Advice

Given that this blog is still connected to my Twitch channel which seems to anchor all my other online encounters, I wanted to talk a little bit about advice. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the kind of advice you get on the internet, and how generally careless we seem to be about who we ask for this. It seems to me a lot of the time what we are asking for are opinions, but because a lot of the people we are interacting with are ‘known for doing some thing’ (make a game, write a book, have a YouTube channel) we lose sight of what their area of expertise might be and ask inappropriate questions. This is compounded by the fact that it seems that we are also just generally expected to have opinions about things, that nobody really likes to say “I’m sorry, I really don’t know” in public, and the fact that it’s easier to become ‘known for doing some thing’ as the barriers to entry become lower.

I don’t think I can be really comprehensive on this topic, and it might just boil down to some good old fashioned griping, but I thought I’d start with the most recent example I saw online.

A catalyst

I thought about how I would introduce this quote. It’s from a well known broadcaster, and I generally feel that there needs to be credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I also know there is a tendency online for things to get blown out of proportion and what  becomes an engagement with an idea suddenly becomes a referendum on one’s taste and character. I also think my preference is to treat everyone as if they were reasonable and then just deal with the people who behave disrespectfully , and so I was originally just going to post a direct link to it. I decided against this. One big reason is because the ‘who’ does not matter as much once some limited biographical details are revealed. Also, it is not especially difficult to find out who it is, so if you really want to find out I can’t really stop you. I only ask that you consider your motives in doing so, as so far as the content of this post is concerned, I will post what I think is relevant. That throat clearing out of the way, here’s the quote:

The worse advice given to aspiring streamers is ‘focus on your chat’ instead of ‘focus on being entertaining and learn how to present’

Obviously, this is not the worst advice an aspiring streamer can get, but my intention here isn’t really to nitpick. With regards to the claim, my biggest issue is that focusing on chat and focusing on being entertaining and learning how to present are not substitutes. It is not a natural opposition to say ‘focus on your chat’ or ‘focus on entertaining/presenting’ and I think many people who give the ‘focus on chat’ style advice do so because it is a useful heuristic to make people a better entertainer. That is, if I consider my audience (even if there is nobody there, so potential audience) I am likely to be conscious of how I’m coming across and take active steps towards improving my presentation style while openly saying ‘focus on being entertaining and presenting’ just leads us to “well how am I supposed to do that?” Notice that it’s kind of hard to distinguish between the two once you talk about them. This is the kind of statement that works well on the internet because there’s just enough fuzziness to give you a bit of wriggle room if it does turn into an argument, but diminishes its value as advice. The same could be said of ‘focus on your chat’ to be fair (How should I focus on chat? Should I not ban people to expand my audience? Should I not care when people start backseating me? Do I need to say hello to everyone who comes in?) but at least it has the benefit of being actionable in the heat of the moment on cast.

Moving on, I can see that there’s some room for disagreement here. Some people will likely say that a focus on chat is overrated (I may even agree. eSports professionals are great examples of people who tend not to have a lot of interaction and yet are successful), or that focus on chat is important but not to the exclusion of others (again I would not disagree with this, but not everyone is as inclined to give mega essays when asked a question). One of the biggest problems I have with this advice is a very large disconnect between the perceived authority of this individual (they’re a big broadcaster) and the areas on which they can provide good advice. Here are some biographical details that I consider pertinent:

  • They got their start and are primarily active on YouTube
  • They started making the content they are best known for in 2010, though had been producing gaming related broadcast content since 2005 (I can’t say for sure. I consider the 2010 start most relevant)

So let’s consider the advice again. Is this advice consistent with their experience? Almost certainly yes. Their primary format involves producing content not known for its interactivity, and so it is sensible that they would value chat interaction less. YouTube, however, is not streaming, and while there are similarities, the differences are substantial. More importantly, this broadcaster got their ‘start’ (caveats in the bullet points aside) seven years ago. While it is true this individual is a successful broadcaster, not only is their start further back in the past for a more static style of broadcast, but the entire landscape was different from what it is today. The fact of the matter is that for all this individual’s accomplishments, and whatever merits they may have in other spheres, they are inappropriately leveraging their success in one aspect of broadcast to issue proclamations with authority in another area where they should not hold as much weight. There is something of a personality factor here. For instance, this person generally is fairly forceful in their opinions and so is less likely to offer the ever-admirable “I don’t really know, it’s not my area of expertise.” And, of course, there is something to be said for a person judging their sources of advice carefully. However, so long as we are operating in a world where people feel the need to offer opinions on just about everything, and have a level of fame that in the past might have counted as quite something, let’s think a bit about the advice we seek and particularly the bad advice we get.

Inappropriate questions

I would like to make a game. This may not be the same as wanting to get into the games industry any more than someone at a craft fare wants to get into the garment manufacture industry, but suppose I caught the bug enough that I said “okay, I want to break into the games industry and make this my life’s work.” Where should I look for advice? How about some designers I really like: Alexis Kennedy? Soren Johnson? Julian Gollop? Paul Kilduff-Taylor? Sid Meier? All remarkably talented individuals who have delivered on multiple projects and I’d more or less give a blank cheque to so far as their next game goes. Assuming I could reach out (and at least one on that list does answer questions for sure), would they be the most appropriate choice for advice? And the answer is… it depends. What is the question I’m going to ask? If the question is “how do I break into the games industry” then I’m probably asking the wrong question because I think the youngest first project in that list is about 7 years old, possibly 10. I have no doubt that they would try their best, and would try to offer advice consistent with their experience in maybe bringing new people on to a team or just generally what they’d know from working in that field, but these are all people who simply will not be able to experience ‘breaking in’ to an industry that they have all shaped in their own way. Simply put, if the advice didn’t turn out I’d not really be in a position to complain.

I watched a lecture given by Robert Merton where he explained that once he got the Nobel Prize (Economics) people would be asking him questions about everything, including medical problems. This case is easy to tease, but is it really all that different from the case of game designers? Do we really expect designers with a decade or more of experience to be reading ‘101 Ways to Break in to Game Development’ or to be enrolling in a game design college to keep up to date on ‘breaking in’? Do we expect the world to remain static so that those designers will be in a position to give relevant advice?

It may be that all of the people listed above are really great at answering this question anyway, but my experience has been that when this happens it’s because the person giving advice possesses the rare talent of identifying the question that should have been asked. That is, like a good teacher, they are able to discern the motivation behind the question and tailor it to the student’s circumstances. “I don’t understand this” has a range of causes from misunderstanding the sentence just uttered to lacking the prerequisites for the topic and just as many remedies. A good teacher can tease this out, but we can help a lot by asking the right questions in the first place.

Aggrandizing advice

These seem to come up most frequently as unsolicited statements like there quote above (performative advice that marks one’s status a thought leader), and on panels at convention. The personification of this kind of advice is in response to the inevitable “How do I become a successful streamer?” with the equally inevitable “Well you just need to work hard and keep a positive attitude…” to which I have been dying to hear the more instructive followup “How did you get your head so far up your ass? Was it nudged incrementally over the years or did you just slam it in all in one go?” In the best case this is simply repeating platitudes and acts as a stand in for ‘I don’t know’. Even then, I’m still not inclined to let someone off the hook since this still is prioritizing the desire to seem knowledgable over the wellbeing of the person asking the question. In truth, I think the reasons for giving this kind of advice are less benign, but this may simply say something about me. Either way, are we to infer that the people who are not successful are lazy and have bad attitudes?

Sometimes this really just boils down to asking the wrong person for advice. Presumably you would like anyone who are asking for advice from to have some stake in your outcome, even if that stake is simply being a nice person and wanting to see more people in the world happy. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the people you look up to are particularly good at giving advice or at least won’t be indifferent to their advice going badly. Clearly unsolicited advice (usually in the form of proclamations) are easier to identify here. When encountering people individually it’s harder because you already have the investment of meeting someone you look up to. As before, excellence in one field does not mean someone will be nice, good at giving advice, or even very good at anything else. Nike even made a commercial about it.

Being asked

Up to this point I’ve been fairly confrontational with the person giving advice, but the truth is that more of us are finding ourselves in a position to give advice. New platforms open up for opportunities to give advice from ask.fm to stackexchange and your influence extends further than you think. I am a very small Twitch streamer, and yet once I passed 1,000 followers I found I would be getting more questions about ‘being successful on Twitch.’ I don’t feel particularly successful in so far as reaching a broad audience is concerned, and yet clearly I mattered enough to some people to merit the question. This is encouraging, but also somewhat daunting. If I were to have more substantial accomplishments I suspect I would still find it a bit disconcerting. A post from Neil Gaiman suggests that fame does not make this any easier.

The best I can say is to be honest. In one sense it’s very flattering to be asked and in a perfect world the compliment of being asked really should be enough. There is a very strong tendency to want to push the advantage and start running down a path of giving bad advice that you will ultimately not face the consequences for. Obviously paralysis about ‘what if I mislead someone’ isn’t particularly helpful either because presumably the person would like an answer. I worked in camera for movies for a while, and so it was not uncommon to have people ask ‘how to break into the industry’ (even total strangers on the street while I was coming out of the truck). Time permitting I would try to talk about my particular circumstances and then move to a more general point. I don’t think this is especially effective advice, but I suppose in the interest of disclosure I should say what I said and we can critique it after.

How I got into camera

From school up to the moment I worked on my first union project I looked for every opportunity I could to work on a film set. Student projects, indies, everything, and often without pay. I worked as a Production Assistant for a while and found myself tending the craft service table on a TV show. A nice thing about this placement is that craft service gets to meet just about everyone because they have all the snacks. I had always tried to be personable, but especially in this case I made sure she knew about my interest in camera and, since I was a nice young man and helped her when she needed, she mentioned to the camera crew about my interest and, as it happened, there was a shortage of trainees on another big show that they had some friends on. I got a call later inviting me to help out on a couple of big days.

But that wasn’t the end. The union eventually caught wind that someone out of the program was being used as a trainee and they put a stop to that, so I was back more or less where I started. I continued as I had before, with perhaps a few more camera gigs due to having some experience, until I worked on a short film for a 48 hour film competition which happened to have a secretary at the union as one of the actresses (I didn’t know this at the time). They showed the film at the office, the head of the trainee program commented on the lighting and the actress noted that I had applied for the trainee program. By their telling they got a call from a TV show looking for a new trainee and I got the invitation to got in.

I haven’t really gotten to the advice part, but obviously if someone is in a rush I’d just tell them the application process for the trainee program. I’d tell the story above to make the point that any ‘how did you break in’ story is usually very unique to the individual and, while maybe not as baroque as mine, doesn’t really have any repeatable path to entry. That is, most ‘rules’ likely would likely be short lived as there are more applicants than positions and the channels would get clogged (for instance, once upon a time in a book somewhere apparently an independent filmmaker said that dentists had a lot of money and had boring jobs which made them inclined to financing independent films. I am told this lead to a point where there were places where dentists had to screen calls from aspiring filmmakers, though I never looked to verify if this was actually the case). The point of telling my own story was one, to establish my lack of credentials (I don’t have one weird trick to get you into camera), and point out that everyone kind of has their own unique path to getting into that business.

What are the actionable behaviours I would draw from that story? I would usually suggest that being open to opportunities when they emerge helps, because hanging around professional productions as a PA let me see how the big guys did it and I learned a bit about how scenes were lit and generally people went about making movies (this helped me when it came time to that 48 hour film as I wound up taking on a lot more responsibilities than just camera). Also, any one of those productions I could have worked on might have been the ‘break’. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ‘found out’ on that first show I was a trainee on and in another world I just got into the program there rather than waiting another year. Each opportunity was a roll of the dice, so while each chance was slim, the aggregation would eventually tilt in my favour. Being able to talk to people doesn’t hurt, because in the end you are looking for a position that involves working with people, and in the case of film it’s long hours for extended periods of time. If you are difficult to get along with, the show is going to be miserable, while if you’re easy to get along with you will eventually have your choice of show because you are in demand. Being personable allows you to work with difficult people which opens you to experience that others might miss due to personality conflicts. Basically, stay open to as many opportunities as you can (get as many rolls of the dice as you can), and if it doesn’t come naturally for you, cultivate an ability to talk to talk to people (including difficult people), let them know you’re interested, and generally find mentors who will help you build your skills and cultivate your passion for the job.

Was that good advice?

The advice part was a little muddled simply because I usually wouldn’t go over that material unless it was over coffee with someone or in some other context where I could do some kind of Q&A, but generally the ‘open to opportunity’ and ‘be personable’ themes would come across. How does that rank against what I’ve written before?

The ‘man with a plan who uses his raw charisma to seduce craft service into getting him a job’ might be aggrandizing advice, but anyone who has met me knows that a) I’m not that charismatic, b) that wasn’t my opening into the industry, and c) craft service volunteered to let the camera department know. The better takeaway is that if you treat people as means to an end of ‘getting that job’ people will detect it and you’re likely not smart enough to see where the opportunity comes (most people would not see craft service as a means to get into camera. While the departments may be regimented, people share a workspace and they talk to each other. It’s easier to actually be nice to people and take an interest in them than to pretend all the time in hopes that they can advance your career).

One big problem with this story is that it potentially makes people waste a lot of time and do something that I don’t think is very good: work for free. At the time I was trying to get in, there was no shortage of productions who were perfectly happy to snap up free labour even though they had the budget to pay them. I stupidly worked for one production company on several commercials without pay until I had other opportunities at which point they offered to pay me (i.e. I wasn’t going to get what I didn’t ask for, and I obviously had value to them). Someone’s circumstances may not allow them to dedicate that time to work for free, or at low pay, and ultimately I did do a lot of work that wasn’t relevant to my job. While my temperament is such that I could pick up some details by simply being present, I can’t really argue this was a very efficient use of the time. In the end it was ultimately going out and working on an independent short in a senior position that was the  ‘break’ and this is what a lot of people suggest outright (i.e. Between spending money on film school or an independent film, most people think the film is the better use of the money).

I’m trying to give myself a hard time on the advice about being personable, but I still think this holds up. It carries with it the recognition that not everyone is so active in stating their interests or meeting people (particularly the people in a position to give them a job). That is, it’s different from ‘have a good attitude’ because it does not immediately imply that people who have not followed my advice are arrogant or standoffish, just potentially shy. Even then, I think there are problems here. I dealt with some pretty verbally abusive and demanding bosses. This is an unfortunate reality of at least my department (and I think in the film industry in general, and I have little reason to think it’s changed even though it’s now been a while since I worked in it), and I think it would be a firing offense in any other context. This advice could very well lead someone to a position where they are belittled and degraded and don’t stand up for themselves in the name of ‘following good advice’. It’s hard to find the right balance here, because on one hand advice should account for the realities of the industry (i.e. If someone is looking for advice regarding to working in sewage treatment, the smell should probably be taken as a condition of employment), and yet this is a negative that should be changed and advice that leaves people in a position to simply ‘accept’ it may entrench something that should be dislodged. In truth, I probably make more of a virtue of my ability to work with difficult people than I should, because it absolutely was something that allowed me to get more work when I was starting out. On the other hand, I also think that working with difficult people is a good, if not essential, skill to have. Perhaps the change I would make would be to leaven it with a bit more attention to the individual and their ability to be professional and personable without being a doormat.

Advice on advice

It’s hard to avoid a certain self-consciousness about writing about advice. During most of the writing I’ve had plenty of reflections on ‘motes and logs’ (Matthew 7:3) running through my head. Mostly I think we could stand to be a bit more discerning in the advice we consume because technology seems to move much faster than our ability to appreciate the shift it creates in the landscape. Various social and media platforms have created a level of specialization where it’s not that unique to be ‘famous for being famous’ and that even small time players (such as myself) can develop something of a dedicated audience. It’s great that people like my stuff, but being entertaining, or even knowledgeable in one area, does not grant me any special weight when discussing other topics. As it is, I know I certainly still react as if I’m in a media environment where I see people for basically accomplishing things and generally being sought out for their opinion on the topic being discussed. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Because this environment is becoming more and more specialized many more of us are finding ourselves in which we are sought for advice, and so we can also take some steps in terms of what we are saying and the potential effects it can have. We are obviously not responsible for the behavior of others, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time and consider basic things like “am I saying this because I think it’s good advice, or because it will make me good?” or “am I really setting someone down a worthwhile path with this?” (or, simpler “should I even be offering an opinion here?”). I may bruise my ego in admitting that I don’t know something, and maybe the person asking will think less of me for it, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll think any better of me if they turn around and blame me for whatever half baked advice I come up with to avoid social embarrassment.

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