Don’t Pigeonhole Me: In Defense of the Jack of All Trades

Back when I was going to school at DePaul University in Chicago, the computer science school was introducing a game development minor. To kick it off, they had a panel involving a few people from local game companies such as Midway and Volition, as well as a few members of the Xbox team from Microsoft.

I remember the vice president from Midway Games answering a question from the students in the audience about how to get into the game industry. He referred to some advice that had shown up somewhere from Midway’s HR that essentially said, “Specialize, don’t generalize.”

I remember not liking that advice then, and I still don’t like it now. It sounded to me like “pigeonhole yourself and don’t you dare try to step outside of your hole”. Telling students who are interested in a future career, “You can improve your skills, but only in this one area of life” sounds overly restrictive and a path to misery. Or at least getting let go when your limited expertise is no longer needed.

Two Pigeons

Now, specializing isn’t necessarily bad advice. It’s just not the only valid option, and yet people like to talk as if it is.

I was catching up on my news feeds and saw that artist David M. Kessler wrote If You’re Talking to Everybody, You’re Talking to Nobody.

Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Pick what you like to do best, then get really good at it. Try to be better than anybody else. Let people see that you are an expert at the “thing” you do.

When you get known for that one “thing” you’ll see your art career soar. Now get in that pigeonhole and start working on your “thing.”

He says “Any successful marketer and business owner knows that you have to focus your efforts in order to target your market for sales. If you can’t target a market, you won’t make any sales – that’s business 101.”

He’s not wrong about needing a target market, but I don’t think “targeting your market for sales” is synonymous with pigeon-holing yourself into a single specialty.

He listed a bunch of artists as examples to further his point. The idea being that if you think of someone such as Monet or Jackson Pollock, you will inevitably call to mind some representative work of theirs.

But then, what about an artist such as Leonardo da Vinci? What was his “thing”? What about Leon Battista Alberti? Did he have just one thing?

How about someone more contemporary, such as Viggo Mortensen? I knew he was an actor from his role in Lord of the Rings, but I learned he is also an abstract painter and a poet, among other things.

There’s a lot of advice about specializing, and often it is very good advice, but just as often it is also not really supported by any sort of economic principle. Rather it’s more like “common wisdom” that “everyone” knows.

There’s no actual need to pigeonhole yourself into a specialty. Maybe it’s a tougher route to communicate your “thing”, since someone else can’t easily pigeonhole you as an abstract painter, but no one said it had to be easy.

Maybe rather than thinking about arbitrarily self-imposed limits, the more important thing is finding the thread that ties your story together as Pamela Slim argues in her book Body of Work.

Apple makes a lot of different products. Their thing isn’t merely iPhones or Macs. Their “thing” is elegantly, well-designed computing devices. Their “thing” is bigger than what a single product can encompass.

Telling executives at one of the most financially successful businesses in the world “Stop it. You need to niche down” wouldn’t make sense, would it?

The benefits to a focused approach are more than just increased sales. As you begin to focus your work, you’ll begin to get really good at it – better than you thought possible.

While I can see the logic, I also think that I could see someone get really good at their craft if they are able to work with different approaches, techniques, and mediums.

If all you know is oil painting, maybe you’ll get really good at oil painting. But if you know water color as well?

And if you think, “Huh, I wonder how it would look if part of the painting was oil but part was water color?” Would the result potentially be a more interesting work? Would the skill developed in each medium overlap, complement, or reinforce the other?

I don’t know, but I bet a conversation with someone who focused on creating the best work they could with all of their varied skills would be more fascinating and interesting than someone who is Yet Another Oil Painter.

And if their work is more fascinating and interesting, would commercial success also be possible?

According to Vigo Mortensen’s Wikipedia entry, “Mortensen experiments with his poetry and music by mixing the two art forms.”

Do you think his work in one influences the other and makes him a better artist, or does it reduce him to mediocrity because of a lack of focus? How about his music and his film efforts?

Dismissing the jack-of-all-trades as doomed to financial failure easy, but I see no supporting evidence. In fact, in software development, there’s a premium on so-called “full-stack” developers. Rather than hiring someone who only knows how to work with back-end databases or front-end forms, you get yourself a programmer who can do both as well as everything in between.

No one says, “Oh, sorry. we’re looking for a programmer who only knows one kind of programming language.” That’s like saying, “We want programmers who can’t think beyond one paradigm.”

On the other hand, a jack-of-all-trades without a larger purpose, vision, or mission? THAT I can see as being a problem, financially and otherwise.

Sears Needs a Better Purpose, Vision, and Mission

The day I was giving my presentation on the importance a well-defined, compelling purpose, vision, and mission for indie game developers, I read this timely article about a major company struggling with its identity.

Its Survival In Doubt, Sears Struggles To Transform Once Again from Morning Edition on NPR talked about the struggles of the once-giant Sears, which has been operating at a loss for quite some time, despite mergers and selling off brands.

A quote from a customer really sends home the message about how important it is to have a good purpose:

“It fits no niche. It’s not a discount place. It’s not high end,” Mullen says. “It has no identity anymore. I guess it tried to be everything to everybody and it was very successful at that. But now it’s nothing to nobody, which is sad.”

Is your indie game development business similarly raising question marks above the heads of players? Can people tell at a glance what they can expect your games to be about? Do you give them a compelling reason to care about you, or do you “just make games” like most other forgettable indies?

Get Energized and Stay Motivated with Slides from my April 18th IGDA Des Moines Presentation

Most indies pay little attention to their purpose, mission, and vision, but then again, most indies don’t have sustainable businesses. The vast majority don’t make $500 in a year.

Rolling the dice and hoping for a hit, or at least something that earns enough to fund the development of another game, is not a serious strategy.

And there are a lot of new new indie game developers struggling with motivating themselves to work on their projects for more than a few days at a time before the pain of the creative effort overwhelms any enthusiasm they had to be a game developer. There are always posts online asking for tips of staying motivated.

At the most recent IGDA meeting, I presented an updated version of my 2014 talk Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Indie Game Development Business.

I’m running my business part-time as I have a day job, but doing a poor job of running GBGames as a full-time independent game developer from 2010 to 2012 taught me some major lessons about running a business. Other indie game developers could benefit from my experience.

While there is no video of the presentation, I uploaded the slides with notes in a few formats:

Knowing who you are and what you stand for will go a long way towards reducing the stress and pain and fear that can otherwise be a regular part of running your own indie game development business.

At the very least, it will give you the energy and motivation to keep working on your projects for the long haul.

See Me Present at IGDA Des Moines on Tuesday, April 18th

The Des Moines chapter of the International Game Developers Association meets every third Tuesday of the month, usually at the Gravitate offices, a workplace community for entrepreneurs, freelancers and remote workers.

At this Tuesday’s meeting, I’m excited to be presenting an updated version of my 2014 talk Playing the Long Game: The Vital Importance of Purpose, Mission, and Vision to Your Indie Game Development Business, sharing lessons that can be drawn from my experience running an independent game development business full-time between 2010 and 2012, and talking about what I’ve done with my business since then based on those lessons.

Many indie game developers dive into the business head-first with nothing much more than a vague dream and some hope, and often with disastrous results. My aim is to help you clarify your Why, your What, and your How so that your efforts are clear, focused, and more decisive, both immediately and in the long term.

I hope to see you at this free event, whether you’re an established game developer, an aspiring one, or someone who is interested in learning about the behind-the-scenes of games.

You can register for the IGDA Des Moines April meeting, mainly to ensure we’ll have enough pizza and drinks for everyone. B-)

Limiting Screen Time for Your Kids Isn’t Necessary?

When I was younger, my parents would tell me to turn off my Atari 2600 or my Nintendo because I was staring at the TV for too long. I remember one time in particular in which my father said something to the effect that it would ruin my eyes to play for so many hours at a time. I subconsciously rubbed my eye at that point, and he said, “Ah, hah! See?”

And I have felt self-conscious about rubbing my eyes after long sessions in front of the computer ever since.

But the main point is that I have always had this internalized idea that too much time playing video games or watching TV is bad (although it didn’t stop me from playing Civilization all night once…ok, a few times…I can stop taking turns anytime I want to!). There were health reasons, and there was also the idea that I should get outside into the fresh air more, or be more social.

As a game developer who is interested in creating entertainment that encourages curiosity, supports creativity, and promotes continuous learning, I would love to be able to watch my niece play the games I make and get not only real-time feedback but also help her on her journey to becoming a terrific person.

But when I visit, I find myself wondering if perhaps I shouldn’t contribute to even more of her screen time, as I almost invariably find her playing video games either on a tablet or on the computer.

If anything, my family is often getting her away from the computer to interact with people in the real world before she forgets how to do so. People like me, for instance. “Hey! I live over 300 miles away and only visit for a couple of days every few months. You could at least look at me once or twice!”

I know some people who use screen time as a reward for doing chores or good behavior, and taking away screen time is a punishment. By and large, their kids are not allowed to play games or otherwise use computers recreationally for more than so many hours per week.

But according to Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University, a recent study he led found that “there is only a negligibly small association between excessive screen time and higher levels of depression and delinquency among teenagers.”

Well, that’s good news. Playing too much Minecraft or Halo isn’t what leads your kids to becoming disaffected youth. Whew!

What’s more, Ferguson argues that since computers are so integral to society and how we live and work, preventing children from become familiar with modern technology is likely to prevent them from being able to participate in our increasingly fast-paced lives, which is the exact opposite of the result many parents might want when they limit screen time.

Funny, I’m pretty sure that was the argument I used to convince my parents to get me Mario Paint, which came with a mouse peripheral.

Naturally, our focus can shift from how long children play games to what games they are actually playing. I’m reminded of Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, which argued that today’s TV and video games are actually more challenging than they were decades ago, and so children watching TV and playing games today are essentially training themselves in decision-making and other important skills.

Even if too much screen time isn’t a real issue, I still might pry my niece away from games periodically, if only to be able to catch up and spend quality time together away from the screens. But the Ferguson’s study made me feel more comfortable letting my niece play games that teach responsibility and strategic thinking such as Toytles: Leaf Raking.

Of course, I also think a well-rounded video game education is in order, starting with the classics.

Let me dig out my Atari 2600…

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