Monday, March 17, 2014

Better Terrible than Mediocre

Most people do not like criticism. They do not want to hear what they are doing wrong, and would rather believe that they are doing well. Compliments feel good, so we want them. I am no different, and I love to be told I'm doing well, but a compliment is like candy, pleasant but not healthy to get too much of it. I want to get criticism every chance I can get it. Masochistic? No, allow me to explain.

The title of this post is "Better Terrible than Mediocre" because if you are terrible at something, you probably know, or at least people might tell you. If you are mediocre or adequate, people probably won't tell you. Why upset you when you are probably doing a good enough job? But, if you do not know what you are doing wrong, you do not know where you need to improve.

When I managed Gamingetc, I had a very short time to become a very good manager. I worked for a woman who was very quick to criticize and point out flaws and errors, and she wasn't nice about it. Emotionally it was overwhelming, but professionally, it was one of the best and most valuable experiences I have ever had.

If this is how you imagine yourself,
how can you findways to improve?
Achieving excellence is like carving a sculpture. You remove all the material that is not statue, and what is left is statue. Likewise, if you remove everything that is not excellence, what you have left is excellence. Before you can know where to apply the chisel, you have to identify what must be honed, and criticism is the first step of this.

The prerequisite for any of this is humility, and humility was the most important thing I learned working for Gamingetc. Humility means understanding that no matter what you are doing, no matter how experienced you are, there is probably a better way to do it, and someone else may already be using that better practice. You are not yet the statue, but still the block of wood. Before achieving that humility, you will always be surpassed by that other person out there who is better than you, but if you are humble enough to understand that improvement is always possible and often necessary, then you will seek to improve, knowing that improvement means finding your own flaws. 

Ultimately, rather than measuring yourself by how good you are now, you will only measure yourself by how much better you are today than you were in the past. This means that if you have not identified a flaw to work on this week, you will not be able to look back next week and see improvement.

The fact that I can now work as a consultant and run my own business was made possible by that experience. I don't have a boss who can tell me what to focus on, what I am doing right and wrong. This is not the first time I have tried consulting. The last time, I spent two months following my plan before I realized that the plan had a fatal flaw: there was no monetization step. I was so proud of myself for making something myself that I wasn't looking for flaws and I didn't see one so big that it nearly drove me broke. I was a block of wood that thought he was a carved statue.

ConCardia is a convention based
card game in which players collect
cards while exploring the convention.
More info at

Feedback and playtesting welcome!
I would much rather hear a little criticism than have to look back and be figuring out why I failed. In producing ConCardia, I am always seeking feedback for how the game could be better. An influential and highly knowledgeable fellow in the game and convention worlds was generous enough to sit down with me and work through the new rules, and he tore them apart. Over half a dozen major changes suggested, some were somewhat fundamental to the rules. He suggested we change the way we print the cards. He suggested changing the basic card drawing mechanic of the game. 

I could have gotten defensive about the fact that he was suggesting so many changes to the game that I had made. After all, it was mine, from my own creative mind. That course of action would have resulted in a highly mediocre game being produced, and probably getting the same feedback from players after we had committed to certain printing and design choices and it was too late to fix them. Instead, I wrote down each suggestion, and almost every one of them on reflection was excellent. The game is vastly improved for his input, and I took that input before it was too late to implement it.

How I must see myself at the start of every day.
A blank block, ready to be carved into something
better, removing everything that is not excellence.
I think that many people do not like criticism because most of us do not understand growth correctly. We see growth as competence built on competence, like building a structure, one block on top of another. In this mindset, criticism would be like pointing out the flaw in a block, requiring you to move backwards, removing a block and replacing it. But if you use the wood sculpture analogy instead, you realize that your growth requires constantly identifying flaws so as to chip them away to the excellent that is underneath. 

Finally, let me remind you of one more very important thing. If someone doesn't care, they'll tell you it's fine and you are good enough. Giving good, useful criticism takes effort. People only put in that effort if they care about your improvement... or at least they care about what you are doing and care enough to be sure it is done right.

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