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Don't Get Mad, Get Curious!
I trust many of you who subscribe to Dancing Monkeys saw "Failing With Style", the live talk I gave for the Games Industry Investment Summit, for which I've had an overwhelmingly positive response. In it, I talk frankly about what happened with Ultimatum Games.
(Don’t let the thumbnail scare you, it really is a useful talk.)
One of the maxims you'll get from it is "Don't Get Mad, Get Curious". Those who've known me for a while will laugh, given some of my outbursts in the past, but I've evolved. Let me give you an example of how this approach has helped me.
Today was week 7 of Couch to 5K for me. I was supposed to run for 25 minutes, having already done so on Sunday. The programme helps you to gradually increase the amount of time you run, so that by now, a 25 minute run should be within my ability.
I failed, miserably, feeling ruinously exhausted within minutes, and my heart rate jumping to 173BPM and refusing to settle into a rhythm at a slightly slower rate.
A decade ago, I would have given up on the whole thing in self-recriminating pile of defeat. My thinking would have gone something like this...
"You've always been crap at running, you shouldn't be surprised that you've chickened out after 22 minutes, 5 of which was the warm-up walk"
"You knew you were going to fail. Well done on proving yourself right. Again."
"You never see anything through. Ever."
"You're not made for running anyway, you're much better at cycling, stick to that, where you can coast, because that's you, sprint, coast, sprint coast, like football, where let's face it, your sprinting was barely a jog anyway"
Well, that didn't happen today. I have not given up on C25K. I came home, had a cold shower, continued to sweat profusely and started to think about what had just happened. I got curious.
It was 28 degrees today, with no breeze
I went out into the sun and decided to run through the green, over rough ground and heavy grass rather than in my garden, where the lawn and path are much easier to run on
Because other people were around, I increased my pace slightly, and unconsciously. I say unconsciously because I looked at the run data afterwards and I had exerted almost as much effort by heart rate in the 22 minutes I ran than I did on Sunday for 35 minutes
My blood sugar was 4.6 before I ran, and dropping, I was therefore worried about a hypoglycaemia
I've not had carbs for a few days, so I'm in mild ketosis, and probably had no muscle glycogen to speak of
Although I fought hard against The Resistance (read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a book I've been recommending since 2012), negative voices eventually won out. I was at my limit, but I could have gone on. My body was not happy, and I was close to throwing up, but I could have gone on. Normally, I win against this voice, but today, all the other factors meant that I was not as resourceful as I should have been. I don’t beat myself up about this. I just resolve to go again. Failure is what success is made of.
I did not get enough sleep last night
I did not run at my usual time
Can you see how getting curious has given me a whole bunch of things to fix before I go again? Can you see how asking myself a simple, useful question, “What was different about my run today compared to Sunday?” rather than “Why am I a failure?” can change my life?
Imagine buying a new car and the battery running out, and you just sell it. Imagine buying a new computer and at the first unexplained crash, you sell it. Sure, we might allow ourselves a moment of anger, that's normal, but we'd regain our equilibrium and call a mechanic for the car, or well, given my likely audience, just sort the problem ourselves if it's a computer.
"Don't get mad, get curious" allowed me to make the diagnosis in seconds, while taking a cold shower. That's a level of resourcefulness that's invaluable, and not even that hard to achieve. The next time you feel a minor problem coming up, practice asking questions, immediately. Prefer “What?” questions to “Why?” questions.
If you have a short temper (as I used to, my God I had a terribly short fuse), then it will be helpful if you start with one, repeating point of failure where you commonly respond with “WHY?” and practice asking questions that begin with “What if?”
When you're building a video game, you're going to come up against a problem that like my perfect storm today, will stop you in your tracks, and you won't know why, and you might want to give up. This could be catastrophic if you are contracted to do something, but it could also be catastrophic if you have a job.
I'm sure you've heard the term "grace under pressure", well, that's it. You don't stop working, you don't give up, you don't waste time beating yourself up or putting yourself down. Your problems are not going away if you allow yourself to start beating yourself up. Problems dissolve under the force of questioning. There's nothing a problem hates more than a good question. There's nothing a problem loves more than you turning your anger inwards.
Got a bug that you've just realised requires a major refactor and your immediate thought is that it's going to add a month to your schedule? Don't panic. Don't hate yourself. Don't throw your hands up and walk away. Ask questions. The better your questions, the quicker the situation gets resolved. So for example:
If I don't fix this bug, what is the worst thing that could happen?
How do I mitigate against the worst case?
Is my first idea, the only way to solve this problem? What are some other, less obvious ways I could solve this?
If I had this bug three months ago, would I have approached it differently?
Is there another route I could take to make the bug irrelevant?
Have others solved this problem? How? What did they do that I haven’t considered?
Who could advise me?
How would Dijkstra do it?
OK, the last one is not entirely serious, but I do sometimes ask myself when I'm considering a major change, "How would Kieran do this?" and in fact, asked myself this question before my latest input system refactor.
Don’t go straight to Google. That’s giving up and it trains your brain to be helpless. That’s a poor strategy for improving your problem-solving skills.
Don't get mad. Get curious.
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