Process Over Product: Two Years (Almost) of Programming (and Anxiety)

Alex Byrne
Youth Services Librarian
Pierce County Library System
Twitter: @HeofHIShirts


Washington Library Association Conference
5 May 2022

Land Acknowledgment

The Washington Library Association Conference is situated on the traditional lands of the first people of Seattle and the surrounding area. The lands I live and work on are part of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people and the Puyallup Tribe, and the conference is located on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people as well. Their descendants deserve our thanks for their immense contributions, past and present, to our state and local history, culture, and identity as Washingtonians.

Content Warnings

This presentation has funny things in it. It also has very serious things in it. I talk about things like

  • Failure
  • Perfectionism
  • Anxiety
  • Toxic Work Environments
and my experiences with all of these feelings and situations.

If you're a person with an embarrassment squick, or you are also dealing with any of the named issues above, there's no shame in hitting the back button or noping out if things get to be too intense or they start dredging up unpleasant thoughts and memories for you. It'll still be here if you want to come back to it later. I had a lot of Feelings going through this and writing it up, so you might have the same reading it.

The Way Things Were

Well-Defined Programs

Library programming up to about 2019 or so had a fairly familiar rhythm to it, with responsible adults putting on programs where they would guide children or teenagers through a well-defined process to create some form of a concrete end product, whether that was an art, a craft, or a digital object of some form.

Because of the concreteness of both the process and the product, this allowed the respectable adult presenter to practice their instruction and methods and troubleshoot some of the trickier parts of the process so that when their attendees ran into those same problems while trying to replicate the product, they could be gently guided through how to make it possible or given a new item to start over with so they could avoid the common pitfall they'd landed in. With such a constrained scope of possibilities to work with, the program also kept itself relatively self-contained, with the possibility of expansions and additional ideas left as an exercise for the attendee to go through on their own time, outside of the program, possibly using some of the handy print resources that are on display in the program room or the library, so there's a smooth transition from the hands-on portion into the books and reading portion, because that is, after all, right in the pocket of the library mission to put books in the hands of the curious.

Self-contained programs also work on the practical level, because a lot of public libraries don't have kids who can commit to a six-week program and guarantee that they'll appear every time. So, when the audience isn't guaranteed, keeping to kits, crats, robot boxes, and other well-defined, well-scoped itsems guarantees that both the presenter will appear knowledgeable and the attendees will have a successful and positive experience at the library.

Some kids, of course, don't understand that they're there to do the craft and then go out into the library and read books to satisfy any curiosity they might have about the subject. They do things like ask questions of the presenter or ask what other or alternative ways might be possible, or they think of a completely new idea and want to know how they might go about doing it. For a presenter that's only trained on the specific thing in the kit and not a wider understanding of the concepts or the alternatives (sometimes because they don't have time to get invested in a thing, other times because they're doing a program but it's not something they're very passionate about), a curious child sparks the danger alarm. Even with the idea of "I don't know, let's find out," there's still a certain amount of competence and expertise expected from the presenter when confronted with someone who wants to do something new. Getting out of your depth often leads to panic and anxiety, especially when they expect you to know All The Things.

Deliberate Silly

At this point, I need to pause and explain that there's a difference between the deliberate presentation of yourself as a silly being that does wrong things because it's a hook for the kids to tell you that you're wrong and to help you do something the right way. Deliberate Silly is putting a pair of jeans on your head to ask kids whether or not that's the place where jeans go. You know it isn't, they know it isn't, but the point is to get them to shout "NO!" and tell you where the jeans do go. It's knowing that you're going to have a difficult time getting teens to pay attention to your boring presentation about school resources, so you instead pepper the slides and the presentation with memes (often old memes) just so that they'll pay attention (even if it is to comment that all of your memes are old). Deliberate Silly is doing those things intentionally, often with a wink.

The other kind of embarrassing thing, of not knowing, of looking stupid in front of the attendees, or peers, or otherwise, that's the kind that causes anxiety and worries about whether or not a program is being done "right" or "correctly". Because sometimes you tried your best and it looks nothing like what it's supposed to, even after all of that practice you put into it. Enough of that anxiety might mean swearing off programs or entire classes of programs because the anxiety of not being good enough at it or not being a big enough expert at it is terrifying and we are afraid of looking bad in front of kids and their grownups.

The Mobile Maker Cart

Naturally, in 2019, our Science Librarian debuted for us the Mobile Maker Cart, a cart full of supplies, parts, and pieces, with an accompanying binder of challenges and ideas for what to try in programming with those parts and pieces. Along with the materials, the Science Librarian offered trainings at community of practice meetings and other materials to give us examples of what we could do with the materials inside the kits. The idea was to make us comfortable with using the materials in the kit and to have an attempt or two at trying to achieve the goals detailed in the various programs.

Rather than provide detailed instructions on how to achieve those goals, however, the sheets in the binder gave us materials, goals to try, and a couple of pieces of information about the underlying concepts involved that we could use as hints to help steer the participants in directions that might work. Instead of a procedure list to follow with the guarantees of success, there were goals and it was up to us and the participants to figure out how we might use the materials to get to those goals. Failure was extremely likely. In fact, failure might be the only thing that happened throughout the entire program time. The Science Librarian assured us that it was okay to have a program where everyone failed at the goal, because the point of the programs was to go through the process of scientific thinking, experimenting, and iteration, rather than to replicate directions to create a finished product. Naturally, everyone was highly suspicious of this idea and worried that the kids and grownups alike might think the program poorly designed or that they ould stop seeing the library and its programming as a place to go. We were already nervous about having just squeaked by a funding vote, and now someone was telling us that it was okay to put on programs where kids might fail and have frustration at continuing to fail? That seemed like a huge risk to take in that environment.

And Then, The Pandemic: Creative Creations and Games

And then, well, COVID-19. Sudedenly, we weren't doing Mobile Maker Programming in our locations any more. In fact, we weren't doing any programming in our locations any more. All of that potential for failure at not knowing, or at things not turning out correctly, or not having the necessary expertise to make something happen, that all went to the virtual rooms instead! All of those anxieties came with some opportunities to practice some skills that I had tried when I was a kid and hadn't had great successes with. Like arts and crafts. What could possibly go wrong by changing from "looking like a dork in front of a room full of children" to "looking like a dork in front of a virtual room full of children?"

Failing On Camera: What Could Possibliy Go Wrong?

The Multiple-Faceted Ball Of Fail

Well, "what could go wrong?" is "Your origami skills suck." There were lots of programs where we were folding paper into specific shapes, mathematical or otherwise, and no matter how hard I try to fold things exactly where they're supposed to go, I'm just off enough that it becomes a problem later on. Some programs have fault tolerance for people who can't quite get the hang of folding, but some of them don't, and the best I could do was try anyway, even though I knew that it was going to come out lopsided or that it would fall apart the instant I looked at it with the expectation that it was going to hold together. That, and it can be really hard to demonstrate some trickier folds while holding it up to the camera for others to see. As useful as it would have been to use a two-camera setup, I think my home internet would have simply laughed at me if I had tried. (It did plenty of falling over and disconnecting or freezing during the program all the same, such that I am still pretty grateful to have a phone that I can use the data plan for a Wi-Fi connection so that I have a stable connection to do video calls and programming on.)

School Glue Drying Fails

Doing things with glue is just asking for a critical failure, especially when you try to hold something up to the camera to show how it should look and the glue's not dry enough to support that idea. Gravity is a harsh mistress, and exacting in her demands. I had a few times where my leaf wreath would just slide off the plate, or I had to be careful about the angle of my salt painting, because the glue would just drop right down onto something else if I wasn't careful, or even that I needed to wait for the salt to absorb the water in the clue before applying pigment, because, well, the colors would run otherwiuse because of too much water. I learned so much about what you can and can't use school glue to hold together. Mostly by trying it and finding out that it didn't work like that, or that I needed to wait longer before manipulation

Smoke Alarm's Working!

One of the really nice things about the shift to virtual, though, is that I got to do kitchen programs and cooking things, since I had my tools, my oven, and my cooktops available, rather than having to try and haul of that in for a program and then try to supervise lots of small ones at hot burners and the like.

It also turns out that replacing the smoke detectors with something a little more new means they're also a little more sensitive, and that wisp of smoke from a burner burning something off resulted in a very loud alarm going off in the middle of a program. We got it under control and finished things out without a problem, but I was still the only person who had their smoke alarm go off during the program the whole time we did it. I had a pretty good facepalm about that after the program. Good thing I had something delicious to eat while I had a whole embarrassment about it.

You Missed A Step / You Expected me to Know That Already

And then there are the times where you're very glad to have someone else presenting the program with you. Because I had more than a few times where I skipped over a step that I needed to articulate or explain, or I did a motion that I hadn't explained yet, or hadn't fully explained yet, so that the participants could follow along or do the thing the way they were going to.

There was also one memorable case, while making baked goods, where the recipe, having said that we needed an egg for something, gave the instruction "Give the baked goods an egg wash." It did not explain what an egg wash was, nor how to prepare it and apply it. I felt a little bit like a Baking Show contestant in their technical challenge staring at an instruction that says something like "Make a Victoria Sponge." Luckily for me, my co-presenter did know what an egg wash was and how to do it, but that'll teacch me not to read the recipes all the way through before attempting to use them for a program, right? (They turned out delicious.)


One fo the programs we did was to create some supersaturated syrup, then dust a stick with some sugar and let it grow rock candy crystals.

It didn't work in the program time. It didn't really work all that well in a day or two after, but there was at least the promise of progress. In truth, it took months of letting the crystals grow before anything that resembled rock candy appeared on the skewers that I'd set into the solution. So the program was a success, but it wasn't on the timescale I was trying for in those programs, and I was disappointed that it hadn't gone according to plan on my timescale. (The candy was delicious after I had given it enough time to grow and mature all the same. Some things are, indeed, worth waiting for.)

So, there was a lot of things going wrong and failure while I was doing this programming sequence. And not a whole lot I could do about it other than push forward and keep trying, or see what I could salvage of the thing, or wait out the problem and then try again. And all of these scenarios, except the folding ones, ultimately resulted in successes, just successes with setbacks. The whole time was a good example of what the Science Librarian had been trying to help us understand about doing Mobile Maker Programs and the acceptability of failure or weirdness happening as part of the program.

My Anxieties On Camera: Is It Good Enough?

In addition to the fear of failure in front of others, I had a fair amount of anxiety around the possibility of having to create something without a set of detailed instructions, or a template to use, or having all of the difficult work done for me so that all I needed was to asssemble the thing (or cut out a hundred thousand of them for all the attendees to assemble.) Especially around artistic applications or crafty things, things that I had mostly believed I lacked skill at, because they didn't look like the polished high quality things that everyone else created, seemingly without effort.

We did a lot of drawing in those programs, and I never looked at my drawings and went "This looks good." I always worried that the attendees (who are, at this point, on average, one fourth to one third of my current age) were going to point and laugh at it as weird or strange or not very well done. They didn't, but just because it hasn't happened before doesn't mean it won't happen the next rime, right? (It did not happen at any point during any of the programs.) Even putting this out for others to see is always going to cause a low-grade anxiety, because someone might look at it and judge me, and they might judge me in such a way that they tell me they're judging me. We'll get to why other people's opinions of me are such an outsize influence in a little bit.

Sometimes Following Directions Works, And Sometimes It Doesn't

Some of the programs that we had started with a set of instructions to create something, like weaving two sheets of paper together to create a two-toned heart. Following the directions worked, for the most part, even if doing it meant that the point at the bottom of the heart on both papers never really lined up with each other like I wanted them to. (They weren't going to - the friction and displacement of the paper guaranteed it.)

Once we had created an example according to the directions, then the rest of the program was spent in experimenting and changing the design to see what modifications would work and what ones would not. Mine turned out mostly on the "not" side. Or the "ish" side, which, by the way, if you have it in your library, "Ish" by Peter H. Reynolds is a fabulous book about embracing the inexactness of art of style and skilland learning about how to see some things from the perspective of the audience, instead of the artist. Hightly recommended. A lot of my results are the kinds of things where there are enough cues to get you to think that what I've created is something - a tiget by the stripes and the tail, a fox by the coloration and the approximate shape, a box that theoretically fits together, or would fit together more easily if it were a bit better folded.

That'll Never Work (It Doesn't Have To)

A lot of the time, we were doing the kinds of programming that was "here's the materials, here's the goal, see what you can come up with" using household objects and trying to make a kite, or a parachute, or a wrecking ball. I did a little research on how to make some of those things, with the idea in mind that I could help someone with some hints, but for the most part, I was working right alongside the children in trying to figure out how something worked or might be put together. And I failed at it and had to iterate on it and keep trying until I found something that worked just as much as the children did.

The other thing I had to keep in mind was that my definition of success and their definition of success could sometimes be wildly different from each other. What I thought of as reaching the goal might be a parachute that actually floats for a bit before touching down. For the children, their goal might be that the parachute opens and flares, even if it doesn't slow the object's descent for more than a few fractions of a second. Their goal might have been to make something that looks neat that they can fling from the top of the stairs and delight in that, while I'm trying to figure out how big a parachute I would actually need to slow something down of any appreciable mass. I had to learn that whatever I thought the goal was for the program was mostly irrelevant compared to what the children thought of as their goals. And that their idea of success was the more important one to celebrate. (In theory, I knew this, but I had to practice it a lot, especially when I was felling like I hadn't accomplished anything in the time.

Doing these programs, this way, ultimately helped me come to a better understanding of myself and my capacity for programming. And that I could venture outside of the more restricted programming I had been doing and put on things with open-ended goals and without clearly defined methods to get there. And that even things that looked ugly often tasted delicious. By working with these kids in an environment that was free of a lot of the pressures of having to be the adult, or having to be the expert, or otherwise being responsible for ensuring that everything went smoothly and according to plan, I found that I could be okay with the messiness of it all and the possibilities of failure and being able to let myself breathe about my skills and not having to constantly compare myself to the people who were the absolute best at that thing.

Process Over Product

Here Be Monsters

This is the point where someone who wants a feel-good story of how a librarian found their programming grove and learned to be okay with things they wouldn't have been before should stop. It's not the complete story, it doesn't delve into the whys, but it is a good spot to stop if what you're looking for is a motivational-speaker kind of story. From here on out, there's a lot less comedy, because at this point, we start asking why it hasn't always been this way, for kids and grownups alike.

The Fixed Mindset Hurts Us Early

So, one of those things that I have encountered in my travels in academia is the psychologist Carol Dweck's idea of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. In her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she describes the fixed mindset that's focused on "now" and on the innate abilities and talents of a person as opposed to the growth mindset that believes that what they have now is malleable and changeable (and therefore, can be made better). In the article that inspired the name of this presentation, "Process Over Product: Creativity and Process In The Children's Library", Liza Purdy describes the great frustration that many arts and crafts programs provide to someone who, like me, always has their folds a little off or their drawings a little ish or who can't quite get their work to look like the model, no matter how many times they try.

Product driven arts and crafts[…], especially in projects for young children, not much creativity is used in their execution. […] This definitely appeals to some, particularly those who are able to make their pieces look like the model. But for other kids and adults, it just leads to frustration and bitterness.

I always hated arts and crafts. Handwork didn't come naturally to me, and my arts education was very product based. Everything I made looked scrawny, lopsided and wrong. I would get frustrated and give up, leading to the vicious cycle of continued failure. I wasn’t engaged. I judged myself harshly and felt miserable. As a result, I learned nothing and my abilities were stunted.

Past Performance Is No Indication Of Future Success…Or Failure

After long enough trying for something that you can't seem to achieve, it seems easier (and healthier for the mental state) to give up on that idea and write it off as something you won't be good at, and to put more time and energy into something you are good at, or that at least produces more obvious signs of skill and success. School encourages this in anything that's not immediately part of the core curriculum, so a person who might turn out to be really creative in a medium or with a technique is put off from it as a child because they don't have support to put in the time needed to develop them more fully at it. (The absolute dearth of arts funding and the restructuring of schools so as to be punitive to the schools that need the most help in achieving test score benchmarks certainly isn't helping.) Thos messages that we tell ourselves (or that others tell us) in our childhood stick with us into adulthood. The things we learned about ourselves as young adults persist into adulthood, and then we get to the ages where we start feeling like you can't teach old dogs new tricks, or that we don't have the time and resources to pick up anything new, at least not until we retire and don't have all of that pressure of work (which is also very much about sticking to a specific thing, rather than being allowed to flex your creativity in approved and safe ways) interfering. The comic from Bex, A Sudden Realization is about someone who, even though they know they've gained the skills to succeed at something, hesitates at actually doing it, not because they're worried they can't, but because the situation resembles something that happened in the past that didn't turn out well at all, and, as noted, "those mistakes still haunt me."

The Curse Of The Gifted Child: Have You Considered Neurodivergence?

A particularly vicious form of this problem often shows up for kids who are marked as "gifted." "Gifted" kids and adults are often put into a fixed mindset of having an overabundance of talent, but past that, there are different sets of expectations laid on them as to what qualifies as challenging and what qualifies as simple. Some kids have a knack for words, or numbers, or other things, and teachers want to make sure that they're taking coursework that keeps them engaged with that, which can sometimes mean moving up a grade level or more in an attempt to keep things intellectually challenging. (Yes, I passed high school geometry as an elementary school student as well as high school English. No, I don't necessarily recommend it for others.)

The focus on academics can sometimes mean that there's a corresponding lack of focus on social development, and it can also sometimes set up some difficult situations for a "gifted" child, especially one that has a neurodivergence. The kid who has all the facts about things, or who can sometimes focus for hours at a time on something interesting sometimes gets made fun of when it turns out they're pretty average outside of their specific interest, or gets disapproval from their parents and teachers about how the "easy" things, like remembering to put your name on a paper, or, in my case, remembering to put units in, or keeping track of negative signs, turn out not to be so easy at all. Which is correspondingly weird to neurotypical people, because they can't imagine how it looks to someone else, or how such things like those details can get missed. It's un-imagineable to many of them.

Pina Varnel imagines and draws comics about people with ADHD as aliens, with antennae sticking up from their heads, to illustrate the fundamental difference between brains that work in an ADHD way versus brains that work in a neurotypical way, and a lot of the time, the topics are about things like "trying harder" or how someone gets motivated, or the somewhat limited carrying capacity for working memory for someone with ADHD and how that often leads to things like executive dysfunction, time blindness, and other things that neurotypical brains don't have to deal with. (And, extra important for librarians and other mostly-women professions, what might get diagnosed in a boy, because he's disruptive and loud and has to be dealt with, could go sailing by in a girl, because we're socialized to praise a girl that is quiet and reading and otherwise not making a disruption, even if she hasn't heard a word that was said in class the entire lesson.)

René Brooks hosts a website called Black Girl, Lost Keys with advice and suggestions, as well as stories from her own experiences, about what it's like being a Black woman with ADHD. (Because for non-white people, what could be diagnosed tends to be seen as opposition, defiance, or bad behavior, feeding into prejudices about non-white children. This usually means they get suspended earlier and more often, making educational success that much harder by having to do well in an environment that's hostile to learning.) Because one of the common things that comes with neurodivergence is difficulty regulating emotions, a neurodivergent child is often being counseled to be less than the full person they are, so they are acceptable to their neurotypical peers and instructors.

"I can recall often in my childhood when my impulsiveness and enthusiasm were made fun of. I was often told to shut up, told that I talked too much, or that the things I care about were not important.Many ADHD children are raised to believe that they are over the top, too intense, and too much. Not only is it cruel, but it can actually cause ADHD symptoms to worsen. We become accustomed to dimming our lights so we can live among those who are too cowardly to allow their own to shine."


Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Conversely, small setbacks or things that turn out imperfectly can have outsize effects on someone with neurodivergence, with seemingly wild emotional shifts or giant reactions to small things. Or, as in my case, sometimes you get made fun of when you're wrong, because it's novel to the people around you, and they, for whatever reason, seem interested in making sure that the smart person feels stupid when they miss. And that kind of thing, where failure or setback means big emotions and the people around you wondering why you're being such a crybaby or why it's such a big deal for a small thing, or they deliberately set you up to explode because they know you will, leads to something that's different from, but often comes along with, someone's brand of neurodivergence. (It happens in neurotypical kids, too, especially those who are frequently targeted by bullies for being "different" in some other way.)

If your experience is such that failure or something other than perfection brings ridicule and disappointment from others, the logical conclusion that comes from that experience, especially when it seems pretty consistent, is never miss. Only perfection can protect you. But, as we all know, nobody is perfect, but for those of us who strive for it because it's the only way to keep ourselves safe, or for people who crash in the opposite direction, of not trying at anything because there's no point in trying when people are only going to criticize you for it, we've probably also got a healthy dose of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. René describes some of the outward signs of RSD:

  • Fear of Failure
  • Avoiding trying new activites for fear of being no good at them
  • People-pleasing to avoid criticism
  • Extreme emotions when you experience rejection or criticism
  • Shyness
  • Isolation from people to avoid rejection
  • Fear of disappointing the people you love or letting them down


…and suddenly it becomes a lot clearer why there might be resistance to product-based programming, especially the kind where there's a model that's supposed to be replicated exactly. Without enough components to allow for "ish" to be good enough, literally, and a design of the program that rewards going through the process, rather than staking it all on the end product, kids (and grownups) who either already have or are developing their rejection sensitivity are going to avoid the thing, even if they really want to do it, because the prospect of being vulnerable to someone else requires so much trust and a lot of kids and grownups have never been shown that much trust or given enough freedom to make something that's theirs and that is seen as equal to ones that might more closely follow the example pattern.

Side note: Remember Deliberate Silly? Remember that kid or grownup in your life who is so much faster off the line to make fun of themselves or to put on an act of some sort when they're around others? Yeah. If you're the one who makes fun of yourself, or tries to make sure that expectations get set really low, then there's no risk of disappointment and rejection of you, the person. It's a question of how well you can play the role, and all the adjustments that have to be made and anticipated so that there's never a reason for anyone else to either find a fault or to get an expectation in their head that you might not be able to fulfill.

Externally Imposed Failure and Bad Work Environments

Which is to say, this is absolute hell in a work environment. Work environments are almost always strongly oriented toward end products, with no acknowledgment of growth and improvement along the way if there are failures or setbacks, and often in an environment that encourages people to be their most anti-social. Or, people they're being told they have to love and get along with all the time, when that's not possible, either. For neurodivergent kids and adults, if their bosses are incompetent or don't understand what they need to do to help their employee thrive, then it's going to be a bad time. If their co-workers don't understand and feel like the neurodivergent adult is "weird" or somehow not a good "culture fit" because they're different, then the team's not going to produce their best work, and the "different" one is almost always going to be scapegoated for being different. These workplaces are often microcosms of the greater society around, as well, which is saturated with messages about how being yourself is the absolute worst thing you can do if you want to be successful. Even though there are sorts of surface messages about how being yourself is good, most of those messages are advertisements for something to buy to "be yourself" that's still within the strongly-enforced boundaries of what "normal" is.

I speak from experience here, because even though, at the time of this presentation, I'm now "mid-career," I almost got fired from my current position as an early-career librarian. My first boss, now retired from the system, believed firmly in the value of swift and escalating punishment for mistakes. I learned this early on when I accidentally messed up a library card application by forgetting the exception to the rule about who couldn't get a library card. I put together a flowchart for my own understanding and to demonstrate that I had learned from my mistake and wouldn't be doing it again. It appeared on my evaluation one year that at least one of the school librarians I had been assigned to complained that I lacked "classroom management skills," despite never having been trained on how to handle a classroom of students that I was trying to get hyped for the Summer Reading program. I pointed out that the librarian who made the complaint was trying to do last-minute inventory, and that the teachers had left for their planning periods, so I didn't have any support from any of the people the students knew could make things difficult for them if they misbehaved. My job was to get them hyped and ready for Summer Reading. Apparently, it also meant that I had to be able to exercise control and discipline over them using skills that I never knew I needed.

During that time, I also had at least one co-worker who was actively trying to get me in trouble, at least according to one co-worker who also routinely seems to be trying to get me in trouble, over different things, apparently. It all came to a head where, in trying not to fall asleep during a meeting of the Friends of the Library late at night, (the reasons why I was having trouble stayig awake, I wouldn't discover for a few more years yet) I stood and took a standing position nearby where I could still listen, but not doze. This was apparently perceived and reported as being rude to everyone, and so that was the thing that got me put on disciplinary probation, in addition to all sorts of other things that were always met with "Stop being weird. You should just know not to do these things." Or just know to do these other things. Or to not do things that are potentially within my job description, but that the manager or coworkers don't understand as within my job description, because those will be seen as suspicious and not-work. There were expectations that nobody bothered to explain to me, there were systems of power being used that I still don't fully understand, and so, when confronted with "Well, how are you going to fix these things?" the best I had was "Well, you'll have to trust me, I guess?" because the problem space still hadn't been explained to me in any way that made sense so that I could try to fix it, and no concrete suggestions or systems had been propsed to me that would be a way of showing that I was doing the things that were asked of me.

So I spent six months of my career completely terrified that one day, I was going to be at work, and I was going to get called into an office and told "You're fired." (That's what being on probation again meant - I could have been fired for any reason at all. As best as I could tell, that included something like "I don't like your shirt," even if it would have been written up as something like "disrespect for a manager" or something like that.) How is anyone supposed to function in an environment where your continued employment rests solely on whether or not you've aggravated someone who has the power to fire you, or who has the ear of people who have the power to fire you and decide to use that connection maliciously?

I still get feedback from my current supervisor about things that other people are complaining to him about me. This is confusing to me that they don't, say, talk to me about what they would like, and instead leave vague messages with my supervisor, which makes it really hard to do the thing that they would like me to do, because I don't do all that great with "be more proactive about this," where "this" is a category that includes many different specific things that could be done that would alleviate the problem. Even though my current supervisor tries to impress upon me the relative problem levels of the thing when giving the feedback, so I'm supposed to have an idea of how serious the thing is, I've spent a lot of my life where things that should be no biggie turn out to secretly have been very big deals and I was supposed to intuit that. So instead, for safety, I try to treat everything as a bigger deal than it might be, because small things becoming big things was what happened the last time someone tried to get me fired.

Sometimes, even if we want to focus more on process, on growth, on learning and change, and on trying to put on programming that reflects these values, we find that outside forces intend to never let us do such things. If our administrators and supervisors punish us for trying to be creative and take risks, if our co-workers sabotage our efforts, if the work environment we are in or the community that surrounds us is hostile to the idea of doing things differently, creatively, taking a risk, or otherwise trying to expand our horizons past "this is always the way we've done it, stop trying to rock the boat," especially those that might not end up with a concrete product to wave around in front of the people who fund and manage the library, then most of our efforts will be dead before they have the opportunity to thrive.

And You, Too

That's a lot of heavy content. It might have stirred up some feelings in you, or it might resonate with you a lot more than you wanted it to. I wanted to take a moment here at the end to acknowledge that, because the people that you would really like to acknowledge this often don't. Some parts of this may ring truer for you or for the people who come to your organizations and your programs. Like a lot of presentations, this isn't supposed to be the final and authoritative word on the matter, even if I do want to encourage you to switch more toward using programs that reward the process over the product. I can really only talk about the things that helped me and the things that would have helped me in the past. So, in the most sincere way, I hope this helped you with something. (And if it did, it'd be really neat if you let me know. There's precious little of talking about the good things in libraries.)