I’m Cranky. Must Be Low Self-Esteem.

Self-esteem is crippling our nation.

The problems are not particular to the gaming industry, of course. I once had a job stuffing envelopes for a worthy non-profit. After a solid week of work, the “professional” I was working with realized all of the envelopes were slightly wrong – the name list was not in sync with the address list. The woman looked at the enormous pile of my work, and giggled. And when I glared at her (yes, I only glared, I was seventeen and had not yet come into my own), she burst into tears and reported me for being mean.

Years later, I had a sign on my desk that said “I’m not mean, you’re just a sissy.”

There are aspects of our self-esteem nation that are magnified to a painful degree by the vagaries of our fledgling industry. Getting along with people is nice, and I’d rather work with someone who isn’t a selfish prick, but I’ll take a competent cretin over a hand-flapping incompetent sweetheart any day of the week and twice on Sundays. I’m not kidding about the Sundays, either, as every industry vet knows.

Unfortunately, gaming is prone to keeping their incompetent sweethearts long past the point where any functional organization would have thrown in the towel. The hours are so grueling, the crunch times so long, the “Uh, yeah, I’m going to have to ask you to come in on Saturday” utterances so frequent, that when you stumble into the office on three hours of sleep after six consecutive all-nighters with your toddler’s query of “Who dat?” still ringing in your ears, you do not want to talk to the guy who peers at you through the miasma of his own stench and says, in a bubbly tone, “You look like hell, good buddy. Have you thought about going home for a few hours?”

You would rather set that guy on fire. You choose not to set that guy on fire only because doing so would raise the ambient temperature of the office by a few degrees. And it’s already 30°C (85° F) on your floor, because while one group of people is making weekend attendance mandatory and ordering in Special Sunday Snacks to keep you from biologically needing to leave, a different group of people has decided against paying the hundred bucks an hour it would take to turn on the air conditioner on weekends. It’s too hot to think, let alone start a fire.

So it is of no small importance that you like your fellow residents of the FunFactory Oven Chamber. And yet, the foxhole buddy mentality leads to a certain lack of solid thinking on your part. The incompetent sweetheart is creating work by his very existence. His work will have to be redone, if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, she won’t have done the work at all, having been in the planning stages for three years.

Admittedly, the schedule was designed by people who themselves got to management by working eighty hour weeks, so their entire attitude is “pay your dues, bitch.” It never crosses their minds that they were either enormously short staffed or incompetently managed. Or both.

Tolerating the incompetent fellow because he’s such a nice guy backfires fiercely with a “pay your dues” manager. He looks at the one woman who has been thinking deep thoughts for months on end, and uses her as proof that the whole team could be working harder. It’s that kind of myopia that made him the manager he is today!

You don’t have to be under fire to find someone who needs to get a different job. Even in the lazy days of summer, years before launch, you can find someone unfit to occupy his chair. When you ask him to do something, something that was laid out in the job description, his instant response is to tell you how difficult it is.

That is not acceptable from a professional who is hired to perform a task. The only acceptable response to “can you do this” is “when do you need it?” If an employee cannot respond that way, either he is overscheduled, poorly scheduled, or incompetent. The first two can be taken up with his manager. Making excuses for the third is an exercise in futility.

NB: Simply refusing to grant your request is not in and of itself evidence of incompetence. The problem might be that YOU are incompetent. As a manager, you need to have a rough idea of what it will take to execute your desire, and have a basic awareness of what else that person is doing. If you are ignorant on either score, remedy that before you climb on your high horse. I have fallen off my high horse on a number of occasions. It hurts. Better not to get on until you’re sure.

Let’s assume you’re smart enough to detect incompetence. Why does everyone get so bent out of shape over the word incompetent? Why has it become synonymous with “a bad person”? I get a lot of flak for caring about semantics. Sorry. Well, no, I’m not sorry. I think using precisely the right word is a useful skill in an industry that can’t use physical cues to clarify meaning. When you can’t see a customer’s face, it is useful to possess the ability to communicate through the written word.

“Incompetent” is a descriptive word. Its primary meaning is “not properly qualified,” or “not adequate for the purpose.” Do either of those definitions have anything to do with the incompetent person’s charm, wit, sweetness, or ability in the sack?

“It’s not his fault! He’s doing his best!” For two seconds, let’s be intellectually honest and acknowledge that sometimes one’s best just isn’t good enough. And that is okay. I am an incompetent chemical engineer. I am incompetent when it comes to playing any simulation game that makes use of the Z-axis. Fine. Don’t hire me to develop a new type of artificial sweetener, and don’t let me into an F16.

“We used to revere individual accomplishment. Now we revere self-esteem, and the reverence has snowballed.” Fred Morrison, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan.



  1. Matthew said,

    June 6, 2007 at 10:57 am

    I don’t think you’re a very nice person. 😛

    Thought this might interest you too if you haven’t already heard it:

  2. Glenn said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Speaking of incompetence, here’s an interesting paper from a couple years ago, published by the American Psychological Association. It’s about the relationship between incompetence and increased self-assessment, and is well worth the ten minute read.


    (is it possible to post hyperlinks?)

  3. Jeremy Dalberg said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:34 am

    That would be the one Sanya linked to after the bolded line… 😛

  4. Amber said,

    June 6, 2007 at 11:55 am

    I think the reason being called incompetent is so stinging is because we base so much of our own self worth on our jobs. Most of us spend 1/3 or more of our life at work, so it makes sense that we would attach a lot of our self esteem to our jobs.

    You’re not really an incompetent chemical engineer, because you’re not a chemical engineer at all. Nobody has the expectation, so there’s no hook to hang the “incompetent” tag on. If, on the other hand, you spent 4-6 years of your life being trained in things chemical engineerish, and then spent 8-12 hours per day actually doing things chemical engineerish, then being labeled as an incompetent chemical engineer would be a much bigger deal. Especially if you knew it to be true.

    I believe most incompetent people already know they’re incompetent. There are, however, those who believe the exact opposite of themselves. They are the truly dangerous ones. You can usually tell who they are because they can’t do their jobs, but management loves them.

  5. Blackblade said,

    June 6, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    Exellent post. And Amber, along with that train of thought (Spot on), the even bigger sting I think is that things being the way that they are, economically speaking, it can even have far-reaching procussions.

    I’m a DBA, and a programmer. I went to school for it, esentially becoming an indentured serveant to learn what I learned. It’s what I’ve spent the better half of my life learning to become. If someone said, “You’re an incompetent DBA and programmer”, and my boss believes it and everyone knows it.. where does that leave me? Half my life, wasted on something I’m no good at?

    Some people can shrug it off, but it’s not always due to confidence or work – it’s more about time and investment. I can’t get back the years I spent learning to be a DBA and program, nor the money I spent my my ridiculously overpirced formal trainning. I can’t now say, “Oh well.. Guess I’m not as good at this as I thought I was, so I’ll just go down the street to company X and get a job at what I know FOR SURE I’m good at and get a job that pays just as much.”

    Confidence can be a factor, work can be a factor, but I think the realization of the time and investements that apparently didn’t pay off leave a person with the most sting when being told they’re incompetent.

    My humble two cents.

  6. Solok said,

    June 6, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    I wonder if the question “Does she think I’m incompetent?” is being asked by a bunch of people you’ve worked with in your career. I agree with working with people who are not qualified or have the necessary motivation to perform there tasks is frustrating – managing those people is frustrating – and being managed by one is frustrating. Of course, if you whole organization is full of those people, or the key decision makers are those people – the person who stays deserves what they get. And yes, I’m in that situation (some would debate which role I play) and I deserve everything I am getting.

  7. Servitor said,

    June 6, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Yes, “incompetent” translates to my gut as “failure at life,” even though that’s not its inherent meaning. As others have said above, it carries with it the implication of, “You even had people sit with you and teach you this for years, and you still cannot do it right. It’s because you suck.” Maybe it shouldn’t carry that, but it often does.

    It would be lovely if one could work in an environment with no incompetent people, but such environments are rare. Also, as Amber has said above, management often seems to have a weird love for incompetent people. So what does one do in the meantime to cope? I have my own coping mechanisms, but I’m interested in what others do.

  8. TPRJones said,

    June 6, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Lovely write-up. In my industry (community college administration) no one is ever fired for incompetance. They just get shuffled around and end up being put into a position to spend your tax dollars as poorly as possible.

    I only still work here because I can do nothing and get paid for it, and the high number of paid days off is a good bonus. Having pride in my work was burned out awhile back.

  9. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 6, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    If you have put years of effort into something and you still suck, well, that’s rather my point. Someone should have stopped you before it got to the point of “years.” But no. In our attempt to enshrine Self Esteem as the end all and be all of expectations, we allow people who should JUST CHANGE JOBS to linger on, until they’ve been doing it for so long that it borders on cruel to tell them they are bad.

    Regarding my coworkers of Christmas Past – the ones who read this and think “does she mean me?” may rest assured: I don’t mean you. It is always the one to whom such negative thoughts would never occur that is most often represented in lists of the incompetent – whether the list comes from me or from Santa Claus.

    Also, in some cases on this blog, I’m writing about experiences I’ve had quite outside of former employers. But having to put NOT MYTHIC on every post would get boring, and furthermore, would ensure that many people would be even more certain I meant to sling mud. I can’t do anything about that. It’s too bad, too, there are many people at Mythic who would rank among the finest this industry has to offer at any other studio.

  10. Garthilk said,

    June 6, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    “If you have put years of effort into something and you still suck, well, that’s rather my point. Someone should have stopped you before it got to the point of “years.”

    I suppose that’s only true for proffesional endevours. There’s plenty of non career related tasks that folks simply are not good at. However that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue. That said, in professional work enviroments, I’m a huge fan of retooling employee’s. Rather than waste an investment, many companies are fearful of wasting resources, so they keep folks that are more weight then they pull themselves. Instead, retool those folks to something that suits their abilities and your objectives.

  11. bullet said,

    June 6, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Where can I get one of those signs? I hope it wasn’t hand-made ’cause I suck at that stuff.

    I actually had to leave the corporate workforce because of these people. I got so tired of telling subordinates, “When I say this sucks, it’s because it sucks, not because I don’t like you.” and superiors, “I know it’s right. I wouldn’t have brought it to you if it wasn’t right. I don’t have time for a ten minute discussion about why you think it’s right.” Needless to say, I was not well liked. Now that I work for myself, if something sucks, people tell me. And I fix it. If it’s good, they simply buy more. And I love that.

    Of course, in case you couldn’t tell, self-esteem has never exactly been a problem for me.

  12. =j said,

    June 6, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Handmade signs are okay. I prefer postits. Some samples from recent past: “It’s just a FUCKING database” “When all else fails, I have a blunt axe” and “Teamwork: The fine art of getting your coworker to do their fucking job, so you can do yours” I put them around the frame of my monitor to keep out the cube trolls.

  13. Skyles said,

    June 6, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    [Random Musings]
    The modern focus on self-esteem harms far more than it helps. The disservice adults do when children are constantly told “you did great!” to help their self-esteem, when it’s obvious that the kids should stop wasting their time on something they have absolutely no innate talent at, and find something they can have real pride of mastery in. The disservice done to adults who are told “the circumstances of the situation, your life, genetics, social pressure have made you what you are/created this result, its okay” instead of being expected to be an adult and take responsibility for who you are and the direction your life has taken. We’re so busy being nice, trying to make people feel good about themselves, we cripple their ability to actually achieve anything or become anything that will make them feel legitimately good about themselves without our reinforcement. We hand out a fish and tell people they can learn to fish tomorrow every time we say “you did good, you’re okay” when its not true.

    However, I’d suggest that the value of skill and the value of personality aren’t always constant. There are plenty of situations in which a highly competent self-serving asshole is far less valuable than an incompetent with a shining personality. As that study showed, skill can be learned, competence improved with training – personality tends to remain a constant.

    While personal empirical evidence tells me everything in that study was correct, one of the elements it fails to note is the difference between individual and habitual tasks. Incompetence is in part a result of habit. When an individual repeatedly faces (and completes) largely similar tasks, their ability to rate their effectiveness almost always declines. They start responding with habitual behavior or answers instead of analyzing the task and dealing with it appropriately – which generally gets them by, but results in actual performance far below what they think they’re producing. Knowing that the problem is familiar and has been handled well many times before, they also tend to overestimate their performance in comparison to those around them.

    The habitual incompetence of individuals who are extremely competent when facing individual or unique challenges is one of the reason’s so many Japanese management systems force rotations in responsibility – forcing leads, managers, and supervisors to regularly switch departments, keeping them constantly uncomfortable so that they’ll pay attention and analyze their tasks/challenges, without the habitual responses and reactions that damage the individuals performance. That kind of habitual incompetence is something that effects almost everyone in a position of responsibility – managers, professionals, parents.
    [/Random Musings]

  14. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 6, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Holy crap, Skyles – I kind of want to rewrite my post, because you bring up some points I agree with but had not considered. Certainly the idea that mild incompetence encourages people to strive is very interesting, and sounds logical.

    You are quite correct that a pleasant personality who can be taught is better than a dickhead with ability. In my experience, in a high-stress, results-oriented environment where there simply is no time to train, it’s better to learn to love the local grouch who happens to be a genius. With a little time and the right tools, I would definitely rank personality higher on the scale of desired features. But under the gun, give me the genius.

  15. Apache said,

    June 6, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Those who cannot do, manage. 🙂

  16. Michael Chui said,

    June 6, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    Partially to Sanya, partially to Skyles:

    I’d recommend, in response, the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. It distinguishes a fixed mindset from a growth mindset. Those in the former category, when faced with failure (a demonstration of their own incompetence), curl up into a ball and slowly die of rot. Those in the latter category rub their hands, produce a shit-eating grin, and say, “Hell yes. A challenge.”

    Personally, I got suckered into the former category by constant praise of how smart I was back when I was a kid, so I deal with failure badly. But since reading that book (not to mention having friends who aren’t fixed and provide examples), I’ve been working on being more teachable.

    Just pointing to something that might conceivably be more fundamental. However, it’s not terribly accessible to you, since you’re not teaching them. It would be good if everyone stopped calling each other geniuses. It’s not useful.

  17. Jason Ballew said,

    June 7, 2007 at 7:25 am


    And a lot of it may well tie into the spurt of Political Correctness we’ve suffered over the past who-knows-how many years.

    I mean, god forbid someone FEEL BAD.

  18. Matthew said,

    June 7, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Part of the whole problem is that people automatically assume you are being rude or mean if you point out incompetence, when in reality it’s how you do it that determines whether or not you’re a jerk.

    You can be nice, respectful, and possibly even helpful while you do it – it just requires a little tact.

    Side note: Political Correctness is a whole separate issue. It’s a straw man construction that conflates “not being a jerk” with censorship. Perhaps that’s why so many jerks get so riled-up about Political Correctness – it points out their shortcomings in the departments of tact and manners. It’s certainly easier to be righteously indignant about PC than to stop being a jerk.

  19. Stupid said,

    June 7, 2007 at 11:51 am

    “I’m not mean, you’re just a sissy.”

    Someone who is in a position to influence one of my many projects once told me flat out “Well, maybe you just suck.” That stung a little, truth be told. My natural inclination was to assume the words were uttered as an insult. I still have to re-assess my opinion of that person on a continual basis; that one line set me up to assume that person is a uncaring dickwad and I fall back into that assumption easily. It’s psychologically easier for me to assign blame to the other guy than to admit that there might be a grain of truth in the assertation.

    And of course there is a grain of truth in there. If there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered so much to me. If it was entirely true and I was completely incompetent, I’d probably have blithely assumed it was a joke and merrily went along my way. If it was entirely untrue, then a reminder of the potential for incompetence was justified (which is related to why my username is what it is).

    So, ironically, I take comfort from my own discomfort.

  20. Jubilus said,

    June 7, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    I was one of those kids held back in elementary school between kindergarten and 1st grade. Let me tell you children “do” have feelings about being held back.

    I had friends, and to a kid that is a big deal. In Elementary school the grades were held completely separate from each other. 1st and second graders never ran into each other, except for field day (like an end-of-year gathering).

    My self-comfort was actually *lessened* because I came to those end of year events and my school friends were like “hey I thought you moved or something” and when I told them I was held back it was “Oh, well I get *good* grades”.

    To this day (I am 26 years old) I am angry that I was held back for no apparent reason. My grades were no different between that first year and second year. The only difference for me was that social aspect that I *never* recovered from.

  21. Dave Rickey said,

    June 7, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    Insecurity can make you a jerk. It can also make you *driven*, determined to prove yourself. When I was in first grade, I needed glasses (couldn’t read the blackboard), I was hyperactive (what they would now call ADHD), and I looked funny (my eyes are not at the same height on my face, fairly common but something that was much more noticable when my face was smaller). My teacher, one of those “old school” spinster schoolmarms who detested her students, decided I was retarded and tried to get me transferred into the special education school (essentially a warehouse of permanent kindergarten that served as a pipeline to institutionalization at that time). Keep in mind, I already knew math through fractions and was reading Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books, at 5.

    To say this caused me to feel insecure for the next couple of decades would be putting it mildly. Remember that we’re talking about the 70’s here, “handcapped” was barely a word and it was still standard to refer to the developmentally disabled as “retards”, as both a label and a perjorative. Having that label applied to me so early made me pathologically determined to always be recognized as the smartest person in the room. Not the most endearing character trait and one I’m glad I’ve toned *way* down, but it certainly made me push myself to learn. Not excel at school, but to *learn*.

    People with impenetrably high self-esteem don’t push themselves to be better. People who think that someone pointing out their mistakes is “being mean” need to shut the hell up and realize they aren’t in kindergarten anymore. Not “being mean” is not a priority in real-world situations, getting the job done and learning from your mistakes is, and that means you first have to recognize they *are* mistakes. If someone else has to rub your nose in it first, that’s *your* problem. Get better at spotting them on your own, or get over it.

    –Dave (who counts among his best friends those that have rubbed his nose in his mistakes)

  22. Servitor said,

    June 8, 2007 at 2:10 am

    I think there’s a vital difference between a) pointing out someone’s mistakes in a clear and unavoidable way so that they fully understand what the problem is *and* that they are expected to fix it, and b) being a gloating jackass with nothing productive say. Both can be unpleasant for the person on the receiving end, but one’s more productive.

    Yes, we should certainly be more free to recognize, expose, and fix a situation where someone’s not doing their work well (or at all). No argument from me at all on that point. Does doing so require “meanness,” really? No, although even the most gentle reminder can be called mean by someone interested in deflecting an unpleasant realization. Still, these things can be handled completely without glee at bursting some poor bastard’s bubble. Maybe if one needs to be actively “mean” in order to get a serious message across, it’s just another form of incompetence.

  23. June 8, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Well, would you take a ride in a KC-135?

  24. Igniferroque said,

    June 8, 2007 at 9:38 am

    I’m an elitist jerk; I ask for people’s IQ scores on my guild application. I have it as optional if only because some people haven’t ever taken the test.

    My bona fides established, I have to ask whether people are being just a bit too unrealistic. There are only so many smart people to go around and your company might not be lucky or rich enough to attract them. What is worse is that you won’t know whether they are competent until they’re in the job for a good while. And the reason why you don’t instantly fire incompetents is because the next person that gets hired might be worse.

    You also don’t go around telling people their idiots for very practical reasons. They might not be able to do what you want them to do but, if you piss them off enough, they sure as hell can block your progress at what you want to do. If nothing else, they can go around the office bad-mouthing you and lowering everyone else’s opinion of you.

    Self-esteem allows you to persist in the face of adversity. Global assessments like “you’re an idiot” offers no path for improvement. Telling a person that you things A, B and C were flawed but encouraging them in a way that allows them to save face does offer a path for improvement and gives them an opportunity to go back and correct those mistakes.

  25. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 8, 2007 at 9:51 am

    I’m not advocating that we just wander up to people and tell them that they suck. My primary problem lies in the “but so and so did the best they could” response. I contend that such a response is totally irrelevant.

    I applaud effort, but effort without result is meaningless. The only kind of failed effort that has value is one in which the striver learns something. In order for that to work, the striver has to be bright enough to see what he missed, and to care enough to want to improve. That guy is almost certain to not repeat the same tired errors over and over.

    Refusing to trim deadweight because you’d rather stick with the devil you know is not a good idea. It kills the morale of all the competent people.

  26. Servitor said,

    June 8, 2007 at 10:42 am

    Heh. Indeed. Actually, I can think of a couple of instances to which I’ve been witness where the person making the “did the best they could” excuse was trimmed first. But anyway, I certainly wasn’t advocating letting dead weight stick around. I’ve been burdened with enough “incompetent sweethearts” to know better than that.

  27. Jute said,

    June 14, 2007 at 9:14 am

    I once had a woman who quit working for me write in her exit interview that I was “Brilliant but had no social skills what-so-ever.” Her observation is only partially correct. I definitely have no social skills.

    I once told someone else who worked for me that “I can’t be this smarter than everyone else because if I am, the world is in big trouble.” That’s because I’m well aware of the limit of my knowledge. For years I lived in constant fear that someone would discover that I was really stupid. I spent a lot of time striving to appear at least competent.

    I almost always know when I am not good or even adequate at something and I’ve been constantly surprised when others seem to have a problem recognizing and taking responsibility for their own lack of ability.

    On the other side, I’ve always appreciated honest feedback but I think too often honesty is just an excuse for cruelty. As many have said here, telling someone they just don’t cut it doesn’t have to be said in a cruel manner.

  28. Philip Ripper said,

    June 24, 2007 at 12:40 am

    “I applaud effort, but effort without result is meaningless.”

    I think every office should have it’s own Sisyphus, maybe in the lobby, with a water feature.

  29. Philip Ripper said,

    June 24, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Besides getting to say water feature, which is inherintly funny, I brought up Sisyphus because he is the epitome of effort without result, and his existance is a mythological testament to eternal torture.

  30. mwqqnwgyzp said,

    July 2, 2007 at 4:18 am

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  31. Grimjakk said,

    July 3, 2007 at 2:42 am


    Interesting study. Well worth the effort to wade through. I’d like to see more on that “false consensus effect” mentioned.

    I see both effects in my own life (everyone is incompetent at things outside their spheres of interest, after all…)

  32. Michail said,

    July 10, 2007 at 10:08 pm


  33. Books said,

    July 14, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Well said and I agree. Although one’s state of mind at the time of each task often changes their way of thinking and dealing with problems. A habitual offender is often, as you said, incompetent.

  34. Knurd said,

    July 15, 2007 at 3:09 am

    A lot of hierarchal thinking in this thread. I feel the need to invoke some, appropriately, associated Beatles; that may refer to one or two points made here:

    While we’ve mentioned semantics and are discussing the idea of negatively-charged phrases through usage, I’ll take the moment to mention “professionalism” as simply meaning the state or quality of doing something for a living, pay, wage, etc.

    Much like “amatuerism” has a negative tone through usage, so does “professionalism” have greater expectations (heh, fuck you, Dickens) or a higher, moral tone through usage.

    I’ll agree with a previous poster in thinking that “genius” is not a practical term to refer to a person. The ego-boost is invariably distracting, provided they are referred to as such, within their lifetime. That didn’t happen so much, in times past, yet seems to occur with more frequency in our modern age; particularly in the gaming industry, where “intellegence” is revered as the prime stat for character creation. heh.

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