Self-Esteem is for Losers

For much of my life i have been told that confidence is good for you, don’t dwell on the past, don’t dwell on mistakes, etc. More personally, i’ve been told that i have a hard time finding girlfriends because confidence is sexy and i have none of it. In addition, i am too pessimistic, negative and broody. Any time i do something, i focus on the negative.

i generally ignore this advice (and it is almost always intended to be helpful advice from helpful friends) because i think it’s stupid. While aspects of it, in the right context, might be helpful, normally the advice is wrong. More specifically, it is loser logic, and i hate losers.

i also hate vague aphorisms — if there is one thing i have spent a lot of my career and teaching doing it is insisting that details matter. So let’s look at an example.

i back a lot of indie games on KickStarter, some because i like them, some because i want to encourage people who are trying. One of the games i backed failed. They just sent an email about it and it included this line:

“we are not ones to not look at our own mistakes and shortcomings first”

They then go on to blame timing (they launched when too many other campaigns were launching), the media (they wouldn’t cover us) and other things.

If i say confidence is bad, i suspect most people will tell me i’m an idiot. If i say the above reaction is bad, hopefully most people will agree with me.

If not, let’s explain it.

i hate excuses. Actually, i’m not sure if that’s right. i hate language. i hate that we consistently use words that don’t actually mean something. “Excuse” is one of them. What’s an excuse? Is it a reason? That’s not something to hate. A reason that’s wrong? That’s a mistake but not a moral failing. A reason that blames someone else? That’s not necessarily bad. A reason that blames someone else incorrectly? Again, a mistake but not necessarily a moral failing. A reason that blames someone else when you were the problem? That’s the shade of moral failure that i’m thinking of. If you say “i can’t find a unicorn because they don’t exist”, the person demanding one might say “No excuses, get it done”, at which point the person saying “no excuses” is an idiot. That’s not the kind of “excuse” i mean. i hate the kind of excuses where you try to sell something, no one buys it and you say “we are not ones to not look at our own mistakes and shortcomings first”.

They said they were going to try again — spend a few more months working on the project then launch a second funding campaign. Will it work the next time?

This quote comes from a team of 8 people in Spain who had an idea, a YouTube video of (i assume) game play and were asking for a relatively small sum of money ($83k, which is on the low side for indie games on KickStarter).
They argued many things in their letter but they all boiled down to one thing based on something i hate — an unspoken assumption. i hate implicit assumptions (steps, etc.). Since any part of their reasoning might hold the key to winning, by not stating an assumption they risk overlooking something they need.

So they did two things i hate — they didn’t state their assumptions and they didn’t look at their mistakes. In my mind, this makes them losers. Not the losing part — lots of people fail, including really good people. Sometimes it’s just chance. It’s the attitude — i want to win but i’m not going to do what it takes to win and — that means they’ll probably fail again for the same reasons as before and that upsets me. It’s inefficient, wasteful, and waste drives me nuts. It’s so ugly.

If i failed, the first thing i’d do is check my assumptions and focus on my mistakes.

Let’s start with the assumptions. This project makes two:

1. Obviously people want what we’re selling.
2. Obviously we’re better than anyone else.

Why do we fail? Options include a)they don’t want what we’re selling, b)they don’t know they want what we’re selling and the rarely mentioned c)they want but can’t get what we’re selling. Let’s ignore the third option for now (not everyone can afford a Ferrari but most people in the white world have Internet access, can get a free Kickstarter account, can afford a $10 game and have a Windows PC with Steam to play it). That leaves either people don’t want your product or they don’t know about it. If you make the assumption that of course people want it, who wouldn’t want to date an overweight, 30 year old, unemployed, pot head drummer who lives in an Honda?, the reason you failed has to be that people just didn’t know how awesome you are. And if that assumption is true, great, but if it turns out that your hamburgers taste like soap and no one wants a car that is half truck or a leader who thinks Jews run a dinosaur bone plant that hires negroes to plant fake bones where atheist scientists can find them in order to make good, God-fearing people drive Priuses so that their sperm count will be lower thus letting the Mexicans take over, well, maybe coming up with a new advertising campaign isn’t going to fix your problems.

i’ve heard that many people will only have one idea in their life and they are so desperate and insecure in their abilities that they cling to that idea like it’s their baby, making the thought of saying “nope, bad idea, let’s not do it” inconceivable and making them hear “i think this idea has a problem” as “i raped your mother you fat, goat-fucking cow”. This is a problem because throwing time, energy, money and other sacrifices at a bad idea means you’re going to fail. It doesn’t matter that it’s the only idea you’ll ever have, it’s still bad. If you refuse to consider the possibility that your idea or product is bad, you are explicitly choosing to failure and you are a loser.

A few more details: i knew the game existed because it was an Editor’s Pick. Several of the games i’d backed had sent emails telling me to check it out. Perhaps this implies that they game was good but it also implies that the game was well known — it was not some under the radar game lost in the crowd. Despite this, the game only managed to raise $15k. The team should have strongly considered the possibility that maybe people just didn’t like what they saw.

Now let’s talk about the second thing, focusing on your mistakes. If the most important thing to you is your self-esteem, this is probably bad (although in my mind, if your focus in life is on your self-esteem, you’re a loser). However, if your focus is on succeeding, thinking about your mistakes is like eating pie and dancing with Snoopy.

The reason you failed comes in two varieties — your fault and not your fault. These, in turn, affect two properties — your self-esteem (which, as i’ve mentioned, is for losers) and control.

If the reason you failed is that infamous, vague, faceless, unnamed but absolutely-positively-exists The Man is holding you down, it’s not your fault. You’re a good person who deserves friends, love, riches and Heaven and it’s that other guy (the government, Wall Street, gays, corporations, immigrants, ivory tower academics, Jews, etc.) who is evil. Which is the same thing as saying “i’m a sissy little weakling that’s completely inferior to my enemies who beat me like the little bitch that i am”. Which is apparently what one believes when one wants high self-esteem. When it’s someone else’s mistake, it’s not your fault because there was nothing you could do. You had no control. Which means that if you were to do it again, you’d couldn’t change anything and you’d fail again.

If the reason you failed is because you did something wrong, that means you have the power to change it. That means that if you tried again, you’d get different results. If you failed again, you could try one more time and get yet another result, repeating until you either win or decide you don’t want to.

Most people don’t try big undertakings. They don’t try to start companies or win competitions or that sort of thing. Most will fail. At that point you have the option of saying:

1. i failed because of my decisions and i’m going to change them and try again
2. i failed because of my decisions and decided not to try again
3. i failed because of someone else and i can’t win do i’m not going to try
4. i failed because of someone else and i’m going to try again, get stopped again and fail again

The first two are the “negative”, “low self esteem” approaches where you blame yourself. The optimistic, self-confidence approaches are “i give up because i can’t win” and “i failed once and i’m going to do it again”. Of the people i’ve seen who fail at something big, the vast majority of the ones i’ve seen blame someone else. i think they figure it will make them look and feel better. i have never understood why thinking “i’m a powerless bitch getting victimized by The Man and i’ll never get what i want” makes you feel better than “i made a mistake and i have the power i won’t do it again”.

Back to our story. This team of people has said that they will try again. They will not change the game in any way — no change in style, plot, art, setting, etc. — nor will they change how they market it. They will try it in a different month (October, they argue, will be a lot better than June). They will send press releases to the same magazines (although i assume they will now say “we’ve already failed, give us a second chance”). They have told us, their backers, to post more YouTube videos which, in their mind, will make the game so much more well known that they will get funded this time for sure. And that, to me, sounds like a recipe for failure.

There are a lot of reasons why something might fail that have nothing to do with the thing. In this case, the novelty of backing indie games on Kickstarter has worn off, the glut of competing games has grown (a problem which killed the Apple iPhone store for indies), being an early believer and making the game a possibility often means paying much more for the game than just buying it when it’s finally done, a lot of Steam games are bad, a few high profile projects (most notably the Homestuck game) have turned out to be scams, most games are released years late and Steam has caused most people to have far more games than they have time to play. In addition, this particular team has never successfully shipped a game before and EVERYONE underestimates how hard it is — there’s no reason to believe these guys will release a good game. A lot of that isn’t their fault. Not recognizing these problems and planning for them is. What do you do about “the novelty of backing indies has worn off”? You come up with a way to deal with that. If you can’t think of one, you quit — don’t throw good money after bad. Either option is fine. Ignoring that it’s a problem and plunging head again, only this time telling your fans to do a better job, is stupid, lazy and offensive.

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