Killing Darlings

Sometimes I feel like I’ve built a career on having to kill things I love. As an excitable and curious person who sometimes starts doing before validating, it’s easy to have a lot of things going on at once. Not all of these things take hold. In fact, sometimes it feels like the things closest to my heart are the least likely to be embraced by others. But then, other times, something I love becomes so fully embraced by others that I can become overwhelmed and resentful. What a confusing place to find myself so often.

It can feel so viscerally wrong to abandon cherished efforts and projects, but ultimately, the process of letting go can be its greatest contribution of all. There’s zero shame to be had, and it’s quite beautiful to acknowledge that most things have to have an end, and getting the timing of that end just right takes special insight that, from what I can tell, is only gained from living and doing. In looking back over some of my top favorite but ended projects, there’s no amount of reading other people’s advice that I would have found helpful.

I wrote a Pocket Guide to Writing SVG over ten years ago. I wrote it as I learned the inner workings of these graphics. I was all consumed by this project. Hyper-focused for months. It was one of the most exciting topics of my career. I was blown away by its power and potential each day. For me, this was always meant to be exploratory and based on openness in learning and teaching something tricky that was becoming more important.

I gave this hard-earned knowledge away for free, even though it put me in a bind. I had learned from others doing the same and wanted to give back. I had a Kickstarter, and while I’m so grateful for the people that were able to help out, it was nowhere near enough. And while I don’t regret that, a part of me wonders if it could have been more sustainable and enjoyable if I planned it out differently. On top of this, I had one particular SVG thought leader” at the time aggressively private message me on Twitter, challenging the way I was going about everything, with a blatantly pissed and bullying tone. It was mildly unhinged, and she clearly felt threatened for some reason. It was not a great way to get started in a new industry.

This person is still celebrated today, and I’ll never be able to respect her or understand the way she chose to go about someone else writing about these things first. There was a clear sense of ownership here, which is simply ridiculous, and toxic nonsense like this holds us all back. It keeps us living with the same interpersonal and technical industry issues after all this time.

On top of these types of DMs, I also received countless emails each day presenting an SVG problem someone was having at work. Often, I was even given a deadline to solve their problems by–the problems that they were getting paid to address themselves while also offering me zero compensation. All based on a resource I published for free that they themselves could use to fix it.

The audacity was breathtaking and left me feeling a bit of resentment and a lot of despair. These people were not the majority, but their impact was heaviest. Luckily, I didn’t let this experience spoil my inclination towards open-source learning and material sharing, but took away a sense of guardedness, skepticism, and toughness that has stayed with me. And it turns out, you can block these toxic thought-leaders” and keep doing in spite of them.

I had to move on from this project. I didn’t want to just be about SVG because I wrote this little book. This work was critical in meeting some exceptional people who I still know today, and it helped me land a job. It was worth it, though I wouldn’t do it like this again. It was a crash course into web community hypocrisy and sexism–an unfortunate introduction to a space I was so excited about participating in.

Ela Conf continues to be one of the projects I’ve held most dear. It started as an attempt to address the glaring issue in tech around the shamefully, inexcusably small number of women in leadership positions. In thinking through how to help resolve this, I connected with a friend to start a conference for marginalized individuals where everyone can teach and learn from one another around topics like asking for a raise, public speaking, being a better manager, and so much more.

In being sensitive to the unique barriers this group faces, we were one of the only tech conferences to offer compensation for time and direct access to childcare. We felt so strongly about being able to do this that if we couldn’t make it work financially, we were prepared not to host events. Without removing these barriers, what you’re left with is what can be seen at many other events: the same cycle of people who are lucky enough to be able to afford to participate. This only deepens the lack of diversity, directly contributing to the problem we set out to address, which is that so much of tech leadership looks the same.

The yearly event turned into a year-round online community. It was thrilling and helped with sponsorships and event promotion. We held regular online events, continuously refined the code of conduct, and always talked and planned for more, more, more. Then, a couple of things happened. It grew too big, too fast. We were volunteer organizers who had full-time jobs. The workload was forever growing and unforgiving, usually involving things that couldn’t wait. Day hours were spent moderating Slack and reaching out to sponsors, evening hours were spent on organizer strategy calls.

I had no free time, and it was another situation where most members were so incredible and energizing, but the few focused on taking and demanding became a breaking point. It was too much work for anyone not receiving compensation to keep up with. As an industry, I wish we were more mindful of the toll it takes to run communities and open-source projects. Because when we don’t have this insight and empathy, we are left with mega-corp-backed events and groups not grounded in genuinely improving the spaces around us.

There have been so many others, but these are the two that stand out the most due to time investment and the gravity of lessons learned. These projects were invaluable in their own ways. Feeling any sense of regret would be hugely flawed and shortsighted. I’ve learned about what I care most about, what I’m capable of, what I dislike doing and have no interest improving upon, what people mean well and which don’t. What takeaways are worth hanging on to and what to let go of. I’ve learned when I need other people to get on board and when that doesn’t matter.

There’s a way of looking at this post where it could be viewed as a short list of big failures, but I wouldn’t be where I am now without the sum total impact of each of them. Plus, I know that they’ve positively impacted the lives of others as well. I wouldn’t have a career without these projects, and Wiggle Work wouldn’t be what it is–each step and misstep was necessary to get here.

See you tomorrow over breakfast.

February 10, 2024

A tiny project byJoni Trythall inspired by friends at Wiggle Work.