Sunday, April 03, 2011

Learned Helplessness

My e-pal, L.M. May has written the most striking, useful blog post I've seen in a long time. L.M. says: "The following essay is about fiction writing and learned helplessness, ..." but L.M. "used to work in the software industry as a software tester," and so writes this essay with much the same qualifications I have—and combines the two main foci of this blog: writing and software creation. So, if you're a writer, or a software professional (or both), this essay is for you.

What is "learned helplessness," and what does it have to do with writing and software making? I'll leave the writing part to L.M., but I'd like to cover the software side briefly, before I send you off to read the essay, at:

L.M. quotes the Wikipedia definition, "Learned helplessness…means a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected."

The essay was inspired by the reactions of some writers to the enormous technology-induced changes taking place in the publishing industry. (See, for example, my posts of Feb 27 and Feb 28, on this blog.) These writers had learned that the only real way to publish their books was the traditional way, as books printed on paper by a few large publishing companies. Mostly, they had put their entire business of writing in the hands of agents who dealt with these companies for them. Now, with e-publishing, they have an avenue for bypassing all those "helpers" (and their fat fees), but some of them, many of them, have learned to be helpless, and violently oppose the idea of standing on their own two feet as adults.

How does this relate to software professionals? If you really don't understand, I'm not sure I can explain it to you. To put it briefly and bluntly, have you ever allowed the "grown-ups" (the salespeople, the managers, the customers) to override your professional judgment because you felt helpless?

Did you ever agree to build some code in two months when you knew it would take at least five—and then silently take the blame when you made it in four?

Did you ever allow unqualified people to override your technical decisions, thinking you couldn't do anything about it?

Have you agreed to undertake testing software that was (to you) obviously unready for testing (or even patently untestable)?

Even if you've never experienced such events, have you ever watched others trapped by them, and not known how to help them?

If you know about such matters in your work, read L.M.'s essay about the psychology of learned helplessness, then come back here and be a voice in the conversation that follows.

And why here? LM explains:
"I keep my comments section off due to family and work commitments, but Dean Wesley Smith and Gerald M. Weinberg offered their blogs as sites where people could discuss this essay amongst themselves.  I will be checking in as often as I can to both their websites over the next few days to answer any questions."

I think we should divide the labor, with the writers' comments going to Dean's site ( and the software people laying out their thoughts here. But you can choose where to hang out—both places, if you wish—and we'll see what comes of our sharing.

And, BTW, as you dig into this subject, you may want to try my ebook, Managing Yourself and Others, or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


Karen T. Smith said...

What if you're a writer AND a software person, oh the challenges! :)

But honestly, Lisa has nailed a big part of what's going on in the writing community that had me so confused. People are reacting negatively to news about independently published books/authors/the process - when they haven't yet met with any significant publishing successes of their own. And, when presented with the how-tos, just ask more questions instead of reading the source material. How do you format a document for epublishing? Read the Smashwords style guide. How do you properly format the document? Read the Smashwords style guide. But how do you insert chapter headings? Read the Smashwords style guide... Oh my! From software, the term RTFM comes to mind... ;)

Thanks for offering up a spot to talk about this - interesting stuff!

Dwayne said...

Odd coincidence, Seth Godin's blog this morning is about how we learn to act around our school teachers when we are little children. We learn to do what they tell us using minimal resources so we can then do what we want. This seems to transfer to adulthood as we see our bosses as we used to see our teachers. The programmed response is to do what the boss says for no other reason that the boss is the boss.

One of the ways I learned to break this habit in my life was to tell myself that "my boss is my boss by accident of birth." That meant my boss was my boss simply because he was born 20 years before me.

Perhaps that is much too simple. This is a deep subject and I am happy that you and Smith are helping the discussion.

DavidRM said...


I was a corporate programmer from 1991-1999. I've been a self-employed indie software developer since then, but I remember what it was like, especially the last few years. I don't miss it much, except for 2 main things. First, I miss an employer-contributed 401K. ;-) Second, I miss walking over to another programmer's cube and shooting the breeze about suitable geek topics (pick your favorite). The rest of it...the stuff you, I don't miss it at all. My last project I worked on as an FTE was one I hated and that I knew from the beginning was a bad idea--and would fail. I left before it was completed (over a year late, and never profitable).

I'm also a new indie author, so I've now left a comment for both sides of the discussion. =) I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog.


L. M. May said...

Hi Jerry,

Thanks so much for your comments about my essay. I think you're right, what I was talking about also applies to engineers.

There can often be intense pressure from group dynamics to simply go along with the way things have always been done. But then a major technology breakthrough will come along, and it is either change or go out of business.

To be an agent for change, it can often help to understand the psychological underpinnings of why people react as they do to it.

Cheers, LM

Jacqvern said...

Hi, I don't want to outstay the hospitality here, (I've already posted a long comment on Dean Wesley Smith's side), but as a person "obsessed" with computers for 27 years, I would like to post the technology related part.

Most people in all history were always afraid of change in general (not only technological) and of the unknown. Technology in the 20th & 21st centuries is advancing exponentially and that creates an additional fear: people are not only afraid of the change itself, but also of the speed of the change.

The human brain has a limit in processing information and that limit is related to the amount of info, but also to the speed needed in processing. Even with 1 bit of information, if one does not process it fast, by the time there is an output, the input is already obsolete.
Progress is outrunning humans and the struggle of humans to catch up and adapt to changes creates helplessness, frustration, depression etc. Basic psychology.

There is a great book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler written in 1970, but still valid today.

Thank you :)

James Marcus Bach said...

Woof, the learned helplessness thing is big in testing, but even bigger in education.

A common reaction to my book about self-education is that it only applies to me and to other special geniuses... Definition of a genius? Well, that's anyone for whom the method works.

No true Scotsman would avoid schooling, after all.

As a tester, I haven't offered test case counts to my clients/bosses since July 12th, 1992, and yet I predict when I teach my testing class, next week, I will once again hear from at least one student that counting test cases and producing other silly metrics is absolutely essential for success in large companies.

But I haven't done that in more than 18 years! "Well, you're special, you're a famous tester."

Maybe, but they are mixing up cause and effect. This is how I *got* well known, but challenging silly rules and rethinking the obvious.

-- James