Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

What’s really holding you back?

This is personal-development, motivational (kinda!) stuff. If you read my blog for code tips, move on :D

I read a great article in the Sunday papers (yup, real dead tree reader here), basically bemoaning the contrast between immigrants arriving to the UK, and some (not all) people in the UK. The article centered around a Romanian immigrant who had come to the UK  ‘hoping to get a job washing cars’. It was basically a pro-immigration and a ‘what’s wrong with British kids these days’ article, and I found myself agreeing with it strongly.

I’m not going to pretend that I am a kid from a gangster-strewn housing project who had to battle drug addiction and homelessness yet still managed to make indie games. My background is probably average for a kid born in the late 60s/early 70s in London. I went to an ordinary state school, then college, then university (neither parent had gone to university). My local state school was good, but not without problems. At the time, I thought my life was pretty ordinary, perched halfway between the less well-off kids on local state-owned estates, and the children of TV scriptwriters and actors who made up the other half of the class.

Now, living where I do, I get to meet the people who would never have sent their kids to the school I went to. They have more money, it’s as simple as that. They have incredibly nice polite children who have the best possible start in life. I’m not criticizing them one bit, but it makes me realize that actually, by some standards, I started my life at a relative disadvantage.


(If you want a more extreme version of this story, read ‘anyone can do it’ by Duncan Bannatyne. His background was way harsher than mine (poverty as a kid, no real education, military prison…) and his success is way greater (he’s older than me though so… :D). I bet if Duncan Bannatyne heard me describe my teenage years he’d think I was a spolit brat. And of course, if we go to certain countries in the developing world, we would find a lot of kids who cannot believe that all of us here can rely on food and shelter *every day*.)

In short, there is always someone worse off than you, and better off than you. Some people may have an advantage over you. The games industry is centered around certain physical hubs. San Francisco is one, Seattle is now one, London is one, and Guildford certainly was. If you are an English-speaking kid in San Francisco you already have huge advantages over a lot of other people, you just don’t realize it. You take those advantages for granted.

My parents taught me to read and write young, and encouraged me to work hard at school and get good grades. that was invaluable. A guy I met when I was a musician gave me a lot of confidence, and working as a musician always boosts your confidence. The two most valuable gifts I’ve had that have helped me get where I am are an early start on reading, and confidence. That’s it.

We had no computers in my school, we were taught nothing about them. There was no internet. if you wanted to learn about stuff not from school, you walked or cycled to the library. Somehow, it was still possible for me to learn how to code. All I needed was motivation, and confidence, and I had those already.

These days every kid has a super-computer in their pocket, and the internet lets you learn about ANYTHING at the touch of a button. Yet this does not happen. kids could learn quantum physics for free using wikipedia, but they play angry birds or watch youtube. Access to knowledge has never been cheaper, easier, more convenient or more democratic. I seriously doubt you learn *that much* in an oxbridge university classroom that cannot be learned online.

The new dividing line between the talented, the capable, and the employable will not be related to their background, their school, or their parents wealth. This is becoming *less* relevant. The difference is going to be motivation, confidence, and a willingness to work. The reason you don’t understand quantum physics, is you haven’t bothered to investigate it. There is simply no other answer. I have no excuse for any gap in my knowledge, and I know it. I don’t blame anyone but me. And tools? if you are a software developer or artist there are a crazy amount of free tools. In short, a lot of the excuses I might have thrown around as a kid for not achieving what i wanted to just do not apply, at least in the IT world.

Summary: If you have kids, teach them to read young, and give them confidence, everything else is probably trivial by comparison And remember that if they have healthy food and a roof over their head, you are already giving them a better start in life that most. If you spend your days as an adult blaming your situation on X or Y, take a second a look and ask yourself what really holds you back.

It’s probably just you.

Am I wrong? If so, say so.


10 thoughts on What’s really holding you back?

  1. It’s also how you view intelligence. If you think it’s something you’re born with then everything that’s challanging will be seen as something that can hurt your ego if you fail, so you won’t even try. If you believe intelligence is fluid you’ll try everything because you’ll believe it’ll make you smarter even if you fail

  2. OK Counterpoint…

    What about the negative impacts of the internet/mobile and social media. Their ability to distract and entertain, to shorten attention spans and make lessons in school pale in comparison.

    You we’re lucky enough to brought up in an era when schools only competition was the video, cinema, books and comics.

    Now schools have to compete with the internet/youtube/twitter/facebook, 3D games and consoles ect.

    Maybe it’s possible to learn everything online that you can in University, but the main thing that a university course and higher education should be teaching it how to think and learn. Things that take time, commitment and focus. Things which are polar opposites to the always on always new mobile streaming multi-media era we live in.

    There have been plenty of times I have wanted to learn something on the internet with the best intentions but a few minutes later I’m sitting watching a silly video or reading some article on a celebrity. My point is that the internet is an unstructured and distracting place to learn.

  3. Just speaking to the ‘pro-immigration’ point, I see that kind of reasoning a lot, and I think it’s wrong. Economic migrants to the UK are just that – they come here, not to put down roots, but earn some money and go home.

    But you see the same thing from young Brits overseas on gap years. Quite happy to do menial work, because they don’t see it as permanent.

    But when they return home, they’ve got to think about more long-term issues. Mortgages, a family, that sort of thing. And “a job washing cars” is not going to feed a family.

  4. Interesting perspective. The only part I take issue with is where you said:

    “The new dividing line between the talented, the capable, and the employable will not be related to their background, their school, or their parents wealth. This is becoming *less* relevant. The difference is going to be motivation, confidence, and a willingness to work. ”

    I would argue that parenting is a large factor in developing motivation & confidence, and so to some extent those children from privileged families are still going to have a big leg up. But, this also means that those poor children with good parents will have lots of opportunities ahead of them.

  5. I think this is a big over-simplification, and ignores how ingrained some disadvantage is in this country.

    I think you’re closest to the truth when you talk about the importance of confidence and getting a good education early. But I wouldn’t use the word confidence, I’d use the word aspiration, which is a bit different. Aspiration is about what you think you can do with your life. When you’re better off, middle-class, you can see your parents have good jobs and their education led to that and you expect that you’ll have a good job and you know that education is key to that, so you work hard at school. If you’re from a poorer background though, and your parents are on unemployment benefit or working low wage jobs, and they never got anything out of their education and that’s true not just for them but everyone in your community, why would you put value on your education? There’s no expectation that you’ll have anything but a low-wage job ever anyway, and breaking that expectation and convincing children that they can achieve more and that education is the gateway to doing that is both incredibly important and incredibly hard. It’s not that poor people are lazy and can’t be bothered to get educated, it’s that it’s very, very hard to make it seem worthwhile, because everything around them tells them it isn’t.

    Parents play part of the role in breaking this cycle, and schools do too, and if you look at those schools in more disadvantaged areas that are going well, aspiration is at the heart of it.

    But it’s not even that simple, because middle-class kids can afford tutoring and their parents can afford to move close to the best schools, and they can afford to have lots of books, and particularly when the children are very young they can afford to have a parent at home more of the time. All of these things give them a big advantage, and while you can learn a lot from Wikipedia or your local library none of that helps if you never learned to read very well, which is a big problem in this country. There are a lot of people who, while not illiterate, have never learned to read very well and don’t like reading because it’s hard and stressful. Teaching yourself to read, particularly once you’re a bit older, is insanely difficult, especially if you can read well enough to get by most of the time.

    Even further than this, it also kind of doesn’t matter how much you can teach yourself on Wikipedia, because even if you know and understand more than the guy who got a 2:1 from Cambridge, the guy with a 2:1 from Cambridge will get a better job than you a vast majority of the time. This is because ‘I taught myself quantum mechanics’ doesn’t look as good on a CV as ‘I got a 2:1 from Cambridge’, and not everyone from a poorer background can be entrepreneurial self-made middle-class. Also, going back to aspiration, if you got a 2:1 from Cambridge you will expect to get a good job, so you’ll have higher aspirations. You’ll also have better connections to people who can get you a good job or help you set up a business. This is just a personal anecdote too, but I’ve been in a situation at least once where I pretended I went to Cambridge because I thought the people I was working with would be discriminate against me if they knew I “only” went to the University of Sussex, which is absurd but a very genuine fear.

    And this is only talking about class disadvantage. The Count Me In Survey in 2008 found around 60% of transgender people were living on less than £10,000 a year. This isn’t because trans people are lazy, and in fact the survey also found no statistically significant link between trans identification and level of education. It’s because of widespread discrimination. Trans people face some of the worst discrimination in this country, but women, ethnic minorities, etc. all have to contend with this to some extent or another too, as do working class people, who sometimes are discriminated against from the moment they open their mouths and reveal their accents.

    None of this makes it impossible to escape poverty or the general trends, and there are positive examples of people doing that through hard work and intelligence and also almost always a bit of luck, but it does make it very hard and those people are the exceptions. Turning around and saying ‘well, you should have tried harder at school, I worked hard at school and I did okay’ isn’t going to fix anything and it just ignores a lot of the underlying issues. This is a big problem, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to fix it, and for us all to build a fairer society.

  6. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we live in a wonderful classless egalitarian wonderland, just that modern technology enables a lot of people who would have *no access at all* to knowledge, to at least access it at zero cost.

    I also agree there are some useless employers who will employ people based on their school tie rather than ability, and yes, all these problems have to be dealt with.

    But frankly, I’m an optimist. I know how much easier it is for people to learn by opening a web browser than cycling to the library in the rain, and i think thats a good thing.

  7. A little background on me first – I have a science degree from Oxbridge. It isn’t a very good one, because I didn’t get on very well with the system. I don’t work in anything related to my degree; I’m in a pretty specialised IT field, for which I was almost entirely self taught (quite a lot of which was while I was putting off doing the work I was *supposed* to be doing at university).

    At least when I did my degree, a couple of years ago, it wasn’t yet possible to acquire the factual content of the course on the internet (and believe me I tried) – there were some resources around, some of which were quite good, but not sufficient to cover anything beyond the first year of the degree with any level of usefulness.

    However, the important word in that sentence is “yet” – even over the three years of my degree and the couple of years since, the quality of (for example) Wikipedia pages noticeably improved, and more resources have appeared. Khan Academy, for example, is incredibly good (indeed quite frequently significantly better than the crappy lecturers at university, for reasons I suspect are mostly related to Khan Academy being designed to teach people, as opposed to a university which is designed to do research and merely puts up with students as a necessary evil, but I digress…). Some universities are starting to put their courses on the internet now too. I don’t imagine it will be too long until you can teach yourself pretty much any undergraduate degree on the internet.

    However, the really useful thing Oxbridge taught me was confidence – confidence in what I know, but also the confidence to try things, to speak up, even when I *don’t* know – fundamentally, a willingness to be *wrong* as a necessary step on the path to collectively arriving at the right answer. The first thing got me hired with no relevant qualifications, but the second got me somewhere useful once I had. The point here is that a webpage can’t teach you either of these things – I got there via three years of having to speak up in tutorials with nowhere to hide and frequently being completely wrong.

    The tl;dr version of this is that it won’t be long until the internet can teach you pretty much any knowledge you might want, which is wonderful, but the willingness, ability, desire and confidence to actually do so are nowhere near as easy to acquire and so will remain a massive advantage for those of us privileged enough to have opportunities to learn them, via whatever method.

  8. I am reminded of the people I meet (and also see on TV) who want to emigrate from the UK because they think they will get a better life abroad. Often I think the problem is them, and that isn’t something that emigrating is likely to fix.

  9. Good points Cliff. I for one left school early as the stress of being autistic in a mainstream school was taking a toll on my health (and little did I know at the time I had coeliac disease) but on the other hand I can read and type quickly and I’ve got a calm demeanour. Maybe I’ll find a job someday after all.

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