Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Save the Touchy-Feely for the Redwoods

Things I Learned the Hard WayIn this series, I’m recounting work stories to learn from my mistakes. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

In the early nineties, I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. Here are three fun facts about the school back then.

  • It existed in a redwood forest that contained a section known as Elfland.
  • The school mascot was the banana slug (and still is).
  • There were no letter grades – we got “narrative evaluations” instead (sadly, no longer true).

This was back when “PC” stood for Political Correctness instead of John Hodgman. Many of the classes were about “owning your victimhood” and “discovering your inner bias” and something called “the history of consciousness.”

I loved UCSC. But it prepared me for the real world the way watching the Space Shuttle on TV prepares you to be a rocket scientist. I once turned in a “final” that consisted of me playing a song I wrote on my acoustic guitar. It was not a music class.

So when I graduated and moved to San Francisco to work my first fulltime job, I was not remotely prepared. Luckily, the job was as an HTML grunt for HotWired (a now defunct site, but then it was the highly influential online companion to Wired Magazine), and the rest of the staff was just as weird as I was.

There are many amazing stories from this time, but there’s one that stands out in my memory.

(Side Note: In many of these TILTHW stories, I’m leaving out the names of people and sites to protect the guilty, but in this case I’m naming names because it’s been too long for anyone to care, and I’m the asshole in this story, anyway.)

HotWired had an advice column called Ask Allison, written by Allison, who, if I remember correctly, had been a customer support person that started the column on the side (HotWired was full of stories like that).

One day we were having a big group meeting. I said something, and Allison said something snarky, and everyone laughed. I have no memory of what either of us said, but I remember how I felt: humiliated.

So, after the meeting, I approached Allison and asked if I could talk to her. “Sure,” she said.

My four years of Santa Cruz sensitivity training had led me to this.

“I just wanted to let you know, what you said in that meeting really hurt my feelings.”

She looked at me like I was speaking Portuguese. There was a very long pause.

“Sorry?” She said it like a question.

I slunk back to my desk, more humiliated than before.

It’s been over 13 years, but I still think about that moment when I’m tempted to start unloading my feelings to a colleague.

Being aware of your feelings is, indeed, a very good thing. Being able to express your feelings is also good, and a skill I wish more people had. But knowing when to keep them to yourself is even more important, and it was a skill I’d never learned. (And it took me many more awkward moments to learn it.)

It’s especially important for us creative types, because our work is all about feelings. The best designers are very in touch with their feelings, because they have to be. Design is all about intuiting how things will make people feel. But that also means we have to learn how to work in businesslike environments.

In my case, I was the new guy at the company, I’d just met Allison, and here I was laying my feelings out for her. She probably thought I was nuts. And for good reason. We had no relationship, no background. I hadn’t earned the right to ask her to care how I felt.

When you lay your feelings out to people, it can be cathartic for you, but it also places a weight on those around you. Learning when, where, and how, to talk to someone about your feelings is tricky. Sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes it’s not. But all I have to do is remember Allison’s blank stare, and the decision gets a lot easier.


Have you unloaded in the workplace? Tell us all about it.

Read more Things I Learned the Hard Way.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.