This week I turn 40. I have had 3 career changes, had at least 8 different employers, probably twice as many managers. Here is a list of 40 things I have learned along the way. I am not saying all these are right, they have just guided me when I try to do things. Stick with me and when I write my “50th birthday” list it could be that many of these are totally wrong.
1- Always be the first one to arrive at anything. My mom always set every clock in the house ahead 10 minutes so that we would always be early. It is much easier now because if you are way too early you can just sit on a bench and check your phone. You were probably doing that at home anyway.
2 – It usually takes 5 times trying something you don’t like before you discover how great it is. Except for canned, flaked tuna. That stuff is always gross.
3 – Understand what people want first, then try to convince them to get your game. Read reviews of other games similar to yours. Look for very visceral terms that they use to describe it and turn those into hooks to describe your game.
4 – Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, bookmark long-form articles (like this one) and read them when you find yourself looping through your top 3 social media sites.
5 – If you are learning something hard, slow down and start at the level 1 introduction even if you think it is beneath you. When I was learning to read chapter books I was given a Level 1 red book about a cat named Pepper and a Level 2 blue book about a Dog. I tried to start with the Level 2 book because I thought dogs were cooler than cats. But the blue dog book was too hard and I got frustrated and quit. So I went back and read the dumb cat one. It was easy and it was dumb. But then when I went back to the blue dog book I was amazed at how much I learned from the dumb cat one that I found it easy too. So don’t try and skip ahead. Slow down and read the dumb red cat book to get the fundamentals right.
6 – Use cmd+shift+v to paste text without formatting.
7 – You don’t have to have the best tools to learn a skill. Improvise! When I was 7 I was invited to a skate party but had never worn roller skates. I was afraid I would fall on my ass and the kids would make fun of me. So in the 2 weeks leading up to the party, I spent every night wearing my sister’s pink skates (which I could only fit over the first two-thirds of my foot) and shuffled back and forth in the entryway to our house. It worked! At the party, I could actually get around ok on real skates. I wasn’t great but nobody thought I was a spaz.
8 – If you are struggling through writing something, set a timer for 30 minutes and tell yourself you are not going to read or edit anything you write until the timer goes off. Then just write everything that comes to mind about that subject. Then take a walk. Then come back and rewrite it. It will be much better.
9 – Always spray the hippy – When I was 9 I spent the whole summer helping my dad fix up an old house down by the University of Arizona. I was watering the grass with a hose and a hippy shouted from the sidewalk “hey kid spray me!” I just held up the hose gun and made a whooshing sound with my mouth but didn’t spray him. He said “oh man come on!” and walked away disappointed. To this very day I wish I had sprayed that hippy. I guess the advice is, if someone wants you to do something weird to them, do it, otherwise, you will regret it for the rest of your life.
10 – Before you blindly copy what marketing strategy another company uses make sure you know why they did that. Also, don’t try to emulate the strategies of a company that has been releasing games for decades and has millions of fans and a full staff of marketers. They are playing a different game than you.
11 – If you don’t know how to shop for clothes that match, just go to the store and buy the exact outfit that is on the mannequin. Some fashion designer with a lot of taste and training put that together, who are you to know better?
12 – If you have to design something and have no ideas about what to do, grab a bunch of examples of something that is very similar, and look at what is common to all of them. Then just copy that similar thing. It will look really good.
13 – Learn the major art movements and what the philosophical underpinnings of each are and why they were a reaction to the last movement. All of a sudden you will start noticing all the secret in-jokes that artists are leaving all over the world for folks who are art-literate.
14 – Consciously give up or don’t start some hobbies. I have been able to finish big projects because I knew that I wasn’t 100% into some new fad that would suck time out of my day.
15 – Get comfortable telling people no. If you are trying to finish your own thing, don’t feel obligated to take on their project.
16 – As a white man I am in a super privileged spot. I got a lot of early breaks and access to opportunities because I was friends with other white kids who had dads who worked at really good places. I must constantly look for ways to correct this advantage and overcome the system’s inherent racism so that others who are not as fortunate as me can also have a shot.
17 – Giving a talk? Being very specific about a topic even if that might not be exactly what the audience wants. It is actually more interesting to be specific than to give overly broad and very high-level advice and saying “it depends” a lot.
18 – If you are forming an opinion about something that you don’t know much about, your first “gut” opinion is wrong. Stop and read a book about that thing from an expert. Then watch some talks by others in the field. You will learn truly how little you know.
19 – Take the wind out of the sails of blow-hards by calling their bluff. So if you are online, or at a party, or on a date and some blow-hard is negging you or belittling your achievements or making you feel small for something you are proud of, it is usually because they are insecure about themselves. You counter this by just asking them questions about what their experience is. Act genuinely curious and ask well-mannered questions with the best intentions …. “Oh so when you were releasing your first game how did you improve the marketing?…. Oh wait you haven’t released a game yet?… Oh wait so you actually haven’t read that book you were quoting back at me?” The biggest haters usually have paper-thin experience and that is why they do that to you.
20 – If you have to do graphic design and you are terrible at it, pick one color and use only that color throughout the entire project. If you need to use two colors, just pick the same color and then slide the opacity slider in photoshop down by 33%. That is your second color. Trust me, being restrained will make your design look sophisticated
21 – If you have to do graphic design and you are terrible at it, left-align ALL your text against the same vertical line. Then, select the 4 word phrase that describes what you are trying to get the reader to do and make the font size 3 times larger than all the other text. Make all your text the same sans-serif font.
22 – Marketing that is super public or tickles your ego is usually less effective than marketing that is direct and not as visible. When I was 22 I ran the local field office for a state-wide election campaign. My candidate sunk thousands of dollars in yard signs with his name on them and he wanted me to put them on every street corner and get people to put them in their yards because he liked to see his name everywhere. The secret behind political campaigns is that low information marketing like yard signs and billboards are the biggest waste of money because they don’t actually connect with voters. The best use of your money is direct mailers that arrive by snail mail with lots of policy details. No joke. Boring and hidden beats vanity marketing every single time. See also email marketing.
23 – The press only reports on what is new, cool, and trending. They don’t report on boring things that are just sailing along and are quietly, consistently, successful. I worked for years at IBM. During the internet boom, the press was writing about fast-growing internet companies. But IBM was consistently more profitable but it wasn’t new. And when I told people where I worked they were like, “where? They still exist?” My point is, don’t just rely on the news for understanding what is a successful strategy or company. You have to do your homework to really figure out what is worth your time. Also if something drops out of the news, that doesn’t mean it isn’t successful anymore, it just means the news thinks it is boring.
24 – If you need to do something that you don’t know how to do, don’t just look it up on the internet. Instead, buy a book on it. The content is always so much deeper, better organized, and not covered in advertisements and popups.
25 – If you have to cook a meal for someone else so they think you have your shit together, here is a perfect side dish. Get bread, toast it. Peel a clove of garlic and cut it in half. Then rub the cut side on the toasted bread. Spread butter on it. It tastes so much fancier than it seems.
26 – Buy a book on local ecology. Learn the names of the plants, trees, and birds native to where you live. Learn the names of all the nearby mountains or geological features. You will be surprised how much amazing stuff you used to walk by without paying attention. Learning what something is is like gaining another sense.
27 – Be a local tourist – I grew up in Arizona only 8-hour drive from the Grand Canyon but I was 27 before I visited it. Why was I so dumb?
28 – If you find yourself in a job and you are not performing up to expectations don’t complain about your lame manager. Instead, ask for help. I was rightfully called out at a new job for not carrying my weight. Rather than yell back at my boss I just worked out an improvement plan and scheduled regular checkpoints. I turned it into a cooperative effort. I won him over and became a top performer within 2 years.
29 – If you want to demonstrate you know something about a topic, don’t tweet about it. Instead, step back, write 5000 words and publish it on Medium, Gamasutra, or your own blog. Tweets have a shelf life of about 24 seconds. Blogs have a shelf-life of years. I have been invited to speak at conferences and been hired because of the blogs I have written. If you are like “I thought blogs were dead, nobody ever talks about them?” See point #23.
30 – If that guy at work always complains about the work you do or nitpicks every little thing you put out there, don’t hide, bring them closer. Next time you have a project, show them your work super early and allow them to have some small co-ownership of it. Miraculously everything you do is so much better in their eyes.
31 – If you have to take a portrait but you hate the way you look, go inside, stand next to a window with the light indirectly shining through, turn your head 30 degrees away from the camera, tilt your chin up ever so slightly, make eye contact with the lens. Take the shot. It will look good.
32 – If in a meeting and you start arguing “well I think players would do x” and there was no first-hand user research backing that up, you are wrong. We are not our audience. Especially if you are an upper middle class, well-educated, white person, with an office job. You are very very rare and know nothing about what “most people” want or would do.
33 – Being persistent and complaining to big organizations can actually cause change. I have worked in big monolithic organizations such as state legislatures and in product management at large corporations. We knew the first names of some of the people who consistently used the proper channels to voice complaints about policies or our products. Don’t just complain on twitter. Take action, call your representative, make change happen.
34 – Don’t believe conspiracy theories centered on plots involving super competent people operating within super large, super-secret organizations that can control everything with complex 3D-chess-style motivations. Do believe in conspiracy theories based on bumbling, flawed individuals, motivated by covering up vain self-serving motivations and their own dumb screw-ups. It is always the dumbest thing that is true.
35 – Don’t be afraid to take a trip by yourself. I didn’t do this until I had to travel for business. It is awesome because you get to go wherever you want and go home when you are tired not when your partner is. If you feel self-conscious about eating by yourself, sit at the bar. They will serve food there and you won’t look so out of place.
36 – The work of marketing is not about always having the perfect catchphrase that instantly sells 1,000,000 units. Instead, it is the slow, steady, constant work of trial and error to turn a 10% conversion rate into a 15% conversion rate. Then working real hard to turn that into 17%.
37 – If your parents are cleaning out your childhood toys and you can’t bear to part with them but don’t actually want it in your house, take a ton of pictures of them then give the toys away (or throw them away).
38 – When you become more senior in your job role and start to lead, don’t think you are paid because you have all the ideas. You get paid because you are able to encourage everyone on your team to have the chance to get their input heard. You never know where good ideas will come from. I have seen some of the best design ideas come from the most back-end c++ engineers. Some of the most sophisticated ideas have come from the most junior employees. Always credit the people who came up with the original idea (especially to upper management.)
39 – If you are negotiating for pay, always ask for 15% (or 25% if you are a woman) more than what they initially offer you. Yes it is awkward, yes it makes your chest burn just thinking about it, but that feeling lasts for 5 minutes while they “check with their boss.” Even if they come back with a 10% counteroffer, the benefits of that 5 minutes of awkwardness last for years.
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash