Shifting the focus to substance.

“Are you eating?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I responded, confused.

“I guess what I’m really asking is if you’re alright, if I should be worried.”

I thought about it for a second. “No, you shouldn’t be worried, I said. ” I’m doing just fine; things are a little tense right now, I keep some weird hours, but I’m doing fine.” At the time, I felt fine. Today, I can’t help but think about when she asked me that a week, maybe two weeks ago. Did she see something I didn’t?

I don’t write this to be alarmist. I’m fine, in no danger of hurting myself or anything of the sort. But I’ve found over the past couple days that my energy reserves feel dangerously low, and I think it’s having an effect on me and my work. I just… don’t feel the same confidence, the same stability. Though I don’t think there’s a particular source of unease, I think a chain of poor decisions have just built up and created a rough situation.

I write this because I think it’s only fair to be honest. I write this because I still don’t feel like personally it’s OK to show cracks in the armor or moments of weakness, but I know I’ve been inspired when I’ve seen others do it. And I write this because I’ve been writing daily for 26 days straight, and it was inevitable that I’d hit a point where I wanted to let it go. I’m just not willing to let that streak die.

There are basic building blocks we need for sane existence: food, water, sleep, shelter, perhaps companionship, rest. Bundled together, these resources give us resiliency, strength to take on the unplanned incidents in life that test us. When we go without those resources, we start to deplete our own strength reserves; we can handle it for a while, but at some point those batteries run low and trouble happens. I especially find that, when you have a penchant for martyrdom like I tend to, situations that create that battery drain show up more frequently and last longer. I do it because I feel like that’s “how it’s supposed to be done:” I’m “supposed to be” tired, I’m “supposed to be” hungry, I’m “supposed to be” stressed. They’re signs that I’m working hard, right? Well, I don’t think that those who work the hardest are necessarily the happiest, or even the ones who are most successful.

A friend of mine owns her own business selling custom-made branded merchandise. We caught up recently and she is still, like she always has been, one of the legitimately happiest people I know. I don’t mean that she is always upbeat and bubbly (though she usually is): I feel like, at her core, she’s living a life that makes her feel truly happy. She also works only a few hours a week, but makes close to a full -time salary. Now, she’s been running the business a while and has pushed through some of the hard parts, but I think she’s always known how to prioritize what’s important, how to monitor herself and her health, to know when to slow down and when to push through. Even after having some significant medical setbacks this year, she’s still kept positive and is working her way back to full strength.  She also has one hell of a support network, and that’s because she prioritizes substantive connections to her friends and family.

People who know me personally know that I’ve been fairly social in the past and know a lot of people, but this woman can make me look like a hermit. I think a big part of why she’s so popular is because she expresses her care for her friends on a regular basis. I may not see her all year, but she’ll still send me a birthday card in September almost like clockwork. She hugs and smiles and lives in the moment with people. She goes out of her way just to show the little expressions of care, even from thousands of miles away. I think she gives a boost to the people she does that for, but it also gives her a boost, too. I certainly hope it does, anyway.

Some actions, some decisions, are surface-level. They’re impulsive, impermanent, reactions to the world. Then there are actions and decisions of substance, the ones that sustain us and build strength like taking time to appreciate our friends. Substantive actions may take focus, discipline, or planning, but they reinforce us in the long-run, making us better friends, employees, business owners, partners, or family members. As proud as I am of my 26 days of writing, the time outside of the hours I spend writing that day’s piece are generally undisciplined, unplanned, unfocused… They lack substance, leading me here.

Substantive actions also include: getting enough sleep, getting enough rest, eating balanced meals, stating hydrated, reading books, connecting with close friends, so on and so forth. Each of those actions have non-substantive analogues, mind you: caffeine, substance abuse, eating/drinking/reading junk (or not at all), spending shallow time with shallow friends… you get the picture.

Tonight, I’m heading to bed. Tomorrow, though, I’m focusing on taking some substantive actions: grocery shopping and cooking dinner, reading a book on the couch, playing a game simply because I want to play it. I have work to do a-plenty, and that will likely always be the case, but if I expect to get it done (and done well), then I have to start taking care of me.

-Josh

Featured image by Trey Ratcliff

How much is writing worth, really?

Money makes the world go round, and it certainly is the topic in everyone’s minds now that I’m trying to make a living with my writing. And though people generally get a bit dicey about asking “How much do you make?” when you work a “real job,” somehow I time-and-again get the “But how are you going to make money?” question from old friends and new alike. I can understand why people ask it, but the truth of the matter is that, when you’re starting out in a writing career, you have to accept that there are multiple ways to be paid for your work, and money isn’t even always the best one.

I’ve had this conversation multiple times since Wil Wheaton wrote his article about the Huffington Post offering him “exposure” for publishing his article on their website. The idea that a site like Huffington Post, a giant website with tons of traffic and ad revenue, would dare to think that they could get away with offering a famous, established celebrity like Wil Wheaton offering “exposure” instead of money is laughable. Wil Wheaton is a nerd icon. Wil Wheaton doesn’t need your exposure. Seriously, I can visualize the scene in my head: Wheaton opens his email and sees the request from HuffPo, responds asking for the amount he’d be compensated, and when he opens HuffPo’s reply he just smiles, thinking: “Damn, am I going to get hella traffic for the post I write on this.”

Now, I don’t really think that Wil wrote the post specifically with any unethical or unscrupulous intent, but let’s be honest: all writers think our writing is valuable, nay, invaluable. And many of us dream of one day putting aside the “day jobs” and working full-time as writers, living relatively comfortably based on the merits of our imaginations and verbal finesse. So when the former Wesley Crusher writes “You can’t pay your rent with “the unique platform and reach our site provides,” it validates us. Finally, a champion for our cause! If we all just band together, we can stretch our creative wings and fly to the motherland of financial prosperity and freedom!

Here’s the thing, folks: we’re not Wil Wheaton, most of us won’t be Wil Wheaton, and to play the game as if we’re Wil Wheaton sets us up for early failure. Let’s be clear, though, the point he was trying to make on Twitter before he wrote the blog was valid: we deserve to be compensated.

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We all deserve compensation for our work, and that stands regardless of our aptitude, experience, or fame. Some compensation works outside the realm of dollars and cents though, and can lift careers much further than a portion of a rent payment. Exchanging goods/services, receiving mentorship, and industry connections can all benefit in ways that a check in the mail can’t, and sometimes those are worth more than the amount we’d have been handed otherwise.

I’ve been writing professionally as a game journalist for five years, and if I only took jobs where I was paid money for my work I don’t think I’d be nearly as far along as I am right now. Getting published in any form for an outlet is necessary to start your career, and the more work you can learn to create on a deadline, the more effective a journalist you can become. But I’ve learned over the years that there are good gigs and bad gigs, and they’re not automatically classified in one pool or the other based on the number of dollars you get from them.

I’m no world-famous writer (yet), but here’s my advice: when you’re first starting, take jobs that will grow your potential over your pocketbook. Yes, in an ideal world you get both, but I find that when you’re new in the field, there’s no guarantee the people you work with will respect you or your time, and the respect will work wonders for you in the long-run. I’ve taken jobs that paid me money, but offered me little-to-no professional development, and my career stagnated as a result. In contrast, a “nonpaying” job I took with an editor dedicated to helping me grow created in-roads for me to be on radio to talk about games, set up interviews with national news correspondents, sent me to trade shows, helped me get in to industry-exclusive events, and even subsidized some of the costs for picking up my game hardware. I might not have gotten any of those things if I’d turned the job down just because those benefits can’t pay my rent.

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There’s usually someone willing to give you money for your work, but many of them are trying to help themselves at your expense. I found this on my Facebook newsfeed today: for folks who’ve lost their ebooks to the neatherealms of Amazon, they can trade all of their worldwide rights to the novel, forever, in exchange for $50-2000. It’s the equivalent of a Writer’s Cash for Gold: bring us your writing, we’ll evaluate it, and pay you a fraction of what it’s worth because we’re looking to profit off of it. Given, I understand that we all have bills to pay and sometimes money gets tight, but how does selling your work to a place like this improve your future prospects of writing professionally? Just look at the phrasing in the ad: “Let’s be realistic.” “…if you’re lucky.” “No virtual dust…just cash for your work.” As Neil Gaiman would ask, does taking that deal put you closer to the mountaintop of your goals, or further away?

The appeal of “always get money for your work” plays into our hatred for our day jobs. As someone who’s spent countless hours hating day jobs of various shapes and sizes, I can sympathize. And this isn’t even a segue into some sort of “don’t quit your day job” speech because I saved up money and did just that, and though I don’t know when I’ll start getting the financial return I want, I know I’m a hell of a lot happier. But working on the premise that the only valuable work you’ll do will somehow line your pockets sells you short of great opportunities that don’t spend.

Writing IS valuable, make no mistake, but YOU choose the value of your work by picking when and where you publish it, and for what return. Wheaton’s right about payments of “exposure” alone: they’re cheap and insubstantial, and they let the publisher out of doing anything for you. In case I haven’t driven it home: Don’t take jobs that offer you “exposure” in lieu of real payment, but remember that “real payment” extends beyond money. Keep the day job if you have to, build up the bank roll, do what you have to so that you can be open to opportunities that truly benefit your future career. Nobody gets to make the rules about what you do for work and what you get paid for it but you: make you’re being paid what you’re worth.

-Josh

Make sure you take breaks!

I’m finding that one of the best parts of working for myself is that I get to choose my own hours. It’s not a matter of making sure I’m in to work by 7, leaving by 5, or any of those things…I get to create content on a schedule that’s most effective for me, and I really enjoy that. Of course, the trade-off is that I still need to work on a schedule that’s efficient and healthy, and it’s not naturally the most healthy decision to be awake from 11am to 5am. But I digress.

Fact of the matter is that I’ve posted something on the Internet every day for the last 22 days, and it feels like a pretty fantastic accomplishment. But now that the habit is starting to be cemented, I can’t find a way to give myself a true day off. As much as the concept of constantly creating new work is appealing, it’s simply not a sustainable work model; we have to be ready (and willing) to take a day off every so often.

When you work at a high-power IT company, there’s a certain badge of honor that comes from working 60, 70, 80+ hours a week. The job has to get done, and someone has to do it: if it’s your responsibility, it only makes sense that you’d be the one to handle the situation. If you’re like me, though, taking time off work comes with a guilt/apprehension that you can’t shake, a constant fear that things are going completely wrong while you’re taking time off. That gnawing of the conscience can be completely detrimental. but it’s critical to learn to let loose every once in a while, to let a day of responsibility go.

We need space to recharge in order to perform at our optimal levels. Working day in, day out, creates stress and fatigue that we simply can’t push through. Without taking some kind of break or reprieve, we create situations where we obsess over our work, leaving us unable to truly enjoy the time we spend away from our desks. I absolutely love that, for the last 22 days, I’ve haven’t gone to bed without writing something. But am I doing the best work that I could be by forcing these daily posts with no break? I’m not sure.

All our time is valuable, and that includes the time that we spend idle. Even the time that we spend “bored” benefits us by giving us a chance to make connections that we might not have when actively making intellectual connections. As much as we like to think that constantly pushing towards our perceived goal brings the best results, there are certain connections we only make when we let our guards down, when we let our brains process what comes naturally. Those processes don’t occur when we force the issue.

Right now, one of my biggest struggles is finding a chance to take time off. Currently, I have a goal of posting something to the Internet every day; in order to fulfill that goal and take a day off, I need to write  multiple posts in the same day and schedule one for later. Aside from Tech Sabbath, I think I haven’t fulfilled that yet because I haven’t made ia real priority to take a day off, but there’s a part of me that feels like I would legitimately be better at my craft if I gave myself some time to breathe guilt-free, maybe  watching TV, playing games that I’m not going to review, or just enjoying the outdoors. I hope I’ll be able to make that happen sooner rather than later.

How do you make sure you take time off? Do you feel like your work gets better, or worse after a break?

-Josh

Feel overwhelmed, but push through it. You can.

Sometimes life comes out of nowhere and surprises you, and not in the “You just won the Publisher’s Clearing House” kind of way. Sometimes you just get instantly bombarded with life, so much life that it feels like you don’t know which direction is up anymore. It’s really easy to sink in to those moments and let them take you over, I can be the first to attest to that. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed. You just have to push through it.

At least, this is what I’ve been told tonight. And I believe it.

Tonight was one of those nights that I got bombarded with a bunch of information and situations in a very short amount of time. And though I tend to think of myself as fairly resilient, apparently tonight I wasn’t. I couldn’t figure out what to do, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t think straight. Just hours prior I’d literally poured tears from my eyes in laughter after watching an episode of South Park, an episode I’ll end up writing about here another night. But all it took was a couple of key situations and an article about the closing of Grantland to make it feel like the walls were closing around me. Funny how the human psyche works.

To be honest, I wanted to bury myself in the feeling of it all. I wanted to feel sorry for myself, I wanted to doubt, I wanted to berate my plans and my attempt to follow my dream. I wanted to go to bed. I really wanted to go to bed. But instead I picked up the phone and called a friend.

“I think I just feel overwhelmed,” I eventually said after venting to my likely-just-awakened friend.

“And it’s OK to be overwhelmed,” she responded. “But you have to keep going, you have to take little steps. It’s a big project you’re taking on, right?”

We have a habit of underestimating the amount of stress we’re taking on in our lives, in the situations we handle every day. Because we’re used to handling them every day, we think they’re normal, that they’re just something we should put up with. Par for the course. We forget that sometimes our par is actually really, really challenging.

I got reminded of that today when I heard about another friend going through tough times. Don’t get me wrong; I acknowledge I’m going through some stress trying to start the business and deal with being in a new place. But it pretty well paled in comparison to the situations I’d heard about, and I guess it put things in perspective. Which led me to write this.

We’ve all got “big projects” we’re taking on at one point another. I’m lucky enough that mine is starting a new business, for others it’s taking on a new job. Some are battling depression and anxiety. For some, their “big project” is just getting out of bed in the morning, or finding a reason to push through to tomorrow. No matter the project, when we’re overwhelmed we have to do two things: we have to keep going, and we have to take little steps along the way.

One of the things that I’ve tried to recognize is when I need to make a phone call. Many of my friends have been on the other end of the line, essentially acting as a sounding board while I get all the confusion out of my head. Usually, just the act of talking with someone gives me the clarity I need to figure out my next steps, something about hearing it out loud and being acknowledged seems to break the cycle that takes place in my head. Without that venting process, things can get pretty negative.

I used to try to keep my struggles to myself; I figured if people cared, then they’d call me to check and see what was going on. And then I realized that I don’t always keep in touch, and I still care about what’s going on with them! They probably feel the same way! Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a friend come in just at the right moment to offer advice or comfort, but sometimes we have to go find it ourselves. Regardless of whether our friends reach out to us or not, they still care and want to help. The key is to gather whatever resources are needed to push through the feelings of being overwhelmed.

Sometimes we need to just step away: play a game or read a book, take a long walk or talk with a friend, something to step away from the source of stress. I love to try to bury myself in the problem when I’m starting feel overwhelmed to try and fix it, but I have to acknowledge that I don’t handle the situation as effectively as I could be after recharging a bit. I think that goes for most of us.

Feeling overwhelmed is natural, and it happens to all of us. Life is unpredictable; sometimes we get more thrown at us than we could have possibly been ready for, and that stress affects us. To come back from that feeling, we have to acknowledge it and accept it, accept that it’s OK to feel that way, and then we need to push through it, taking small steps. A few small steps can lead to some slightly larger steps, and then larger still, and before you know it you’re back up and running.

But no matter the circumstance, don’t stop, don’t give up. You have the energy you need to come back stronger than ever, and tomorrow just may be the day you find it.

-Josh

Featured image comes from this Huffington Post article on dealing with being overwhelmed. Check it out if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.

It’s not enough to be good at what you do. You have to follow through when you’re done.

I took a golf class my Senior year of college; I needed a few extra classes, and I’d always thought about trying my hand at the sport. Plenty of people play it, it’s a “business sport,” and I guess it didn’t look that hard.

Spoiler alert: golf is hard.

Instinctively, I thought golf was just about hitting the ball. Turns out hitting the ball is just a part of the equation: form is so, so much of the game. Planting the feet, standing with the correct posture, keeping your eye on the ball as you swing…each of these points affects the distance the ball travels, the arc of its path, the amount it rolls or bounces when it hits the ground. But the part I could never seem to get a real hold of is follow through. And though my golf days are over, I still often find that I need to work on my follow through.

Back at C2E2 2013 I met Malik Forte; he’s a gaming editor for The Nerdist now, but at the time he was writing for Max Level. I was sitting in the press room working on a write-up, and he came in with one of his co-workers. I’d overheard that they were preparing for a press-only panel with Ed Boon, the co-creator of the Mortal Kombat franchise to talk about his new game, Injustice: Gods Among Us. I had my press pass, but I wasn’t on the list to go to the panel, so I struck up a conversation with Malik and asked if he thought he might be able to get me in. Though he didn’t directly vouch for me, I walked close enough to him and his co-worker that I think the doorman thought we were all with the same outlet. Sure enough, I got in.

After the panel, I thanked Malik for getting me in, and he told me that I could get access to events like that too if I just kept up the hard work. “You’ve just gotta make sure you follow up, ” he said. “It’s not that hard, you know? Just do the interview, write up the story, and make sure you follow up. Always follow up.” Doing the work is important, but it doesn’t mean much if nobody knows you did it; following up is key to success. Just like the follow-through in a golf swing creates better distance, emailing a follow-up after an article creates the connections that foster professional growth. I can’t help but imagine those follow-ups were a big part of what got him out of Chicago and in to Los Angeles.

Following-up is important for two reasons: 1) it increases your visibility, and 2) it lets people know you’re more than just talk. There are a million clichés about how much talk is worth: nothing.  The dedication, hard work, and perseverance that create successful people come after the talking is done: all those actions (including creating the work itself) are the follow through. If you can’t handle the follow through you end up bailing on your promises. And there’s no quicker way out of an opportunity in the business world than to break promises.

I used to call myself a “pressure-cooker kid” because I think at my fastest when I’m facing a deadline. The pressure makes me focus just long enough to accomplish the task, but I tend to go back to my normal, procrastinating self afterward until the next deadline looms. Channeling that pressure-cooker kid is helping me create work frequently, which is good, but now I need to do more.

Remember that star chart I showed you a few weeks ago? You’ll be happy to know that by the time this article posts I’ll have 20 stars on it, 20 days of posting something new every day, either here or at my gaming blog, Intelligame. It’s something to personally celebrate; I don’t think I’ve ever written this consistently in my life. That said, if I want more people to come to the site, then just writing the posts isn’t enough. There’s social media to post to, comments to reply to (hopefully!), blog communities to participate in…there’s much following-through to do after the work is done. And I’m finding that’s the hardest part for me to do because I’m tired and feel like I deserve to rest or relax after a post. But finishing the post isn’t finishing the job.

It’s not enough to just create content or a product anymore and expect that people will come to you, and I don’t know that it ever has been. There’s plenty of great, undiscovered content in the world, and unless you want your product to be a part of that group, you have to do more than just create something: you have to go out and find people, give them a reason to care about your product, show them a quality product and then give them an even stronger reason to come back next time. The days of “if you build it, they will come” are over; you have to build it, and then you have to convince them to come. That’s the follow through.

-Josh

Make SMART goals.

I tend to fly by the seat of my pants a lot as I’m just getting my projects up and running, but I find that the more mapping and planning I do before starting work, the more efficient my work day becomes. I feel that I’m at my best when pushing towards a goal I’ve set ahead of time, and I don’t think that’s uncommon for any of us:  we’ve been told to set goals since we were little. Still, I find that most of my larger goals end up unreached in one way or another: New Year’s Resolutions, exercise plans, and writing objectives fall apart after a few days or weeks. I tend to feel a little stupid after I realize I’ve failed yet another New Year’s resolution…but I think the issue isn’t stupidity, it’s just that I wasn’t SMART about my goal.

I’m sorry. I definitely worked way too hard to create a situation where I could use that pun.

Too often we set nebulous goals, endpoints that would be pleasant to reach, but don’t provide us any focus while we work toward them (“Lose weight,” “Be a better husband,” “Read more”). These goals summarize the action we think will improve ourselves, but we never truly know when we’ve achieved the goal or how much progress we’ve made towards it. When we don’t feel like we’re making progress, after the initial jolt of reward from working on self-improvement” subsides, it gets really easy to slide back to old habits and fall off the wagon. 

While I was working in healthcare IT, I learned about setting SMART goals: goals meant to keep you focused and oriented as you work towards success. It’s not about setting different kinds of goals, but instead refining the goals you’ve already created. SMART is an acronym that calls out five facets of effective goals:

  • Specific. When will you know you’ve actually achieved your goal? Don’t just say “read more,” instead set a number of books you want to read, games you want to play, etc.
  • Measurable. A big part of setting SMART goals is the focus on accountability, but you can’t truly be held accountable for what you can’t measure. Set a goal where you can monitor your progress over time and make adjustments if necessary.
  • Achievable. You might remember the six goals I set for myself to accomplish daily if you’ve hung around the blog a while; today, I’d call that a Homer Simpson Goal because it wasn’t really achievable. 6 daily tasks, with an overall time commitment of maybe 4 hours a day (if I was fast) wasn’t going to be sustainable, and early failure brought me down quickly. Don’t underestimate yourself, but set a goal you can achieve!
  • Results-Oriented. Why are you setting your goal? What results do you want to see? SMART Goals focus on the reasons why you want to achieve a goal, not all the specific steps you’ll take to achieve them.
  • Time-based. Want to lose 15 pounds? Great! By when? Setting a time-frame is critical to knowing if your goal is achievable, and it also helps you measure your progress towards success.

Though I’ve little experience in it right now, I can say that one of the hardest parts about running your own business in the early stages is staying motivated when there’s no supervisor to keep you in line, no sales to motivate additional work, and no schedule to tell you when you should be working (or when you should stop working). The freedom to choose your own hours, schedule, and direction is one of the best benefits of working for yourself, but it’s also one of the most daunting: How do you know what tasks to take on first? How long should you work on them? When do you know the work is done?

I like to prioritize based on my Intelligame SMART Goal: In order to create a strong core audience for the site’s expansion, I will get 2,000 views on Intelligame by January 31, 2016. If I’d simply set a goal to “Grow Intelligame,” how would I know which work to focus on? Feasibly I could say that any work I do will “grow” the site, but now I have specific metrics to pay attention to, as well as a drive to put my focus towards. I want the site to reach an audience and change people’s opinions about gaming, not just serve as my echo chamber: right now, page views help me see if people think it’s worthwhile to read the content and be part of the community.

SMART Goals aren’t the key to success when working towards goals, but they’re a great tool in the toolbox of life skills that push us towards the objectives we want to fulfill in life. What are your SMART goals?

-Josh

Featured image credit to Orange Shoe.

The Beauty of Friends and Family

I was lucky to see Naomi Klein speak at an event here in Portland a few weeks ago. While calling on the audience to do something about the increasingly tumultuous environment we live in, she said something that stuck out to me: she said that people now move around so much that they don’t know just how drastic climate change is, that without having roots in a single space for some time, it’s hard to know when things have really changed. I think our personalities can be the same way, and I learned part of that tonight as I reunited with many old friends and spent time with my sister.

I think people get attached to Portland because most everyone has roots here before they’ve even loaded the moving van to come out: most everyone has a friend or family member who they knew that lives here. Today I saw not only my sister, but a friend from when I lived in southern California, two I went to elementary school with, another two I went to middle school with, and a few other friends from more recent times in my life as well. Talking with them it was great to learn how much some things had changed, how much people had grown and accomplished…but it was also good to know that many things stayed the same over time as well. Even seeing the two elementary friends of mine chat with each other (we all went to school together, but they hadn’t seen each other in years) was just…a bit warming.

Now that I work from home, I spend a ton of time alone. I feel like I’m increasingly becoming more isolated, more introverted, more standoffish about spending time with others. I like my workspace, I like controlling my environment, and it becomes that much harder for me to convince myself to be social. Since I’ve moved out here I’ve had multiple visits with old friends that remind me that I should be more engaged, that I shouldn’t be afraid of getting social. After all, there’s a time for hunkering down for work, and there’s a time for enjoying the people around you. Learning the difference between the two is the difference between spending quality time with your loved ones and feeling guilty while wishing you’d emailed off that last report. At least, that’s how it feels to me.

Here’s a poll question for today: do you own your own business/work from home? Do you feel it’s made you more or less social? What keeps you engaged with the people you care about?