On Teflon and Over-commitment

The original seed for this post is from months ago, and I’ve toyed with several drafts of it since then, but it’s only been in the last week or so that I’ve been able to express the ideas in a way that I feel is appropriate and not colored by situational emotion. 

Teflon

Let’s suppose you’re a person making a thing. For this example, it doesn’t matter what that thing is or who you are specifically, you’re just a person and you have some goal in your mind. Got that? Now let’s further suppose that you were raised and you’re used to a culture around yourself that doesn’t fully encourage you. Sure, it encourages you a little, maybe in snippets here and there, maybe it’s done on the sly or whatever, but with each dose of “you can do it”, there’s also a big heap of “you can do it but …” followed by some sort of excuse or limitation that someone else expresses to you. Here are some examples:

  • A parent telling you that what you’re trying to do is really hard, so don’t get your hopes up.
  • A friend telling you that what you’re doing sounds stupid.
  • A spouse or partner telling you that if this doesn’t work out, that it will have been a big waste of time or money or resources.
  • A friend telling you that what you’re doing shouldn’t be done, because no one will notice or pay attention.

See where I’m going here? There’s a trend of negativity that comes along either in place of or along with encouragement. For me, this was almost entirely parental, and then repeated by a few early relationships. Praise was (and remains) non-existant from one of my parents, save when someone else is watching, and even then it has to be something significant. This meant my other parent had to sneak encouragement in on the sly, like believing in myself was some kind of taboo that we shouldn’t be doing.

The effects of that abuse (and let’s be clear, it’s pretty abusive to erode someone’s sense that they’re able to do things) are potent. I grew up and have lived for years with the entrenched ideas that I’m either not good enough to accomplish things, that the things I want to accomplish are insignificant or fruitless or dumb and that praise is something absolutely fought for, not earned and not easily doled out. Also, the criteria for praise is unknown to me (even to this day, and will likely remain so, since this one of those verboten topics of discussion like my mom’s cancers, my depression or what I was doing over the last ten years.), so I can’t even create a situation where praise would be given.

What that does for me is make it hard to accept praise. It’s so foreign and unknown to me that I spent months of therapy just learning that people can say nice things without some kind of addendum of negativity. The compliments, the praise, the encouragement slides right off, like I’m Teflon-coated.

Is it that way for you? Are you someone who does whatever-it-is-you-do, and when that goes well you “don’t know what to do with the things people say if they’re not negative”? Maybe you’re the sort of person who rebounds from a compliment with a “You’re just saying that.” or “You’re biased” or “That’s great but I don’t believe you.”

As I get healthier, I have come to find that believing in yourself is the hardest part of being alive. Period. It’s the lack of belief, the absence of the knowledge that I’m good enough that drove me time and again to suicide attempts. It’s the lack of knowledge that I matter (independent of whoever tells me I matter to them), that brings up all kinds of resignations and beliefs that I’m worthless or useless or stupid.

You can and should believe in yourself. You’re doing a thing, you’re writing that book, you’re making that game, you’re providing for yourself and maybe even a family, you’re shaking what your momma gave you, you’re doing things that make you feel good about yourself and things that earn you an income and things that you’re proud to say you do.

Do I know how to make you do this? Nope. I barely know how to do this myself. Hell, I’m in therapy to learn how to have hope, so don’t expect this blogpost to have some super formula to generate belief. I just want to erect the signpost on all our maps that we might stop wandering through this bullshit forest that we don’t deserve to believe in ourselves and have good things happen, and lead ourselves out to better things.

Here’s a story: I know a person. They have often said, “Oh John, I wish I could do XYZ.” and I have often replied, “You should go do XYZ, I think you’d be really good at it.” They answer back, “I guess so, maybe, but …” and then attach any number of excuses or limitations as to why I’m wrong for saying they’d be good at a thing. But eventually, they give XYZ a shot. And they accomplish what they set out to do. When I go to congratulate them, they respond with “But I still don’t know if I can do XYZ”, and then I almost always make a face and walk away.

If you’re doing XYZ, and there’s no one screaming at you to stop, there’s no war breaking out, there’s no people dying, there’s no sudden outbreak of evil creatures from the far side of existence, then you can in fact do XYZ.

At some point, you have to stop thinking you can’t do a thing and either realize that you’re already doing it, so you already have the permission you think you need or you should walk away entirely from XYZ until you realize that the first line of permission to do something comes from yourself, not some outside source. Sure, the outside source can give you access to the materials, they can make it easier for you, but you have to let yourself do a thing, and be good at it, eventually. Over time, you’ll get better at a thing because you keep doing it, whether that’s writing or juggling or knitting or playing with yourself or making pickles or whatever. You’re in charge of you. Loads of people want to do XYZ too, and if you get the opportunity to do it, seize the shit out of it, make the most of every second, and give it your all.

It takes work to scrape the teflon off yourself, and that scouring process exposes vulnerable flesh underneath. But trust yourself, keep reminding yourself about that permission you already have, and instead of panicking and reaching for some thick armor (passive aggression, sarcasm, deprecation, hostility, etc), remember that over time, you’ll get used to it, and maybe even like the fact that you’ve given yourself permission to do or be someone or something.

Over-commitment

Let’s tell another story as we change topics. I know a person. They love to tell anyone who will listen all the things they’re doing. Oh they’re going over here and doing this. Now they’re going over there and doing that. Later, they’ll go to this third place and this other thing. They do so much. They look forward to the stack of praise or income or recognition. Sure, you might think ‘Oh John, is this a story about how you should look at the process and not the end result?. No, it isn’t. This is a story about what the end result means to you. Because this person I know conflates the end result with the measure of their self-worth, so in order for them to be a good person, they have to be a busy person, they have to be seen as a person doing all those things.

So what, you ask, they’re doing stuff, who cares? True, this isn’t a big deal … if all the stuff they’re doing is sequential, and all the stuff they’re doing is manageable in that same sequence. But the minute you make things overlap, or introduce many moving parts to the things being done, reconsider the busyness. What if that person is now so busy and juggling so many things that all this busyness doesn’t pay off. Drop the ball once, sure, that’s human. Drop it multiple times, in different ways, back to back to back? Now the busyness looks far more like a hunt for validation, a chance for the spotlight to fall on them and illuminate their greatness, a chance for them to feel proud about their accomplishments, right?

Over-commitment is a poisonous quicksand. It’s evidence of poor time management, poor scheduling and poor discipline. Any one of those can doom a freelancer to a short career, and any two or more of those leads to a bevy of stunted, short term interactions, bad working relationships and far more dead ends than success stories.

Tempting as it may be to hunt for the reason, or play the blame game or find some way of excusing it every time it happens, over-commitment is a behavior that’s often a pattern, and it’s a tricky one, especially if it’s hanging out with its buddies emotional manipulation and denial.

Over-commitment wants you to dig yourself into a hole, so that you can perpetuate whatever negative crap you have floating in your head (that you’re not good enough, that you’re a victim, that other people are better, etc) because “obviously other people are better and I’m screwed up, because other people don’t seem to be over-committed and I do”. Over-commitment is the lead bully in your 80s movie, giving you swirlies and forcing you to learn karate from a janitor.

Emotional manipulation is the toady who always gets away clean. It’s not your fault, there’s these other problems. There’s nothing that could be done, this had to happen. It’s always someone else’s fault, always something to blame, and always making the other people have to justify or take on guilt for their actions instead of the acceptance of responsibility and the active correction of really shitty behavior. It’s the weaselly toady with the obnoxious laugh that eventually folds in the face of actual effort.

Denial is that other toady, the one who maybe just wants you to put someone in a body bag or the guy who just sort of sits in the car and looks menacing, but doesn’t really act on their own. Because denial isn’t good on its own. It’s need the other people and things to blame, so that as a tag team with emotional manipulation, no ownership of problems actually occurs. Whatever the problem is, it’s always happening to other people far more than it’s happening to them, and even if it is (here comes the manipulation), there’s a few things that need to be known so that other people are made to feel guilty rather than let them feel their feelings and maybe, I don’t know, be angry about situation.

What do you do? Crane kick the shit out of over-commitment. Here’s four steps.

1. Get in the habit of taking ownership of your mistakes without adding extra guilt. That extra guilt is just going to make people feel sorry for you, and spread a little more of that manipulation around. Knock it off. Own your shit.

2. Get a schedule, be it a calendar or a day planner or whatever and use it. Keep track of what you do and when you do it. Take the time to keep yourself on target even if that means you have to miss thirty seconds of your favorite show or you don’t get to tweet that one thing one more time. When you blow an appointment or miss something you’ve scheduled, see item 1 above.

3. Learn to say “No”. You don’t have to do all that stuff. You’re going to get praise for doing one thing the same way you’ll get praise for doing ten more at the same time. You don’t need to busy yourself up so that people recognize your greatness. Greatness comes from effort and accomplishments, not lengthy to-do lists and nebulous plans.

4. When you make a mistake, see items 1, 2, and 3. No one is perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. When you do, apologize, make amends, and try again, with the plan to do better. Now yes, sometimes, when you burn some bridges, you won’t get a second chance with some people, and that’s the consequence of your actions. It sucks, but there it is. Now go see item 1 and move forward.

As you get better at this, I bet that karate-teaching janitor is going to be really pleased at your progress.

See? Told you so.

                            See? Told you so.

Happy writing and creating.

So Metatopia 2014 happened…

My apologies to everyone on the delay in writing this post, I wanted to make sure I had all my thoughts together, and things have been hectic in the last week or so.

Metatopia is my second favorite convention of the year, behind GenCon, and only because GenCon actually puts me in a hotel around all my friends for nearly a week. Yes, Metatopia is one of my “home” conventions (along with Dreamation and DexCon), since it’s within 15 minutes by car and I can go home and sleep without the hotel expense, but it’s second to GenCon because for me, it marks the end of the convention cycle, with things laying dormant until late January when we all subject ourselves to the GenCon Housing Lottery/Sanity Check.

This convention, for those that don’t know, is the most professional of the conventions. Yes, there are fun things to do, but the majority of the convention is focused on getting both new people and new products on their feet. It’s a weekend of panels and workshops and playtests and focus groups, so that you could go from a focus group one year to a playtest the next and likely have a finished project by the third, if not sooner. I’ve seen people come in with an idea and then point out their game at the vendor’s table the next year or so later. It’s an incredible experience, both as someone who gives panels and answers questions, and as someone who offers feedback and advice. It’s one way I can re-stoke my own creative fires: being around all that activity, all that excitement of “Ooh, I’m making a thing!” it’s hard not to get swept up in it.

This year, I was totally caught up. I debuted my game, Noir World (it had a soft premiere at GenCon, but that was more casual and unannounced), to three playtests, and if you’ll permit a few more moments to talk about myself, I’d like to say something about them.

Noir World Is A Thing

If you know me, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I have a tractor trailer-sized amount of self-doubt. Yes, I’m working on it, but it’s pretty common for me to think I’m not good enough or not talented enough to produce a product. This comes primarily, I think, from having really amazing friends, and watching them create things that are truly beautiful, and wondering how I’m even supposed to come close. Sure, you can point to the fact that I do a lot of editing and even some writing on these big awesome things, but they’re not mine, even (or especially) while editing. For all my writing friends who say things like, “I am where I am in my career because of what you did for me John”, I still have a sense of “You, friend, had it in you the whole time, I just pointed it out.” which keeps me somewhat out of the loop on what getting something created feels like.

That changed last weekend. I was straight up terrified. Friday morning, I threw up twice on the way to my first playtest. That first test was not a “high-test” (more on that in a second), but still, these are people who play games (and in one case, is a designer and a dear friend), and I did not want to disappoint them or show them that while I can edit the pants off anything, I can’t put together anything remotely approaching “good” or “fun”. Because of how I’m writing the game, Noir World does not have one centralized GM/Storyteller/MC role, it floats around the table, because I don’t want one person doing all the controlling and all the other people just reacting. So, without me needing to “lead” the game, I can sit back, explain some rules and take notes. I took four pages of notes on that first playtest, and that includes two trips out of the room (again, to vomit and get a glass of water thereafter). The fact I was able to leave the room is stunning to me, I expected at any second someone to come running from the room screaming that everything broke down and that people are rioting in the streets and walls are on fire … but they didn’t. I got a ton of compliments and feedback and suggestions, none of which I knew what to do with, so I wrote them all down and spent the rest of the day feeling tentatively okay and not like a failure. The feeling was new to me, and I wanted to make sure I “earned” it (which is probably some really heavy shit I’ll have to talk about in therapy).

People to thank for Friday morning: Clark Valentine, Lisa Padol, Jonathan Bagelman, Betsy Isaacson, Ian Brown and Matthew Holland. You were the first people to see Noir World, and your kindness and help mean so much to me.

Something curious happened over the course of Friday – people started talking about my game, without my prompting. People I did know came up to me and asked if they could get into a test, and unfortunately, I had no room to accommodate them. When they asked if they could, I more than likely made a face of confusion, which led them to say, “I heard good things about it from so-and-so”, and they name-checked a person from that first playtest. I was not prepared for this, and assumed they were just being nice and saying whatever would be a comfort to me, at least until I had more evidence to suggest otherwise.

Now we get to late Friday, the high-test. This is a playtest where the players are people who have published games before, and can offer a more critical eye to things. For me, this was my do-or-die experience, since one of the people at the table created a game I used as a resource in making my own, and frankly, they intimidate the living snot out of me. Additionally, one of the people who issues many paychecks for me, and I was fairly certain that showing them something awful would lead to not only a cessation of work but a complete social media blackballing. Thankfully, I was out of things to hurl from my stomach by the time the test started, so I just did a lot of quiet dry heaving and nervous chugging of water.

Two surprising things happened. First, the game worked. People had a good time, and throughout the two hours I got another fourteen pages of notes about what to work on. Second, the issue with my game came up, and showed me my own ignorance and stupidity. Noir World is a game that works with film noir tropes, the majority of them now being labelled as “problematic” since there’s a fair bit of sexism, racism and phobic content in the source material. One of the possible player characters is the Femme Fatale (now called the Fatale), and frankly I wrote the FF as a mirror of the trope – lots of sex, very little agency. I got called out on it, but it didn’t make me want to give up. I apologized for it, and I promised to do better. It helps that I received MANY notes about how to make it more active and less sexpot, but I am thankful, sincerely thankful for Avery Mcdaldno pointing out to me that I have a long way to go in being the sort of considerate creator I want to be. I do not know how to express the combination of “Oh shit, you’re right, I’m sorry” and “I have learned a lot from this” short of promising that going forward, I will make better choices.

People to thank for Friday night: Darren Watts, Avery Mcdaldno, Justin Jacobson, Adrian Stein, Fred Hicks. All of you, wow, I owe so much to this group. I will keep working on this, and I want you to know your advice was not ignored and your time not wasted. Thank you for everything.

Once those two hours passed, and I floated on a cloud of shock, and just after I cried a little (but in that reserved way, where you can pass it off as allergies or a reaction to so many people obviously chopping onions), I sat down in the hotel lobby and began to transcribe all the notes – because this is important to me, I respect and value everyone who contributed even one second of time to help me, and I want to make sure that this idea I had turns into a game AND a product, because all of that is important to me.

It then dawned on me that the hard part was over. I got through the firing squad and was told I had a game and a product and that it went well. This made Saturday morning’s playtest far more fun. I wasn’t the guy tentatively showing people this thing I made, I was someone who was a fan of this game experience. And that is a great takeaway – Be a fan of your own work, and share that infectious enthusiasm with others. Saturday morning was kind of a stacked deck, my dear friends and future spouse were players, so this was more “lets have a good time” and less a field experiment.

Once again, the game was great, even using some of the information and ideas that Friday’s tests had given me. I think there is another takeaway – do not hold so tightly to your creation that other ideas, good ideas, can’t find their way in and help make the creation better.

People to thank for Saturday morning: Ericka Skirpan, Jeremy Morgan, Neal Tanner, Paul Stefko, Jamie Stefko, Lindsay McCollough. I love how much you loved my game. Thank you for spending the morning with me telling a terrible story and having a good time doing it.

Having indulged my own creation enough, let’s talk about the rest of the weekend.

Panels, People and Patience

As with every convention I attend, I give panels. At Metatopia, I try to give the same number of panels as I do at GenCon, if not moreso, thanks to the proximity of home as a respite. Also, I know where all the food is and where the great quiet escape places are. There is no way I can remember easily or spell correctly all the names of people who came to my panels, so I will wave my arms broadly and say a collective thank you for your time and interest. I hope something I said, whether about Poochie the Dog or about the Oxford comma or about the inevitable collapse of stupid people, or something in between, was helpful to you. Thank you for listening. I hope I was not too boring.

Conventions are also a great testing ground for me, they let me put into practice the things I learn in therapy, and let me exercise my mental health muscles. Between boundary setting, toxic situation/person excisement, or even taking time for myself to sit with friends and laugh, this was a good weekend to establish myself as I want to be, not carry shitty baggage of situations and applesauce that aren’t my own and otherwise take care of myself in the most constructive and healthful way. Sure, I got a chance to show off some new clothes and a new haircut, but I also got a chance to say “no” to things and people I don’t want to get involved with, and a chance to show people the good things I’ve got, because I do have them, even if I don’t make as large a fuss about them as I do the negatives. But that’s changing. For the better.

I end this post with a request. Well, two requests. First, I ask your patience with me. As I write this, there’s a lot of good and amazing things going on in my life, and a lot of the old entrenched shit is getting blasted away. There will be a great many changes in the coming weeks, I have no doubt of that, and I ask each of you reading this to do your best to be patient with me as I make the change from where I am to where I’ve always wanted to be. Also, for some people, that’s going to put you on the outside looking in, and I cannot say I’m terribly sorry for that. This is what I have to do for me. It’s not malicious. It’s not vengeful or spiteful, though you may take it that way. This is what I need to be the best me possible, and I can only ask you respect that. I leave that to you.

Second, I ask that you do something. I don’t care what, just that you do a thing you’re passionate or excited about, and get past whatever you’ve been delaying about it. If you’ve been meaning to start writing that book, put words down? Are you struggling with game mechanics, write them down. Remember that you can always ask for help, that there are people eager to help, it just takes you being brave and giving it a try.

I was brave, and you can be too.

Let’s talk more later this week. Happy creating.

My 2014 Metatopia Schedule

Metatopia, my second favorite convention of the year, starts this Thursday (so, two days from now). And I’ve been meaning to put up my schedule. I’m doing some different things than last year – chief among them being “not doing 8 panels back-to-back”, because I don’t really want to be hoarse AND exhausted by the end of Sunday.

Instead I’m doing fewer panels, more networking AND showing off my progress on Noir World. Look at this great picture of some materials from the front seat of my car this morning.

Hooray not-cheap paper products!

Hooray not-cheap paper products!

As of last night, the playtest sessions were totally filled, so they’re not listed below on the schedule.

FRIDAY

D014: “Mental Health in the Game Industry”  (with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry) Learn what it’s like to work in the industry while living with mental health issues. Learn coping strategies and effective tools for managing the good days and bad from a vocal industry advocate. Friday, 1:00PM – 2:00PM

This year, I’m going to talk stigma, active and passive entitlement, soapboxing and productivity.

D021: “What Can an Editor Do for You?” (along with Jeremy Morgan & Amanda Valentine). Cleaning up your tortured syntax and fixing your punctuation is only the beginning. A good editor can help you improve the presentation of your game on many levels. Friday, 3:00PM – 4:00PM 

The three of us are going to nicely (Jeremy), super nicely (Amanda) and probably-way-less-nicely (me) explain what an editor does and doesn’t do, why we’re important, why we should get paid, how to find us and work with us and what you should look for with editing.

D025: “So You’re Making Your First Game!” (along with Mark Richardson). Learn from a pair of first time game makers and industry professionals the perils, frustrations and strategies it takes to put together your first game from start to finish. Friday, 5:00PM – 6:00PM

Mark and I did this panel at GenCon, with great success. I expect the two of us to breeze through an hour that will include several slights against Canada, New Jersey, our mothers and the problems with knowing successful people who we feel we have to compete against.

SATURDAY

D051: “Style Guides Are Your Friend” presented by (along with Amanda Valentine). Style guides are one of the indispensable tools an editor uses to help make your project the best it can be. Learn more about them and the other must-have tools an editor uses, and find out why following the style guide can mean the difference between making “a thing” and “a game”. Saturday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM

I love Amanda. She has always been good to me, personally and professionally. She and I are going to patiently explain why a style guide is one of the best tools you’ve never heard of, and why you should use one, even if your game is “simple.”

D068: “Why Do You Hate Your Readers and Players?” presented by John Adamus. As an editor, John has seen a lot of great games never get off the ground or find their best audience because the text doesn’t lend itself to being played – it’s not friendly, understandable or enjoyable. Learn how to fix those issues and more from an editor with years of experience in helping writers craft game text. Saturday, 8:00PM – 9:00PM

This panel is my new favorite. It’s an hour where I will talk highs and lows of writing and reading and if all goes well, explain some of the common problems people don’t realize are common problems.

SUNDAY

D085: “The Writing Workshop Game Jam” (along with Tim Rodriguez). While we are answering your questions about how to get material published, you get to spend time actually making a sample game! Learn the steps involved, learn to work as a team, and co-create something in a short period of time. Sunday, 2:00PM – 4:00PM

Two hours. Five rules. Make a game. Go.

See you there.