Finding My Footing On Uneven Ground: My Junior Year in Postmortem
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
As I'm writing this, it's Wednesday afternoon of finals week for me. This is the end of the Spring 2020 semester for me, and with it, my Junior year of college comes to a close. With or without the global pandemic, it's been a hell of a semester which has had plenty of ups and downs. I'm going to take a moment here to reflect on the past 15 weeks, the projects that have happened in that time, and how I plan to move forward. First, I'd like to talk about my Sophomore year before diving into this year, so as to familiarize you with what my personal goals for this semester were.
Context - My Struggles, My Goals
My Sophomore year of college, particularly the fall semester, was rather hellish. For people in my major, that semester is known colloquially as the "Sophomore Wall". It represents a massive jump in difficulty from the content we had been taught during our first year. Most designers, regardless of skill, found themselves getting put through the wringer during that semester. I was no exception to that rule.
For me, it was not solely the content of my schoolwork that was difficult, though. My struggles were the combination of an ongoing workload and a cacophony of personal problems. I'll avoid the grisly details, but my struggles included a falling out with my core friend group at the time, a deep emotional investment in an unhealthy relationship, and a slew of issues with my mental health that were revealed, highlighted, and accentuated by the turbulent and chaotic situations I often found myself in.
I managed to tough it out during that semester, somehow passing all of my classes with all A's and B's: a feat I'm still quite proud of. Doing so came at no small cost, however. I frequently worked myself to the bone in order to make sure my projects were up to my standards, and a breakdown or two would become part of my routine. For the most part, it was never the schoolwork that was the most challenging, but being able to get into the right head-space to work effectively. There were several nights where I'd stare at a screen blankly for hours, my head too clouded with my own personal problems to even process what to type into whatever document or script I'd be working on. Other nights, I'd lie awake at night, "what-ifs" rushing through my brain from dusk until dawn.
It was an exhaustive and painful period of my life that I'd prefer not to repeat. That being said, I don't think that was a period of my life that came without significant growth. I made new friends that I've somehow managed to put my faith in, improved my documentation skills significantly, and repeatedly put 110% into every project I had. I'm a big believer in the idea that growth is fueled by adversity, and I cite my growth during this period of my life as evidence to support that idea. It really didn't come without its scars, however. I spent basically all of that Winter Break attempting to speed through enough therapy sessions to metaphorically slap a band-aid on my problems, holding me together for just one more semester. I'm lucky that the second semester of my Sophomore year was nowhere near as emotionally taxing as the first one or I probably wouldn't have made it through successfully.
You might be saying to yourself, "that was then and this is now, right? What does your Sophomore year have to do with your Junior year?" To that, my response is simply that my past experiences inform my present decisions. I know that I'm skilled at what I do when I'm actually able to focus on my work. It's for that reason that my primary goals during this school year were to improve my stability, reliability, and as a whole, my mental health. These are important traits to have, whether you work individually or as a team, and my lack of these traits had repeatedly impacted me negatively in both scenarios. Of course I want to get better. If you read my blog post from the start of this semester, you'll find that the first bullet point on my personal goals is to "maintain a consistent and reliable work ethic and life style so I can be a more responsible team member".
I have mixed feelings as to whether I've met this goal. Yes, I've definitely improved this semester. I'm certainly much more stable than I was a year ago, and the quality of my work has certainly improved, but I don't see myself as a reliable worker or teammate quite yet. In a way, I'm fragile and quick to break. It's as if one particularly bad event in my personal life could cause me to enter a downward spiral, losing productivity and motivation... I assume this fact is probably true for most people, but my ideal self teeters between the contradictory states of being an unflinching and unfeeling work machine and being true to myself: a strange boy "wired differently" who finds his strengths in the sea of his off-color subconscious.
Perhaps it's that impossible desire to be the closest thing to "perfect" that is my biggest strength, but it's equally likely that it's my biggest weakness. I find it genuinely hard to tell because it's been too long since I've had a "normal" semester (as if there could ever be such a thing). With Fall 2018 I had the Sophomore Wall, with the semester after that I found myself doing everything I could to recover from the mental fatigue from that, and with the next semester I studied abroad in Montreal. This semester was supposed to be a return to relative normalcy until a certain little pandemic interrupted at the halfway point.
I bring these up not to blame the circumstances for my shortcomings, but because of how often I think about my past self and how to surpass him. I want you the reader, who may know me well or may have never met me, to have an idea of what went through my mind when I set my personal goals. I want to be adaptable. I want to stand on my own two feet, and I don't ever want to look weak in front of strangers.
What Went Right?
My biggest success this year has objectively been the fact that I was offered an internship to work with Raven Software this summer. This is an incredible opportunity, which gives me a platform to really kick-start my career. I'll start my internship in mid-June and I'm extremely excited, but I must admit, I don't quite feel prepared yet. One of my biggest insecurities is the idea that "sure, I'm improving, but I'm not improving fast enough". I've gotten better this year, but deep down, there's still a constant worry that I'm going to screw it all up in one way or another. I suppose only time will tell for that one.
As far as personal successes go, a huge one for me has been moving past many of the demons that haunted me from around the period of the Sophomore Wall. Again, I won't touch on any details since these are A: private details about my life and B: involve more than just me. Then again, I don't have to give you any details to tell you that this has been a massive weight off of my shoulders. Not all of my issues from this time period have improved, but it's a fact that many have while none of them have worsened.
The bulk of those big improvements in my personal life happened while I was in Montreal for the Fall. I'd like to mark my time in Montreal under my successes. Like most things, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, but we'll get to that in the next section. In summary, I didn't want to go to Montreal, and I'm not sure I ever really did. I've never liked cities much, and I'm a rather paranoid person. Being away from my friends, the support system that got me through my toughest times, would be incredibly difficult. It was exactly for those reasons that I had to go to Montreal. I said it a couple paragraphs up in bold, but I wanted to be adaptable, and I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet.
I find the majority of my motivation from the people around me. If I'm with my friends, it's harder to break my spirits. On the off-change that I'm trying to impress someone romantically, I suddenly become a workaholic wizard. That's okay, we all function differently, but I knew for a fact that I can't always expect my friends to be there to support me 100% of the time. Going to Montreal, even though I didn't want to, was to prove to myself that I can stand on my own two legs.
There's certainly a clear silver lining to be found. My time in Montreal was nowhere near as productive as it would have been if I were in Burlington that semester, but I do think that getting comfortable being out there in the world was good for me. I'd argue that it transcended being good, and was more of a necessity to get me to come out of my shell. I went to bars, took the metro, and went on a date with someone I didn't already know. These are all things that I can't say I'd normally be comfortable doing, but I did them nonetheless, and I'm all the better for it. The fact that I was able to accomplish these small feats is a small thing on its own, but for me, it's important to me that I was able to do so without totally relying on a support system.
The last major success I'd like to mention is Forkdrift. I won't go into too much detail about the game here, since you can take a look at some of my prior blog posts to see the moment-to-moment successes, and there will be more blog posts to come. The main success here is that despite numerous setbacks during this semester, my team and I were able to create something that shows genuine promise. In the constant shifting through the twists and turns of this semester, we managed to actually make something fun. I can't quite summarize my contributions quite yet, since my role has changed pretty dramatically over the past few months. I've gone from mechanics and level designer to video editor to QA Lead, each role coming with its own small victories. There have certainly been some Sprints where my contributions were fantastic and some where the opposite is true, but I've gotten better at being a part of this whole "team" thing. I expect that in the coming months, I'll have a lot more to say about this, especially since we intend to continue development on the game, eventually releasing it on Steam.
One last small little victory, I think that my art, especially my pixel art, has improved a decent amount recently. I enjoy making art. I'm a visual thinker, and for me, it's productive and relaxing to be able to create something that helps me visualize what I'm working on. I've been getting better at environmental art, using the few pixels I'm given, and using animation smears to create the illusion of movement. I was actually offered an art commission, which I should probably follow up on once I'm done with finals.
What Went Wrong?
I'll try to keep this section relatively brief. If I were to speak on everything that I felt insecure about, we'd be here all day and night. The biggest misstep, in my opinion, has been my lack of time management. It's always been an issue for me, and improving my time management has been near the top of my hit-list as far as life skills go. From my own point of view, I've spent most of this year alternating between work and enough relaxation to maintain my sanity. On paper... it's not enough quite yet. I start my projects too late. It's as simple as that. I'm a perfectionist, and I frequently aim for the sky. The downside of that is that I often buckle under the pressure that I've put on myself, and metaphorically, can't quite get off of the ground.
Other than Forkdrift, there aren't really any pieces I've worked on that I feel comfortable including in my portfolio quite yet. Keyword: yet. As someone who always thinks in complex, interconnected mechanics, the disparity between the time it takes me to draft something and the time it takes me to implement those plans can be quite large. In a way, it's a scope issue, but I do think it's a time management issue first and foremost. I know I'm capable of a lot, I just need to figure out how to make the most of my potential.
I'll address how I can improve this in the next section, but for now, let's focus on the whole "portfolio" thing for a second. I wanted to spend this year creating several intricately crafted games which I can proudly feature on my portfolio. As of writing this, my portfolio page on this website is quite barren. I've been making games since I was little, so it's not like I don't have projects to add there, but it really is just that the bar I've set for myself is higher than what I've been able to achieve in the limited time I block out for myself. The majority of my projects, which initially had much loftier goals, aren't at a point where I want to show them off to the world yet. It's usually small things, like a main feature being buggy or a lack of sound effects. I suppose it's for that reason that I should spend the earlier parts of summer working on polishing these works to be ready to show to the world. Without schoolwork constantly looming over my head, I'd like to imagine that I can continue to improve on these pieces until I'm ready to share them.
It feels like none of the bullet points I listed in that article I linked above have been completely, 100% achieved. In some ways, that feels like a failure, but I have made strides in all sorts of ways, and that's nothing for me to be ashamed of.
Another big issue which compounds with my poor time management, was the slump I fell into a bit before the midterms of this semester. With an observant eye, you can easily chart my downward spiral in the past few blog posts I've made. I know the reasons for this depressive episode. Yet again, not something I intend to make public, but I can say that these circumstances are unlikely to happen again.
I can tell you what's in my immediate future: a good night's rest. Most of my finals are out of the way, but there is one big beast I have yet to overcome: Data Analytics. Since that period where I fell behind in my schoolwork, I've been trying to play keep-up with all of my classes. There was a week or two where I felt like I was struggling in all of my classes, so eventually, it became a matter of choosing one class to put on the back burner so I could reclaim my progress in the rest of them. Better to fail one class than to fail five, right? Well, I think it's best to fail zero. From the moment I wake up tomorrow, I'm going to have to crunch old missed assignments from my Data Analytics class. It's not something I'm proud of, but I know what I'm capable of, so I'm not especially worried. I just need to get good work done from dawn until dusk, and without four other classes fighting for my attention I can (finally) put my everything into this one class.
What I'll be doing next week is up in the air, but I'm pushing to make it a combination of relaxation, shifting my sleep schedule, getting some exercise, and chipping away at old assignments to polish them to a point where I'm happy to display them on this website. I'll start my internship in mid-June, and I expect a lot of growth to be done during those next 9 weeks.
It's hard to say what I need to be doing differently going forward. It's honestly the same as before: learn to maintain a healthier lifestyle that is conducive to a healthy work-life balance. I haven't magically met my goal and become a fully fledged functioning member of society, but that's not how life works. You gradually improve, bit by bit... or at least, I gradually improve bit by bit. No, I'm not satisfied with the work I've done this year, not yet. Despite that, I don't think it's been a bad year for me. The thing I've needed most is the ability to maintain consistency, and my relative successes despite the constant changes every couple of weeks have shown that I'm able to find my footing despite the unstable ground. I have a feeling that I will continue to grow in profound, new ways in this next year as I take my first steps into adulthood.
What's next? Who knows...