Finding Ambition

SUMMARY: My July has been booked by a video game-related project, and I was recently on-site at the company to get up to speed with their development process. I rediscovered the excitement of working with people who were intensely into what they were doing, and realized that there’s an important ingredient in a great team that I’ve missed: ambition.

Two Sundays ago, I got back from an onsite kickoff at Red 5 Studios in Southern California. This was an important opportunity to absorb the company’s working culture, considered essential to development, and I got to experience a slice of family life too. It’s been quite some time that I’ve worked with a team of such talented people in an industry that, I must admit, still fascinates me. Revisiting the video game industry after a 15-year hiatus has reminded me of certain important truths:

  • There are people who are driven intensely by the ambition to create exceptional experiences. The key word here is ambition, and I could see it in the face of everyone I interacted with. Ambition is one of the prerequisites for effective action. There are many times where the desire for exception experience is expressed, but when the ambition is lacking there just i no personal investment driving the action forward.

  • A great team shares the same ambitions, and reinforces this with every action taken. In the past, I would have evaluated teams by looking at personalities, communication, mutual respect, and other such indicators of a healthy social group. Many such teams are quite pleasant to work with in a social sense, but never quite reach the heights of productivity they imagine. The key indicator may be, for teams I’m interested in working with, is the level of shared ambition.

  • Expressing the ambition is the mission. I think a good team knows that it’s the magic that they’re creating that’s important, and removing barriers to letting the ambition express itself fluidly is one of the prime metrics of a good team. By “expression”, I mean that ideas and desires are made visible so they can be directly experienced by another person. Another way of putting this: “the good of the project is greater than the individual interests of the team members”. If this mentality isn’t shared among all team members, you have a broken team.

These truths used to much more on my mind when I was still in school, and in hindsight the past few years I’ve been trying to find sharable ambition for myself. I’ve gotten a little closer by finding and spending time with people in my home town that at least have ambition, but I have not done a good job of defining my own. Without that, how can I have anything to share? I’ve used other metrics to evaluate potential teamings in the past:

  • Personality – I make a conscious effort to seek out and be around conscientious, kind, positive-minded and self-empowered people. These people are almost always up to something interesting and are fun to talk to, but for all the people I’ve met in this category we’ve never done anything big. We’ve helped each other along when the opportunity is there, and we support each other. The common factor is ambition, but we are each on our own path; those are aligned ambitions, but they are not shared.

  • Passion – I’d much rather work with someone who’s passionate instead of merely competent. That’s because the presence of passion usually correlates with imagination, which I enjoy and find inspiring. However, passion itself isn’t a 100% reliable indicator. I meet plenty of passionate, imaginative and even competent people, but their focus is unclear to me. I fall into that very same category too. Ambition could be described, in this context, as the melding of passion with purpose.

  • Competence – I can be really nit-picky about the way things are done, but I’m also very reluctant to impose my opinions on other people. If it’s clear that an opinion is needed to move forward, I may say something, but in general I like to watch things develop before jumping in. A side result of this is that I’m often slightly frustrated because I’m holding myself back. The reason why I hold back is that I like to see what capabilities are being brought to the table; when I suggest how things should look or how processes should go, this sometimes overrides what other people would naturally do for one reason or another. For example, sometimes I fall into the circle of politeness, where we’re both deferring to the other’s preferences, and the result is neither of us are happy. But really, the measuring of efficiency or effectiveness isn’t the point of being competent. Competence, no matter the level, is best harnessed by having the shared mission of making and expressing. I can call that “being on the same page”–an expression that I dislike for its implied “you’re with us or not” cliquishness–or I can call it having shared ambition.

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p>I haven’t been so clear about my personal ambitions for the past couple of years. I’m now aware that it’s a choice I can make among many, many possibilities. At this moment I’m still not sure exactly what it is, but the experience of stepping back into game development, however, has reminded me what I used to feel like. Game development used to be my passion and ambition for about 15 years, from the 10th grade up until the time I exited the industry severely disillusioned about the sacrifices required to work in it. But I have missed the sense of purpose and shared ambition, I’m realizing.

I’ve got a couple more weeks on this project, and perhaps another piece of the puzzle will reveal itself.