Jamie Lawrence

The manager’s unbearable lack of endorphins

I’ve been doing a lot of swimming over the past few weeks and I’ve regularly been hitting some new personal milestones over the past year. Each milestone brings with in a huge high, an endorphin rush, a personal satisfaction and, honestly, I walk around for the day feeling like a fucking god (I’m not a competitive swimmer, so this is just about my personal satisfaction and growth).

It’s so viscerally satisfying to see myself making progress, sometimes huge leaps in performance, and feeling just so… competent. Like, this is what competence really feels like. And there’s a quick feedback loop between doing the thing and seeing the result: a bit off the pace on that 200m? Well, I’ll try again in about 20 seconds.

I think we all need to feel that satisfaction, that competence at a skill, and those moments of levelling-up—if only because they’re just so damn intoxicating.

Coding used to do it

I used to get something close to this satisfaction from programming too. Going from an idea to a completed feature, iterating until a test passes, refactoring some code into a new abstraction, going from a slow query to a performant one, or from an “impossible problem” to a system that solves it. Or when we’d launch a feature that I’d been working on for weeks. Or when I’d solve a customer’s problem before they even noticed it 1.

On those days I’d feel fucking good. I’d feel competent, and valuable, and worthy and just good. It’s the best feeling. It’s not quite the same as the high from physical activities but it’s along the same lines.

The management disconnect

I do not get any sort of high from managing people.

I don’t think anyone gets that same high from this role so this is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it’s one of the hardest adaptions to make when transitioning from an individual contributor to a manager.

As a developer I made commits every day, authored pull requests, and generally have some sort of measurable progress. As a manager, I… have meetings, write documents, and occasionally say something that maybe possibly will enhance the fortunes of the company or improve the direction of the team. It’s a bit demoralising and that’s just the lack of measurable progress part. Where’s the high? Where’s that immediate endorphin rush? Where’s the event that makes you realise “hey, maybe I’m really fucking good at this”?

Instead, any potentially valuable contribution I made is several levels, and often weeks/months, removed from the success event.

We launch a feature and I feel nothing because I’ve already move on to some other problem. I’m rightly proud of the developers for bringing the feature to fruition after weeks or months of work—and they should be extremely proud of their work. I hope that they feel these moments of “I’m fucking good at this” competence (because they are 😘).

If I had any contribution to the successful launch, it might have been a 5 minute argument to cut scope in a product meeting months ago, or carefully asking a question like “have we thought about trying…?”, or coaching a developer a year ago so they’re not burnt out today and can actually ship the feature.

These might all be necessary, and useful, and contribute to the successful launch but they rarely have any sort of immediate and clarifying high2.

Closing thoughts

Should work provide the same sort of high as hitting those swim milestones? Is chasing it a fool’s game? I dunno. Maybe. Probably.

Here’s where I’m at with this line of thinking…

  1. It’s just the nature of the work of management and I won’t get the same highs from managing as you do from creating. Accept it.
  2. As a manager I can’t get the same highs you used to as a developer. I’ve got to seek out, and cherish, that satisfaction outside of work.
  3. Physical activities have the advantage of driving actual endorphins into my brain. Chase those physical highs over intellectual highs.
  4. If coding still brings me joy, do so—when it’s safe to do so. For me, that means occasionally picking up a bug, or improvement to our fraud defences, or improving our CI times. It needs to be things which are off the critical path, that is relatively simple to build and safe to deploy (since I’m often in meetings and can’t babysit something in production), and which is easy for the rest of the team to own in the future.
  5. Side projects, if I have the time and energy, are another way to get the experience of competence in a work-like context.

Still, there’s always the nagging feeling that maybe there is something I’m missing at work which would give me the same satisfaction I get from smashing a hard swim session or breaking my 400m personal best.

It would certainly be nice to finish a day of work and viscerally know that I fucking crushed it.

Still working on it.

  1. We’ll leave out the days when none of this happened and I just wrestled with incomprehensible errors, race conditions that only happened in production, and just about any day that involved Javascript. But those days only served to make the highs even higher. 

  2. It’s also highly possible that I’m completely useless at my job and superfluous to any success for the company. I don’t rationally think so but my brain will often believe it when there’s a lack of evidence otherwise.