This was not the New Year message I wanted to write, but here we are. I wanted to share a few short stories and a solution that works well for me in challenging situations.

(Content warning: I'll be talking about toxic situations. I have a solution for you. But if you are in a toxic situation, you might want to read this later when you are not stressed. )

Escaping a Toxic Environment

In late 2021, I joined a contracting company. I didn't want to do it, but my independent consulting business suffered during the pandemic. Shifts in the market happen. The family needed to be fed. You all are familiar with that intent.

It wasn't long before people appreciated my systems thinking. Some referred to it as strategic. I just see patterns others don't. This led to a few role shifts until I worked with some toxic leadership. In the past, I could tolerate this.

I'd get knocked down, but I get up again.

However, as I mentioned a few months earlier, the stressful situations amplified medical issues. I tried some other changes, but some toxicity lingered, and so did the stress. In late October 2023, I left the toxicity and the organization.

Two weeks later, I collaborated on exciting new projects with friends at Modus Institute. Each day felt a bit better, but it wasn't until late November that I started to feel normal. It can take time to flush toxicity out of your system.

Let me share another quick story that may not seem related initially, but stay with me.

Leaving a Toxic Tech Startup Vendor

In November 2022, I was frustrated with my current newsletter vendor, who added ever-increasing complexity to support their "creator ecosystem." Many of us in the tech industry know feature bloat in software is one indicator of ever-increasing investor pressure to grow and sell a startup company. However, the friction of trying to find where features moved in the software every few weeks was more than I could tolerate. I like simplicity.

I moved my newsletter to Substack. I already had one newsletter there that I shared with a friend. I also read several Substack newsletters. They are clean, easy to read, and very easy to maintain. Substack has one of the best user experiences I've ever seen in software. Then in April 2023, I was made aware of a problem with Substack: they allow anyone to publish – even white-supremecists. With their new social media feature (Notes), people could discuss and discover other newsletters in Substack. That's when I became aware of the toxicity. But I wasn't seeing it on the platform.

So I got knocked down, but I got up again.

I didn't see or hear more about this situation until December 2023. Several authors on the platform were raising the issue of white-supremecists on Substack. The short version is that Substack allows free and paid newsletters. They earn their money by taking a flat 10% of what your paid newsletter earns. Introducing their recommendation and social media features also means white supremacist and Nazi philosophy newsletters were benefiting from the growth engine Substack built for all writers. These racists newsletters were gaining paid subscribers and being mixed in with other content. And Substack was making money off them.

Substack claimed these newsletters didn't violate their policies since no violence or threats were promoted. More writers protested. Substack removed a few of the worst but didn't change their policies. This is another example of how startup culture and growth philosophy can introduce toxicity. Several large newsletters, including yours truly, migrated off of Sustack. You can read some details here as well as tips for migrating off Substack.

It took me longer than I planned. I had to dust off old tech skills and learn a new platform (Ghost Pro). But I find it clean, tidy, easy to use, and safer – for me and hopefully for you. Let me know.

Rip Currents Are Like Toxic Environments

Growing up near beaches, you learn about undertow and rip currents. Undertow is the flow of water under and in the opposite direction of an incoming wave. As the waves crash against a beautiful beach, that water goes under. Undertow is subtle at first. A strong wave can knock you over and then you feel the pull of the undertow. It's only dangerous for small children. But for the rest of us...

You get knocked down, but you get up again.

You think it's no big deal. You can handle it.

Sometimes, the shape of the beach and the sandbars form a faster route for the water to flow. This produces rip currents, which can be strong enough to pull a fully grown adult under the water and move far off the beach. Many a strong swimmer have been exhausted and drowned, thinking they can fight it. The waves and the undercurrent are too strong and too consistent.

The best solution? Swim parallel to the beach until you get out of the current and then swim diagonally to conserve energy getting back to the beach.

The Best Antidote for Toxicity: Movement

Over time, I've been in few toxic situations. I've learned a few things:

  • Toxicity may surprise you at first, but it can start subtly. You get knocked down by it, but you get up again. You think it's no big deal.
  • When you come across it later, the toxic behaviors hit you harder. You don't get up so easy. That's when you realize the toxicity is not just from an individual or a group. It's the system that allows the toxicity.
  • When you realize you are swimming in a toxic system, you go where the current takes you. Then conserve your energy (and your mental health), until you can land on a safe beach. It may even be another beach.
  • It may take some time to recover from the long-term stress of the environment. Give yourself time.

What Undercurrents Are You Facing?

You might be swimming in a toxic environment now. You might be dealing with medical issues. You might have both situations (I hope not). You need to find ways to swim away from the stress and let yourself recover. You might even need a new beach to land on. Not sure how? Let me know.

Hope this helps.