Depression, anxiety, politics at work, and product leadership

The personal is political, and maybe by writing this neither of us has to be alone.

Depression, anxiety, politics at work, and product leadership

I have depression, and anxiety. I want to share this with you because if you, like me need to hear someone to say it, here it is: I am depressed. I am not alone. You're not alone. I also happen to lead a UX team and coach designers, product managers, researchers and others on how to do their best at work in software.

I am writing this today because someone asked and in a moment of deep isolation I realised that I can do more to share my journey with all of you. Perhaps by writing to you, I can make your world a better place. By talking about how depression, anxiety and other factors affect my career you can grow with me.

When we're successful by society's standards, often our lives look perfect and put together on the outside. I don't have it all together, and that's okay. It's fairly common for these two really difficult mental health challenges to coexist.

Over half of people diagnosed with one condition have the other. The world has been unkind to us, with a global pandemic, a dangerous virus and a lockdown that's kept us from touching and holding our loved ones, this is a tough time for many people and you're not alone.

It will be sunny, one day

This has been a pretty important mantra for my family over the past few months. We've been struggling with a lot of difficult things and what we've learned is that feelings aren't facts. Sometimes, feelings are a useful barometer of something that is wrong. In people with depression, this barometer is hypersensitive and can change on a dime. I love what Stephen Fry has to say about depression.

"I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather...Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row."

Moods are real. They're sometimes fleeting, sometimes persistent. They can change on a dime with me, and they can deeply affect my sense of self-worth. But they're temporary. And they aren't facts.

Where am I measuring value?

I use the question "Where are we measuring value?" a lot at work. It's a very powerful question that can often shift the tide of a conversation and move things towards clarity in unexpected ways. One of the most important things I've learned that works for me in managing my moods and depression is to apply product thinking and observation to my mental state.

It can be hard to connect with yourself and your accomplishments in a world that equates productivity with success. I've learned that where I choose to measure my value is an important factor for me. Your mileage may vary. When I feel sad about my life or my accomplishments, I stop to ask where I'm measuring value.

Often when I'm sad about things, it's because my compass of value is pointing to something shiny outside myself and I fail to measure up to it. Learning to realign where I'm measuring value is one thing I've picked up as a product leader that I regularly apply to my life leading product teams and surviving depression.

Mindsets for managing depression

The following is a survey of things that work for me. They may not work for you. Your mileage may vary and that's okay. Your journey is your own.

Values that inform my thinking

When I worked at Pivotal Labs, one of the things that stuck with me was the values. I've kept them close to me as they put into words a way I've approached a lot of my life for many years. They are:

  • Do the right thing
  • Do what works
  • Always be kind

The reason I bring these up now is because the right thing depends on the situation. There's no clear answer sometimes, and what's right for me may not be right for you. Explore your own path.

Catching the wind

Over the years I've learned that managing my depression is a lot like every product manager's favourite answer; it depends. For me, getting through a depressive episode usually means waiting for the weather to change.

If like me, you need to escape from time to time, you might enjoy Black Sails. It's a pirate romp with a surprising amount of queer representation and a great cast of characters. Katy and I really enjoyed it and while it's a bit silly sometimes, it's a good drama with great questions posed across the four seasons.

One of the scenes that's stuck with me for talking about depression is a moment when the ship gets stuck at sea without wind. The crew has to work together and wait it out. What I love about this scene is how often, when we're stuck, we need to wait for the weather to change. This is what dealing with my depression feels like. This is what Stephen Fry was talking about with his letter, and this is what I've learned to do myself. But there are other things I do to keep myself moving through difficult times.

Tools for managing depression

Mindsets can only get you so far. Having friends, a reminder that "This too shall pass," and other social goods can only get you so far on really tough days. So I want to unpack other things that help me live a better life.

I manage depression with circles of friends

It's not safe to go alone, take a friend. One of my tendencies when depressed or anxious is to pull back and isolate myself. I've been working to push myself to find others at those exact moments when it makes me the least comfortable, but it's taken years of self awareness building and friendship to get there with others.

The other day I spoke with another friend about how I'd been hired as a personal coach for a product leader I'm excited to work with. One of the things this friend offered was "We should be coaching support buddies. I just got a new client now imposter syndrome is kicking in and I’m convincing myself that I have nothing to offer them." Reader, I've been here more times than I can count.

I'm incredibly lucky I'm not alone. I get to work with amazing people who have written about their challenges. One of them is my dear friend Martin Eriksson who has been pretty vocal about his struggles with impostor syndrome and depression, we even wrote about it together.

I manage depression with writing

Part of the reason I started writing Blossom this year was to remind myself that my experiences have value and I know more than I give myself credit for. Writing has been one thing that's given me a crew and created structured visibility into my struggles for my friends.

I often have a few friends read and give me some input on the posts I write here. This crew has helped me survive many a storm. Writing has given me a voice, but this isn't the only tool I turn to.

I manage depression with medication

There's a lot of anti-science about depression medication and sometimes even talk therapy. I use both. Medication has made a big difference in my life. I know everyone is different and what works for me might not work for you. So this isn't a plug for a specific medication. Rather, this is an encouragement to explore everything that might work for you. Do what works.

Medication can be part of a healthy and balanced approach to mental health. Much like diet, exercise and getting enough sleep can help a body. Medication is one possible solution but it often works in tandem with other things that help. It's important to me and my journey, and I want to end the stigma around medication because while it's not a miracle, it can help and everyone should hear that more often. Medication isn't a scam, it's one tool among others in your toolkit, and used responsibly, it can get you to a better place.

I manage depression with therapy

The role therapy has played in my life has made me a stronger, more resilient and more thoughtful leader and person. Through time in therapy I've learned anger management, healthy expression of my feelings, and how to use self awareness and mindfulness to refocus myself. Therapy has also taught me about healthy boundaries, and to take ownership of my mistakes. These are lessons that stay with you across your life, not just in your innermost self.

One of the most valuable things about therapy for me is that it's a form of me time. Self care isn't just about bubble baths and cupcakes, though I very much like those things, it's about putting investment and time into myself for my own growth. Therapy is one of the things that helps me achieve more, go further and push myself to grow.

A therapist is a partner, a coach and an external perspective that can help us make better decisions and see things more clearly.

I manage depression with exercise

In the middle of lockdown in London, I got a silly little notion thanks to my friend Emily. I decided I was going to start running. And so I picked up the Couch to 5k app from the NHS and listened to Sarah Millican encourage me to keep going. And you know what? It worked. I've run a lot since then. I managed a 10k in October of 2020, and while the habit has highs and lows, I know I'm capable of running.

I've learned to build a better relationship with my body through running. While I love living in my head, on the roughest days a quick 20 minute run can do wonders for reminding you how much bigger than you life is. You can see people out on the street, remind yourself that sunshine and squirrels exist, and that sometimes a little music and mindfulness can do wonders for your mood.

I manage depression with self affirmation

Some people think self-affirmation means saying positive things in the mirror and it certainly can. For me this tends to look like putting myself to a challenge and finding a way to remind myself of the things i know and can do. Whether this is a run, coaching someone else, or working on my drawing skills, I make time to do something that reminds me I can control things.

I find ways to reaffirm to myself that I can control something in the world. My feelings of depression and anxiety often leave me feeling powerless. To break this perception, I remind myself that I can do something, even something small to change the world around me. That little boost of control can do wonders to remind me how I matter, and I have value.

I manage depression with support from my workplace

This might seem weird, but I think it's super relevant and given the timeliness of this week in tech news with Basecamp, I thought it would be good to touch on it publicly.

One of the things that struck me about the Basecamp announcement is that I've had a lot of places I work that felt like Basecamp's new direction. But to come out and say it explicitly is something else.

One of the new ways I manage depression is with support from my employer.Work is a big part of all our lives, and I love the work I do. I couldn't work in a place that won't allow my personal and political struggles to co-exist with the places I'm strong and help a company make savvy business decisions. I'm a person of colour, an immigrant, the child of immigrants. I have ADHD, and I identify as queer. I'm a person whose experiences growing up poor mean I don't see many folks in tech like me.

Every single day politics are impacting my life personally, professionally and politically. New voting laws are on the books in 43 states working to limit immigrant voting and voting by people of colour. Transgender people are the new target of the GOP with bills surging in record numbers to limit or criminalise transgender healthcare.

My workplace has created a culture where the issues I face in society are fair to talk about and open to discussion. We've had Kelechi Okafor and others share about their struggles as women, people of colour and disabled people in the workplace. You know what? It's made us better, more conscious of the ways in which our choices affect the lives of others.

I'm grateful for the ways in which my employer rejects racism, and embraces bieng inclusive as a design principle. For example, we're doing a physical accessibility audit of our sites, and exploring ways to increase accessibility in the workplace. We're having hard conversations about what reasonable accommodations look like in our interviews, and we're working on ways of making sure we can draw in a little bit of everyone, so that we better serve the society we're in. That's leadership.

Being able to talk about depression at work, being able to share stories about being neurodivergent and build little communities of mutual aid and support improves my work because I don't have to hide who I am. That's something I don't take for granted. My employer making room for that and cultivating those discussions makes me happier and stronger as an employee, and it helps me manage my depression.

Here comes the sun...

It might feel dark, and heavy right now. The world has some pretty shitty things happening in it, including the pandemic surge in India and Australia's response. But just like the weather, your feelings will change. The world will change if we work together. It might not be today or tomorrow, but your feelings will change. If you're struggling with mental health issues, don't be a stranger.

If you subscribe for free, you'll hear more stories like this and how I deal with depression and anxiety in my working life. Each week free subscribers get a little extra help from a weekly, ad-free newsletter that build on this week's topic. It helps product leaders stay in the know, be productive, and flourish at work.

While writing this post, I listened to I Ni Sogoma by Dinosaur Feathers.