Stagehand Syndrome

You come back and sit down at your desk with a deep, long sigh. You just had a long meeting with your boss, fighting for what you believe to be the optimal solution to a problem your team was tasked to solve. Shortly after though, the scope-cutting scythe stepped in and reaped any hope of "ideal solution" and you are left with what you know to be a suboptimal approach.

Frustrated, you feel like you are tasked with writing "shitty code". You don't want to do this. "This is a stupid solution".

Briefly, you consider going rogue and doing what you know to be the better decision, but retreat knowing that you don't want to strain relationships. So you sigh again, sink into your chair, and get to typing with just a bit of bitterness in each keystroke.

Have you ever felt like this? I know I have. Even worse, I've not only played the poor employee, but I was the frustrating "boss" at times too. I recognized that the business need was greater than the technical merit and sometimes I just had to go with the "lesser" approach. Regardless of logic though, it made me feel like crap as a craftsperson. This wasn't even necessarily for myself, but it sprung from this fear that others would read my code and think "What the hell? This is clearly a use case for xyz pattern. This person must have been high". Then there was this secondary, less strong feeling that the users would somehow know that this was shit code. That they'd complain that this app wasn't good and that the "fact" that it wasn't good would fall squarely on my shoulders because the code was bad.

Even though I still fall victim to this line of thinking, I am here to tell you that if you too fall victim to this, you are wrong. Even more than that, this is incidentally a narcissistic mindset to take.

The Fear of Mediocrity

woman with head resting on hand
Photo by Niklas Hamann / Unsplash

The first time I really materialized thoughts on this was when I was part of the Associated Student Body (ASB) in high school. We were known for putting on very extravagant assemblies. When I say there were TV grade high school assemblies, I am not exaggerating; putting these assemblies together was super stressful. The banners needed the right copy. The flow of the activities needed to be smooth. The music needed to be hand picked, and the MC could not miss a beat. It was a production and my teacher and ASB advisor, Mr. Gluckmann, would not accept a mediocre show.

Go back a decade to my homecoming: there was a particular time where we built a 30 foot (10m) tall stage pyramid in the gym so that the homecoming court could emerge from the pyramid door. The entire time, my fellow ASB friends were scrambling to get things working and it was visibly stressful. I remember Gluck yelling more than a few times to fix or completely redo things and from our perspective, the production was hanging on by a thread.

Shit was on fire.

Once it was going on, everyone was on edge. It wasn't until it was done that we felt proud at what we had accomplished. When people clapped, when people came up to us and appreciated what we've done, we knew that we had done something good, regardless of the MANY mistakes we knew we had made.

At this point you might be asking yourself "Bryan - what the flip does this have to do being an engineer?". I want you take a step back, because whether or not you see it, you as an engineer are part of the ASB of your product. The users are your audience, your peers are a projected version of Mr. Gluckmann, and this fear of being mediocre is mostly self inflicted.

Stagehand Syndrome

I have a psychology background, and I still don't know if there is someone that has labeled this phenomenon before, but personally I've started recognizing this pattern in my life as Stagehand Syndrome. The reason I call it Stagehand Syndrome is tied back to ASB, but ultimately rings true for many scenarios.

At the heart of it, Stagehand Syndrome is the tendency to unfairly judge your own work or the work of others more critically because you are bias by the privileged knowledge you have access to, while at the end of the day, the audience of said work is not affected. Like a stagehand behind the scenes, you know when you or someone else messes up. You know when something goes wrong in production, but typically, your audience is none the wiser. The reason I said earlier that holding this mindset is a bit narcissistic is because you are failing to recognize that your vantage point is not even close to how your audience sees things.

grayscale photo of man walking on platform stage
Photo by Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

This isn't unique to a given situation either. I'm a dancer and I am very critical on my own skill as a dancer. When I go out there and perform on stage, there are many times when I feel like I'm doing just meh. I miss a step. I trip up and the connection to my partner sends her into the wrong move. But As soon as I strike that last pose or dip my partner on that perfect beat, I realize that the audience loves it. They clap, they cheer, and the fear of mediocrity disappears.

Similarly, there are times when I push code and I am just meh about it. Unfortunately we don't have the auditorium of immediate feedback, but this is where we need to get closer to our users. Unless you are working on something without product-market fit to begin with, you definitely have users that rave about the product. If that is true and the users are clearly deriving value, should I really be that harsh on the code then? Is it fair to not put that work out there and starve the audiance of value because it doesn't meet your standards?

When is it OK?

Being someone that cares deeply about quality, I've fallen victim to this more than a few times. I've probably damaged relationships with coworkers and managers with this mindset because I didn't recognize what was actually important at the end of the day; the show goes on and that the users go home happy.

Anytime you are resistant to doing less than ideal, this is an ask to reflect and really challenge yourself with the question if this is Stagehand Syndrome or legitimate concern that could result in bad downstream effects. If it is the latter, by all means challenge it and fight. You are a professional and that is your job. If it comes from a place of unfounded fear though, its time to take a step back.

If you are someone who strives for high quality and pushes yourself, chances are you suffer from this. It is a blessing because it probably got you to where you are today. It is also a curse because it can hold you captive to the false idol of perfection and damage relationships along the way. At the end of the day, like all mindsets, this mindset is a tool. So use it wisely and don't be afraid to shelve it when the situation doesn't call for it. It doesn't make you a bad at your job, it just makes you more empathetic. That is a far more valuable skill in my experience.

Isn't this just Perfectionism?

man covering his face standing
Photo by Alex Iby / Unsplash

Perfectionism is often masqueraded as the positive/negative quality you spit out on interviews, which, to be fair, is not false. That ambiguity though makes it hard to discern when the quality is useful. The "perfectionist" label also personalizes the tendency because it is seen as an identity i.e. "I am a perfectionist". It is much harder for someone to disregard what they consider to be part of their identity, so the recognition of the drawbacks are often forgotten.

Perfectionism also tends to exist in a vacuum of self, where Stagehand Syndrome describes something that can exist within collectives even when absent in individuals. By talking about this in a contextual sense, Stagehand Syndrome depersonalizes and allows you to really examine on a case by case basis without having to nuke your own identity or ego. Its about the context and situation, not about you.

This isn't a free ticket to mediocrity though - if people around you are striving for great and you are dragging your feet because you know your audiance is unaware, this is just abusing the opposite side. You shift the risk from your audiance to your collaborators and can strain relationships with them, thus damaging the production in other ways down the road. It comes full circle because even your privilaged knowledge of what is privilaged knowledge can come back to bite you.

So tell me, when was the last time you fell victim to Stagehand Syndrome? What is your way of dealing with it? Tweet about it to me, I'd love to hear about it.

Header Photo and Social Media Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash


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