Motivational Anti-Matter

Hi my name is Peter, and I have a problem. I’ve been suffering from a lack of motivation.

Almost a year and a half ago I quit my job to go indie. My circumstances were not unlike many in the same situation – I had six months in savings and was going to have a full go at it. If it didn’t work, hey no sweat I could always go find a job again afterwards. So how did that turn out?

Well 17 months later I can say I’ve done a lot of contract work, travelled to some pretty crazy places, experienced what I can only call a quarter life crisis, suffered the demise of my long term relationship, learnt more about myself than I ever thought I would and found a game I want to work on ( Cadence ). Despite having made some massive strides in my own personal development, I haven’t exactly leapt into indie career-mode. Rather I’d say I’ve desperately clung to the edge and dabbled my toes in the water a bit.

A big part of that is fear. Fear of failure. Fear that leads to crushing keep-you-awake-at-night anxiety. Anxiety, the ever present vanguard of fear. No one really tells you about the anxiety when you set out to pursue your dreams. Maybe they do, but in any case it’s not until you stagger around under it’s slow death grip that you realise just how debilitating it can be. How whenever you finally get a chance to work on your passion project you’ve been so hungry for, you just kind of end up staring at your screen and before long you’re on facebook and twitter. Or you know, that admin you needed to do for months is suddenly getting done whilst your game starts developing abandonment issues and stews in cold neglect. (Fantastic post from aeiowu elaborating on the motivational short fall of becoming a full time indie: http://aeiowu.tumblr.com/day/2013/06/17 )

I’m of course talking about procrastination, which we all suffer from to a degree. In this context though I firmly believe procrastination is not a laziness. It’s a defense system. A defense against the fear of failure. As far as your brain’s reward system is concerned, it’s impossible to feel the sting of failure if you never even try (oh, the irony). To understand what powers this fallacy, it also helps to understand that I am chronic perfectionist.

Perfectionism might be considered a positive trait, but in this light it definitely qualifies as another defense system. It’s based on the flawed belief that your inherent worth as a person is based on your performance. As if somehow imperfect work means you as a person are imperfect, you are unworthy! Whilst this relentless drive to prove yourself is an attribute of many high performers and highly driven people – it’s a bit of a disaster zone when you start pinning your self worth on activities you haven’t had the chance to master yet.

In my case years in the software industry may have taught me plenty about programming, but it’s taken a lot of self awareness to begrudgingly admit I’m by no means a master of game design (or programming for that matter). And really what rights do I have to believe I should be a master when I simply haven’t allowed myself the adequate space to get it wrong? Denying yourself exposure to failure puts a severe damper on the learning opportunities that arise from that failure.

Even in situations rigged for failure, such as game jams, I still end up performing only through a crushing sense of anxiety that I’m going to be judged and that I need to show the world how “brilliant” I am. This leads to an unhealthy paralysis where even though I might be able to deliver a well polished game, I’m definitely not exploring the full possibility space of my games. Whilst there is still some form of learning happening, I’m not really sure I’m learning as much as I could be.

This plays to the fickle motivation of passion projects and why I think so many people have many unfinished game projects. I myself have several projects that despite burning brightly somehow lost steam, and now languish in a state of motivational inertia. I think this mostly happens you when you encounter design challenges and you start to have doubts that your game is going to live up to your expectations: and so onto the next exciting project still alive with possibility and unburdened by the weight of expectation! (Hint: your life falling short of your expectations of who you thought you’d become also seems to be what a mid life crisis is all about)

I think perhaps this touches on one of the compulsions for the indie dream: The promise of recognition ( and consequently the implication that you are a worthy person because you’ve managed to create something of value in the world – regardless of the validity of this notion). This also makes me think about my twitter stream, and how it’s filled with “indie darlings” – successful developers who are already living the dream. Why do we engage in this form of hero worship? Is it not strange we dedicate so much of our attention to people who honestly have no reason to return it, and why does it feel so rewarding when one of them throws you a scrap of attention by replying your post or tweet?

Whilst there is no arguing that social media is a powerful tool for starving indies – I have to wonder what this constant reinforcement of “you are not successful yet” is really having on our mental health. So whilst this is still only intuition: I’m think there is a lot to be said be said for turning down the volume on your social media and being okay with not reading everything you find on the internet. If nothing else a remedial dose of the dunning kruger effect can only be a good thing for someone who’s fear and anxieties are preventing them from getting anything made…

PS: For anyone looking for some tools to help curb their social media usage, I recommend Anti-Social and Rescue Time

  • Monsterkillu

    Great insights … I can relate to many of things you’ve written … Keep going strong ..