Happy Megadungeon Monday!
Let’s be honest. You didn’t expect to read that, did you? It has been a long time. And, look, I’m sorry. Now, I’ve mulled over what to do with this project and, more importantly, with this specific article and I’ve made what I am sure will be an unpopular decision. I’m wasting this article on bulls$&%.
Not really. Thing is, I envisioned this series of articles as a design blog. And there’s a side to design people forget about. Or they don’t realize exists. New designers and freelance independent self-made, self-proclaimed designer wannabees like me probably never give it a thought. I didn’t. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard professional designers talk about it at all. It’s the part called self-management.
See, design isn’t just about numbers and spreadsheets, creative ideas and innovation, and getting things on paper and testing and tweaking, understanding systems and building within them and pushing beyond them. Because all of that crap comes from a human being. And human beings – while being capable of great things – are unreliable, inconsistent, irrational, emotional, high-maintenance and prone to breakdown.
Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to get all emotional and self-deprecating on you. I’ve learned some important lessons about managing myself vis a vis managing a big, ambitious project. Solid, concrete things. Not bulls$&% feels. This isn’t goddamned Tumblr after all. No, I’m going to talk about some very solid project management stuff here.
Here’s the thing: I could jump back in to the Megadungeon development. I actually already have. I’ve picked up where I left off. Sort of. But I’d be leaving out some really important s$&% that is as central to the design of the project as anything else. And I’d be cheating you out of some important lessons. So, think of this as the interquel. The “all right, I f$&%ed up, now how can I move on and how can I keep you from f$&%ing up the same way with your projects.” And while it does contain some important analysis about the design process, it also contains a fair bit of cheerleading and a little bit of work-for-work’s-sake. All of which are more important than you think they are.
If all of this crap disappoints you and you were hoping for maps and spreadsheets, I totally get that. I don’t blame you. But you probably need this most of all. Because you’re going to find yourself one day trapped in the same problem I am.
Yet Another List of Personality Types
I know there’s a lot of crap floating around the internet about personality analysis. And holy f$&% do people take that s$&% seriously. I know people who worship at the altar of Myers-Briggs and if I hear one more person screaming about how they are a self-identified introvert and how the world needs to learn how to react with them, I swear I’m going to punch someone. Guess what, I’m an introvert too. I always have been. And here’s a harsh lesson for you: it’s YOUR job to learn to deal with the world. Sorry. If you want to be in the world, you have to adjust to it. You can’t control it. Demanding it adjusts to you is a waste of your f$&%ing breath. Learn to f$&%ing cope or stay home.
But I digress. The point is, a lot of ink and pixels – or whatever ink is in computers – have been spilled over typifying and categorizing personality types and people put a lot of stock in it. Which is pretty funny because even the goddamned psychologists don’t have one solid, firm way of classifying personality. They are all just forms of astrology. They have their uses, but they aren’t gospel, because people are messy. And you have to know what they can and can’t do. You have to know their limits.
That said, I have always liked one particular set of types of people that used to get bandied around among project management and human resource types. It’s no better or worse than any other, but it is useful. I don’t remember the firm criteria. I learned it a long time ago, the first time I went to college, as part of a problem solving and critical thinking course for engineers. And I’ve had a hard time turning up references to it since.
Basically, it comes down to this: when it comes to projects – especially creative projects – when it comes to projects, there are three types of people. First are people who come up with big ideas easily. They always seem to have some new idea or brilliant insight or whatever. These are the people who get very, very excited by new things and new ideas. And they have a lot of energy for new things. They START projects. They provide the initial push. I’ll call them the Starters. Second are the people who are very focused, driven, and persistent. They are very good at putting things together and making things happen. They are disciplined and, most important, they keep things moving. We’ll call them the Doers. And then, there are the people who are great polishers. They can take a thing and tweak it and perfect it. They can make it shine and sparkle. They can find the little gaps, the little holes, the little details, and they can clean them all up and fix it. Those are the Finishers.
Now, people have aspects of all three in them, but most people tend to be predominantly either a Starter, a Doer, or a Finisher. And all three are necessary. None is better than any other. They have strengths and weaknesses. Starters are always excited about some new thing, but they never finish anything. They are surrounded by half-finished projects, all abandoned out of boredom or frustration when things get hard. Doers are focused and driven, but they have trouble starting and they have trouble stopping. A Doer on their own will just toil away forever on an idea that goes nowhere and they will never be finished with it. They will just keep adding more. Finishers by themselves are unfulfilled without problems to solve and bits to fit into place. They will just tinker with whatever is in front of them without any sense of fulfillment.
You can see how these three personalities make a good team. The Starter provides an idea, a spark, a starting point and the initial excitement. The Doer provides the drive and discipline to work that spark into something useful and keeps the Starter engaged and disciplined. The Finisher provides the tweaks and the polish and, most importantly, provides the brakes and says “okay, this is done.” And most importantly, when things get hard, the Doer provides energy and persistence and the Finisher provides a solution.
It’ll probably not shock any of you to know I’m a Starter. But it may help lots of you to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to creative projects. Are you an idea person? Are you disciplined and focused? Are you a tweaker and a polisher?
Now, here’s the hard lesson: none of that is a f$&%ing excuse. None of that gets you off the f$&%ing hook. First of all, if you work alone, you need to learn how to cover all three aspects of project development. If you can’t, you’ll either never start anything or never finish anything. Second of all, it’s rare to end up on a team with all the bases covered. But still, the work has to get done.
By itself, identifying your creativity type is the easiest and least useful step. Notice that doctors and psychologists don’t stop at diagnosis? Diagnosis is a gateway to cure, treatment, or management. And that’s what you have to do too. You have to learn how to manage your issue. In this case, your issue of being only one-third useful to any project you take on.
Spark, Momentum, and Polish
In the end, you can break down any project into three parts: the spark, the momentum, and the polish. The spark comes from that initial idea. And if you’re not a starter, it can be very hard to find that spark. Now, lots of people talk about how to handle the spark. I’ve written about it myself. I’ve pointed out how Inspiration is a myth and how there are many techniques to help you generate new ideas. I’ve talked about it at least once in this very series. The polish is the ability to solve problems, fit things together, and make everything shine and sparkle. The polish is about perfection. And a lot has been written about that. How to revise and edit and fix problems and tweak and tinker. And we’ll get to that at the end of this project. If it ever comes.
Here’s where my problem is: I’m not a Doer. I’m a Starter. And I can be a Finisher, though it bores the crap out of me. That’s why I often skimp on my own editing and proofreading. What I am not is a Doer. Believe it or not, even though I crank out thousands and thousands of words, I have to bang them out quickly. If I try to break down a single article into more than two work sessions, I will NEVER F$&%ING FINISH IT. I know this about myself. That’s why I work hard and fast. Because I’m a sprinter. And honestly, by the time I get done with something, I want to be done with it. It’s time for the next thing. Which is why, as much as I can handle Finishing, it’s so hard for me to actually do it.
Twice as Bright, Half as Long is the motto of every Starter.
In the past, I’ve always dealt with this by building up enough momentum that I would plow through to the end before I lost my energy and drive. It’s kind of like this: instead of spending my energy sprinting over level ground, I sprint the hell to the top of the biggest hill I can find and over the top. That way, if I get bored or frustrated or tired, I’m still stuck running forward because if I stop running I will go tumbling down the hill, probably crash into a tree, and break both of my leg. In other words, if I get exhausted, I won’t just peter out, I am going to crash and burn spectacularly.
And that DOES work. To some extent. Basically, it’s just a matter of working feverishly at the start of every project, getting yourself as immersed and excited in it as possible, building as much momentum and passion as you can, and hoping the combination of speed and momentum will get you across the finish line before your heart explodes.
But, the problem every Starter has is that they dream big. This Megadungeon has been a big dream of mine for a long time. It’s big and it’s ambitious. Why is that a problem? Because every Starter is racing the clock of their own creative energy. And that Momentum thing? Well, usually it works. But if the course is too long, sometimes your heart just explodes instead.
Everyone in the table-top gaming sphere has heard about burnout. Often, it’s in the context of a GM running out of drive and energy to run games, either because they are bored with running an ongoing campaign or because they are just tired out in general. It’s a very real issue. Although Starters are the most prone to burnout, followed by Finishers, even Doers don’t have infinite stores of creative energy. Everyone burns out eventually.
But even though everyone is prone to burnout, some folks have it easier than others dealing with burnout. Doers have the easiest time picking up where they left off by their nature. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy for them. Because Doers do have a hard time starting in general and restarting involves some measure of starting. But Doers are the most capable of recovering their energy and then coming back into a project. Finishers have a harder time. But their nature, Finishers work toward the end. In some ways, they have a more limited clock than Starters. If a Finisher comes back to a project after a burnout, they will likely want to wrap up the project quickly. Get it done with. And Starters? Started have absolutely the hardest time restarting. Starters, by their nature, draw all of their creative energy from excitement over something new. Coming back to something you burned out on is almost impossible because there’s nothing new to get excited about. You’re still trapped in the same old thing.
Let’s put this in the context of GM burn out. Assume three GMs – a Starter, a Doer, and a Finisher – are all running ongoing campaigns. They all burn out, take some time off, and then come back to gaming. What is each likely to do?
The Doer is likely to have the shortest time off. They recover quickly from burnout. And they will simply restart the campaign where they left off. The Finisher will tend to take a little longer to come back. And they will come back and try to skip ahead to the end of the campaign in some way. They will do a time skip or something to move to a new plot point, nearer to the end. The Starter will take the longest amount of time. And when they do come back, they will likely say “let’s just let that campaign die, I have a new idea instead.”
See? I’m not just bulls$&%ing. You’ve seen all of those things, right? I don’t just make this s$&% up.
But, we’re not talking about GMing. We’re talking about projects in general and the Megadungeon in specific. Well, here’s how it all ties in. An undisciplined Starter – like me – given a very long project – like this Megadungeon – will eventually burn out. And because they rely on Momentum, they will have the hardest f$&%ing time you can imagine restarting it.
I have sat down to restart the Megadungeon SEVEN TIMES. Seriously. I’ve wanted to. This is my dream. But I didn’t know how.
How Angry Gets His Groove Back
Okay, here’s the lesson now: how DO YOU get your momentum back? Well, I don’t know how other people do it. But I know how I’m doing it. And hopefully, some of these things will help you get your groove back after your burnout.
Identify the Inspiration and Reimerse Yourself
First and foremost, figure out what it was that first got you excited about the project. Whether you’re a Starter, a Doer, or a Finisher, if you managed to start a project, something sparked it. There was probably some external factor that got you started. Something you were mining for ideas. Or someone you were talking to. Or some blog you were reading. Figure that out and go back to it. Reread the book. Play the game. Watch the TV series. Talk to the person about the project.
For example, I started replaying my favorite Metroid games a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, Metroid Prime and Super Metroid. I also started seeking out new games with open-world exploration components. I’ve been fiddling with a game called Salt and Sanctuary and I’ve also been working through Alien: Isolation. I don’t have huge amounts of time for video games, but I’m making the time right now. This has the overall effect of just building up my excitement for the project again and making it feel new.
While you’re trying to rebuild your excitement for the project, you also need to refamiliarize with the project. Pull out all of your notes and maps and diagrams and recaps or whatever the hell else you have, grab a cup of coffee, and reread it all. Just reabsorb the project. Don’t expect to pick up where you left off without going back over everything.
For example, if you’ve written a series of blog entries detailing the project, you might have a lot of rereading to do. Obviously, you can skim some of it. But sparking your memory will not only help prime your brain, it will also help build up some more of your latent excitement.
If you really want to do the thing right, it’s actually worth sitting down and writing a quick summary of everything after you review it. Just a one page summary of the project so far. Where you’re at and where you need to go. That will help cement everything in your brain and also get you excited again. In fact, writing that summary is the first step you can take to…
Work Yourself Up
The next thing to do is do a little solid cheerleading for yourself. For whatever reason, you were once excited about the project. You need to remind yourself what, exactly, you were excited about. And get excited again. If you have a friend who is willing to listen, start talking to them about the project. Tell them, specifically, what is so cool about the project. Alternatively, if you have to, talk to yourself. When you’re alone in the bathroom or the shower or making lunch or whatever, spend some time talking to yourself out loud about why you think the project is so cool and why you want to see it done. If talking to people or talking out loud isn’t your style, write it down or type it out.
Don’t just THINK about it. Trust me. You’ve been thinking about it all along and that got you nowhere. Once you put things into language and push them out of yourself, that makes them more definitive. More real. Lots of people think. But thinking is wishy-washy. You need to decide. You need to commit. That’s the first step to doing. And deciding and committing is about taking your thoughts and making them firm and external.
And while we’re on the subject…
You got burnt out. That happens. You disappointed a lot of people and you disappointed yourself. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Failure only happens when you actually give up. As long as you keep running the race, you haven’t quit. You f$&%ed up. I forgive you. Now, get back in the fight.
Sincere Regards: Angry.
Burning out feels like failure. And that means you end up angry and disappointed and regretful. If you’re burnt out and unable to start up again, you’re probably pretty frustrated and annoyed with yourself. And those emotions are like an anchor you’ve now chained to your project. Every time you try to get started, you’re going to remember the frustration and annoyance and that will drag you back down. You have to forgive yourself. Say it out loud. Write it down. Whatever. But tell yourself it’s okay to f$&% up and that you haven’t failed until you’ve given up. In fact, it helps to write it down and post it somewhere where you can look at it whenever you start to get down on yourself.
Okay, fine, this is Tumblr feelings bulls$&%. Suck it up.
Start Slow and Build
Look, it is not in my nature to do things small. I go loud or I go home. That’s part of what I said earlier about not just sprinting, but sprinting to the top of a hill so that, hopefully, the momentum will force me to keep running when my legs give out. Well, that’s how you got into this mess. Ease yourself back into the project slowly. Pick one small, manageable task and do it. Just sit and do it. Then, pick another small task and do it. Don’t do a marathon. Don’t do a sprint. Focus on running a lap. Just one lap. And then run another. And another.
For example, don’t throw yourself back into mapping out your gigantic super dungeon. Start by just forcing yourself to write an article. Even if that article is just an article about how to restart a lapsed project. Running just one lap makes it easier to run a second one. And a third. And so on.
Look: the first time you started the project, you had energy to spare. You were aflame with excitement. And you burned through it all. Now that you’re restarting, you don’t have that massive pile of pent up energy to unleash in a fiery explosion. You’re grasping for whatever energy you can soak up. At the beginning of the project, you won the lottery. Now, you’re scrounging in the couch for change. Either way, you still have to buy food. You have to be more disciplined this time around. Don’t gorge yourself. Eat smart.
Set Goals and Find a Way to Be Accountable
This follows on from starting small and doing something just to get started. Once you’ve managed to get yourself off the couch, you have to set manageable goals and you have to set benchmarks so that you can grade yourself. Draft a schedule, for example. I will put in this many hours on this day and this day and this day. And on this date, I want this task finished.
For example, you might set aside a certain portion of your work-week specifically for the task in question. And you might publish a schedule for your readers that says “on this date, this article will be ready and on this date, this one will be ready.”
Just be smart about what goals you set. Don’t set huge goals. Don’t plan to map a whole region in a week. Instead, start with smaller topics like “information management” and “preplanning a region” that will segue into mapping the whole region.
Now goals and a schedule only work if you find a way to keep yourself on task. For example, publicly publishing your schedule to the people who financially support you is a good way of making yourself accountable. But that, alone, doesn’t always work. Accountability also comes from finding ways to reward yourself for success. And for being frank and stern with yourself when you fail. And maybe even punishing yourself a little when you fail. If you have a friend you trust, tell them what your plans and goals are. And tell them when you succeed and when you fail. Maybe they will even find a way to reward your successes for you.
And as for dealing with failure…
Accept That You Will Fail
No one is perfect. You’re going to f$&% up again. You’re going to miss your schedule or fall behind or have to throw out a bunch of work. It’s going to happen. And you’re going to be mad at yourself when it does. And that’s when your written forgiveness is actually a big help.
See, the reason you got into this mess is not because you f$&%ed up or missed a deadline or even because you burnt out. The reason you got into this mess is because you let yourself stop. Burnout sucks. I know. Believe me, I know. But burnout isn’t an excuse. You can’t take a goddamned vacation every time you energy level runs low. Content creation is like any other job: sometimes, you have to do it even when you don’t want to or when you’re bored of it or when you’re emotionally friend. Oh sure, sometimes, you have some vacation time to burn. But you probably used all of that up when you burnt out. So, sorry to say it, you don’t get to stop doing the thing just because you don’t want to. You’re no better than a doctor or a teacher or a sanitation worker. They have days when they don’t want to see patients or teach students or pick up other people’s f$&%ing trash. But they do it anyway.
You gonna fail. I’m gonna fail. I’m going to f$&% up again. And feel like crap. But it’ll be okay. I’ll get through it as long as I don’t stop just because I f$&%ed up.
And, by the way, it doesn’t matter if it’s a game you’re running for your friends or a freelance design you’re doing just for funises. If you think it’s important enough to do in the first place, you owe it as much discipline as you owe any other job. Otherwise, you’re going to fail.
Not Momentum, Discipline
At the start of this, I mentioned that I’ve always known I was a Starter-type. I get really excited for new things and the road behind me is littered with things I’m going to finish someday. But I got much better at finishing things once I discovered that I could just build up so much momentum in the beginning that I would barrel across the finish line before I could stop myself. I figured the trick to being a Doer was momentum.
Guess what? It isn’t momentum. It isn’t inertia. What Doers have is discipline and focus. They aren’t carried forward by some inexorable force, they run one lap at a time and they come back the next day and run another lap. And they run even when they don’t want to. So that eventually running a lap every day isn’t a choice they have to make every day. It’s a given. It’s a habit. It’s a lifestyle. Mostly. I mean, even Doers still have to make the choice some days. And Doers make the wrong choices sometimes. And they burn out too. We ALL burn out.
But if you’re not a Doer, then it takes a lot, LOT longer for an everyday choice to become a habit. To become a way of life. And if you’re not a Doer, it’s a lot easier to make the wrong choice one day. And when you do, it becomes a lot easier to never make the right choice again.
Here’s the thing, though: whoever you and whatever challenges you face (starting, doing, or finishing), those challenges do not excuse you from anything. The reality is that, if you WANT to accomplish something, you have to find a way. And if you can’t surround yourself with a team, you HAVE TO find a way to do it all yourself. Otherwise, you really do fail.