Watering the Right Seeds

With all of the changes taking place in light of the covid-19 pandemic, it’s been pretty incredible to see the enormous capacity for good that humans can display. Free food distribution from restaurants, people volunteering to pick up food and essentials for others, free online workout classes, doctors and nurses putting themselves at risk and working days on end to help, etc. This has been incredible to watch, and I’m pretty proud of humanity—this is one of the rare times you’ll hear me say that. And of course, I don’t need to provide examples to show that we humans also have the capacity for terrible evil and wrongdoing.

I was listening to a conversation between Tim Ferriss and the Buddhist monk / clinical psychologist Jack Kornfield and wanted to share something from the podcast. One of Jack’s Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, talked about the wide range of human capacities using a metaphor of seeds. (The following is paraphrased from Jack in the podcast). Within every human is the capacity for doubt, anger, and anxiety. But within us is also courage, compassion, and peace. It’s very easy to give in to the pressure and to water the seeds of doubt and anxiety.

If, instead, you water the seeds of compassion and peace in light of this situation, those seeds will grow into towering trees that sway in the winds of change but never become uprooted.

The displays of compassion and generosity we’ve seen in this pandemic show us not only that we have the capacity to do good, but also that how you deal with this situation is up to you. This is a wonderful time to practice responding to adversity, choosing your priorities, and choosing what kind of energy you want to put out into the world and to those around you (virtually, I hope).

Which seeds will you choose to water during these trying times?

Sometimes It’s Just The Wind

Biking to work last week, I noticed that I was in a higher gear than usual and flying—it was super easy today. I wondered to myself if it was the fact that I had a better breakfast that morning, or that my workout the day before was in the morning and not too leg intensive, or maybe I had just slept well. The thought floated away pretty shortly after it arose.

On the way home, I found myself pushing harder than usual, and not feeling like I was moving much. I knew immediately that it was the wind, it’s not that I wasn’t strong enough, but rather that the wind was more intense than usual. In hindsight—and as you read this—the realization I had was a pretty obvious one. I wasn’t particularly strong that morning, it wasn’t my breakfast, it wasn’t my sleep… it was just the wind. And that afternoon my additional effort wasn’t because my lunch wasn’t nutritious enough, or because the day at work was stressful.

After having this thought, it made me question how many other things in my life—both good and bad—I attribute to things under my control: my mood, my physical state, my energy levels, etc., when sometimes it’s just the wind.

Rock Stars vs Superstars at Work

I started reading the book Radical Candor by Kim Scott after several team leads in the games industry mentioned it being the best management book they’ve ever read. There’s a section in the book about understanding what motivates every member of your team, and working toward managing with that in mind.

She talks about knowing who your “rock stars” and your “superstars” are—this idea apparently came from another team lead at Apple with whom she worked. Rock stars are the people who enjoy their craft and are reliable and consistent in their work. They don’t necessarily want to “move up”. As she says in the book, “not all artists want to own a gallery; in fact, most don’t.” Superstars are ambitious and need to be constantly challenged and given opportunities to grow. A large part of the rest of this section in the book explains how one is not inherently better than the other, and how your bias—as a boss or simply as a person with a personality—can lead to thinking that one type of worker is superior.

Most importantly, how you reward these different personality types should be very different. The rock star type doesn’t necessarily want the promotion, and the superstar doesn’t necessarily want the stable, fixed-duration contract.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/Kiss-live-at-allphones-arena-070.jpg
Rockstars and superstars but not rock stars? I dunno.

It’s interesting to think of these people in the context of the games industry for a few reasons. First off, can you think of people on your team who are (paraphrased from the book): a force for stability, ambitious outside of work or simply content in life, and happy in their current role? Can you, on the other (and equally positive) hand, think of people who are: a change agent, ambitious at work, and wanting new opportunities?

Second, when you’ve hired in the past or if you’re planning to hire in the future, what level of ambition (if we want to call it that) are you looking for? How much is your personal bias a factor in this decision? Do you know what the other folks are thinking who are equally responsible for hiring? Maybe in the case of a work-for-hire studio, you know which projects you’re hiring for and you want more of a rock star to get the job done within budget, on time and without stress. Alternatively, maybe you’re just branching off to start a second project in your studio and you’re looking for a person who can start off as a programmer, move to team lead, and then run an entire project on their own within two years.

I thought this was an interesting reminder to check my biases. Hopefully this—and surely the rest of this book—will help make me a better manager. Either way, food for thought!

Two Problems with “Mark Unread”

If your job is anything like mine, you need to do deep concentrated work but you also have to be on top of things outside of your control, like responding to people and fielding tasks that pop up seemingly randomly.

In my quest to become more productive and less distracted, I’ve been doing my best to focus on one task at a time, and I try to get that concentration by ignoring additional things that come up. Ignoring, in this case, means seeing a notification for something business-related or seeing an email pop into my inbox and marking it as “unread” after reading it.

Two problems with this.

The first is that I probably never should have seen the notification in the first place. I shouldn’t have the email tab or Outlook client open on my computer at all when trying to focus, and I shouldn’t be getting Slack notifications for something that isn’t urgent.

The second problem lies in acknowledging the distraction. If I’ve opened an email, I’ve read it, and I’ve wasted time. I’ll have to re-read it before responding anyway, plus I’ll probably have to slot it into my email priority list (even if that list is only in my head).

Here’s a puppy to break up the text for ya. Pictures of email are boring.

Some ways I’ve been trying to improve this:

1. My “focused task” window is now the same one where my email is, meaning that while I’m doing my task, the email tab can’t be in focus. I have two monitors, and I used to have email open on one screen and whatever I was doing—manipulating an Excel doc, writing a blog post, whatever—on the other. I’ve switched it so that I have my task list on one screen with the current task or some reference open, and the screen where email once was is switched to my working task so I don’t see email pop up.

2. I clean up my inbox at certain times in the day. Usually this is first thing when I arrive, right after or before lunch, and at the end of the day. Anything that comes into my inbox can wait a few hours, if not a few days.

3. I use gmail filters to tag emails automatically when they come in, which gives me a head-start on prioritizing. “Bills to Pay” emails are tagged and red, “Bug Reports” are pink, “Learning Stuff” is blue, and “Received Payments” is orange (you’d think I would have made it green but oh well).

3.b I only clean up things with a certain tag at larger intervals than my usual inbox clean-up. “Payments”, for example, need to be noted in our accounting software, documents need to be renamed and saved, etc. Nobody is waiting on this with any amount of urgency, so I do these once a week or so. “Bug Reports” need a quicker response, so every few days or couple of days I clear these out.

Do you have any tips for improving focus at work or managing things that pop up unexpectedly? Feel free to share in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Work Hack of the Day

Mini work-hack! I guess some would call it a life hack, but I’m not sure it helps your life so much outside your work—and if your work is your life there are other problems to address. Anyway, I’ve been using this cool thing called AutoHotkey at work, which allows you to set hotkeys to type things for you. Essentially, I press ctrl+shft+X and it works its magic.

I have one for my email, one for the date (types the current date), which is super useful for naming files since we name them with 2020-01-09 [filename] to keep things in order. I’ve got one for our work address, which makes form-filling much faster, especially when you have to fill a form in 13 times because it keeps breaking. And finally—after over 4 years of typing “Ultimate Chicken Horse” 90,000,000 times—created a hotkey for it. I probably could have saved an entire 24h of work time and a sore pinky if I had done this years ago.

All of the credit goes to my co-founder Kyler for showing me this, and of course to the people who make this software. I’m sure there’s other software that do the same thing, but AutoHotkey has been very reliable for me for years and it’s a non-profit company making an open-source software. Download it here.

At this point you may have gotten what you need from this post, which is that you should use something like this to speed up your life. If you want to know how I set up the software at Clever Endeavour, read on.

I don’t think there’s a more basic way to use this software than the way I use it, which essentially follows the first steps of the beginner tutorial. My script looks like this:

^+u:: ;Send UCH
Send, Ultimate Chicken Horse

^+a:: ;Send address
Send, 123 Sesame Street, Montreal, QC, H2E 3R9 

^+x:: ;Send email
Send, rich@somewherecool.com

^+d::  ; This hotstring replaces "]d" with the current date and time via the commands below.
FormatTime, CurrentDateTime,, yyyy-MM-dd ; It will look like 2018-01-29
SendInput %CurrentDateTime%
return

There are a ton of things that you can do with this software. At one point, Kyler was using it to do something like: open a program, move the mouse some number of pixels down and to the left, click, type something in, move the cursor again, press a button, and close the program.

Hope you enjoy! If you have questions, I’m probably not the best person to ask but they have damn good forums and tons of documentation exists about the software.

My Experience on the IGF Design Jury

I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.

The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?

In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.

Opus Magnum by Zachtronics was the winner for design last year. I haven’t played it, but I’ve heard great things.

This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.

Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.

How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.

The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.

Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!

On Setting Your Baseline

The conversation started when discussing gym membership prices with my brother. I’ve been going to EconoFitness, a budget gym downtown which sees approximately 3000 people trying to work out on any single piece of equipment at one time. I’m switching to another, more expensive gym, though still far from the expensive end of the spectrum. The question was, how much would you pay for the convenience of not having to wait for gym equipment, having clean equipment, and having showers at the gym? None of these things are essential in order to get a workout, so where do you draw the line? Would you pay even more for steam baths, saunas, warm towels, and top-of the line equipment?

In most things, there’s a balance of cost vs quality. And in some things, there’s a point where quality is reached and then surpassed, and you end up in the realm of luxury. An old beat up rust-bucket car with faulty seatbelts may be cheap, but is probably below most people’s bar of quality. An entry model Honda Civic is slightly less cheap, but likely reaches the bar of quality for most people. A Porsche Panamera definitely passes the quality bar, but goes above and beyond and offers things that are considered luxury, but that nobody (even the Porsche owners) would argue are essential for the car’s function and regular use.

https://images.fineartamerica.com/images/artworkimages/mediumlarge/1/old-rusty-car-the-american-shutterbug-society.jpg

The discussion that my brother and I had revolved around the definition of a baseline, which differs from person to person. It proved extremely hard to define, but I’ll give it a shot.

To me, the baseline is the most simplified form of
what you feel you need to live a fulfilling life.

Two important things to note before I go on: first, I’m considering material possessions or things that money can buy, not things like fulfilling friendships or love or work satisfaction. Second, the baseline is not the bare minimum on which you can survive. Most of us can survive on much, much less than what we have as long as we have food and shelter, so that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a comfortable baseline (note that the word comfortable is problematic… more on that in a bit).

To give just a few concrete examples from my own life, here are some of my baseline needs:

  • A car that allows me to drive to hockey, to visit my girlfriend in Ottawa, etc.
    • Baseline example: a basic, functional, safe car. Above baseline example: that Porsche we were talking about.
  • A bike that allows me to commute to work
    • Baseline example: any functional bike that gets me to work and back. Above baseline example: a sweet road bike that feels fast and light.
  • A workout routine for strength training
    • Baseline example: Gym membership at Econofitness or even workout from home with resistance bands. Above baseline example: a fancy gym with steam baths and a sauna.
  • Groceries that allow me to eat healthy
    • Baseline example: Staying away from junky food, avoiding very expensive foods such as pine nuts. Above baseline example: eating only organic foods and ethically raised meat and animal products.

The problem is that the baseline is constantly moving. My brother argued that no matter what you do, your baseline moves up as you earn more and are able to spend more on things that make you more comfortable, like the Porsche or the swanky gym. You start to feel that you need to be able to access gym equipment right away, or have that top-of-the-line elliptical machine in order to satisfy your fitness requirements. You start to lose sight of what it was like to work out at the budget gym, and you would feel uncomfortable going back to that after getting used to the pricier gym. In short, as your income increases, you allow yourself to spend more for things that are more convenient or luxurious—that becomes the new normal.

https://b52fit.com/wp-content/uploads/move-gym-4.jpg

I agree that this is what typically happens, and I believe that it’s a problem. This mentality is what causes people to be spoiled, to complain when things aren’t perfect, and to see the negative in everything that happens. It causes people to make illogical decisions about spending when income or life situations change, and it causes people to simply be less satisfied.

So what’s the alternative? Can you strive to live above your baseline, and treat yourself to things above this line, but maintain it so that you won’t be unhappy if things change? I think you can. I feel that you can keep your baseline low but still live above the baseline by observing your relationship to things that are above the baseline.

The first way to observe this relationship is to be grateful for the fact that you can afford that $80 pair of jeans instead of the $30 ones. The second is to constantly remind yourself that you would be absolutely fine with the $30 pair of jeans. Fine, meaning that you would be no less comfortable than you are with the $80 pair of jeans. More specifically, if you lost your job and had to buy $30 jeans, it wouldn’t cause you any amount of suffering—you would be equally happy. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get that $80 pair of jeans if you want them and can afford them.

As usual, I like to write about questions that I’m curious about and don’t claim to have solved. Hopefully, this can inspire you to think of the following questions as it has inspired me. What constitutes your baseline? What things do you currently do that are above your baseline? Are you grateful for those things? How much would your baseline move if your income increased or decreased? How would your life change if your income changed suddenly? It can be a fun thinking exercise.

🙂

What Would You Put on a Billboard?

If you could put just one (non-commercial) quote, sentence, or idea on a billboard for the world to see, what would you write? This is a question that Tim Ferriss asks in almost all of his podcasts and I really like it. Some examples of quotes that I liked from his guests are below:

“Do your part” – Esther Perel

“You are the average of the five people you associate with most.” – Chase Jarvis (and Tim Ferriss, actually)

“Shut up and listen” – Brene Brown

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” – Richard Branson

On my billboard, I would simply put “Don’t be a dick.” To me, this is the source of all of the world’s problems and if people could follow this very simple instruction, we would all be much better off. It may seem extreme to say that it’s the source of all of the world’s problems, but I actually have trouble thinking of a case where this isn’t the solution. Racism, sexism, misinformation, bad worker conditions, hunger, inter-state wars, etc. Just don’t be a dick!

There is an argument to be made that the problems I mentioned above require more than simply not being a dick to solve. It might take going above and beyond the base level of non-dickishness to actually solve those problems in the long-term, but in my opinion almost every day-to-day issue that exists can be helped, if not solved, with that mantra.

This is actually a thing I’ve been thinking and trying to live by since I was around 13 years old. The mantra, to me, is the path toward living a just life and making the world a better place. So what would you write?

Thought this was clever…

(Thanks to Reddit user r/straaajk for their post compiling some of these answers.)

Catching Yourself

I’ve been rushing to get an American Dollar credit card by the end of the month in order to pay a US supplier on time, and finally I got a confirmation email today (the 29th of the month) saying that everything is approved, the card is ready. That is, the card will be ready after 5 days of processing and 5-10 days of something else, so actually it will come in 3 weeks or so.

In my email response about this, I started off by writing something along the lines of: “Thanks for the help on this. I was hoping this would be quicker so that I could get my bill paid on time but I guess it’ll wait until next month.”

I caught myself before sending this. Was that last sentence necessary? Who did it help? Maybe it helped me to get some frustration off my chest, but that’s not a reasonable excuse. Did it help the bank to do their job better next time? Did it help the person to feel good about trying to push for this as quickly as possible? No.

Instead I wrote: “Thanks for the help on this. I’ll pay next month’s bill with the CC then!” The meaning is exactly the same, but without showing useless frustration or implying blame.

Moments like this happen all the time. Moments where you can catch yourself and say something much more useful for yourself, the person you’re speaking to, and the relationship between the two of you. Ask yourself: is what I’m about to say actually helping? What is the outcome if I refrain from showing frustration and keep my emotional reaction in check? How much is ego a factor in my behaviour? To me, there are two important reasons to do this.

The first is that I see relationships being strained all the time from a simple lack of awareness that what people are saying is for themselves and not for the other person or the relationship. The second is that often, reacting in a way that is not showing frustration, anger, upsetness, etc. will actually cause you to feel less frustrated, angry or upset.

See if you can catch yourself sometime today, or this week, and try to reflect on how you feel about it. You might be surprised!

Modesty and Dangerous Perception Shifts

As you gain experience, your perception of your position and other people’s perception of your position change. For the most part, this experience is incredibly valuable and you could surely impart wisdom to newcomers if asked. But with that experience comes an inevitable perception shift, one that I argue can be dangerous and fought back only through modesty.

I’ve been working in game development for only four years, and have released only one game with my studio. I’m by no means an expert, nor am I very experienced. But I went from being thrilled to be asked even to be in a survey of game development studios, to feeling now like I’m doing it for them and for their data. I went from being thrilled when invited to talk about something in front of a small group of 15 college students to only really being thrilled by having a talk accepted at big events like GDC, the biggest games conference in North America.

Does that make me sound a bit like an asshole? It might, and becoming that asshole is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.

I’m in a place now where I don’t feel I need that small talk to help the company with visibility, or to help solidify my place in the games industry. But at the same time, I realize very well that I am no better than the person who started in the industry yesterday— I simply have more experience. The feeling that I don’t constantly need to be trying to find and take every opportunity that comes my way is completely fine, as long as my perception of myself doesn’t change to put me “above” somebody else.

Modesty is one of the most important traits to keep up as you have more experience and success, and it gets harder the more success you have. I’ve noticed this in myself already and we only have one game and it’s not Minecraft (i.e. we haven’t made billions of dollars). But modesty doesn’t come from doing all of the events or prioritizing things that aren’t right to prioritize at this point in my career. Modesty comes from fighting this perception shift that puts you above others in your own mind and makes you come across as an asshole.

Modesty is assuming nobody knows your game/product when talking to them at a conference, rather than being shocked when someone hasn’t heard of it (I’ve met people like this quite a few times). Modesty is appreciating that luck played a part in your success. Modesty is understanding the advantages you had from the start, for example, starting a company in my city where cost of living is cheap and government money is available for game projects. Modesty is framing your suggestions to others in your field as opinions and not as factual improvements to their products.

Modesty is helping out a newcomer to your field of work by taking them under your wing when they’re a few years behind you in terms of experience.

I mentioned that the perception change can be dangerous, and I think that there’s a less obvious catalyst for this, that is, the fact that other people’s perception of you changes. Everyone else in the world has the same potential to make uninformed conclusions about your success; applauding it as having come directly from your skill, ignoring the environmental factors, forgetting about the team that surrounded you in your endeavours, etc.

People might tell you that you’re great, and that’s fine. That’s great in fact! You are great. I’m all for self-love and for appreciating your positive qualities. But you are not “better” than the person without experience simply because you have that experience, and even if you thought you were, you shouldn’t act as if you are.

Again, as experience changes, things will change. The events you go to, the way you focus your time, the leads you choose to follow, these may all change. But that doesn’t have to change you, the person who is humble and modest and appreciates whatever success they have, whether that’s simply survival in your industry or billions of dollars of financial success. Some of the most successful people I’ve met have also been the most modest, and true modesty is the way to push back this perception shift.