Writing Kindly

It makes me a bit uncomfortable when people say I’m a good person, because sometimes I’m actually a jerk! Thankfully, I’ve found that gentleness is a skill I can learn if I care enough to try, and I’ve gotten better at it over time. I’ve also found that when I’m nice and I focus on the positive, I get better results. Here are some things I’ve learned about how to be a kinder person in my writing.

Bird in Hand

Writing is hard, and an important part of my general life philosophy is “done is better than perfect.” In keeping with that, I’ve sometimes felt it was important or useful to publish something even if I thought it could still be improved. Sometimes, though, I’ve found that publishing things too soon can be hurtful.

Here is one example. In 2008, I was frustrated at MySQL’s marketing team, so I wrote a really hurtful post to send them a message. Of course, I did this without considering the advice of one of my coworkers, who always cautioned me to remember that people I disagree with are people with feelings, and they are getting out of bed every morning trying to do their best. I heard from some of those people and realized I’d been very wrong and had hurt them. This hurt me deeply too.

That was one extreme, a while ago. I got a little better, but I have occasionally done something similar again. For example, in 2015 I was frustrated at newcomers to Golang criticizing things they didn’t know deeply. I wrote a blog post telling them they were all wrong and ignorant. It came across as arrogant and judgmental, which it was.

Around the same time I started meditating, and actually noticing that I had feelings. (I had a tough childhood, and feelings weren’t allowed.) Things fell into place and I started to see the patterns. When I’m irritated, I act from a place of frustration, and I hurt myself and others. Awareness of this has helped me improve more rapidly.

But—still not perfect! One of the most popular posts I’ve written recently was about product-market fit. That post today is enormously different from what I first published. I wrote it because I kept trying to figure out what product/market fit was, and I had this sense that a lot of the advice I was reading and hearing didn’t quite strike the right chord for me. I got into a place of irritation and arrogance about my dawning understanding, and wrote an article that basically said everyone who’s talking about product-market fit is wrong about it. It wasn’t good at all and I didn’t like it.

Within hours of publishing it, with that uneasy irritation in the corner of my mind, I happened to read something from Julia Evans, whose writing never fails to teach and inspire me. I’m not sure what it was; perhaps it was this post or something similar. Julia’s writing often has a tone of here’s something I learned, isn’t learning awesome? And I realized that was not only the way I wanted to write the article, but also the way I wanted to choose to feel about my evolving understanding. Not exactly the same way Julia does—in a way that’s true to who I am—but nonetheless, using the principle that Julia demonstrates in her writing.

So I rewrote it, and then it became really popular. And as I reflected on why, I think it’s because it’s so much kinder now. Not only to my readers, whom I’m no longer insulting, but to myself, treating myself with compassion and celebration for the ongoing, never-complete process of learning, rather than superiority for the illusion that I’ve reached the state of knowing.

I’m pretty sure the Golang article would have been better if I’d written it in the same way. Here’s what I thought when I was new to Golang, and then I studied and it turns out there’s some depth to this stuff I didn’t see, and I know that makes X thing kind of annoying, but it’s for reasons. Would my criticism of the MySQL marketing team have been better if I’d written it differently? Perhaps. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt irritated, but you know what? Maybe some things just don’t need to be written at all.

Pic Credit


I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


Comments