Challenges and accomplishments

Hello again, everyone! And also to people who started following my blog despite a complete lack of blogging. I appreciate the gesture of faith, and also the weight of guilt.

Last year I was buried under a mountain of work, family responsibilities, and the feeling that I’d said pretty much everything I had to say in 50-odd posts.

For the past few months I’ve felt like I’m underqualified for my job, and especially for the role as planned over the next few years. I felt like I was treading water, wasn’t wowing people with nifty innovations and new documentation, and just wasn’t racking up the successes like I used to.

I was tempted to quit and let my company find someone more capable take over and fix these problems.

But instead of quitting, I took some time to think about why I wanted to run away from this. A bit of burnout and self-doubt are the obvious reasons, plus the feeling that I hadn’t accomplished much lately. No real victories to celebrate, and none immediately in reach. I couldn’t point to as many accomplishments and I didn’t feel like I was improving the documentation in significant ways. I was discounting a few wins (hiring a senior tech writer!) and focusing on the many, many things that weren’t getting done.

When you start a new job, especially as the first person responsible for docs at a company, anything you do will be an improvement. You can rack up a lot of significant victories: setting up a documentation site, adding online help, even just starting to write stuff down where users can find it.

But the effort to accomplishment curve starts to level off. You’ve taken care of the basic tasks and the things that were easy. It takes more effort to get the same sense of accomplishment.

And now, a completely unrelated story…

After a recent visit to Yosemite, my older daughter declared that she wants to try some of the strenuous hikes, including Half Dome. It’s my fault for telling her about the hike, but it’s been a long time since I’ve done that climb. I was much closer to her age than mine!

Given my current fitness level (“works at a startup that provides lunch and plenty of snacks”), there’s no way I’d make it. So I suggested that we start with something less likely to end with a helicopter ride to the nearest emergency room.

Fortunately, we live close to Mission Peak (, a six mile roundtrip hike and a 2000 foot climb. It’s not Half Dome, but it’s good practice.

So my wife, daughter, and I set off one Sunday morning. It was a nice day, cool with a bit of a breeze. I carried a small backpack with water and some snacks.

The hike starts steep and stays pretty steep as it winds around the mountain. There are some (blessedly) less steep areas, but I was breathing heavily after about 200 feet and I don’t think I ever caught my breath.

Right before mile 3 there’s the final stretch where it gets really steep. This is where I stopped. One hip joint was hurting like hell, as if I wasn’t used to climbing up mountains or something.

Since my family had gone ahead, I grabbed my phone to let my wife know that I wasn’t going another step. I’d just sit on the nice bench and wait for them to come back…and then I remembered that her phone was in my backpack. So was my daughter’s.

Which meant they’d be waiting for me. They’d assume that I was going very slowly and they’d wait, and wait some more, and keep waiting…

Obviously, they were doing this to spite me.

Powered by righteous indignation, I trudged the rest of the way to the peak. Then I found the least uncomfortable rock and sat down to get my heart rate back to near-human levels.

We ate oranges. It was actually very nice up there.

This is not the part where I tell you to keep trying because you can accomplish anything! Heck with that: the mountain had kicked my butt.

I decided to do it again, but this time I’d be better prepared. I bought a decent backpack for day hikes, a hydration pack (a plastic bag with a drinking tube, because fiddling with water bottles when you’re exhausted just isn’t fun), and hiking poles for the steep and uneven sections.

Two weeks later I was back, on a warm, breezeless morning. Even at 7am it was getting hot.

I made it to the three mile mark and stopped again, but this time I was really and truly done.

I wasn’t getting the hang of the hiking poles (How difficult can “climb hill with sticks” be, right?). I was spending too much time thinking about my stride and I ended up walking too fast, then too slow, then too fast again. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. It was a hot day. I was tired.

It wasn’t really a defeat. It was a good workout, and a real defeat would be the “helicopter to the emergency room” scenario. But it wasn’t a success.

Preparation doesn’t guarantee success, and better tools won’t necessarily give you a better result. No surprise, right?

A week and a half later I had another chance. And it was close to June, which in the Bay Area means a good chance of cool, cloudy, weather.

I read some tips about using the hiking poles (yes, I tried first and then read the docs!). I ate breakfast. I focused on keeping a steady pace. I took breaks. And when I’d round a corner, look up at another stretch of uphill climbing, and groan, I would drink some water, set the poles, and start hiking again.

Eighty-five minutes later, with aching feet, legs, and arms, I scrambled to the top. The last stretch is a jumble of rocks and ruts where you can stop and catch your breath while pretending to intently consider your options.

View from Mission Peak to the northwest

On my way back down, where the trail parallels a road for a short distance, someone drove by and shouted, “Where’s the parking lot for Mission Peak?” I had to tell them it was way back down at the bottom. There’s no parking lot close to the peak, no shortcut to the top to avoid the work and sweat and pain of climbing to the top.

And if I wasn’t so exhausted I would have laughed, because this was just too perfect a metaphor.

So I’ve climbed to the top twice, but I’m not done. I know I can do it faster, and probably ache less afterwards.


Plus: there’s a second route up the hill. It’s being renovated this year, and it’s shorter but steeper. Something to look forward to!

What’s the point?

To summarize needed a feeling of accomplishment so I climbed a hill.

Which is to say that a major contributor to burnout is the feeling that you’re working hard without getting anything done. If you can’t find a way to rack up a few worthwhile tasks at work, take a break and find successes outside of work.

Or maybe do this regularly so you don’t get in the habit of beating yourself up when your work is a series of half-completed projects. Something about work-life balance, probably.

Which is also to say: I’m not a great role model. But I’m learning.

6 thoughts on “Challenges and accomplishments

  1. Neal, this about sums up where I am with my organisation three years in. I wowed them in the beginning because I implemented a complete tech publications function, re-wrote all content from scratch, implemented single-source content management, got all content online and retired all the print publications. For the past year, I have been trying to achieve something significant but I’m struggling. Partly it’s because I’m the lowest priority and I need some resource to help with some new projects. I feel like sending my CEO the link to this article!

    1. It’s extremely difficult to get more resource for docs. I’m fortunate to have a manager who understands the need for good documentation and can do something to help; on the other hand, her strong opinions about docs means that the demands are pretty high.

      Right now I’m trying to carve out time to build and prioritize a doc backlog to better explain what I’m working on, what people are requesting, and how long it will take us to do the work (months, I’m guessing).

  2. Thank you for a very funny post 🙂 As a somewhat over-weight, middle-aged woman I can really relate ….

    One useful thing we do at my company is to separate “daily operation” and “strategy”. Getting the documents written is daily operation. Analysis, implementing new tools and improvements is strategy. About 3 years ago, our strategy projects list was about 80 projects deep. Our leader assigns a few projects to each team member (either as driver, or as helpers) each year, and follows up quarterly. We’ve burned through about half the projects on the original list. We have the satisfaction of understanding our business better. We can also tell people with great new ideas that we can’t implement immediately that we can put them on the list.

    1. Thank you!

      That’s a good idea. I’m building a better doc backlog now, but looking at it again I see I need include more of the strategic projects.

  3. I fully agree with you Neal. Small victories in your private life can prevent burnout and lack of motivation at work. I discovered that when I started running on regular basis. After some time, I began to participate in amateur races. My main goal was to beat my personal best and go one step further at each race. I didn’t care that much about being better than others. That gave me power to think that I could deal with my problems at work easily because they weren’t that bad when compared to what I had to do to overcome my weaknesses at the last race. It really works. Now, I have a problem with my foot so I can’t run. But I switched to cycling. I don’t participate in races, but I push myself when riding to feel this power again. I can’t imagine not exercising at all. It keeps me sane believe it or not. Keep exercising and you’ll feel empowered at work. Good luck.

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