I, Polymath

Everyone is told to specialize, to “pick one thing” and become an expert in that one thing. But for many creative people, specializing in a single field can feel like an impossible ask. There are too many exciting things out there, it seems, and you want to try them all! It turns out that there can be good reason to not specialize.

This is a topic, I have fought with more than once, going back more than a decade. I am now in my early forties, and I still unapologetically experiment and dabble. Not because I get easily distracted by the next shiny thing; I do tend to finish at least one project in whatever discipline I am exploring. It’s because I love learning, and finding patterns and overlaps between various skills and art forms.

This passion for passions is what led me to write novels, take pictures, code video games, and make music. It turns out that my kind has a name – several in fact: creative generalist, jack-of-all-trades, renaissance man, or polymath.

Mr. da Vinci, pictured above, is another famous polymath. Not bad company, right?

The times when I fought against it, were usually efforts to try and fit into the perceived expectations of a job market, a freelance client, or product launch. No single title seemed to stick. The closest I’ve come to a title that might cover it all is “storyteller”, given that conveying a story is part of all of the things I seem to take an interest in. It’s more of a theme than an actual job title, though.

You might say, that my specialty is the accumulated knowledge and high level overview that comes with studying many disciplines. Despite our specialist-centric society, there is real value in such experience. For example, it can, as the Dude might put it, really tie the room together, when you are working with several specialists. I am pretty good at herding and translating between groups of specialists, and I credit that to having varied experience.

The downside to being a polymath, is that I am not the worlds greatest writer, photographer, game designer, or composer. But I can communicate with all of the above with a fair amount of confidence and authority. This comes in handy when managing projects and events, hiring, scoping, and prioritizing when the specialists are too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture.

After all these years, my advice to someone with many passions would be to not specialize in one at the cost of the others, but to seek the middle, where there is overlap between them. What are the themes and approaches that can be applied across your passions, and where do they intersect? For me, they connect thematically through storytelling, and pragmatically through cross-disciplinary communication and project management skills.

Full Time in Gaming

What follows is a personal story, likely too long for many to read, so if you’re looking for some sort of point, let’s go with this one: In Life you will experience ups and downs, but if you look for opportunities to get inspired and better yourself, you’ll find ways to get through all the crap.

Over the last couple of years, my life has changed in many ways. Some good, some not so much. Tomorrow I start a new chapter, taking on my first full time job in several years. During the time I was “off the market”, I was trying to build a business of my own, and having a go at a photography career, blogging and being artsy on the side. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. Basically I sacrificed security and stability for freedom and the pursuit of creative urges, and for about a decade it was how I lived my life.

In 2011 my wife got diagnosed with a couple of hardcore medical issues, and not only were there medical bills to pay, but one of the household members was also unable to work for several months. Suddenly “security and stability” became more important than “freedom and creativity”. After a few months of not finding the work I was hoping for, I took a part time job in retail to make ends meet. This allowed me to still do a bit of freelance work, and take on a personal quest of sorts.

During Kelly’s slow recovery, we played a lot of Minecraft. When she was incapable of doing anything in the real world, she could still build castles in the virtual one. It was a great way for her to stay active, or not go completely stir crazy, and for us to do something fun together. For me, playing Minecraft also rekindled a deep love of mine – creating games. Since grade school, I have been telling stories through games in one way or another. From the text adventures I would code on my old C=64, to elaborate Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. And so, I started learning about video game design theory and touching up on ye olde coding skills.

The first game I finished was Nebula Rescue for iOS. It’s not what you would call a conventionally handsome game, but I like to think that the gameplay makes up for that. I’m particularly proud of the game balance I achieved, and the way the difficulty progresses. The day someone set a high score that was more than double that of my own, I squeed. You can find it in the App Store.

My second game – Salvage Trader – is currently on Kickstarter (go back it, I’ll be here when you’re done). It’s inspired by some of my favorite types of games, space trading, exploration and little mini games to break things up. A much more complex and ambitious project, but equally more rewarding to work on.

The greatest reward however, was realizing that I really do love making games, and that I want to have a go at doing it for a living. I’ve worked with many types of storytelling in the past, from novels and song lyrics to photography and video, but there is an added thrill of the Player, and his or hers part in how that story unfolds. I hope to be able to work on games more, for many years to come.

Which is why the next big change is an awesome one. Tomorrow I start my new job, going full time, as an “LQA Tester”. If you don’t know what that means, it’s short for Language Quality Assurance. In short, I help translate and test new video games before they hit the market. It’s also a perfect opportunity to study the game design process from inside the industry – and on a much grander scale than making games on my own.

This particular change is exciting and welcome for more reasons than one. I’m happy to be back working on storytelling things, and excited that it is even in the industry I wanted to work in. I won’t miss doing photography for a living (taking pictures for fun is way more, well, fun), and I definitely won’t miss retail. Side note: I have great respect for anyone who has the stamina to work retail for years on end – having to deal with the General Public on that level is soul crunching.

I share these things in the hope of inspiring others who might feel stuck or overwhelmed by the adversities of Life. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, much of the above will already be familiar to you, which leads me to thank all those who have been supportive and encouraging through the last couple of years. Thank you!

The Year of Change

2012 was a year of fighting for recovery, even survival. Last year, my year-in-review post centered around some of the good people that had influenced my life. I could rewrite that same post today, because there is no doubt the fight would have failed, had it not been for the help of friends and family. There were some insanely tough times, and a few hard decisions were made.

I’m not going to write a long sob story, but 2012 sucked on several levels. We were hit hard with financial trouble, and dealing with the aftermath of Kelly’s Cancer treatment and surgery. Not just the bills piling up, but also the fact that she was out of commission for several months after the fact (radiation treatment is a bitch to recover from, throw in abdominal surgery for a few months of not being able to bend over or lift anything). At the same time, continually dropping sales in stock photography only made each month bleaker than the one before.

It was time to make a radical change, so I gave up on full time freelancing and got a part time job (in a coffee shop of course, I do live in Seattle after all). I’d been working for myself for about a decade, and making that change was not easy – but definitely worth it. The stress relief alone more than makes up for having to be somewhere, not in my pyjamas, several times a week. Having a reliable, base income has allowed me to focus on the things I want to do, instead of always running down the next client.

Speaking of clients, 2012 was a year full of lessons. I realize now, that most of my stress from freelancing comes from client relations. I do not like dealing with sales, and so I have promised myself two things to compensate for that in the coming year. First, I’m raising my rates. Second, I will strive to only accept client jobs that are fun and interesting.

Unless something irresistible comes along, the priority will remain my personal projects, designing games, telling stories and learning. I have many, many ideas, including photos I’d like to take – for a while there, I wondered if I had lost interest in photography altogether, but it was working in stock photography that had nearly killed my love for the medium. In relation to that, I finished off 2012 by canceling my exclusivity agreement with iStockphoto. Wow, what a liberating feeling that was!

I’m hopeful for 2013. The world didn’t end in 2012, though it felt like it was getting close a few times. What follows are a few links that mark points of interest from 2012.

  • A Nerd Comes Home – I started the year by proclaiming that 2012 would be the year I let my nerd out. I did. It’s been fantastic!
  • The Fork in the Road – in the beginning of 2012 I still had savings, still ran Another Passion and still thought I might make it.
  • It Gets Better – I was asked to be part of making this video by Mike Selinker and Stepto. It was a ton of fun to do, and the message never gets old.
  • Nebula Rescue in the App Store – my first video game to ever be sold anywhere! Launching Nebula Rescue was a major accomplishment for me. I’m a proud game daddy.
  • Hard Booting Life – from when things were pretty much their worst, financially, I wrote about looking for work.
  • “Natural 20” – a set of three songs I wrote and recorded, inspired by my love of gaming (old skool pen and paper style, specifically).