This post is heavy, not gaming-related (at least mostly), personal, and from my perspective. I’m not claiming this is a scientific or universal explanation. Just my experience.
When you experience trauma, everyone seems to understand why it affects you immediately. You witnessed blood spraying from your mother’s face as a child. You got beating bloody by a random drunk you had never met before. You saw a naked woman clinging to the railing of a motel, screaming for help while a man tried to drag her inside. You were lured into the woods by someone you thought was a friend, so a group could jump you, force you into a ditch, and threaten to bury you alive. You were in a car wreck. An earthquake. A wild fire.
In the hours and days after that, everyone gets it. It was traumatic. You were rattled. It sucked.
Years later, if something sets off those memories so you begin shaking, crying, screaming, some people don’t understand why you haven’t “gotten over it.” Why is it throttling back your productivity, or driving you to seek self-medication, or suddenly making you have nightmares. After all you were fine yesterday, right?
Well first, most likely not. But, second, life is a building, and it’s always growing. Every year is a new floor, every event and responsibility a new tenant you have to keep happy.
The foundation is SUPPOSED to be strong and reinforced enough to handle every floor you build. But some of us built our foundations under poor circumstances. The concrete was smashed, or the ground was swampy. When we put the first few floors on it, we are okay, but every floor is new weight. More and more strain on that foundation.
And not every floor gets built strong, or even correctly. Trauma is a fire on the 5th floor. A wrecking ball coming in through a corner office. Flooding in the basement.
So, we do what we can to shore it up. Self medication is trying to fix the problems of all that structural damage… but it’s not always good as a long-term fix. You’re not doing the work to code, because your problems are ones that sticking to code won’t fix. The tenants are complaining about the heat, because you never got the HVAC fixed after basement flooded. So you set about renovations in their apartments and offices. More windows, more doors, spruce the place up. Sure, you are cutting holes in retaining walls on the 27th floor to do it, but the building is only 28 floors tall, so who cares?
But then you build the 29th floor. The 30th. Ten more on top of that. The external braces you bolted on to make up for the weak walls can’t handle that strain. The cracks in the foundation split their patches under years of use and tons of weight.
You seem fine… but there are problems.
Then one day, winds are just a tiny bit stronger than usual. The buildings around you are fine. They can take it. But you? Your trauma-ridden structure, patches and braces and ad-hoc fixes can’t take it. Your whole frame bends. Windows pop out. Girders on the 5th floor buckle.
People look at you wand wonder what the big deal is. The fire that weakened those girders was 40 years ago. Why are you making a big deal about them now?
We can’t tear ourselves down and start over. And while major renovations sometimes can help bring us up to code, it can be extremely difficult to use a building while it’s being renovated. Do I kick out functions like going to work, paying the bills, helping people out, so I can get the work of replacing major columns done? Especially since the workmen can’t promise the columns will ever hold the same weight, and don’t know what they’ll find in the walls when we start tearing into things?
Or do I throw up some more supports, just give up on ever using the 5th floor for anything, promise we’ll add high-speed wifi to the whole building, and hope I don’t drill through a sewage pipe as I install the fiberoptic?
Trauma doesn’t go away. It leaves scars, and you often don’t know where they are, what they look like, or what will set them off.
I spent way too long trying to decide if I even wanted to link to my Patreon in this post. It seemed cheap, somehow, to talk about my pain and then ask for money.
But I know some very brave, smart, struggling people who do it, and I never look down at them for doing so. So maybe we normalize that emotional work is work, and it’s okay to suggest people be paid for it.
If you want to contribute to my writing and videos, check out my Patreon.
EDIT: A post-script.
Since people have asked, yes, all the traumas I list in the second paragraph are specific examples from my life. I left out the sexual abuse as a child, mockery for fat shaming, bullying as a nerd, and probably dozens of others that felt less relatable to the general public.
That’s not the point of this piece but yeah, for those of whom it seems to matter, those ARE all examples of trauma in one person’s life. Mine.
So, real talk.
The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.
It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.
But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.
I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.
But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.
I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.
And in time, that became a skill like any other.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.
But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.
I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome, watching for signs of burnout, and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.
But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:
“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”
And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”
You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit a ceiling of success.
I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.
These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.
So what do I use?
I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.
I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.
I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.
That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.
But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…
The blog has content.
This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.
Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.
Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.
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I do not accept the logic that says I must keep my political, personal, and professional online presences separate.
This is not to say I think the people who do make those distinction, at whatever level of firewalling they choose, are making a bad or wrong choice. Indeed, I suspect for quality of life, it’s often a smarter decision. I have enough stress trying to navigate the often zealous opinions the online community has on game design and the business of games before I add my political and personal opinions to the mix. And that’s allowing for the pretty high level of insulation I enjoy from people’s ability to actually harm me online. I’m not bulletproof by any means, but I am in a more stable and secure place in my career than many people.
I’ve seen the replies some of my colleagues get from posting political and personal thoughts online. I don’t blame any of them if they conclude the risk, or the emotional toll, is too great.
And there are consequences to deciding to talk about politics, and mental health, and ethics in public using the same channels and methods I use to discuss game design and funny geeky memes. People who are fans of my game industry work often engage with me in a very different way than they engage with people who are primarily being political advocates or primarily doing slice of life posts. That difference can be a good thing, but it can also result in a feeling of betrayal or anger if someone finds my game-related thoughts strike them differently than my other thoughts, or if they dislike all my work and see it overlapping arenas where they feel I should not be heard.
Angry and hateful messages directed at my privately are the most common response I see. Sometimes someone speaks ill of me in public forums (often that I’m not in, though I attribute that more to how big the internet is, rather than any effort to avoid me when discussing me), which may begin a multiple-party conversation about me. Less often (but with increasing regularity recently), someone sends complaints about me to an employer or associate of mine and tries to get me censured, fired, or blackballed.
Despite all that, I am still firmly convinced that discussing all these topics, as I find I have thoughts worth sharing about them, is the right thing for me. First, no one is forced to find or read my online thoughts. I don’t use official game company venues for anything not game related (not even the tiny game company I run). Reading through my blogs, twitter, and Facebook posts, or watching my YouTube videos, is an entirely voluntary activity. If anyone doesn’t like what I have to say, or how I say it, or how I moderate the online spaces under my control, they are free to go elsewhere.
I also don’t feel that someone who spends money on products that I benefit from financially has bought anything beyond my work within that book. Even backers of my Patreon are paying to encourage my content and make suggestions, not to own any right to censor me. I do not owe any public group more of my time or headspace just because they buy the things that pay for my career.
Even if what they dislike is how my politics or personal experiences influence what or why or when I write, their right to have an opinion does not equal their right to try to dictate mine. As long as I own the impact of my writing, I feel entirely free to write what I feel is most important, or most fun, or most helpful, as I am moved to do so. As I rule, I welcome public feedback. When that feedback shows me a segment of the public is using my online space to do harm, or arguing in bad faith, or even just pissing me off, I also reserve the right to stop taking that feedback.
Not every opinion is equally valid or valuable. The right of people to speak in their own space, or even to do so free of government censorship, is not the same as a right to force me to listen. As I note, people are free to tune me out. And, online, I am free to mute them.
While I do not believe my writing has any major impact on the world, where it does have an impact I believe it has on the balance been more good than evil. Not the least of that good is that when I get something badly wrong, expressing my thoughts gives people a chance to offer how I am mistaken, and allows me to examine such claims. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over my life, from the crucial to the trivial, and expect to change my mind about many more before I go silent.
I hope some people gain comfort from my writing now and then. I hope some find inspiration. I hope some are amused. I hope some are edified.
I hope some snort, roll their eyes, and wonder why they still talk to me.
But on every topic where I have something I am ready to say, I plan to say it. And accept the (generally very minor) consequences of doing so.
It’s fairly common for people to tell me they think I have gone too far.
Certainly once or twice, I have.
That makes me wiser and gives me a broader experience base to draw from when deciding what I am ready to say in the future.
It does not convince me to stop saying all these things.
Speaking of my writing, if you DO find any of these helpful, entertaining, or in some way worth your time, please consider backing my Patron. Just a few bucks a month is the most direct (and one of the cheapest) ways to support my words and videos.
After I got to play a game last night, I ended up spending some great time talking to one of the players about career planning, the game industry, and burnout. (More time than I should have on a school night, but hey).
That left me with thoughts about burnout I wanted to share, so rather than sleep I typed them up and set them to post today. (Well, today if I set up this post-at-Xam thing correctly).
I’ve talked about burnout before, and given how large it looms in my life, I have to guess I’ll talk about it again. There’s a thin line between maximizing your writing/designing potential, and doing too much to be sustainable. Crunch time is a common threat in all levels of the game industry, and while bearing down and doing more than you’re happy with for occasional, short bursts is reasonable, sustained higher-than-healthy output is a different matter entirely.
Of course that’s easy to say, in the abstract, and harder to apply to your life in any way. I genuinely can’t tell you how to avoid burnout—that’s going to depend on your situation and temperament to a degree that makes any advice I’d give even less useful than normal. On the other hand, I do find that watching for signs of potential burnout—clues in my own behavior and thoughts that indicate I may be on an unsustainable path—useful tools. Seeing there’s a problem coming doesn’t solve that problem by itself, but it does arm me with the knowledge that I need to be looking for solutions.
So, this is a list of things I consider subtle signs of impending burnout. I need to note here that not only am I not a mental health professional, I don’t even consider myself a well-educated layman. These are entirely subjective, and based only on what I have experienced and witnessed. If you have a lot of these symptoms, and they don’t feel burnout-related, I recommend at most you engage in some introspection on whether you are in denial. But seriously, trust your gut over my generic list. Also keep in mind that I have a host of other mental health issues, from clinical depression to social anxiety to childhood trauma, that may cause me to view and react to my own conditions very differently than you (or anyone else).
But if with all that waffling on potential usefulness you still want to hear my thoughts, here are some things I have come to identify as subtle signs of growing burnout in myself.
- More reliance on caffeine.
If you find your coffee/tea/cola consumption is higher than normal, especially if it’s higher than you’re happy with, and it has been for some time, look at why. If you need the energy emotionally even more than you need it physically, that’s a strong indicator of impending burnout.
- Increased fatigue.
I’m dealing with various medically-induced fatigue at this point in my life, so this one is tricky for me. But that also means I’ve been charting my energy levels on a daily basis, and that’s lead me to conclude that when I am in early-stage burnout, I have even less energy than normal. It’s harder to get up, it’s harder to be energized, and it’s harder to feel enthusiasm for ativity, even activities I normally enjoy.
- Reduced enthusiasm.
Subtle signs can be subtly different. Increased fatigue is relevant when it’s time to actually do something, and I can’t find the energy. Reduced enthusiasm means I’m not even looking forward to things in advance. Now this can also be a sign of a depressive episode, so I have to be careful how I rate and respond to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I have certainly mistaken generic imbalances in my brain with those with external causal links before, and I now try to examine the why as much as the what, when I realize that issue is growing.
- Increased mental health symptoms.
Whether it’s more depressive episodes, more social anxiety, more nightmares, or more sudden rage, when I am beginning to burn out, all my other mental health issues get exacerbated when I am also beginning to go down burnout road.
- Decreased self-care.
Yeah, this is probably one of the causes of #4, but it’s worth looking for on its own as well.
- Setting aside recreational projects.
In my case, in addition to writing as a job, I often write for fun. That’s a very different process for me, and normally feeling like I have done all the “work” I care to in a day (or a week) doesn’t prevent me from having the urge to do recreational writing. Similarly, modeling, painting miniatures, doing holiday-based crafts or cooking, and playing games are all recreational activities that require some effort on my part, and if I find I don’t want to put in that effort over any sustained period, it’s a strong sign of burnout.
- Reduced creativity.
Being creative takes effort. If I have been pushing the part of my mind I depend on for good ideas, clever wording, interesting twists, or even just basic good writing, one of the first things I seem to run out of is general creativity. Normally, I am flooded with ideas—more than I can use for any one project—and many leap out of the dream-soup in my brain unbidden and without pre-planning. Since that ebbs and flows it can be hard to see early stages of reduced creativity, but when it becomes hard to come up with ANY ideas, that’s a nearly sure-sign of burnout.
A lot of things frustrate me, from personal failings to world events, but normally I can compartmentalize those to have a greatly reduced impact when I am writing. If my frustrations outside of a project begin to make it difficult to focus on that project, that’s a huge warning sign. If that frustration is turning into disproportional anger towards people or events, it may be time for immediate, drastic measures.
- Lack of focus.
If I can’t keep my attention on the things it’s most important I get done, that is a subtle but dangerous sign of burnout. Earlier in my career, I often found I could get more total writing done if I could hop between three or four different kinds of projects. Being tired of doing world descriptions didn’t necessarily mean I was tired of doing monster design, or GM advice, or creating spells. So if I feel an urge to move to a new project for a bit, I often just see that as taking a break while getting something different done. But if my muses are constantly talking me away from important, especially on-deadline, work it means they are likely suffering psychic burn damage.
So I need to watch for when I spend too much time writing outlines for projects not on the schedule, or character histories for characters I’m neither playing or publishing, or imaginary histories of worlds I have no plans for.
Or blog posts.
- Warnings from other people.
One of the interesting things about being very public about my thoughts, moods, hobbies, mental health issues, and faults, is that close friends and astute colleagues sometimes see shifts in my behavior before I do. The first time a friend told me it sounded like I was getting bummed over the direction of my work, more than a decade ago, I dismissed it. After all, how would she know what was going on in my head better than I did?
I forgot that many people in my circle of trust are much smarter than me. Ignoring warnings and burning out reminded me.
Now I DO often know things my friends and mentors don’t. If I have changed medications, or a someone close to me died, or I pulled a 100-hour week and finished something so I don’t have to do that again, a lot of things may come out that look like burnout but are just dealing with the fact life is often imperfect.
But I don’t ignore comments like that anymore. I consider them, contextualize them, and add them to the evidence of my condition that I take seriously.
Speaking of My Career
I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
As soon as any part of your career involves having your name attached to the things that make you money, you need to begin to consider who you are, and who do you speak for.
It genuinely doesn’t matter if that’s as a creator, or facilitator, or because your job comes with a nametag. Once your name is linked to your career product in some way, that should be assumed to follow you wherever you go, especially online. Of course with privacy, surveillance, and social media where they are today it CAN follow you whether your name is directly linked to your work product or not, but it’s far easier if that first step—publicly linking your name to your job—is handed out for free.
I’m not saying that’s universally a bad thing. Having my name be displayed on products I have had a part in and companies I have worked for has been a tremendous boon to me in building a career. (I am my own brand.) But it also creates a level of exposure. My anonymity is reduced. If someone doesn’t like something I say, they can easily link who I am to who I work for, and decide to take action based on that knowledge.
I try to make it very clear what hat I am wearing whenever I communicate in anything but the most private venue, and even for a lot of private communication. If I am working a Paizo event, I am speaking as an employee of Paizo. If I am writing a blog for the Green Ronin website, I am clearly communicating as a Ronin. And if I speak on my own social media, be that Facebook, blog, or Twitter, I am speaking as an individual.
But I can’t pretend that individual isn’t also linked to Paizo, GR, Rite, and Rogue Genius Games. Even if I feel my private thoughts should be judged exclusively on their own merits, rather than through the lens of who pays me, it’s been pretty solidly proven that may not be the case.
Now let me note that I am pretty experienced with this, and in general I have received a great deal of trust and support from all my employers, be that those that give me a regular paycheck or the ones who hire me for freelance writing and consulting. But that’s not to say over my 20-year career I’ve never had to defend myself for things I said in public, or that I am immune to blowback if I am seen as unprofessional or a liability. Mostly, the people I work with have my back. But when I speak, I need to remember that those words aren’t separated from my career by some invisible barrier. Even on my own time, even in unofficial venues, there can be consequences.
That isn’t all nefarious, either. If I make statements that make some perspective or current employer decide I’m an asshole, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to not want to work with me. That persona, of who I am online or who I am in business, is a fair consideration for people to judge me by. Indeed, I often boldly state that there are statements I make that if those cost me work, then I didn’t want to work with those people anyway.
But, being human, I also sometimes frak up and say things I regret. It’s worth remembering that more and more, I can’t depend on those things to go away because I erase them. And, just because I haven’t yet suffered from being targeted unfairly by bad actors for things I have said doesn’t mean I could never have that happen.
Of course as a cis white hetero male with an established career, I have a fair amount of built-in slack about these issues. Many people have the same privileges. I can’t really advise anyone on the “right” way to decide to handle these realities. I just acknowledge them, and decide what that means for me.
Because who I speak for means more than one thing. Yes, sometimes I speak for employers, and coworkers, and friends, and colleagues, and what I say or do can reflect on them. But I also have a pulpit, however small, and who I am is also defined in part by who I speak in defense of. When I am willing to take a risk. How I support my claim to be an ally.
I sadly fall short of where I think I should be on those points, but I do not forget them. A shortage of spoons, a risk-averse nature, a dislike of interpersonal confrontation, and even a concern that I am not the right voice to be raised on a topic often keep me silent. More often than they should, in fact, though I accept there are times where I am my best self by listening and learning, rather than opining and asserting.
I don’t expect I’ll ever be satisfied I have the answers on any of these issues. But I know know I need to keep asking the questions.
Who am I? Who do I speak for?
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I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut impostor syndrome.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.
When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.
That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why impostor syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.
Fake It Even After You Make It
A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.
So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.
Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.
In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.
Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.
Trust the Mentors in Your Life
As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.
Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.
So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an impostor… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.
No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.
Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.
Be A Mentor to Others
Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward by providing the same service for other.
And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for impostor syndrome.
Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighting off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.
Analyze Failure Fairly
This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.
When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.
For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.
That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.
Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges
I am personally convinced one major cause of impostor syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?
But it doesn’t.
Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.
Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.
That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.
This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Ultimately, I think impostor syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.
Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.
I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.
The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against impostor syndrome.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting impostor syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.
Don’t do that.
On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.
Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.
I can’t tell you if you need to fight impostor syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.
But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?
Then you probably are.
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This isn’t a fun post. This is a mental health post, for me, and I don’t blame anyone for skipping it. The neat game rules and industry observations are still all available, this just isn’t one of those. And it’s going to meander.
Sometimes, my desire to write and publish posts for therapeutic reasons is put at odds with my internal censorship rules.
Some of those rules are based on ethical concerns–when I know and am bothered by something I’m not in an ethical position to reveal, whether than be the result of an NDA, or something I learned in confidence, or that I have reason to believe revealing would result in the harm of someone who doesn’t have harm coming to them over it.
Others are the chain of mental iron forged by my introversion, or family ties, or appropriateness, or common decency.
Sometimes I am just too mentally and physical exhausted to face the inevitable backlash of revealing my raw feelings on some contentious topic.
Sometimes I am ashamed. Those hurt the most, I think.
Sometimes I don’ feel like my opinion is on a firm enough footing of being well-informed and rational a topic. this is especially true when it touches on an area where I have significant advantages over other people who might be impacted by either the issue, or my thoughts on it.
Sometimes I don’t want to worry people, because it sounds worse than it is.
Of course it is the perversity of life that these topics, ones I don’t think I should share due to good and reasoned personal guidelines, are the ones which are most likely to infest my mind. Venomous thoughts I am ill-equipped to tackle on my own, and that seem similar to things I have defused with the coping mechanism of writing about them.
The more it’s something I have good reason not to talk about, the more it can be a relief to talk about it.
Of course therapy can help with that. And sometimes therapy can bring me to a new place where I can talk about an issue, either because I am better informed or because it has less ability to hurt me and others. This is what lead to my being able to discuss the fact I was sexually abused by someone I thought was my friend as a child.
Or to discuss the memory of kids in the Boy Scouts digging a pit as Scout-A-Rama, and having a young woman lure me out to it, and as a group encircling me and shoving me over and over until I fell into it. How they jumped on my back, and held me in place, and began to shovel dirt down around me. How, during this time, several of them laughed that I was stupid enough to think anyone would actually want to spend time with me.
I have nightmares about that still, sometimes. It feels like the worst bullying I ever received. It’s given me trust issues my whole life. I was almost never bullied in school, as a result of some unusual circumstances, but scouts was different. My troop was never involved—I think the troop fathers were too good at monitoring the group as a whole, and being strong role models. But when we gathered with other troops, and I was separated from the people I knew, it was different. It’s the main reason I gave up on scouts.
But sometimes it’s not something I can’t share because it hurts too much. It just wouldn’t be fair or appropriate to talk about it, and I want the relief I get from using writing as a coping mechanism.
So sometimes, I write about something else. And that can help, too.
Generally speaking as a writer, if you get a cold, or get the flu, you write as best you are able while sick, and to still hit your deadlines you depend on being able to catch up in a crunch when you’re better.
If you’re going to be sick for longer than a few days or a week, things change.
I have a medical issue causing severe fatigue. We know at least part of what is going on, but don’t know yet if we have identified the root cause, or just found a symptom of something more serious. And, it may be months before the testing finds a conclusive answer to that question.
And that means, I have to consider how I am going to manage if my energy levels crashed for weeks, or months to come.
I have, for the past month or so, been more exhausted every day than the day before. Since the issue causing my fatigue is at least potentially progressive, I began to despair that I was on a downward arc that might actually incapacitate me sometime before it gets addressed up to 3-4 months from now.
Of course I *also* had two conventions nearly back-to-back in the past month, and am under pressure from a number of major deadlines. That can be exhausting under the best of circumstances.
So I have maintain the best self-care I could, and attempted to employ new coping techniques suggested by some research.
Today, for the first time in 4 or 5 weeks, I’m not immediately more fatigued than I was yesterday. Indeed, I haven’t been this functional for a week or more.
Any medical condition is likely to have ups and downs so I don’t plan to read too much into this, but it’s nice that I might not exclusively be looking at a downward spiral for personal energy.
That said, as I finish short- and mid-term projects, I’m not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that’ll leave me with time and energy to tackle my long-term things (especially those that are months behind schedule) even if my energy level doesn’t recover any more than this in the foreseeable future.
That’s the only way I can see to keep my career on-track, and not let down anyone who is depending on me.
And I’ll monitor my progress, both medical and wordcount-wise, and see if the steps I’m taking are good enough. If not, I may begin to consider backing out of some long-term commitments, as much as I hate doing that.
For me, 2017 was the Year of Starfinder.
The year began with putting the final touches on the Starfinder Core Rulebook, and that system has taken the vast majority of my professional time. I even opted to do Starfinder work outside the office, due to how excited I was about the system, in both professional and personal capacities. That was part of a long string of decisions I made about what work to do, and how much of it, and not all of those decisions were smart ones. I do not regret any of the work I accomplished, but early in the year it became clear I had taken on too much, and that I had been flirting with burnout for months if not years.
For me, 2017 was the year I burned out.
Burnout, like anything, comes in degrees. I’ve gotten slightly burned out before, and always managed to use coping mechanisms to power through it. But I’m not in the my 30s anymore, and honestly I’m well into the tail end of my 40s. Some of the things I used to do, like pull all-nighters to get work done more quickly to catch up. I’m not physically capable of anymore. Other things require specific support networks that I don’t have ready access to anymore. To be clear I have awesome support networks in Washington, but they are different from the ones I had in Oklahoma, and I need to learn how to use what I have the right way, rather than try to use it the way I used my old social circles.
This was the year I first felt total burnout.
I began taking steps to deal with the burnout in the first third of the year… and those steps have begun to be executed but still aren’t fully implemented. Hopefully, in the next 30 days or so, I’ll be where I wanted to be with those. I had hoped to get everything in place over my long winter break, of which this is the last day, but healing my psyche from the damage I did by 8 months of burnout took pretty much this whole time. I’m not fully recovered as it is, but I am mentally upgraded from a casualty to walking wounded. I forced myself to socialize, rather than forcing myself to work, and I let me brain go wherever it wanted when I sat down at my keyboard. (And, most, it went to the Really Wild West setting hack.) That was bad for my long-term plans, but good for my soul.
In August, Starfinder was released, and that put a whole new kind of pressure, almost entirely self-inflicted, on myself. I am proud of what we have done with this game, which required herculean efforts from everyone involved. There were many late nights from many people in multiple departments, there was weekend read-throughs and long playtest sessions and heated debates about what the right choice was… but while it was all in the office, it was all handled on a professional level. Once the book, and the game, were out in the hands of fans, I had to decide to what degree I wanted to engage. As a social awkward depressive introvert with mobility issues, a big part of me wanted to step back from fans and public games and discussions. Those things take effort, and I was firmly burned out when they hit, though buoyed for a time by the rush of seeing the game sell out so quickly. But in the end, I decided to engage pretty heavily.
I’ve been a professional game designer for 20 years. And, as noted, I’m not producing the volume of material I did even a decade ago. I may not have another opportunity to be a big part of a major RPG release. And I was more involved with Starfinder than any core game that came before except the Star Wars Saga edition, and even with that I was much less involved with the line after the core rulebook than I am already being with Starfinder. The title Starfinder Lead Designer only means something if I choose for it to, and I don’t want to insulate myself from the people who have the most important option about the game—the players. So, even when it drains or frustrates me, I want to engage with those fans, online and in person. From reading forums to offering examples of my personal work on my blog to speaking at the PaizoCon Preview Dinner to running a game at the AFK Tavern for the public on Free RPG Day, I took the opportunities I had and tried to make more, to be part of the community building up around the game. Things like public speaking and running games for people I don’t know and trust are hard for me, but I also think I am good at them and that they are an important part of making a mark in my chosen field.
There is work to a successful RPG career beyond the work on making games, and for many years I didn’t understand that. I have advantages many other smarter, more talented, designers don’t and I want to use them. Much of that is for my own benefit, which I think is reasonable. But also, I want to have a voice in shaping this culture, as minor as my voice may be, and staying engaged is the only way to boost how far that voice is heard.
Beyond my own trials, which were almost entirely self-inflicted and involved helping to make an incredible popular and successful game launch, I also had a lot of friends and colleagues have just fucking shitty years. I normally watch my word choice when writing a piece such as this, that people may share more than my game rules for Halfling space-muffins, but there’s nothing weaker than “fucking shitty” that can convey how rough some of the people I love most had it this year. Those stories and how they handled them belong to my friends, but I had multiple trusted, well-known people talk to me about suicide, or leaving the industry forever, or withdrawing from society as a whole. Fear, anger, and despair were not limited to just a few people in my circles in 2017. I hate it when my friends are in pain, and I hate it more when there’s nothing I can do to reduce the pain.
I have tried to be supportive. I have also tried to take better care of myself, because while these folks will leap up and carry me if I stumble… they’re tired and limping themselves. I have to love them enough to not ask them to hold my hand over self-inflicted injuries. I certainly am not saying I won’t ask for help if I need it. I am saying I owe it to the people who will give of themselves to aid me when I am in trouble to not get into trouble I could avoid by being smart.
For much of 2017, my personal gaming level fell dramatically. Though computer games and console games can take up some of that slack, to me nothing it more fulfilling than RPGs with friends. Nor was I lacking offers and opportunities, I just couldn’t make time. I have improved that situation some over the past few weeks, and look to dip my toe in more improvement on this front in the months to come. But I used to play 2 to 3 games nearly every week without fail, and living a life where I barely have time for 2 in a month is an adjustment I have not managed yet.
Obviously much more happened in 2017. Politics cast a shadow over everything, and seem to have damaged my relationships with people I love, but this isn’t a post about politics (and I think my positions have been made clear enough elsewhere). I broke a sofa. I got sick less than recent previous years. I took dental maintenance seriously for the first time in 30 years. I stepped way back in my role at various game companies, in part to try to deal with stepping up at other companies. I learned some life lessons, and unlearned some backed-in BS I’ve carried for decades.
In the balance, my 2017 was more good than bad. But it was also more hard work and worry than either good or bad.
I hope the next year will be one in which I can apply the lessons I have learned, and perhaps leave society better than I found it.
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There are emotions I simply don’t handle well. Anger. Embarrassment. Doubt. Pride. They mess me up, sometimes quite badly. So, when I was young, I suppressed them.
This did not turn out to be a viable long-term plan.
It took therapy to realize that.
I can be slow.
Now I have many coping mechanisms to try to make sure these emotions don’t kill or incapacitate me. Mostly that involves dealing with them at the time they happen so I have less need to suppress them.
But like I said, I can be slow. Even now, that isn’t always what happens.
So, sometimes I need catharsis.
Specifically, I need to watch or read something that will get through a chink in my emotional armor, poke a floodgate, and make it all come pouring out. It’s not perfect, but it can genuinely give me relief from stress that builds when anxiety, fear, or rage have gone too long unaddressed and unexpressed.
There are things from my childhood that work well, and things that call back to my childhood. I can watch the first time the Yamato fires the Wave Motion Gun (in either series or the live action movie), and be blubbering so hard I can’t see half the events. But I don’t need to. Because that’s ingrained in my psyche from the time I was 8.
Now to be clear, the tears, or hysterical laughter, or fist-pump of vengeance delivered, is not limited to those times when I need the emotional shock paddles. I am a sap, and some stuff gets me no matter what. If Luke is looking longingly at two suns, or you even play five notes of that music, I tear up. I am a sap.
But as long as that’s true anyway, it’s useful for me to take advantage of it from time to time.