I can only think big. It’s actually a problem.
You know that classic interview question: What is your biggest weakness? A lot of people’s approach to this is to take a good skill and frame it as a bad skill.
“I’m too detail oriented!”
“I like to work too much. No time for my family.”
“Usually my work is so good that my coworkers start to resent me.”
“One time, I didn’t have enough time to work because I was going to award ceremonies and winning all the prizes.”
“My biggest weakness? My lack of weaknesses doesn’t allow me to understand the plight of my fellow man.”
Okay, we get it. The problem with a lot of these is that they seem fake. During mock interviews, it’s not hard to spot the person who thinks framing of their strengths as weaknesses is a clever move. And while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not being aware of your actual weaknesses is.
If I tell someone that I’m deliberate with my work, I also let them know that I’m actually very slow too. I don’t work very fast. This probably means that I won’t be at the same pace as some of my coworkers. But I also don’t half-ass things too often. I don’t like shortcuts.
Deliberate but slow.
Or, what about the fact that I’m not really a complainer. Good thing? Maybe. But it causes me to hold back on criticism, and which is actually potentially destructive to a project.
If you’re ever doing an interview, acknowledge your weaknesses. It’s a good reflective practice. Moreover, it shows that you don’t think yourself perfect, and will likely be open to more criticism, which again, is good. None of us is without fault. Knowing where that lies is half the battle. GI Joe.
Here is where I’ll say that my ambition is a weakness, because it is. Every idea, concept…everything has good and bad sides to it.
Ambition is the “strong desire to do or achieve something”. Yet it’s just the desire. Because of that, it’s often the ambitious person who takes on large tasks because they have this strong desire. The bigger the task, the better. But ambition doesn’t deal with the execution. So in spite of taking these tasks, the ambitious person might never be able to complete them. In reality, smaller, practical tasks are always needed to reach the final, big outcome. Thinking big doesn’t often sync up with thinking practically.
Take learning a language. It’s not uncommon for the learner to say “I’ll learn Japanese” instead of saying “I’ll learn to make a basic sentence about colors in Japanese”. The former is big, ambitious, and doesn’t require much thought. The latter is smaller, grounded, and takes effort. It’s no surprise people like me go for the high-road, even when that road leads to failure.
When I conceive a new project, I think big. Sprawling worlds. Tens of towns. I think of the big RPGs that I love—the Final Fantasys and Suikodens and Xenoblades and Tales ofs (is that how you’d say that?)—and I want to replicate those. I’m not alone, either. This seems to be the goal of many game designers, especially those working on RPGs.
The problem is that those amazing games were made with teams of many people. Even in the early days of game development, RPGs weren’t one-man gigs. The original Final Fantasy was made by a team of nine, for instance. Different people headed up sound, art, world design, gameplay. And together they made an impressive product.
Nowadays, the foundation that former designers have placed as well as advanced tools in game design have helped to make what was once a nine-man job into probably something accomplishable by a smaller team. Depending on the talent of the individuals, perhaps even a one-man team could recreate an early Final Fantasy today.
To call that an easy job, however, would be foolish. Most people, even when they recognize the difficulty of it, make low estimates.
“I could make that. But… I think it’ll take a year.” (It takes two years.)
“This is going to be a big project. I’ll budget two years. (It then takes three and a half.)
“I’ll get this game out at the end of the month. (It’ll take another month and a slight scaling back of the original concept.)
This isn’t to be pessimistic. Rather, it’s to shed light on truth in game design. Things take time, and they often take more time than we originally imagine. In part because we imagine one or two aspects to be easier than they are. On the flipside, some of the hard concepts end up being easier, so there is some balance at play. Unfortunately, game design almost always takes more time than people expect it to. That, compounded with the fact that people take on ambitious projects, and we have a recipe for a lot of games that never see the light of day.
In the end, the biggest problem with ambition is that you take on projects bigger than you can handle. Throw a child into the ocean and they’ll likely drown. It doesn’t mean the task is impossible, but that smaller tasks like learning to swim in a pool or at the beach are better stepping stones. Even if a select few succeed, most people will fail when tasked with something far, far above their ability.
There are steps to take when working with ambition.
One way is to force yourself to think in terms of small projects that could expand to bigger projects.
My work with English Warrior is a testament to this. It’s a small project that could balloon into something bigger if I want to go that direction in the future. Even if I never make it huge, my ambition is satisfied knowing that it could be huge. That’s often enough.
Perhaps it’s the thought of greatness that is used to motivate. Ambition says “let’s build a pyramid”. The key is to be able to break it down into less ambitious sub-projects. First, we find the blocks to build it up. Then we assemble it from the ground up. The “small project that could become big” is this, in a sense. It’s just being satisfied with something that isn’t “complete”. Working with ambition is always a mind game anyways.
Another way is to use your initial burst of ambitious energy to get a good start. The key here is to understand the progress you’ve made when you realize the true nature of your task.
Take Japanese. When I started, I did it with the big goal of “mastering Japanese and knowing everything”. Ambitious. It gave me motivation to blindly start ascending, but it also made me shriek when the haze lifted and I clearly saw the mountain before me. Kilimanjaro reaching towards the heavens. I laughed. “[expletive] this,” I said. But when I turned back, I saw that I’d already made some progress. “I’ve climbed that far? Not bad. Okay, maybe I just don’t have perspective.” Years later, and this mountain is my home. It wasn’t just the difficult road I’d seen from the base; it was the great view, the smell of the woods and flowers, the wit of the travelers I’d met. I couldn’t understand what wonders the mountain would hold when I saw it at the bottom. I thank my ambition for getting me started.
So we can think small, with the goal of “big, eventually”. And as long as we maintain perspective, we can use ambition to fuel our journey.
I’ve been more deliberate with my game-making recently. In deciding the next project, I’ve been laying down the foundation of other projects. Making a bunch of basic ideas and writing them down. “Which one do I want to tackle?” is the formative question. It’s like prototyping, only less technical. I think I’ve settled on the project I want right now, but I’m not ready to announce anything until I make the basic game and see if it works. You know: the actual prototype.
Truthfully, I’ve managed to satisfy my ambition by planning out a bunch of projects. Even if I only ever act on one of these, the ambition in my mind is happy.
And now I wonder…is it really ambition I’m taking about? Elon Musk’s ambition led him to plan and execute a bunch of projects. Or maybe his ambition helped him plan and his stick-to-it-iveness helped him execute. Maybe “will” is a better concept?
I’m not sure. I’ll call it ambition for now, but there’s probably a better word.
All aside, the real takeaway here is that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and those weaknesses can be harnessed as long as we take the right measures.
Likewise, if “ambition” is your weakness, do your best to look at your tasks pragmatically and reflect on the distances you have traveled.
Good luck, too. Big tasks ain’t easy.