Rand Fishkin

The Long, Painful Journey to Better Self-Awareness

Date / / Category / Personal, Psychology

Erica and I are sitting on a small bus with 8 other fellow Mozcationers, in transit from Cape Town to a kloof on the Northeastern side of the Cedarburg Mountains. It’s 90°+ outside, and the air conditioning in the bus can’t keep up. It’s a little too uncomfortable to read, and while the scenery is amazing, so is the company. We strike up a conversation about books that moves into comics, games, and random geeky hobbies of all sorts. As the conversation winds down and we turn back to look out the windows, I think for a minute, then tell Erica how amazed and impressed I am at both her passion for these pursuits as well as her complete lack of self-consciousness about them. She doesn’t bat an eyelash about explaining the plot of a super-niche science fiction comic. I’m amazed. And I’m jealous.

I’ve always been ashamed of the enjoyment I get from geekier pursuits. I try to hide the fact that I worked as Wizards of the Coast in college, that I tried to play role playing games in middle school (but couldn’t find anyone to play with me, except my little sister, who was too young at the time to really understand), that I still love computer games (though I almost never play them). It’s so bad that I still feel anxiety, get sweaty, and feel my pulse pound if I’m playing a game on the weekend and Geraldine comes back from a shopping trip. Honestly, what the @#%! does it matter if I play a computer game in my spare time? No one cares.

I’m just afraid they will.

Figuring out why is a quest I’ve been on lately, and it’s one that’s taking much longer and proving vastly more mysterious than I ever suspected.

Obviously, I’m not just trying to understand why I feel repressed shame about interest in video games, but why I am all the ways that I am. I’m especially interested in those facets of my personality and emotions that create negative feelings, though eventually I want to get to a point where I know more about what makes me happy and brings me joy, too.

When it comes to my shame about games, I think there’s a few factors at work. When I was young, I got teased for having these interests, and I watched other kids become ostracized for it. My parents were mildly supportive of video and computer games, but I vividly remember, after my Dad bought me a TI-99/4A, he’d occasionally play Space Invaders or Parsec with me, until one day he remarked that he couldn’t play anymore, because it was a waste of time that could get dangerously addictive.

In later years, I’m pretty sure I projected most of the scorn and derision I sensed from people around me about games. While at college at the University of Washington, I worked for about a year at the Wizards of the Coast Game Center (before it shut down in the early 2000′s). Pokemon cards were, at the time, selling like hotcakes across the US, and were unavailable in much of the country due to supply chain issues. Working at the Game Center, I could buy cards at the employee discount and resell them on Craigslist and eBay for 2-10X the price. The market for the cards eventually plummeted and I quit, but I built up a pretty hefty collection of Magic: The Gathering cards that I, even as I type this, I feel ashamed for sharing.

Thinking back, the feelings I had probably didn’t stem from my college classmates, old dorm-room friends, or my girlfriend’s sorority sisters actually making fun of me, even though, were I to tell the story a year ago, that’s exactly how I’d have described it. Instead, I suspect it was my own insecurity magnifying something almost non-existant into what feels like a real memory, and projecting my fear onto the actions of others.

This self-examination stuff is hard. At first, I only knew that games made me embarassed and uncomfortable. Only after I’d spent time and inflection on other aspects of my psyche could I get deeper than surface-level, and I’m probably still not all the way there. I know, for example, that I’ve struggled for a long time with my relationship with my younger sister, who’s an avid LARPer (Live-Action-Role-Playing Gamer) and is more heavily into that world I’m ashamed of – perhaps the two are related.

Despite the daunting challenge posed by examining my fears and limitations, I’ve become convinced that this process is one of the healthiest, most productive, and most positive things I can do for myself and the company I’m leading.

I’ll give another example.

I’m clearly obsessed with transparency. I want to share everything about myself and our company that I possibly can. It frustrates me bitterly when there’s a subject that’s too sensitive to share or when a topic wouldn’t be empathetic (to some co-worker or third party) to bring up. Just recently, there was a blog post written by a venture capitalist that I wanted to skewer with my own, directly contradictory experience with that person and their firm. It’s still burning a hole in my blogging pocket.

Where does that addiction to transparency come from? Why can’t I be happy with sharing what I already do (my performance review, our annual financials, internal emails, failed VC processes, etc)? Because sometimes, that addiction causes serious problems.

Last summer, as many of you probably know, Geraldine was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She named it Steve. The three weeks leading up to her surgery were probably the toughest of our marriage, and part of that was because of my addiction to transparency.

You see, the Monday after the discovery of her tumor (the prior Wednesday or Thursday), I went into the Mozplex and told our exec team at lunch what was happening and that I might need to take a break for a little while or a long while from work stuff. That afternoon, I called an impromptu company-wide meeting. I stood in front of ~60 Mozzers, including plenty of close friends of Geraldine and mine, and told them about her tumor, and the potential possibilities (we didn’t yet know it was relatively treatable). I was so choked up, I couldn’t get through half the sentences. It wasn’t my finest moment in front of my team. I think I made half the staff cry with me, and probably instilled more fear and uncertainty than anything else. It was Crystal‘s first day at Moz, so I tried to look at her and tell her, since I didn’t know her at all and I couldn’t cry in front of someone new, right? That was probably horribly embarassing, difficult, and unfair for her.

But the worst part was… I hadn’t checked with Geraldine about telling the company.

She later joked about this on her blog and to our friends, but it was a huge, collosal, monstrous fuck-up. Possibly the worst one I’ve made in our 11.5 years together. And of course, she forgave me, and teased me about it, and we moved on (after making some clear rules about sharing). Her tumor turned out to be benign and very slow growing, which means she probably won’t need surgery on it ever again.

This example, to me, proved that it wasn’t just the things that made me feel bad that I needed to diagnose, but the roots of all my obsessions and quirks and traits. That understanding seems to be, at least for me, the first step in the journey to harnessing these elements of myself in the right kinds of ways and controlling what can otherwise be dangerous and harmful to all sorts of aspects of my life – personal and professional.

So where does my transparency come from? Again, I’m fairly sure it’s rooted in my upbringing, and that I don’t completely understand or remember all of the elements. One part that I think I’ve identified is the conflicts that often arose from keeping information secret between myself and my parents, between my teachers and my parents, between my siblings and my parents, between my friends’ parents and my parents, between my granparents and my parents, and even between one parent and the other – it sucked. I’m sure every kid deals with this a little, but I remember having to internalize lies and explanations that would keep me (or someone else) out of trouble far too often.

And, of course, for the first 5 years I worked with my Mom at the company that would become SEOmoz, we had to hide our increasingly large personal debt (which reached nearly $500,000 in 2005) from my Dad. That was horrific. I think it probably hurt our family relationship long-term. I’m pretty sure my Dad’s still incredibly upset about it, despite the eventual, positive outcome.

Transparency for me is a reaction. It’s a rejection of the things I hated having to deal with in my past and a value that I cling to so I, hopefully, won’t have those same issues in the future. It’s an obsession that makes me more critical than is probably fair to individuals and organizations who fail to be transparent (ahem, Google).

For me, this process has become rinse and repeat. I react strongly to something, and I try to question why I feel that way. Sometimes it’s weeks or months before that first epiphany hits me about the experiences or feelings tied to the emotion. Sometimes it’s the same afternoon. But every time I do it, it feels like a power-up — like I’m little Mario and I just ate a mushroom and now I’m big Mario and I can reach higher blocks and take more damage from Lakitu throwing those annoying little spiky dudes. It’s a great feeling, but more important, it gives me a place to start from in controlling the emotion and harnessing the good parts while reducing the bad. I love it.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d urge you to try your own short experiment in self-examination.

  • Identify an element of your self, your personality, or how you react to certain situations, people, or stimuli that’s strong and relatively consistent (it can be positive or negative – likely it’s at least a little bit of both)
  • Try to remember and list all the earliest experiences you’ve had that relate to that element – very often these are from childhood or early adulthood.
  • Conduct a critical examination of the relationships between those experiences and your reactions today. Is there a pattern? Is there a reason you might be overly embracing or harshly rejecting something because of those experiences?
  • Repeat as best you can, especially if you find a behavior or an attitude that you suspect may be harming your ability to grow/mature, love/find closeness, achieve a goal/overcome a barrier, or find happiness/reduce anger.

If you’re feeling especially transparent and are brave enough to share your discovery in a blog post, please leave it in the comments here, and I’d be thrilled to include it as a link in the post (update, check out posts from Aaron Friedman here and John Doherty here).

I know very little about formal psychology or therapy, though I want to learn more, and might explore that path myself. Certainly, if the help of a professional can help discover these roots and get me on a path to better self-awareness, I’d be really excited to attempt it.

  • twitter.com/bobrains bob rains

    You’re a good dude Rand, I don’t care what they say about you.

    • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

      Wait, what are they saying?

      • twitter.com/RedRussak Red Russak

        That you’re a good dude!

  • www.facebook.com/lydiepadilla Lydie Padilla

    Thanks for your transparency Rand  . I will write about being perfectionist.

  • www.iloveseo.net Gianluca Fiorelli

    Interesting post, and somehow I see myself reflected… with the addition that for my age (I’m 10 years older than you Rand) all you lived was amplified because of an even bigger misunderstanding by elder people.
    Said that, I can tell you that I was lucky enough in having a dad who was as geek as I was for certain things.
    Making it short: I too feel still a little of sense of guilt when I indulge a sunday afternoon, when all doing the siesta, in killing orcs and some other monster of Middle Earth online, but than I think how much that – or reading a science fiction novel – is able to make my mind switch off from the daily constant topics (from work to the care of my kids), and how that is positive. My mind rests and so I can regenare my forces and have my “green life bar” recharging.
    By the way, if you want to share some time playing online, just ping me. We could organize an “SEO Command” with some other dudes

    • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

      Once I get over my mental block, that sounds like an excellent offer

      Thanks Gianluca

  • twitter.com/ScullyMark Mark Scully

    Great post Rand, always appreciate the honest and transparent opinions you share.

    If it makes you feel better, there’s no harm with enjoying games. Everyone needs some hobby in their life which they can enjoy by themselves.

    If you were a 2D gaming character..

    • twitter.com/Nicholas_Sayers Nick Sayers

      LOL! Nice.

  • Ryan

    It’s interesting to me that you bring up, your shame/guilt for these interests and the fact that you feel/felt you had to hide them, but yet you also are “clearly obsessed with transparency”.

    • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

      Agreed. I think that conflict is one of the red flags for me that says “these things are in opposition to each other! This demands investigation!”

  • IamJoshing

    I have been working on a social good startup (for profit) focused on innovating parts of the nonprofit realm. My biggest concern good and bad is transparency. It is hard to explain making money from nonprofits even when you are providing value. Rand you and SEOmoz have taught me tons about SEO, but more importantly I have been learning about how you run a thriving business. Your transparency (honesty, integrity, and leadership) is inspiring. Thank you.

  • Alan

    Rand I don’t want to rain on your parade as you have been very honest and brave in this post but have you ever thought that all that “transparency” is just a way of loading up others with your own problems? Quite often people who work for/and with you have their own problems, which they are not sharing with others because they do not want to burden them.

    Your transparency may be your coping mechanism but it is not always good to share. When trying to work out what you should and should not share. There is a good but totally apt adage : “If you haven’t got something good to say then don’t say anything at all.” I don’t mean this in a bad way. I mean it in the sense that your employee’s have their own problems and being distracted by money/venture capital worries is probably not conducive to them performing at their best.

    I understand that you are coming from a good place and you mean well and in some circumstances your employee’s et al should be told the full and terrible truth. However it is probably something they don’t need to be reminded of every day.

    Anyway.. just saying.. keep up the good work.

    • www.fetch123.com/SEM Markus Allen

      Ding, ding and ding.

      This is one of the best comments I’ve read here in a L O N G time.

      Here’s the big problem – we’ve been trained to be politically correct (Google this: frankfurt school political correctness). It’s part of the artificial system we live in (which is repugnant to me quite frankly)…

      … And you can’t be transparent in a politically correct system. Impossible. Zero chance.

      (Yes, I fell for the same trap more than a decade ago. Been there, done that.)

      By the way, gaming too is artificial – I could go on for hours and hours on why gaming is awful for society as a whole.

      And in our artificial system, we have a caste system – winners and losers… owners and employees, etc. The harsh reality is they don’t mix. Look into Nimrod about this.

      I’ve been trying to tell this to Rand, but he just thinks I’m being negative.

      Ah, the new age – another artificial creation.

      • Jenn Mathews

        Wow I gotta say you both have a point but there is a level that Rand reaches with sharing you don’t seem to be grasping. While Rand seeks support he also provides it and had for many people.

        And while I am not much for gaming, my son is and so is a cloee friend and brother of said poster who has shown me first hand that Games can be good. My son has a relationship with his cousin now as they talk daily rather than seeing each other 2x a year for holidays. Not t mention the problem solving skills and teamwork they develop.

      • twitter.com/everywhereist Geraldine

        I don’t see what political correctness has to do with transparency. Rand isn’t ascribing to any sort of pre-arranged set of rules. If anything, quite the opposite – most CEOs don’t share nearly as much as Rand does.

        I think his efforts are a direct challenge to the caste system of owners and employees. He believes that everyone at Moz has just as much a right to important information as he does. They’ve made Moz what it is. They ARE Moz. They should be able to ask questions and know what’s going on at the company that they’ve helped build.

        • www.fetch123.com/SEM Markus Allen

          I’ll give an age old example for you Geraldine…

          … When my mistress asks me “Do I look fat in this dress”, I tell her “Yes you do.” Because she does look fat in that dress.

          But we ALL know what comes next. And it ain’t pretty. My transparency is a surefire path to the doghouse. My sex life is over. No more desserts, either (because I know you like your desserts, Geraldine).

          A politically correct (non-transparent) person would lie. And that lie is political correctness, not transparency.

          That’s why society blows these days. Because we’re all lying to each other. White lies, small lies and whopper of all lies are all lies no matter how we spin it.

          And you can’t achieve transparency success without trust.

          Exactly 1,441 days ago, my father-in-law asked my wife (not my mistress:>) if “Mark was gaining weight.” My wife passed this on to me. I’m glad she did.

          Most would get highly offended. Some might even get highly depressed.

          But for me, it was the best honesty ever, because since then I’ve been exercising (to Tony Horton’s 10 Minute Trainer) – been doing it 1,441 days straight. And now some ask what’s my secret to look so great.

          Most people can’t handle the truth because we’re trained to be politically correct.

          In simple speak, transparency doesn’t work in an artificial society.

          • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

            At Moz, we have 6 core values in TAGFEE. Transparency and empathy are two of them. Empathy trumps transparency for us, and there are often times when we have to bite our tongues and either A) find an empathetic way to share information or B) determine it’s not important enough to communicate the information and be un-empathetic.

            Your examples, to me, seem very surface-level and based in a not-totally-rational and probably politically-motivated frame of mind, rather than being constructive and highly relevant to the post. If you do have some personal examples from the professional world to share that help highlight the downsides of transparency, I’d certainly be interested. I have plenty myself, and yet still find the practice to be better on the whole than the alternatives.

          • www.fetch123.com/SEM Markus Allen

            Okay, Rand.

            I’ll play.

            (And I HATE & LOATHE politics as it’s another artificial invention to control the masses – please don’t ASSume things about me – that’s manipulative, Rand.)

            I’ve asked you publicly (twice) if you added faked Twitter followers to your account.

            I still have not received a reply.

            According to Status People, you have faked Twitter followers:

            fakers.statuspeople.com/Fakers/Scores

            I was hoping I’d get a quick “absolutely not… never faked Twitter followers” reply, but instead got silence. And I know you saw my comment because you replied to everyone else’s comment except mine.

            I have more examples if you’d like (which includes some Shoemoney stuff).

          • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

            I don’t remember you asking, but you’re correct – the answer is absolutely not… have never done anything but tweet, and never followed more than ~100 people.

          • twitter.com/everywhereist Geraldine

            I am absolutely bewildered by the progression of this argument. As far as I can gather, it goes like this:

            1. We cannot, within the society we live in, hope to be truly transparent. Constructs will always exist. Rand’s claims to the contrary are myopic.

            2. Supporting evidence of this claim is used through personal, anecdotal evidence which claims that some people CAN be transparent, but they suffer for it. However, none of those examples have to do with professional interactions.

            3. Rand buys Twitter followers. His failure to respond to every single ridiculous accusation he’s faced proves this fact.

            I … I’m going to go lie down.

          • www.fetch123.com/SEM Markus Allen

            Wowwy zowwy.

            You sure are putting words in my mouth, Geraldine. Quite manipulative. And I don’t appreciate that.

            I wasn’t looking to get into a verbal spar here (but I’m game any time).

            Rand asked for feedback in this post. Is this selective feedback? Should only those who kiss his glutes be invited to participate?

            Here’s the simple truth:

            Transparency and honesty (in a personal or professional setting) is virtually impossible in the artificial system we live in. We can thank (ironically) the Rand Corporation for this. Look into the Delphi Technique – consensus building… the herd mentality.

            When the sheep herder makes friends with his sheep, the end is not pretty.

            Winners and losers… employers and employees… kings and proletariot are all like oil and water – they just don’t mix.

            I know, I know – it sucks, but it is what it is.

    • twitter.com/everywhereist Geraldine

      I think you are making a lot of assumptions about the innerworkings of Moz that aren’t true. As someone who has worked at a struggling start-up, I can tell you that even when the execs leave you in the dark, you are still acutely aware of the fact that the company is struggling. For me, the less I heard, the more difficult and nerve-wracking it was.

      Sure enough, when things got REALLY silent, when the execs got really unresponsive, that was the sign that things were going south.

      Rand’s openness, his commitment to sharing, is an effort to avoid all of that. He believes people should know what is going on in their company. He’s trying to break down one of the many barriers between execs and other employees. The idea that information isn’t shared openly between people on all management levels is one of the biggest problems I’ve seen at companies – the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. People feel uninformed, unimportant, and excluded. They get scared, they get worried, and they disengage from their company. Rand’s openness is an attempt to eliminate all of that.

      He does not, as you suggest, hover over their heads and make them worry about finances. He has never done that, even when things were really dire.

      “If you haven’t got something good to say then don’t say anything at all.”

      Seriously? I can’t think of a single company (or relationship, for that matter) where that mentality would work. How would you discuss employees who need to improve? How would you address budgets that were not met? Would you just stay silent until the company went underwater? Great everyone with a smile, and then one day, while smiling, say, “Hey! We’re out of money! Sorry! I would have said something before, but, you know …”

      • Alan

        Geraldine are you telling me you think SEOMOZ is about to go underwater?

        “He has never done that, even when things were really dire.”

        I have read some “interesting” tweets by Rand towards the end of last year but I didn’t think things were that bad.

        My text that you quoted above is not meant to be done in all cases, it isn’t a hard and fast rule. However there is a valid argument to be made that you shouldn’t over burden your employee’s with your own problems.

        Anyway as Rand replied below it is clash of beliefs.

    • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

      I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. Our beliefs about the value of transparency likely stem from very different types of experiences, which is fine. The one thing I will say in transparency’s favor is that, for those who come to work at Moz, or those who interact with me, they know that they’re entering a very transparent environment and one where open sharing is going to happen all the time. This means, of course, that if it’s not a match (as it sounds like it wouldn’t be for you), they can easily walk away.

      • Alan

        All I am saying Rand is that there are things you tell your friends and their are things you tell your loved ones and there are things to tell your employee’s. Sometimes they overlap often they don’t, In your example I can understand why your wife would have been a bit “surprised” that you told your staff.

        Guess what? a lot of your staff would have been surprised you told them also!

        I am not saying it is bad to be transparent, I am just saying if your coping mechanism in life is to load up other people with your problems then you aren’t being fair to them.

        • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

          If sharing something isn’t empathetic, I try not to do it. However, if hiding information is unempathetic, I try even harder to avoid that. If I’m going to err, it’s on the side of too much transparency, not too little.

      • Alan

        While I have your attention there is something about SEOMOZ that has me puzzled.

        I know I will get flamed for this one also. When is SEOMOZ no longer going to be a startup? I have been floating around the site since about 2008 or so and archive.org shows that the site had content back in 2005. So why does SEOMOZ still have a startup mentality?

        In the time that SEOMOZ has been a startup.Other SEO firms come/grow be bought out or die or whatever. SEOMOZ plods along “startup mode”.

        I am starting to get the impression that SEOMOZ is like that career academic we all know. The type that says he would love to have a job outside of the academic environment but can’t find anything that suits. However, you know the real problem is that they don’t want to leave their comfort zone.

        • moz.com/Rand Rand Fishkin

          The word “startup” as it’s defined by the early stage tech community in the US, refers to a company that is in a high-growth mode, heading toward a liquidity event. Early stage startups are those with 1-10 people, still trying to discover a business model that scales repeatably. Mid-stage startups, like Moz, are growing, but aren’t yet ubiquitious or huge in revenue. Late-stage startups (folks like those mentioned here: www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/technology/growing-numbers-of-start-ups-are-worth-a-billion-dollars.html) are further along, worth more, generally much larger, and on the cusp of those liquidity/exit events.

          All that said – the startup mentality can be adopted by anyone, big or small, and it has advantages and disadvantages. I’d say that Moz acts like a startup in some ways but not others, but we ARE a startup by any modern definition of the word.

  • twitter.com/simon_realbuzz Simon Doyle

    Rand, geek pursuits is the new rock n roll s

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