The Will to Learn

by Darius Kazemi on April 20, 2006

in Uncategorized

So Brad posed some good questions in the comments of my previous post (“On Breaking In, and Your Education“):

One thing I’d like to see this article expand to address is what should we do if we are not in any way “excellent.” I recognize that excellence is the remedy to all obstacles but sometimes it’s just not an available option. Is it different for a person who is motivated but not talented? What about those who are not well motivated but wouldn’t be happy taking any other path in life?

I also happened to see Brad last night, and I had a really great conversation about this very topic with Darren and Craig. (In fact, Craig’s post on Lazy Smart People came out of that same conversation.)

I’ll answer the second question first, because it’s just a whole lot easier for me to answer. If you are not well-motivated but wouldn’t be happy doing anything but creating video games: find some motivation. I have no idea how to do this. Otherwise, the game industry is not for you. You will make bad video games, and I would like to see fewer bad video games, so please stay out of the industry.

On the other hand, if you’re motivated but not talented, that’s okay. Talent can be learned. I’m not sure how other people learn to be good at stuff, but I’ll outline my general method.

As I put it to my friends last night, I think the best thing you can do is a breadth-first search of all knowledge. I’m not kidding. Learn a little bit about everything. EVERYTHING. The more you learn, the more likely it is that you will run into a natural talent you have. For instance, I didn’t know I was good at networking until I tried it. As you learn little bits about different things, you’ll hit on something cool, and you should learn more about that particular thing. Drill down. Get some depth. Meanwhile, never stop gaining breadth: keep learning something about everything. Soak up that information like a freaking sponge.

But you have to have a will to learn. If you have no will to learn… well…

I’ll give you something else to consider. Nobody says, “I’m not good at math, or analytical thinking, or abstraction, but I think I could be a pretty good theoretical physicist.” This is because people understand that theoretical physics is hard. Well I’m telling you now: making a good game is hard. Making a great game might be the hardest thing you ever do in your life. If you want to make great games, excellence is required. And if you’re not in this to make great games, then what good are you?

On the other hand, if you do possess a strong will to learn, then you can become excellent.


I don’t know, I get the feeling that this post is mostly BS. I wish I could say something better than, “Uh, learn everything and you will be awesome!” But I can’t. That’s all I know. Furthermore, every awesome person I know eats information for breakfast, too. So I think what I’m saying is correct. But it’s functionally useless. Sorry.


Craig Perko April 20, 2006 at 2:25 pm

The reason this post feels like BS to you is probably because it doesn’t solve anything or cause anything. All it really says is that there’s a piece of the puzzle you can’t help them with.

Which is an important thing to know, I suppose.

Patrick Dugan April 21, 2006 at 1:25 am

Read lots of books, watch lots of movies, talk to as many interesting people as you can, write or code or animate or whatever it is you do, and most of all, believe that you are The Shit, or probably better, believe that you are someone who can and will support excellence where it is found. As long as you have confidence in your will to make games, you can do anything.

Well, you might not hit on flash solutions to hard problems, but you can be a part of a project that implements such a groundbreaking solution.

So the key is, if you have your networ in place, to know about the really interesting projects, and learn about or if possible, work on them. Not everyone can work on Spore, but theres plenty of stuff on the indie scene that could use solid coders, artists and producers to see it to a polished final product.

We can’t all be Alexander the Great, but we can willingly suffer for a single person’s ambition. Heh, I mean, that doesn’t sound very good, but thats what the game industry is to a large extent.

Heres a better variant, we all can’t be Jesus, but we can follow and help make something really revolutionary come to be.

So my answer to the problem of not being excellent is: find Jesus. More specifically, look for Jesus-esque projects that need help.

Darren Torpey April 21, 2006 at 6:08 am

Actually, I feel that even in the very writing of this post you’ve actually started to address my comments & concerns. What I was trying to get at is that it’s often good to remind people that excellence can be earned by those with the will.

Sure, some aptitude is required, but that’s just a given in any worthwhile endeavor. If some poor schmoe who really can’t accomplish anything no matter how hard they try finds your advice and pursues a lost cause… well, fine. At least they didn’t give up without trying.

To err on the side of boldness and determination is always a good thing when it comes to believing in your ability to improve yourself. That’s all I’m trying to say, and it’s probably something you’ve been trying to say all along as well.

My comment was just that it’s good to remind people to not hyper-focus on the details that you share about how you use your specific skills that you tend to be particularly good at to accomplish your goals. It’s a shame when young people discount themselves prematurely because they think there’s an X factor that they just weren’t born with.

There is an X factor, but it’s more basic than, for example, your ability to network. It seems to me that anyone reading your blog and taking it seriously (as advice) has probably already got that X factor in there somewhere and it just needs to be nourished. =)

solipsistnation April 25, 2006 at 6:23 pm

Okay, the one thing I find that almost everybody I admire or whose work I admire (even if they’re assholes in person) is that they a) absorb all knowledge and find almost nothing boring and b) work their asses off.

I firmly believe that if you work your ass off on something, you can be good at it. Musicianship is a good example– there has actually been research done that discovered that the only difference between an accomplished musician and a not-so-hot musician is the amount of time they spend practicing.

Now, while that’s mostly technical (musicianship rather than songwriting, or you could think of it as programming versus game design) there’s definitely something to it. Nobody is born just good at something (idiot savants aside, I guess)– real skill is a product of will and effort.

The other aspect– creativity– also takes effort. The authors whose work I enjoy are, although they may be genre writers, fantastically diverse in their own reading and research. Iain Banks takes time off to drive fast cars and roam Scotland researching whisky; Neal Gaiman reads every piece of mythology that comes down the pike; Warren Ellis needs to start reading things he didn’t write again so he can get out of his rut, but when he was researching like a fiend his writing was amazing; and Isaac Asimov, of course, read EVERYTHING.

This follows through into game design– look at Bungie, for example. The Marathon games are PACKED with stuff that nobody will ever get, but even if you don’t bother to go and look up the “My Own Private Thermopylae” references (for example), it still gives the impression of a vast and living world created by people who wanted to express complex ideas and concepts through a limited medium.

The thing is, though, that not everybody will care enough to get good at things. Maybe doing masses of reading on all sorts of subjects doesn’t interest you and you’d rather code. Well, hell, code like a fiend and experiment and spent time coding. But if you want to be good at it, invest the time.

I would also advise against Patrick Dugan’s suggestion of “believing that you are The Shit.” Doing that means, well, you’re probably an asshole, or that you’ve gotten good
at something and you’ve started to believe what people say about you.

Another trait found in most people I admire is some semblance of humility. Humility is important– knowing that you DON’T know everything means that you have something toward which to work. If you go around believing that you’re The Shit and making sure people know it, how are you different from John Carmack, Who Will Make You His Bitch?

Not that you should necessarily wallow in self-denigration. If you DO know something, don’t hide that and don’t be afraid to make it known that you know it. But there are ways to express it with confidence without coming off as an egotistical ass.

Creative work is difficult, always.

Darius Kazemi April 25, 2006 at 6:27 pm

solipsistnation: well said! Although technically it was John Romero who wanted to make you his bitch.

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