017 — Setting boundaries and the Yoneda Lemma
(Jasdev ⇒ Justin, 9/14/20)
How are you balancing [being an engineer on — and an owner of — a product]? Do you find yourself split between those two selves?
— Justin, in letter #16.
It’s been…difficult, to say the least. I’m writing this letter after a crash course on insourcing work-life boundaries that had been previously externalized in a non-COVID reality (and non-self-employment life).
The crash course came to a head on August 29th, but shook out from circumstances that slipped me into a bad habit of overwork, blending my “engineer self,” “owner self,” and pushing out the other selves that make me, me.
I was visiting my Mom and cousins in New Hartford for my first trip out of the city since December ’19. One of the textbook New Yorker lessons is to trek out often to avoid a “post-treadmill legs” headspace. The cadence of life here necessitates a clip that only registers when you pull back in the same way that stepping off a treadmill puts your legs in a temporary haze.
I was met with that feeling multiplied by eight months plus a lack of work-life separation that finally caught up.
Which left me in a zombie-like state around my folks — they’d warmly ask how I’ve been since we’d last seen one another and I couldn’t even muster energy to be present for those closest to me. In picture form, I was our dear pal, No Thoughts / Head Empty Pikachu.
The accidental coinciding of my work and other selves happened “gradually, and then suddenly,” like your phrasing in letter #8. Keeping Xcode open past 6pm, here. Not adjusting unrealistic expectations of myself mid-week, there1.
Bonding those tendencies was the cultural narrative around a cofounder’s identity centering on what they’re building. Without boundaries, I had let the Jasdev who’s,
- better there for friends and family,
- deep dives into nerd shit,
- writes vulnerably in these letters and on the blog,
- (and in tandem with an injury pausing my more active self),
become narrowed into a “building RIFF” dimension and it wasn’t sustainable.
This is where your external and internal pressure note from the last letter resonated. I didn’t have the ordinary external checks to step away from work: a physical office where overwork is a visible faux pas, a non-self-manager defining “enough2,” one-on-ones with a teammate (I’m the only engineering full-timer) where I could check in and be honest when my estimates need adjusting. To be clear, the lack of these checks wasn’t imposed — it stemmed from me not setting boundaries between work and everything else.
Not doing so came to a head on the drive home from the New Hartford trip — I couldn’t shake the feeling that something needed to change.
I called S and J and discussed with V and walk-and-talked with R to think things through and it all pointed to boundaries. How can I make RIFF a part of my life and not the entirety of it — not having boundaries allowed for work work to Parkinson’s Law its way into my waking hours. Or, as my therapist put it:
Boundaries define the relationship — with others, our selves, or things — and without them, they expand to fill their intrinsic size.
That bit, “boundaries define the relationship,” hit me. It’s counterintuitive. The usual connotation around boundaries is the walls we put up, yet those walls provide bounds on how we interact with aspects or folks in our lives.
I started acting on this by splitting out work tasks from my personal list, using Time Out to put hard stops in place, and am trying to remind myself that it’s my other selves that ultimately restore my work self.
…and the the Yoneda Lemma?
It’s an important result in a branch of mathematics, category theory, about identifying “objects” by their relationships with other objects. “Objects” and “relationships” have a less-vague scaffolding in the field, but the core perspective of the lemma is that a mathematical object can be identified solely by its relationships with others in a suitable setting. That is, if you told me all the ways something relates to others, I can pinpoint exactly which object you’re talking about a priori (!).
— an illustration from Tai-Danae Bradley’s series on the lemma.
And from the hard-learned lesson that boundaries define relationships, the Yoneda Lemma paired its relationships define objects intuition in my head to imply: boundaries define who we are. Without them, any one relationship can expand to fill the space allotted, drowning out the other selves that make us all, us.
This was a heavier letter — thanks for holding space here for me to open up about that struggle.
In lighter and more pressing news, you casually dropped this during a recent interview:
In a week, my partner and I are adopting a corgi! We’ve been trying to puppy-proof the house for the last week, but I’m sure it’ll still pee on whatever it feels like.
The next prompt is full-corgi, from naming to the adoption process to knowing the time was right, I want to hear all about this.