I’ll never be great. So what?

“Dawning realisation that I’ll never be great at anything. The eternal dabbler.”

That sounds like something I could have written at any point over the last five years, but in fact they’re the words of erstwhile One A Day leader Andy Kelly, Tweeted just a few short hours ago. It’s the disappointment of a man who feels he should be doing more than he currently is, and it’s a sensation that’s all too familiar to me. The key difference here being that Andy’s a relatively sprightly 24, while in a few weeks I’ll reach the ripe old age of 33. He’s got nine years on me, the bastard. How dare he complain!

It’s easy to get hung up on your own lack of achievement, especially – so it seems – among people who write about games for a living. It’s become apparent to me pretty much since the advent of Twitter that I’m not the only person in my field of work that worries about not having done enough with their life. Perhaps it’s because many of us are frustrated creatives; in many ways a lot of us would like to be making games rather than writing about them, albeit without wanting to start on the bottom rung of the ladder. “Those who can’t, become critics”, as the saying goes. But it’s not necessarily that we can’t, just that we’re perhaps a little too late to realise that ambition, or maybe we’re not confident enough to think that we’d make it.

If it seems a more obvious frustration for game critics than those of any other medium, that’s perhaps because the act of playing can often feel like a creative endeavour. The way you play a game is essentially like sculpting your own version of the game’s story, particularly in more open-ended games where player choice affects the way the narrative unfolds. And with more and more games providing more elaborate creative tools for players to craft their own levels, and even share them online with others, the distance between creator and consumer narrows further. I’ve seen palpable disappointment on gaming forums when a user-created LittleBIGPlanet level hasn’t been ‘hearted’ enough.

It doesn’t have to be games, either. Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of any kind of creative dabbling. In recent years, I’ve started a screenplay whose first two pages have been sitting on my hard drive for eighteen months; I’ve promised myself I’d return to the painting I so enjoyed during my Art A-level; I’ve dusted off my acoustic guitar a number of times, vowing to write and/or perform a few songs (if only for my own personal benefit) but never got around to it. In my head I’ve directed entire sequences from films that will never be made. I imagine I’m not the only one.

It’s all too easy to directly compare your own achievements with that of others, but it’s rarely sensible to do so. Hideki Kamiya may have created Devil May Cry by the age of 31, but while his talent is impossible to deny, it’s also likely a number of other factors conspired to make that possible. It can be a simple matter of being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right people rather than the right things. Many of the world’s best writers were rejected several times over before someone realised their genius. Think about the number of famous painters who died destitute before finding fame after their death.

I’m not saying that we’re all incredible undiscovered talents, merely that success or failure can often be down to pure dumb luck. Circumstance has a heavy bearing upon your life’s direction, and there are millions – nay, billions – of us who never achieve their dreams. Often it’s due to financial or emotional commitments; we sacrifice our dreams for others, or simply to earn enough to live. Perhaps for critics it’s more pronounced because we’re so close to what we really want to do. The nearer you get to glory, the more frustrating it can be to have it snatched away from you.

But if you think about it, it’s the tiniest percentage of people who achieve the greatest feats; those seemingly unattainable heights we all strive for. The rest of us fall short of the stars, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of worth in not quite making it, or in excelling within an entirely different niche. I’m firmly of the belief that we all have a key role to play in life. There’s something that we’re all brilliant at, or at the very least good enough at to inspire others. Many of my own personal inspirations won’t necessarily have considered themselves the best in their chosen field, but they contributed something very specific at a very specific time of my life that made them important.

Often, it’s not the most bold and brilliant creatives that inspire the most, but those who have skills that seem within reach. It’s entirely conceivable, for example, that someone may have read one of my reviews, and been inspired to put pen to paper themselves. I know I’m not the most erudite game critic around, but perhaps my mediocrity is a low enough bar for someone otherwise daunted by the brilliance of others to try and clear.

In short: not being great doesn’t mean you can’t be important. Sometimes being good enough is good enough. And if it’s not, then console yourself with the fact that there’s always someone worse off than you. Even if it just means they’re nine years closer to the grave…

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11 comments

  1. It’s not just you old guys. I’m 16 and I feel like I should be doing more than I am. Really liked the post though: very well-thought-out. Made me think that perhaps my ambitions are not so far out of reach.

  2. While I basically know what you mean, Chris, it’s kind of the opposite to how I try to approach things.

    Maybe you’re right to point out the age difference between yourself and babies like Andy, myself and others (although 33 is hardly ancient, now, is it?). Perhaps, as time goes by, I’ll find myself thinking in much the same way as you. For now, though — and bearing in mind I’m considerably lower down the ladder than you — my aim is to get better and better until I’m not just “good enough” (which I like to think I basically am at the moment), but exceptional.

    Of course, understanding that I might never reach that place is always on my mind, and it’s always sensible to have a fallback. But I don’t think that should ever stop any of us from *wanting* to be exceptional, and always striving to hit that target.

    It can be disheartening, sure, when you don’t hear back from pitches, or get rejection after rejection. But I guess it’s always about just trying to make that next email more convincing, that next article more essential to the publciation in question.

    A friend of mine is in a similar situation to myself, only in music journalism. She’s had a few pieces published in Rocksound and has landed a regular slot on a local radio station, but — like me — she’s some way away from earning enough out of her work to call it a “living”. When she visited Leeds a few months ago, we got hysterically drunk and both pledged to pitch one thing a day until we were getting work regularly enough to basically do it full-time.

    Of course, neither of us ended up doing that, but we did manage to at least up our pitch rate. I haven’t spoken to her for a while, but the last few months have seen a slight increase in the amount of work I’m getting. I could have said the same last summer, to be fair, after which I went through a few-month period of being paid for just three articles in that time, but I’d like to think my being more driven and more rigorous in my self-improvement attempts contributed at least a little to that small surge. Maybe that’s just idealism.

    Point being, I’m not the kind of person to whom “good enough” is good enough. I am forever reading exceptional pieces of games journalism and waiting for the day when I write something so pivotal and so important to my career. And, occasionally, I feel like I’m getting close to that. I was delighted to receive several emails congratulating me on my Alan Titchmarsh piece for GSW/Gamasutra. It was far from being an essential read, and I’m very aware that its popularity will have had a lot to do with its being a hot topic, but still: it felt like a small victory.

    Lots of those small victories will, I am forever in hope, lead to a big one.

    And that’s what drives me to get up every day and write words about a kids’ hobby.

  3. It’s not so much that aspiring to something more isn’t an admirable goal in itself (I sliced a line out about that; with hindsight, I should have left it in to make my feelings clearer), more that not achieving shouldn’t be considered disastrous. Writing this was like a moment of clarity to me – realising that I shouldn’t beat myself up about the fact I mightn’t ever achieve what I want to.

    And I wouldn’t say you’re lower down the ladder at all. I’d love to write for Eurogamer, for example, but they won’t have me.

    I’m the same with the small victories. It’s nice when you just get a few positive words of feedback from someone you admire, or you appear in a well-respected publication.

  4. I truly empathise with that entry. Far too often lately I’ve questioned myself and my success or should I say lack of success. I’m sure by 25 I wanted to have accomplished more than I have…
    It’s reassuring to be reminded that I’m not alone and that ultimately it doesn’t really matter as much as I fear it does!

  5. If anyone wants a “self-doubt” T-shirt, I own the factory…

    Great piece, Chris. Thinking about being 32 is starting to become depressing, even though the average age for an author getting their first novel published is apparently 37.

    Still, I can’t help but look back at the wasted years and think about what might have been. And occasionally there’s a rueful glance at my forum post count, as I wonder what I could have achieved if I didn’t have Internet access.

  6. Potentially, your internet experiences could well have shaped Certainty, without you even realising. It’s easy to see internet time as wasted, even though you often learn a lot about people and other things just by casual browsing.

    At least that’s what I’m telling myself. It’s all part of a more positive outlook I’m going to try and have from now on.

  7. I’ve always suffered from a bit of ‘the grass is always greener’ but from my experience of being on both sides I’d say that making games is in no way better than writing about them. Alas, it’s taken me being a damn sight older than 32 to realise that.

    On the other hand, maybe that’s just the greener side talking again, luring me in with rose-tinted glasses.

    Arggg! I’m even more undecided now.

    Think positive, think positive…

  8. It’s more the romanticised notion of making games – the thought that you’d be entirely in control of your creation.

    Like writing, the pleasure would come in the result rather than the process.

  9. Great post Chris 🙂

    I think more than anything it’s the fear that we might one day become trapped by our chosen professions…

    But it’s important to remember we are never truly stuck, and that we always have the freedom to move about…

    Take Rhianna Pratchett, for example. She started out as a ‘lowly’ games journo, and now she’s busy working on some of the biggest I.Ps around…

    So let us for now enjoy writing about games (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty good job!), and just let the cards fall where they may! 😀 Who knows, next year we could be writing the next Portal or Bioshock…

    Rik


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