I went to the Portland Japanese Garden but this post isn't really about that
I’m off work this week. After a series of back-to-back, high-intensity projects at work, I desperately needed a few days to recollect myself.
Usually I carefully funnel my PTO into week-long trips or the occasional long-weekend getaway, but this time I decided—or, okay, I guess I acquiesced—to just stay put in Portland.
I’m tired: mentally, emotionally, spiritually tired. I’ve been pushing harder and harder, and as the months have passed, my notion of why has grown dimmer and less-defined. It’s a strange relationship, this dynamic between effort and meaning. And I can sense I’m dangling on the precipice of pushing too hard. I’ve been thinking a lot about Stuart Murdoch’s experience with chronic fatigue and how he documented it on the Belle & Sebastian song “Nobody’s Empire.”
Does anyone else do this? This thing, I mean, where you work hard, but you don’t feel any closer to that something you desire, and so you just work harder? It’s a recipe for burnout, and yet, it’s gotten me through quite a few gauntlets in life.
But I’ve gotta be honest. I’m in my thirties now, and the prospect of an aimless life is more terrifying to me than an uncertain future. So this is a week I’m not taking to relax and goof off so much as it is a moment to re-center—to get my head and my heart back in alignment. It’s a gut check. It’s a chance to stop, look at the roads ahead, and savor the rare opportunity to make an informed and deliberate decision before I start walking again.
What am I trying to say here? It’s tough to speak from the heart. Especially on the internet, where everything gets warped and distorted, repackaged and repurposed, tossed into the ever-expanding vast nothingness of cyberspace. It’s always been like this, except it’s more like this than it’s ever been.
I recently started leafing through my old notebooks from the past decade. I’ve been an intermittent journaler throughout my life, but the themes have always been the same.
For whatever reason, the core struggle I’ve had within myself is this need to express myself versus my ingrained fears about survival.
Like all of us, I’m a complex person. But I’ve spent most of my life hiding most of who I am from the world around me. I’m afraid of something. You know what I think it is? It’s real ugly, but on some level, I think it’s fear of losing privilege. If I fit neatly into established archetypes, I’m an easier candidate for a job pool; I’m a “safer” hire. My dating profile, metaphorically and literally, becomes more succinct and effective as I strip away more of what fundamentally defines me. But what can you do?
For a long time, I’ve been laser-focused on that most fundamental journalistic truism: “know your audience.” But it came at the cost of knowing myself.
I’m a being composed of so many seemingly contradictory elements that it’s a miracle I’ve cohered into a single identity. It’s kinda like that diagram from The Simpsons illustrating how Mr. Burns has so many illnesses that they’re all trying to squeeze through the same door, clown car-style, and so none of them can harm him.
From getting to know me and my general disdain toward hierarchies today, you’d probably never guess that I was also an Eagle Scout, or that I competed fervently throughout high school for the first chair position among the other trumpet players. That I deflect compliments with NORAD precision but desperately seek recognition. That I’ve played and studied thousands of video games and was constantly told to go outside as a kid, but also that I feel most comfortable among the trees and rain, or that I’ve camped for nearly 100 nights of my life.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the immense privilege my background, demographics, and upbringing have given me. I’m wondering how I can best leverage my privilege in a long-term sustainable way to help elevate underrepresented voices and to help dismantle these unjust systems that have given me so much.
And I’ve been thinking about the paradoxical nature of creative work—of how putting my voice into the world is an act of wielding and reinforcing that privilege, even if I aim to use it to dismantle those systems of privilege. It’s not inherently a good or a bad thing; it just is.
The Big Bang happened billions of years ago, but the universe is now accelerating apart from itself. Life’s full of stuff like that.
I want to tell stories. I want to make games that generate experiences that tell those stories. And I want to help others as best as I can to tell their own stories.
That’s it. That’s been my personal mission for at least ten years now. But I’ve spent this decade deferring on it. Telling myself I need to get a job doing x for y years before I’ll be credible—before I’ll be ready.
Ready for what, I wonder.
I’ve been so fortunate in my career so far. It’s taken some strange turns, but I’ve made the most of them. And I’ve stuck it out through thick and thin in order to keep learning, to keep getting better, to find a way to thrive.
Six years ago, I left Facebook with a vague dream of doing something different—of making games, because that’s where my heart was. I could barely program, and I was an anxious shell of a human. It led to an arduous year of self-improvement, despair, and spiraling depression. I worried I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. But in my gut, I knew with a certainty at the time that leaving Facebook was the right move for me. The lesson I couldn’t see at the time, but recognize now, is that doing the right thing isn’t always the same as doing what feels safe.
Earlier this month, I realized I’ve been working as a software developer for more than five years now. I taught myself enough in that year of self-imposed hell to land myself a job where I could really grow and push myself further.
All with an eye on coming back to that goal. Of telling stories. Of trying to learn as quickly as I can so I can minimize the time I spend doing work that doesn’t help people—at least not the way I want to help.
I’m now at a point where I know I have everything I need to do what I want. And what do I feel instead of triumph or relief? Fear. Even more fear. Because now I don’t have any excuses left.
But there’s also something new stewing in my brain. It’s this notion of confidence. I’m not used to confidence; doubting myself has been an essential tool for excelling in my work. But now I realize: I could make any game I want to make. I’m finally a good enough programmer to know what I don’t know and exactly what I need to do to learn how to do it. I can write and edit anything I need to reach my audience, to get my point across, and to entice people to keep following along.
I’ve been given every advantage in this world, and I’ve tried to work hard to make the most of it. To assemble a creative toolkit—a bug-out bag for the inevitable crisis of conscience I knew I’d stumble into one day.
My bag is ready. Today is a perfect day for that crisis.
I’m not sure if it’s “smart business sense” or whatever to write like this. To be this honest about my doubts and fears and uncertainties.
But also? Fuck “smart business.” Dishonesty, or lying through omission, is the enemy of genuine human connection. And the work I want to do is entirely about genuine human connection. We live in the midst of so many perpetual injustices, and we have just one life to do something about them.
Today’s as good a day as any to officially begin.
Lately, my brain has been acting as a magnet for quotes that serve as touchstones, or guideposts, in my own life and work. I’ll leave you with two of them that mean the most to me.