Being negative

From time to time I joke that Bob Knight stole the title of my autobiography with his, which is titled “The Power of Negativity”. I’ve never read the book, but it’s very easy for me to imagine how it could apply to me. Many people who know me would immediately identify me as a negative person. They’re not wrong, and it’s a constant source of struggle for me.

To be clear: I’m sarcastic, I’m critical, I’m a perfectionist and impossible to impress, and I have a capacious ego. As a result of which I almost universally have a problem with any technology I come across, I have a critique to offer of nearly everything, both social and technical.

Some of this is probably my “personality” 1, but a lot of it is intentional. I’m deliberately negative about many things. There’s a few reasons for this. First, I’m good at it, I seem to have an ability to identify and articulate problems with things. I also think it’s important, when things are not perfect (and they so rarely are), we have a responsibility to speak honestly about them, and to discuss their flaws with the same prominence we discuss their features. Finally, articulating problems with things is one of the ways I learn best. Much of my philosophy about software, and the world, has been formed by identifying problems with the things that exist today.

The conflict about this negativity for me comes from two places. First, the effect it has on other people. For many people, when they see this negativity it has a demoralizing effect on them, they lose interest in something as a result. In particular I’m concerned that my attitudes could be an discouraging to people getting into software development; James Coglan wrote a thing about this, and I certainly don’t want to be part of the problem, particularly given how much I’ve invested in trying to make the tech community more, not less, welcoming . The second conflict comes from the fact that I am, at heart, a boundlessly optimistic person. A strong complement to my negativity is an unyielding belief that we must and can fix all of these things.

Where does this leave me? Uncertain. It is truly important to me that I continue to cast a critical eye on everything, including playing the devil’s advocate; it’s part of how I learn, and learning is very much something I want to continue to do. But I don’t want to ever be why someone is afraid to get involved in programming, in open source, in speaking, or in anything else, because they’re afraid I’ll do nothing but critique their work. I don’t know how to resolve this tension. For the past few months I’ve been trying to be less negative and angry on Twitter, I don’t know how successful I’m being. I hope you’ll try to help by letting me know when I’ve got over the line.

  1. This isn’t to say it’s intrinsic, or immutable, but simply that it’s not a conscious thing. ↩︎