I apologize for the delay getting this update out. The last few weeks got a bit crazy, and I missed my personal goal of posting weekly, though I’m just squeaking in on my “make sure to post at least every other week” goal I set as a hard guideline for writing. Getting these out in long form is cathartic, and I also enjoy doing it. But writer's block, and life, hits everyone, and it took me about a week and a half to figure out what to talk about. As much of the turmoil of the past few weeks has been work related, eventually this topic finally became the obvious next choice.
I am my work.
Wait, no. Let me fix that. I was my work. I realize this doesn’t make me much different from many people who have a defined career. It’s an easy way to identify. When you go to parties, what’s the easiest way to strike up conversations with new people? “What do you do?”
A few years, after many heart to heart conversations with my partner, I started answering that question differently. First though, let’s start with some history.
I did all the requisite “crap” jobs as a teenager. They weren’t actually crap, but I knew very quickly it wasn’t the sort of work I wanted to be doing long term. Two summers at the local Dairy Queen. Moving to the nearest big city between my junior and senior high school years, a few months at an inner city McDonald’s. Even if it was one of the most ethnically NON diverse cities in the US, it was still a bit of a shock for a small town boy from the Oregon coast. I supplemented with lifeguarding at the YWCA a few blocks walk from my parents apartment. Girlfriend, work, lots of afternoons at Powell’s Books, and doing all the summer things you do as you’re approaching the end of your high school years.
As soon as I graduated high school, I was at a bit of a loss of what to do. I was accepted, with a scholarship, to Pace University in New York City, but I had enough of the East Coast by that point, and wanted to stay on the “Best” coast. Sorry. I hate humidity, so I’ll always be a left coaster. My first summer out of school started to wrap up. I had been interning in the IT department for a company that did truck load postings, and I really didn’t want to go back to school quite yet. I needed a break. I stayed on past my internship for another 6 months, then decided to move to Eugene, Oregon. I had applied to the U of O for fall admittance. Not because they had a good comp sci program, but because all my friends were in Eugene. This is not, by the way, a good way to pick your school. I should have stayed in Portland and gone to PSU. I would have learned a lot more and probably still started my career as early as I did.
After six months of computer science that felt so remedial, I was falling asleep in lectures, and completing all my programming homework a day before it was due (it usually took me 5 minutes ), I pulled out of school and went to work for Symantec. (Note: This was the early 90s. Not sure if their computer science program has gotten better. Google it if you're interested.)
This started a chain reaction that defined my next 15 years. I was in hardware for a few years, working for Intel Corporation, and then moved over to the software side of things at Microsoft, with a quick move over into games about a year later. That’s where I’ve been ever since.
The video games industry is an interesting beast. Very few people outside of it understand it. “Oh wow, it must be so fun to play games all day!” It is an all consuming job for most people. You do it because you’re passionate about it, but the hours are long, the pay is comparatively quite low compared to what you could make in any other tech industry job - though that’s not to say it doesn’t pay just fine, it’s just a statement that you do it because you love it, not because you’ll have hats made of money for you. There’s a little spoken, but pretty well understood timeline - folks tend to leave the industry by 2 or 3 years in, or stay for the long haul.
Well, all industries have their idiosyncrasies, and their people who tend to define themselves by it, but at least from inside of it, the games industry - and high tech in general - seems to have a lot of people that define who they are by what they do.
I certainly did, until about 6 years ago. At that point, there was a lot going on in my life. But a hard conversation started occurring over a period of months between my partner and me about my focus. She was worried, and rightly so, that work always came first. This spawned a pretty serious time of introspection. Which was easy, as I had a lot of time on my hands. I was living in Australia during this time, and while I was working with an amazing crew, I didn’t have a lot to occupy my time outside of work, so I spent a lot of time just… thinking.
About three months into my time down in Canberra, I came to the realization that as much as I loved my crew and the games we were working on, I wanted my partner to come first. I gave my very awesome boss four months of notice, hired a replacement - another good friend who was also looking for some serious life shakeup - went back to San Francisco, gathered my things, said goodbye to all my coworkers there, and headed back to Seattle. With my wife sitting next to me in the moving truck on the drive back.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons since that time, and before that realization, but some of the most important for me boil down to the following. Maybe some will help you, dear reader. Some may not. But for me, these are lessons that have helped me to redefine my life, and my focus.
Save Loyalty for People
It’s fine to have pride in your work, and in what your company does, but save true, heartfelt loyalty for people. Loyalty to a company is, in my estimation, insanity. A company, even a non-profit, will do what’s best for the company, rarely with thought to the fallout on the people who make it up. There is nothing wrong with that, but loyalty can lead you to stay in a bad situation long after you should have said, “I need to be somewhere else”. Whether it’s a bad boss, or unethical business behavior, or simply work that is sucking your life out of you, life is far too short to go to a job you hate.
Do what you love. Barring that, do what you tolerate.
Sometimes you have to pay the bills. Maybe no one is hiring in your chosen field, and you need to make sure you can pay your rent, or buy groceries. For me, since leaving the team I worked for in California (and Australia), I’ve had some permanent jobs, from a year, to two years, and I’ve also done a lot of consulting. I didn’t hate doing any of it. I liked some of it more than others. I’ve consistently made less per year (typically) since 2010 than I did in the years prior. I’ve also been happier. I work on projects and with teams I love, but at the end of the day, it is still just a job. Even the startup I’ve been working with for most of 2015 is still just a job. All six people I’m working with are amazing, and I would go to great lengths to help any of them in any way I could. I have gone to great lengths to help make the company successful. But when I’m not sitting in my office, I shut it off. My time is about my partner, our son, our pets, our garden. All that said, doing a job you hate can suck the life out of you. If you spend every evening dreading the next day, or having a drink to recover from the rat-race hell you leave behind every evening, seriously consider alternatives. I’d rather work as a barista where I can at least make people happy every day with their fresh cup of coffee, then become a CPA. Nothing against CPA’s, I just know for me, that kind of work is soul sucking. Some people love it. We each love and are energized by different things. Find what drives you, and try and find some way, any way, to integrate it in what you do.
Cultivate Your Interests
I make games for a living. So it probably seems funny to think that over two weekends in the last year, I’ve participated in something called Ludum Dare, where people are challenged to make, by themselves, a game in 48 hours. I carry my camera with me whenever I can (the lens is huge, so I can’t always bring it along), because I love to take pictures and become a better photographer. I cook, a lot. As does my partner. We love good food, and different flavors. We take classes at local businesses that offer us the opportunity to learn new flavors, recipes, etc. What’s my point? First off, I take joy in all of these. Making a game professionally is very different from simply challenging yourself to see what you can do over a weekend where you’re the programmer, the designer, the artist, the sound guy, QA, and management. I never expect to become a professional photographer, but I love capturing the beauty of the world, seeing something from an angle that no one else ever thought of. I’ve never been a chef - working in the kitchen at a Dairy Queen doesn’t count - but I’ll never want for coming up with an interesting meal, so long as I have some ingredients and some spices. But I could. I could try and become a professional photographer. Even if I leave the games industry and focus on making the next social network to take over the world, I’ll still keep making games. It IS part of who I am, but not because it’s my job. Because I take joy in it. You never know when one of your own joys may become the job you always dreamed of having.
Figure Out Your Own Rules
I strongly feel the advice here is solid. I’ve seen variants of it in many different books and articles over the years. Maybe you find fulfillment by making your job your all consuming passion. That’s awesome. That is part of what makes you, you. It wasn’t for me. But it took a long time to realize that. I want my job to be meaningful, but I want to be defined by a lot more. I will continue to do my job well, and give it my best. But when I go home at the end of the day, I will likely only spend occasional moments of introspection thinking about it, or writing down a note when an awesome idea occurs to me while making dinner. The rest of my attention? Will probably be on figuring out how to make dinner just a little more tasty. The rules that will help you find meaning and happiness will become evident when you start to figure out what’s important to you. Hopefully some of these will help. If not, I’d love to know the rules to live by you found for yourself.
What are your rules? What are your priorities? Look forward to seeing what everyone else thinks and is focusing on. Until next time, eat, drink, and be merry.