Being Grateful Is Good For You

Being grateful—for what others do, for good fortune, for what you have—is good for you. It makes you happier, helps you sleep better, and boosts your immune system. Being grateful is a good way to live and when you thank someone else for what they have done for you, I believe it fosters relationships, builds community, and encourages others to do the same.

I learned about the concepts behind journaling gratitude at my first KalamazooX when Elizabeth Naramore1 discussed her own gratitude journal. Around the same time, a Facebook friend started recording five things a day for which they were grateful. Looking back, this was the period when I started to acknowledge that I had unaddressed problems with depression, anxiety, and self-worth. Being grateful seemed like an easy place to start, so I gave it a try.

At different times, I recorded my gratitude using Facebook, Twitter, a physical journal, and my blog. Eventually, it started feeling stale or false; I was being thankful for inanimate or generic things like coffee, friends, or sunshine. Don't get me wrong, these are all fantastic things, but stating gratitude for coffee felt like my goal had become writing about gratitude than actually feeling grateful.

"…people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why."

Sometime before a visit to Boston, I had read about a man who set out to send one "thank you" note a day for a year. The idea of writing to people and thanking them directly was appealing. While in Boston, we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and there I bought a box of postcards that I thought would suit this purpose. It took another two years and a move to Texas before I actually got started.

It has now been three weeks since I started; I have sent 20 cards, and have another four ready to go this week. Writing them is cathartic for me and I get a little excited to mail each one. I keep a list of the people I intend to write to and make sure to keep track of those to whom I have already written. Each day, I send one card, write one or two more, and send a message or two over the Internet to get addresses. However, it turns out that some people are not so keen on just handing out personal information like their home address without at least knowing why. This seemed odd to me at first and I felt untrusted. In addition, I felt a deep reluctance to explain why. It seemed I felt the value of this project was lost if the postcard was not a surprise. Of course, that is ridiculous; not only do people have every right to know why I would want their address, but if the surprise of receiving the card itself were the value, what would be the point of writing anything on the card?

So, I write this blog entry, in part, to provide an explanation for people when they ask why I need their address. That said, I also write it as encouragement to others who might be considering the start of their own gratitude project. Being grateful is powerful on its own, yet the responses I have received to messages I have sent have been wonderful, humbling, and kind. People are amazing, so tell them; the more you thank others for their impact on your life, the more you will be surprised by your impact on theirs.

  1. IIRC 

Reputation Is No Substitute For Knowledge

Last week, I regrettably ventured back to answering questions on StackOverflow. The question that lured me back was this one:

Due to the general confusion over this operator, my answer, though correct, was down-voted and derided as entirely wrong. Worst of all, one of the main detractors had over 300k in reputation and, rather than try what I had suggested, spent their time telling me I was wrong as their own incorrect answer received all the up-votes. In the spirit of StackOverflow as I once knew it, I edited my answer and answered the comments, trying to clear up the confusion and get the question answered adequately. As my answer got down-voted, more incorrect answers got up-voted. However, eventually, I was able to convince my main detractor that my answer was correct. So they promptly deleted all evidence that they ever thought otherwise and, without attribution, edited their once incorrect, top-voted answer to be correct.

Though it stings a little1, I do not mind that my answer did not get accepted nor that it did not get the most votes; the question was answered correctly and that's the point of the site. What I find most disagreeable is the unsporting behavior that undermined the sense of community that once pervaded StackOverflow. I left the whole experience feeling like an outsider. In the past, those with wrong answers would delete theirs in favor of the right one, or they would edit theirs, but give credit to the right one. People would (in the most part) treat each other with respect and see reputation as a sign of being a good citizen, not necessarily a knowledgeable one. Not anymore.

I wish I could show the comments I received when answering this question, but they were deleted2. However, the general pattern of this and other experiences appears to be that someone with a high reputation score down-votes and derides other answers, then once the correct answer is clear, takes everything from the correct answers posted to edit into their own, which then earns all the reputation. It is an embittering experience that I know others have shared.

In the beginning, earning reputation and badges encouraged people to get things right and to help each other out. Now the site has matured, the easy questions are answered, and the gap between the newcomers and those with the highest reputation is huge. Newcomers languish in poverty with little opportunity, if any, to reach the top, while those at the top benefit from a bias toward answers and opinions that come from those with large reputation scores. What once incentivised good behavior and engagement, seems to have led to bullying and dishonesty. I am not saying that all people with high reputation engage in unscrupulous practices on StackOverflow —there are many generous and humble members of the community —unfortunately, bad experiences outweigh good experiences 5-1 (or as high as 12-1), so the actions of a few can poison the well.

The root of the problem as I see it3 is that reputation has become (or perhaps always was) over-valued, and in its pursuit, some have lost sight of what StackOverflow was trying to achieve; community. The community that made it special, that made me feel like I belonged, is gone, and reputation is no substitute for knowledge. What was once an all-for-one, one-for-all environment has, in the competition for reputation, turned toxic4.

I have no doubt that many reading this will think I am misrepresenting the situation, overreacting, or just plain wrong, and that is OK; I hope that those people are right, that this is not a trend, and that the overall community remains friendly and constructive. Personally, I will think twice before involving myself in answering (or even asking) a question on StackOverflow again.

Ultimately, StackOverflow works as long as the right answers get provided; but if those with the knowledge to answer get disillusioned and leave, from where will those right answers come?

Today's featured image is "Façade of the Celsus library, in Ephesus, near Selçuk, west Turkey" by Benh LIEU SONG. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Other than being resized, the image has not been modified.

  1. we all like recognition for being right 

  2. I also deleted mine, since they were without context 

  3. if it is agreed that there is one 

  4. The fact that I even felt wronged may well be an indicator of that toxicity and my own part in its creation 


I am pretty selfish. I would like to think I can be wholly altruistic, but I cannot remember a deed I did for someone else where I was not rewarded by a general feeling of well-being. Perhaps this is normal and we kid ourselves that true altruism exists because, well, it feels good to believe that. Recently, I realised it is because of this feeling that I volunteer as part of the local developer community.

I have been involved in the Ann Arbor area developer community for just under five years. A couple of colleagues had suggested I attend an Ann Arbor .NET Developer (AADND) meeting, but oddly, a woodworking class is what led me there. In that class, I met fellow developer Steve Meagher, we became friends, and he eventually persuaded me to tag along with him to a .NET meeting. Like many within the developer community, I avoided user groups and other community events for fear of not fitting in or some other perceived discomfort. At that first meeting, I met David Giard as he was the speaker that evening. Meeting David turned out to be a gateway into the wider community and volunteering. At the time, he was the president of the Great Lakes Area .NET group (GANG) and he invited me to attend a meeting there the following week. Just as with Steve at woodworking class, another connection was made and so it was that my adventures in the developer community continued. Through the friends I made attending the local groups, I ventured to far off places like CodeMash and Kalamazoo X. Through the friends I made attending those far off places, I ventured to electronic wonderlands like Twitter, StackOverflow, and my own blog. And eventually, through the encouragement I received from this amazingly supportive community, my family, and my friends, I found the courage to look inward, to seek help for the demons that fostered my low self-esteem, and to grow.

I have volunteered on the board of AADND, as a participant and team leader at Give Camp, and as a speaker at CodeMash; having thoroughly enjoyed every second, I can tell you that volunteering is 100% pure fun.

OK, that is utter bollocks; volunteering is hard. There is no pleasure in finding content for newsletters and slide decks, no joy in the conflicts a team faces when you have less than a day to get a database migrated, no comfort in preparing and rehearsing a talk1. Volunteering is often stressful, sometimes boring, and always built upon a foundation of compromise and sacrifice. If those things were the rewards of volunteering, I cannot imagine anyone who would do it. Every year, Michael Eaton tells a tale of how he declares that this Kalamazoo X will be his last. That it is too much work. Too much worry. Too much sacrifice.

Thankfully, the hard work leads to gratitude: the emotional words of a non-profit director overwhelmed by the generosity of local developers; a room of people applauding at the end of a talk; or a simple "thank you". Regardless of its delivery, seeing or hearing that someone is grateful makes all the effort worthwhile. It feels good. For community volunteers like Michael Eaton it is the gratitude shown by attendees, speakers, and co-organizers that ultimately leads to more events (like just one more Kalamazoo X).

So, next time you enjoy something that someone volunteered to do, show your gratitude. And if the opportunity arises, try volunteering; you have no idea who might be grateful and how good that might feel.

  1. or a last minute Pecha Kucha that your friends then make sure will get heard while you are busy searching for that lost sleep 

Kalamazoo X 2014

Last year, I experienced the Kalamazoo X Conference for the very first time. It was an extremely emotional experience and one of two events that catalysed some ongoing personal change (the other was changing jobs after 12 years).

This year, I returned to Kalamazoo X, curious as to what the experience would hold. It was daunting; it felt different.

It wasn't worse different or better different. It wasn't different because the talks were new or the venue had changed to accommodate more attendees. I initially thought it was different because last year's talks were focused on the self and "accepting who you are", whereas this year's centered around others and how we can benefit those around us.  But then I realised that view is coloured by who I am (or was). It was different because I was different.

My life changed after attending Kalamazoo X last year. After the conference (perhaps even during), I started to reflect on who I was, faced old and painfully familiar demons, and began focusing on my well-being in a way I had not allowed myself to before. I began to recognise that I was broken and as the weight of one of the worst winters in history crushed my spirit, I finally sought professional help.

It was a long time coming. Friends had urged me to try counseling for years and perhaps once or twice, I had conceded they had a point, but that was just to shut them up; I knew I wasn't weak like that, I was strong enough to weather my problems alone, to be a "man", to cope. But coping isn't enough. It isn't enough for me or those around me and coming to that realisation is crushing, at least at first.

I am still working through that personal change, the cliched "journey of self-discovery", and I am all the better for it. Kalamazoo X 2013 started something, something that affected how I experienced Kalamazoo X 2014 and life in general. I am certain Kalamazoo X 2014 has started something too.

For me, Kalamazoo X isn't about learning something new or retweeting a pithy statement (though I certainly enjoyed that part). It is about perception and coming to terms with the things I have to let go. It's about growing and perceiving that growth.

I hope to return to Kalamazoo and the X conference year upon year, not only to measure my own growth, but also to see the growth of others. The software development community is incredibly nurturing and nowhere exemplifies that more than Kalamazoo X.