look for the Opportunity

One of the things I learnt early on was to look for the positives in the bad. I got diagnosed with Cancer, I could easily have collapsed in a weeping heap and spent the next 6 months rocking backwards and forwards. I admit, I cried a bit, but I also saw my diagnosis as a positive step on the way to recovery.

Been laid off? Take it as a sign that it's time to move on. Upskill and move on to better things, don't waste your energy being bitter and focusing on the past. Project didn't work out as well as hoped? Look for the bits that DID work and take those away as something you can use next time.


Finally, one thing that really helps is to have some perspective. For the majority of us, what we do isn't life and death. If a menu doesn't line up perfectly in IE8, no one is going to die (except maybe the IE devs, as they get hunted down by disgruntled web devs, one by one). Sure, you should fix it, but it's not worth getting super stressed over.

Make sure that you take a step back every now and again and have some you time. As an industry, web dev is close to game dev for the amount of crazy overtime that's expected, often down to poor planning or lack of resources. Take a step back every now and again and do something you want to do for you. Since I hit remission, I've tried to do at least one thing a year that I've always wanted to do, and man does it recharge my batteries. I learnt to snowboard at 30 (and I love it), I taught myself SLR photography and I even climbed Mount Fuji in Japan (something I've wanted to do since forever). When I come back from a week on the slopes, my creative batteries are fully recharged, and I feel amazing. It doesn't even have to be that exciting, go for regular walks in the countryside, take up cycling, it all helps :)

I realise that a lot of this is probably obvious to most people, but it's surprising how many people I come across in  web dev who get burnt out, often for the same reasons each time. I hope this helps someone, or at least gives them some food for thought!