Can hackers be emotionally resilient?

When I gave a talk at CCC about harm reduction for hackers, I included information from the only study on hackers and Aspergers that has ever been performed. The report is fascinating and I highly recommend giving it a read. What it found was surprising: Contrary to popular perceptions of hackers as unfeeling, detached, un-empathetic (Aspie or on the autism spectrum), it turns out that the hacker character is the opposite of the overly-analytical Sherlock who can’t have relationships or friendships.

Hackers are cognitively different, make no mistake. They’re commonly believed to have higher degrees of Asperger’s than most in mainstream society. Asperger’s syndrome is characterized by dysfunctional forms of social skill under-development (lack of empathy is a biggie; the inability to imagine what another person might be feeling), communication difficulties, and obsessive interests. It includes positive traits such as high intelligence, exceptional focus, and specific unique talents, including creative pursuits.

But in Female and Male Hacker Conferences Attendees: Their Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) Scores and Self-Reported Adulthood Experiences, the results disagreed with that belief. The researchers found that hackers more likely as a general class suffer from feeling too intensely. This should be a sort-of good news for the partners of hackers, who often feel like they’re suffering with an emotionally cut off sweetheart, someone who’s silent when you wish they were empathizing.

Turns out that silence represents an overwhelm of feelings and paralysis at not knowing what to do. The researchers on Female and Male Hacker conferences Attendees call it Intense World Syndrome. Meaning, they feel “too much” in a room full of people and the information comes in too fast than can be comfortably processed. This person would combat social anxiety by focusing on details and switching attention, pulling back in a way that appears to be callous or disengaged but is actually a coping mechanism for overwhelming feelings, and choosing to hide their own.

It reminds me of Lisbeth Salander, the character in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — especially the first film and the books, which were powerful and true to the hacker character envisioned by the author. I’ve done a lot of deep dives on Lisbeth’s psychology. Not just because she resonates for me personally in many ways, but because she embodies something called emotional resilience, which I see in a handful of hackers who’ve mastered the game, their craft, and have what they’d describe as the life they want. I’m not the only one to see this in Lisbeth; 19 psychologists and psychiatrists came together to write about this character’s emotional resilience in the fantastic book, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

In Unlikely Heroes: Resilience with a Dragon Tattoo, by the Psychology book’s editor Pamela B. Rutledge (Ph.D., M.B.A.) she writes,

Salander is the poster child for resilience. It may not be initially apparent because her personality displays like a Doctor Doolittle pushmi-pullyou. While her social hostilities are distancing, her strengths, intellectual abilities, determination, and courage engender admiration – even before you find out her history.

… Throughout the trilogy, however, Salander’s character demonstrates resilience, combining her perseverance with her abilities to accomplish her goals. She remains undaunted in her belief of her self-efficacy – her ability to act effectively on the environment — from her efforts as a young child to protect her mother from her brutal father’s violent attacks to her actions as an adult to disempower her sexually sadistic legal guardian Nils Bjurman. If she fails in fully achieving her goals, she waits for the next time. She doesn’t give up.

Emotional resilience is a survival skill, yet few have a handle on it. This is not a matter of chemistry, a lack of it is only ever temporary; it is a learned skill. It is what makes us able to bounce back from setbacks, gives us the tools to learn from crisis, mistakes, misfortune, tragedy, and trauma.

Geetu Bharwaney, author of the book Emotional Resilience: Know what it takes to be agile, adaptable and perform at your best, calls emotional resilience a ‘human upgrade.’ She says that the idea of leaving our emotions at the door before we work is “outdated, unrealistic, and narrow-minded.” At the very least, that’s because without emotion, there is no motivation.

Interestingly, her book is rather unemotional — it’s an objective, practical, and a nearly academic guide to cultivating and using emotional resilience as a tool. When emotions are recognized and the information they provide is understood, they improve decisions and enable you to get the best results,” she writes. The book provides a structure for making sense of feelings (not just your but those of others), most especially in the workplace. It is a superb skill for secret keepers, because it teaches discipline and focus.

Emotional resilience is an important factor in the hacker’s workplace, be that as an independent contractor or working for a firm. For most hackers, it’s not technical skills or knowledge that is the gap between where they are and where they want to be. It’s the ability to deal with their feelings and the feelings of others, and especially dealing with difficulties under pressure, that creates problems from screwing up to working below potential.

It’s also true for those who want to be the best, and still have time for other things in their lives. This is even true for those who have built their careers upon cynicism. Some end up emotionally unwell and not able to work at all.

Resilience lets us survive pressured situations. Which, I think, is the everyday life of hackers and infosecworkers.

Rutledge writes, “like all our heroes, we need {Salander] to emerge victorious because her victory is proof of our own ability to survive.”

She makes me think of all the hackers I know when she talks about Lisbeth Salander’s emotional resilience: It seems necessary for us and our kind.

Violet Blue


This post was originally posted on Peerlyst :

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