Corey and Lori's Quest Log

Corey and Lori’s Quest Log

Archive for the ‘Life Advice’ Category

Debate and Decide

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Here in the United States, we are coming up on our Presidential election. The main election will be on Tuesday, Nov. 6, although many states allow voters to cast early ballots.

Vote!Tonight is the first of three formal debates between the two main candidates – current President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. I strongly urge everyone – whether you are eligible to vote or just want to understand what is happening in American politics – to watch the debates and apply what you learn to making an informed decision. Tonight’s debate will air at 9:00 pm Eastern time (8:00 Central, 7:00 Mountain, 6:00 Pacific).

In my mind, too many political decisions today are based on “sound bites” and stereotypes. Democracy only works well if voters are informed and make choices based on what is important to them. This election may be the clearest choice we’ve had in decades, and it’s essential that each of us understands why we are picking a particular candidate.

It’s a Party!

The United States has a strong two-party system. In most cases, we choose either the Republican or the Democratic candidate. Occasionally a third party candidate has managed to receive enough votes to influence the election, but rarely does one win election to a major office.

Currently, the Democratic Party has a “liberal” orientation. They are more likely to support social items such as health care, education, and individual freedom. Many Democrats believe that protecting the environment is important, and they are willing to put restrictions on businesses to reduce pollution and other social harm. The major criticism of Democrats is that they are willing to spend freely on social programs and are willing to increase taxes – particularly from higher income individuals and corporations – to pay for these programs. President Obama is a Democrat.

The Republican Party has a more “conservative” agenda. They believe that taxes should be low, and that the government should reduce spending on social programs. They think that poor people should work to become wealthier rather than get help from the government. Republicans believe that strengthening businesses help individuals, so they support tax breaks and other incentives that help businesses earn higher profits. They also dislike any laws (such as pollution controls) that make it more difficult to run a business.

Many Republicans also have strong ties to religious groups. As a result, they hold conservative attitudes about “traditional marriage”, and tend to be more restrictive about personal freedom than Democrats. Republicans are often criticized for repressing minorities, spending tax money on war and victimless crimes, and for valuing their religious principles above the political needs of the country. Governor Romney is the Republican candidate.

Clear Choices

Vote for Barack Obama if you believe:

  • Everyone deserves love and equal protection under the law for their relationships.
  • Women have the right to choose whether they have children.
  • We need safe air and water, even if it adds time and expense to running a business.
  • Sometimes people need help, and the government should provide it.
  • It’s ok to tax wealthy people at a higher rate to help fund government programs.
  • People should work together in a spirit of compromise, regardless of their beliefs.

Vote for Mitt Romney if you believe:

  • Marriage is strictly for one man and one woman. Any other relationship is improper and should not be protected by law.
  • Birth control and abortion are immoral and should be illegal.
  • Businesses drive our economy. Restrictions on business – for any reason – hurt everyone.
  • Government handouts are addictive. If people won’t work, they should find private charity or starve.
  • Wealthy people create jobs and deserve what they have. Taxation is government-sanctioned theft.
  • Compromise is giving in. People who disagree with me are wrong.

Indecent Proposal

Of course, we will have many other choices to make at the polls besides choosing a President. All Congressional seats are up for election, along with one-third of Senate seats. We will be voting for state and local candidates, and in many cases for changes to state or local laws (“propositions”). In my case, I will be voting for candidates for four political offices and for or against eleven ballot propositions.

Vote for the Candidate of Your Choice… Vote for the Issues of Your Choice … But Vote!

In 2012, there is a very clear distinction between the political parties and their candidates. It is more important than ever to study the issues and vote for the candidates and issues that you believe will have the strongest positive impact on our lives. Watch the debates, read up, decide, and above all – Vote! Your vote matters.

Mind over Matters

Friday, September 28th, 2012

MindsetI’ve mentioned a book called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck, once or twice before. This is an important book, and you should read it or reread it. “Mindset” discusses two ways of looking at the world and yourself. The “fixed mindset” says that you are the way you are, and the “growth mindset” suggests that each of us is constantly in a process of growth and change. Ms. Dweck argues very persuasively that adopting a growth mindset is a better way to live.

If you use a fixed mindset, you believe that you are good or bad at certain things. Sometimes that seems positive – Maybe your parents congratulate you on getting an “A” by telling you how smart you are.

It’s great to have confidence, but you might fall into the trap of thinking that everything will be just as easy. You can become lazy about studying and improving your skills. And then you fail at something, and all your confidence disappears. If you succeeded because you were smart, then you must have failed because you’re stupid. So you give up, work even less, and keep failing.

With a “growth mindset”, you see yourself as in a constant state of change. If you succeed at a task, it isn’t because you were destined to succeed. It’s because you prepared yourself by working hard, studying, and practicing for that task. If you fail, it means you need to work harder, study more, and prepare better.

People who take a growth mindset don’t think of themselves as geniuses or natural athletes. They just know that they can do amazing things if they work hard enough. It’s a much more resilient attitude, and most successful people believe in a growth mindset.

Not So Smart

GeniusFor years, I had people call me a genius. The label has always felt wrong to me. I have always known there are lots of people smarter than me, more skilled than me at any particular subject, and so on. I used to describe my work as “sporadically brilliant”, and have always been frustrated that I can’t come up with great ideas all the time or with any degree of consistency.

That’s because what I really have isn’t genius. It’s the willingness to keep trying when I fail, to try new things, and to let my imagination wander until an idea comes to me. My wife calls me “easily distracted” and I’m often accused of daydreaming, being indecisive, and lacking focus. The strange thing is that all those accusations are correct, and that that flaw is my greatest strength!

When my mind wanders, it’s because the “obvious” answer to a question doesn’t feel quite right. Game design takes both organized, careful work and the leaps of imagination that come letting my mind roam. If I was always focused and “in the moment”, I’d be doing some other work.

Being creative is about taking risks and often getting them wrong. That means trying new ideas, getting many of them wrong, then trying some more.

Growth Is Life

MindsetIf you want more from your life, adopt the growth mindset. Don’t allow yourself to become too satisfied with the status quo – Keep working to get better and to learn new things. At the same time, try not to beat yourself up over mistakes or failures – Treat each one as a Valuable Learning Experience, and another opportunity to get better and learn new things.

There is always more out there; keep looking for it!

Confessions of a Game-oholic

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Hi, my name is Corey Cole. I’m a game-oholic. I’ve been clean for two weeks now.

You see, I have a dark secret. I’m a recovering game addict. It isn’t safe to let certain types of games in my house. I have a sneaking suspicion that “certain type” might be any game I find fun. Or that I can “zone out” with – Solitaire, I’m talking to you.

I’m not quite sure when my addiction first surfaced. I spent my childhood playing board games, and my teenage years behind a chess board. But I also rode my bike, read a lot, and even watched TV. Games were just a part of my life.

The Gateway Game – Bridging the Gap

ChessNow chess is a well-known gateway drug. For me, chess led to bridge, a card game even more addictive. Stories abound of promising students who dropped out of school to “study” bridge. I began spending evenings at the bridge club, often followed by long sessions at the pub to discuss the deals we just played.

I often spent even later nights haunting the computer facilities at UCSB. That was partly because the turnaround time was better at night, but it was also so that I could play. UCSB had a PLATO terminal linked to the University of Illinois, and I devoted many nights to playing Spasim, Empire, Airfight, DND, Moonwar, and others. I even tried my hand at writing a couple of game “lessons”.

Addiction or dedication? You decide. Programming was a game to me too. Somehow I managed to graduate with a degree in mathematics, although it was really a thinly-veiled computer science degree.

Dragged Into the Dungeon

My first job out of school involved a lot of travel. I installed and customized software for banks in Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis. My game- and turnaround-driven University habits served me well, as the banks were much happier to have their software maintained at night while their normal operations were closed.

D&DBut temptation awaited in the streets of Chicago. It was there that I innocently responded to an announcement about a new type of game, a “role-playing” game called Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was completely different from any game I had ever played, because each game was a story-telling collaboration between the dungeon master and the players. The combination of creative play and the random rewards from rolling dice captured my imagination. I soon became involved with two weekly campaigns, and played every chance I could get.

You could say that most of my life since University came out of that first encounter with paper role-playing games.

Con Artistry

When I returned to Los Angeles, my Mom showed me an advertisement for a nearby science fiction convention. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction stories, but it was the mention of “gaming” that caught my eye. I’d heard that people frequently played D&D at SF Cons. I knew I had found a new home when I heard other people in the registration line talking about their characters and their exploits. They were not impressed that I had a fourth level Cleric.

I soon started up my own D&D campaign, and one of the players introduced me to some other games in town. Soon I was pulling all-nighters at CalTech every Friday and Sunday. At least once, I drove directly from the game to work Monday morning.

I became so obsessed with D&D that I wrote to TSR to tell them about a database program I had created to help dungeon masters generate “random but appropriate” encounters and treasure. I told TSR that D&D had taken over my life and they owed me a job.

You can imagine how well they responded to that!

Addiction? Um, yeah, no longer a question. I had to quit my programming job when they refused to let me become a part-time employee so that I would have more time for gaming.

D&D led me to conventions, and writing my own game scenarios, both of which led to meeting Lori. I’m not sure whether she was an addict at the time, but she loved playing D&D and later spent more time at it than I did.

Rolled Doubles, Move Again

I moved up to San Jose partly because Lori wanted to be closer to relatives in San Francisco, and partly because it was the center of the burgeoning computer and video gaming universe. I didn’t find a game job there, but we made lots of friends with other gamers and played D&D several nights a week.

Dungeon MasterSome other nights I “worked late”, which mostly meant playing Rogue on the office mainframe. Or Wizardry on an Apple II. Or Dungeon Master on the Atari ST I was using to develop desktop publishing software.

My gaming and Con connections led to the next move. A gaming friend did animation work for Sierra. When she found out that Ken Williams was looking for a “champion tournament-level dungeon master” to create a new role-playing game for Sierra, Carolly thought of us and introduced us to Ken. Sierra had published Ultima II, but Lord British decided to start his own company for the sequels.

Here was my chance to turn my gaming addiction into actual paying work! The pay was horrible (I took a 40% cut from what I was making in San Jose), but these were games! I abandoned the desktop publishing project, and Lori and I moved to Oakhurst.

There was one strange thing about working for Sierra – Almost nobody there played games. I had little choice but to actually do work. Well, actually I was already in the habit of working 50 hour weeks as a programmer – That was the norm in San Jose as well as in Oakhurst. There just weren’t many distractions to keep me from doing it. Except maybe for bowling, or bridge, or raising a two-year-old. Piece of cake compared to playing D&D until the sun comes up.

Heroes and Anti-Heroes

Ironically, the most game-free period of my live was the first six years I spent making games at Sierra. It makes sense – programming and designing games is a lot like playing them. The only difference is that the rewards for good play and the penalties for bad play hit harder.

On the other hand, work and play often get confused in game companies. I’ve worked on a few projects where productivity came to a halt because most of the team members spent more time playing games that making them. Surprisingly, I’m not usually one of those – To me, making games is more entertaining than playing them. Game addiction was not involved when Sierra laid off half the staff and cancelled Lori’s and my contract after QG4.

During my “Sierra sabbatical” period between Quest for Glory IV and Quest for Glory V, Heroes of Might and Magic came into my life. Playing it until 3 or 4 a.m. on work nights probably contributed to losing a job in the Bay Area, but that turned out ok – It gave me the chance to return to Sierra and help finish Quest for Glory 5: Dragonfire.

I put my stack of HoMM games in a box, wrote “Pure Evil – Do Not Touch!” on it, and handed the box to a friend to store away from my sight. It was painful therapy, but it worked… for a while.

WoW – Where Did My Time Go?

After a little life disruption known as 9/11/2001, I moved on with my life and got a job creating an online poker site. The only gaming I did there was playing poker on our competitors’ sites – research, you know. I even got good enough at it that I started winning more money than I lost.

WoWAlong came World of Warcraft. The game launched in November of 2004. Every morning I could hear my boss and co-workers talking about their latest exploits on Azeroth. The game sounded like a lot of fun, but I knew that I was a game-oholic and must not try this clearly addictive game.

I actually stayed away until a fan introduced us to WoW – She had said, “This game is a lot like Quest for Glory.” Um, ok, guess we should find out what’s new in gaming.

Actually, I hated WoW at first. I’ve always had a problem with motion sickness and can’t play most first-person shooter games. WoW was just as bad – I could play for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, then it would take me an hour for the room to stop spinning. Lori played a little, and had a good time.

I felt a little left out, but it was a relief that I wasn’t going to become addicted to this game. I could get my work done and stay productive.

Then I upgraded my computer and graphics card. Suddenly the game graphics stopped being choppy. I could play and not get sick. Um, yay?

Little by little, I started spending a few hours a week in World of Warcraft. As my characters gained levels and I joined a raiding guild, WoW started eating more and more of my time. When I wasn’t playing, I was off on the Web reading strategy articles and watching videos. It isn’t easy competing with a bunch of 20-somethings when you’re 50. Ten hours a week turned into thirty, forty, and more. I was spending more time playing WoW than working.

Cold Turkey

Seven-and-a-half years later, and the Hero-U project beginning to accelerate, I finally recognized the writing on the screen for what it was. I could not continue my life as a citizen of Azeroth at the same time as following the more-than-full-time lifestyle of a game developer. On Aug. 30, 2012 I visited the World of Warcraft for the last time, and on Sept. 1, my account expired for the last time.

I look back fondly on my many memories of Azeroth, the friends I made, the bosses I conquered, and the achievements I accomplished. But they’re just memories now – I have no desire to drink from that bottle again. Thank goodness!

My name is Corey Cole. I’m a game-oholic. I’ve been clean for two weeks now. Unless you count bridge or bowling or surfing the Internet.

Ok, so maybe I’ll never be completely clean.

But one thing I can say for sure – I will never stop having fun. And I will put all my love of games into the Hero-U game. Hero-U will be fun. I know that from experience.



Who Is Your John Galt?

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Who is John Galt?


“Who is John Galt?” These are the opening words of Atlas Shrugged, the seminal novel by Ayn Rand. The question sets up a mystery that Rand gradually reveals throughout the next 1100 pages.

But it is also a very telling question, asking each reader to decide who and what John Galt really is to them. In this sense, Atlas Shrugged is a work of interactive fiction. It requires the reader to take a personal stand regarding the characters, situations, and philosophy of the book. Rand did not want her readers to absorb her message passively, but to become intellectually and emotionally involved with the story and her philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged is the story of what happens to the world when the top creative and intellectual people “go on strike”. They refuse to use their minds to support a corrupt government and a society that glorifies mediocrity. John Galt is the man behind the scene (for most of the novel) who starts this revolution.

Who – or What – Else is John Galt?

Here are a few of the beliefs people in Atlas Shrugged hold about him:

  • John Galt is the destroyer, the unseen force who tears civilization apart by removing the greatest creative and productive minds from the world.
  • John Galt is the idealized symbol of man as a creative, intelligent, competent, and above all productive species. He uses his mind and his body to build and create great works.
  • He is uninterested in scientific discovery; he would rather find a way to make money from his ideas.
  • John Galt? He is the man who said that he would stop the motor of the world… and did.
  • In a world of relative morality, vacillation, and uncertainty, John Galt holds absolute, fixed moral beliefs. He knows exactly what he wants, and what is right. “A is A”, he states unequivocally. “Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking.”
  • John Galt is an arrogant, egotistical son of a bitch who doesn’t care about anyone except himself.

Who is John Galt to you? Your answer tells a lot about who you are and how you see yourself.

Is the Right Right?

Was Ayn Rand liberal or conservative? She rejected both labels, as well as the term “libertarian”. Rand scholar Chris Michael Sciabarra wrote, “The left was infuriated by her anti-communist, pro-capitalist politics, whereas the right was disgusted with her atheism and civil libertarianism.”

John Galt GraffitiThese days Ayn Rand is most often quoted by ultra-conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Tea Party Movement. These are not my kind of people, although I have a number of conservative friends. I consider the political and religious right to be demagogues with no respect for personal freedom or individuality.

However, I can’t really argue with their view of John Galt, Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged. The objectivist philosophy – that reason must have precedence over platitudes – is a conservative philosophy. John Galt argues that granting wealth as a reward for labor and creative work is the only true virtue. Charity to people who will not, or cannot, work to make a living is the greatest sin. On the surface, Atlas Shrugged is a condemnation of the policies of the Democratic Party, and particularly of the liberal left wing.

The Leeches

Atlas Shrugged is a big, complicated book. It says much more than that worthless people are leeches on the spirits and production of valuable people. It also contains gangsters, people who consciously take advantage of the system to steal from rich and poor, smart and stupid, industrialists and welfare recipients alike. I see many of the people who wave Atlas Shrugged as a banner as belonging more with the gangsters than the heroes. They agree with Ayn Rand that their labor should not be used to support the stupid or the poor, but they are quite happy to take more than their own fair share at the expense of others.

These are the hypocrites who are far more dangerous than the merely incapable. They are the ones who will point a gun at your head or mine to make us agree with their rules, pay lip service to their gods, and sacrifice our ability and creativity to feed them and their friends. These are the true villains, but they cannot recognize their own villainy.

My John Galt… And Yours

Who is my John Galt? He is a man of very high intellect and even higher integrity. He works incredibly hard at any task he takes on. He is someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, but instead always wants to experiment, learn, create new things, and improve. Although he chose not to reveal his amazing motor to the world, he could not be satisfied until he had completed its design, tested it, and improved on it even more. To the extent that I have spent my life learning, creating, and solving problems, I have something of John Galt in me. In my insistence on always telling the truth and striving to do what is right, John Galt is by my side.

Galt would shake his head in disappointment at the times I have given up, or chosen entertainment over productive work, but he would respect my refusal to do mediocre work when that might have been enough to “get by”. I might not receive an invitation to Galt’s Gulch, but I can still hold my head high for what I have done and for what I will still do in the future.

Who is your John Galt? What are you doing to live up to his standards? Can you honestly say, as he expected anyone worthy of his standards to do, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine?” Will you find the best within you, and make it better? That is the challenge of Atlas Shrugged, and just as much the challenge of the true Hero.

“Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged


Tanks for Leading – Five Leadership Lessons from MMO Tanking

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

What is a leader? A century ago, we might have said, “He’s the boss, the man in charge.” Back then, most people did routine jobs and needed someone in charge to tell them what to do.

We are in the 21st Century now; times and people have changed. Most of us are skillful and well educated. We know how to do our jobs, and for the most part, we enjoy doing them. We don’t need bosses – We need leaders.

There is a parallel in fantasy games. When we created Quest for Glory, the Warrior had a simple role. He was strong, good with weapons, well armored, and perhaps not too bright.

Leadership - More than a SwordThose times are no more. In the School for Heroes, the Fighter has become the Warrior who leads others to greatness. In MMO (massively multiplayer online) games like World of Warcraft, the fighter has become the ‘tank.’ A tank has more responsibility than anyone else on the team.

Tanks have five main responsibilities: They need to lead by example, inspiring the rest of their team. They need to survive and overcome injury and other setbacks. They need to act as the first line of defense, protecting the other team members. They need to divide the opposition so that the party never faces more than it can handle. And most of all, they need to encourage and support their team so that everyone does their jobs well.

In other words, a great tank must be a leader.

Here are some lessons that every good tank – and every good leader – needs to know.

Lead by Example

Lead by ExampleThe best tanks know their own role thoroughly and understand the abilities of the other players. They don’t tell another player how to play, but they provide clear direction so that everyone works together. They choose which targets should be “crowd-controlled” (stunned, put to sleep, trapped, etc.) and which should be the first “kill targets”. Then they focus on their own job and trust the rest of the team to play their roles.

The best leaders are right there in the trenches with their troops, doing their own jobs competently and effectively. They give general direction without trying to micro-manage every task. They act more like knowledgeable co-workers than bosses, and the people working with them can see that the leader is right there working hard. When someone on the team has a question, the leader answers promptly and concisely.

Take a Lickin’, But Keep On Tickin’

Tanks Take the HeatThe tank’s main job is to stand up under fire. He might be able to withstand four or five enemies better than anyone else in the party can handle one. The other players will do their jobs better if they know they are safe. This role starts with good equipment and character abilities, but continues with skillful timing and play. Is a big attack coming? Then use a mitigation talent. Is that attack a powerful area effect? Then move out of the area! Don’t just stand there and stress your healer’s ability.

The business equivalents to stamina and mitigation are tenacity, resilience, and flexibility. Is a supplier late with a critical component? Respond by changing the production sequence so that part is needed last. Or temporarily get a substitute from an alternate supplier. Are creditors late with their payments, or are they on Net 60 payment terms? Make sure you have the tenacity of sufficient cash reserves so that you can continue to produce while waiting for payment.

Dance the Masochism Tango

MMO tanks have many ways of attracting the enemy’s attention. They can “taunt”, they can do a sweeping attack that angers everyone, they may be able to daze or stun the enemies for a few seconds, and they can move around so that the rest of the team has a safer area in which to fight. To be a great tank, you have to be a little bit of a masochist – You have to want the enemy to hate you and to hurt you. Why? Because you can handle it, and your teammates aren’t as well equipped to survive a heavy onslaught.

Above all, the tank takes responsibility for everyone’s actions, not just his own. A great leader does that too.

Never forget that your job as the leader tank is to keep everyone else in your organization safe. That means you need clear policies that allow others to take appropriate risks and occasionally fail. They need to know that their jobs are safe (as long as they are effective contributors), and that you are their shield against outside critics and job uncertainty. Let your employees and co-workers know that you trust them and that you “have their backs”. If another manager – or an outsider – criticizes your team, take personal responsibility – Don’t blame the people who work for you. You are the tank – You’re tough and you can take the heat.

Pulling Together

It'sAn MMO tank is responsible for taking on only what the team can handle. That includes directing crowd control to split up the enemy forces, and “pulling” small groups of enemies so that wandering patrols don’t join them. If you are storming a castle, you will do better if you first take out the sentries one by one than if you charge down the middle yelling, “Leeroy Jenkins!”

A business leader knows what she and her team can handle. She tracks performance and uses the results to plan future projects. She works with the team to break complex jobs into manageable tasks. She lets her team direct the schedule for individual jobs, but she keeps track of the results. If the team is having trouble meeting a milestone, she works with them to renegotiate the schedule and to further divide the tasks so that everyone can meet their goals. When you pull together, everyone on the team wins.

Support the Team

Inspire Your TeamA World of Warcraft player named Jadden from the U.S. Argent Dawn realm posted this wonderful article, “I met an Elitist Tank last night” on the WoW forums. Stop for a minute and read it. Jadden talks about two types of players – the ones who would rather put people down, and those who are willing, ready, and able to help lift them up. A great tank supports the team, encourages players to improve without cutting them down, and makes sure that individual contributions are recognized and encouraged.

I’ve worked with people who believed that all managers suck, and that you just have to keep your head down and try to survive. That isn’t how people accomplish great projects. Real leaders do not tear down their teams and leave them working in fear. The best leaders act as resources and tools to help the team do great work. They listen more than they demand, and they act decisively on what they hear. If the team needs training, the leader arranges it. If their development tools are inadequate, the leader purchases new ones or schedules time and people to create better tools. They don’t say, “If you had any talent or skill, you would get the job done with what you have.” They listen, they learn, and they support the team.

Rule #1: The Players Must Have Fun

It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing an MMO or directing a project team. When everyone is relaxed and enjoying what they’re doing, they will perform better. As the leader, you will have a lot more fun when your team is having fun. The rules of tanking go far beyond the game. You can waste your energy complaining about the idiots around you, or you can transform them into smarter, nicer, and more helpful people. Lead by example. Help them learn to improve their outlook and performance. Being a jerk is self-destructive; helpful people have more fun.

You don’t have to wear plate armor and carry a shield to be a great tank. You just have to want the team to win and work hard to help them get there. Your team members will see the difference. There is nothing quite like hearing, “Tanks for being a leader” from the people you’ve helped to do great work.

Let Bartlet Be Bartlet: Seven Things I Learned by Watching The West Wing

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Lori and I have rarely watch television, but a few shows are worth re-watching. Currently at the top of our list is The West Wing, a political drama that ran on network television between 1999 and 2006. The U.S. President and his staff have their offices in the West wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., hence the series title.

The West WingThe West Wing series gives us an intimate look at the lives and work of fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his senior staff. These people are true believers. They helped Bartlet win the election and now serve as his staff because they are passionate about creating meaningful change in the world. Every member of the West Wing staff is a true Hero. They also have an outspoken liberal agenda and often have trouble convincing Congressmen and Senators to vote for their proposed legislation.

Here are seven important lessons I picked up from watching the series:

Let Bartlet be Bartlet

As a Democratic President with a hostile Republican Congress, Jed Bartlet often had to choose between doing what he believed to be right versus doing what seemed to be politically expedient. Whenever his staff advised him to do the latter, the President came across as weak, and he lost ground in the polls. When they let him stand up for his beliefs, even though he made political enemies, the public respected him more. The staff realized that they had to let Bartlet be himself – a man of strong principles and vision.

Be yourself. You may compromise on minor issues and where you don’t have a strong opinion, but when it comes to the things that really matter, say what you mean and mean what you say. You might not win every battle, but make sure you fight passionately for the most important ones.

Great Results come from Really Hard Work

On The West Wing, the senior White House staff work from early morning until late at night nearly every day, even on most weekends. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, they need to run as fast as they can just to stay in one place, and twice as fast to get anything done. The President and his staff don’t just show up for work each day; they put everything they have into their work.

Important work doesn’t do itself. If you want extraordinary results, you have to put in much more than ordinary effort to achieve them. Creative work is no exception – Images of writers frequently show them near a wastebasket overflowing with the words that didn’t quite work. Today we do it digitally, but we still discard thousands of words and multiple drafts before a finished article hits the Web, book, or magazine.

The computer game industry is known for a lack of “work-life balance”. Programmers and other developers regularly spend 50 hours or more in the office every week. They don’t always do it just because management orders them to work overtime. They do it because they love what they are doing. I know a Nurse Practitioner who works equally long hours at her job. Great results come from people who go the extra mile to make them great. They do it because they care.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Some of the great crises in The West Wing come out of a few careless words. Some of these are jokes, others simply ordinary phrases that seem to take on additional meaning out of context. One plot point hinges on whether the Press Secretary asked the President, “Is there anything else I need to know?” or “Is there anything else I should know?” Other stories become blown out of proportion when one of the staffers makes an offhand joke about them.

I love making word plays and jokes, and sometimes that backfires. Beware of joking about a topic that someone else takes very seriously. They are likely to take your words as mockery or insults. Think about what you say before you say it. People rarely have much perspective or sense of humor about the things that consider important. Their agenda is not yours; you may need to do a little role-playing to empathize with their position.

Making a Mistake is not the End of the World

The West Wing staff members are really smart people, but they make plenty of mistakes. One character is an alcoholic, another falls in love with a prostitute, and even the President has secrets. When some of the staff are pressured to resign, the President supports them. He knows that loyalty, intelligence, and commitment to doing good count for more than anyone’s past mistakes. As a result, they remain fiercely loyal to the President and each other when events challenge them.

QuoteWe all make mistakes. Most of them are trivial, but some of them hurt other people or ourselves. As the saying goes, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” If you want to live a valuable life, you must take many risks. Pretty much by definition, you will fail at some of them. When you make a mistake, admit it and move on to the next challenge. When you see someone make a mistake, accept it, help out if you can, but don’t dwell on it. If you aren’t making any mistakes, you aren’t doing enough with your life.

Character Counts

Any time the West Wing characters try to compromise their ideals to win, they end up losing. They succeed only by having absolute integrity and passion for their beliefs. The opposition might break the unwritten rules and use underhanded tactics, but heroes need to be above reproach and fight for the things that matter.

That seems a little unfair, but it balances out. Good guys get some compensating advantages. Heroes have the strength of their conviction and usually more support from others than the villains get. It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative. People with integrity and the strength of conviction are the ones who get things done. Besides, every time you cheat, you burn a little hole in your brain and soul; do it enough and you will forget what you’re fighting for. You will also lose any trust or respect from the people around you.

Just because You are Passionate does not give You the Right to be Arrogant

Some of the toughest fights the White House staff face are against members of their own party. A Black inner-city Congressman votes against a gun control bill because it is poorly written and he believes that passing it will make it harder to pass stronger legislation.

When your friends stop supporting you, it’s time to listen to them and find out why. Stop and re-examine your beliefs from time to time. Do you still accept the premises that led to them? Don’t be arrogant. There are a lot of other really smart people out there, and you can’t learn from them if you are too busy making your own point over and over.

Learn to Listen

There are very few real villains in the world. Most people truly believe in what they say and do. The West Wing staff maintains a tradition of opening their doors to the public on “Big Block of Cheese Day” each year. The staffers think that listening to “crackpots” is a waste of their time, but many of the visitors have important things to say. Each is passionate about his or her message, and some of their ideas really matter.

Every meaningful decision has social, political, environmental, economic, and other issues. You might be focusing on one consequence of the decision, but others might consider another side more important. Tax the rich to feed the poor? Sounds great; most of them can afford it. It doesn’t sound so great if you’ve worked harder than everyone else you know for 50 years to get that money. Or if the tax causes your company to downsize, costing jobs for people who are willing and able to work. It still might be a good idea, but it is no longer simple and obvious. That is the origin of most political conflict – Each party focuses on one side of an issue and fails to consider other aspects. The law of unintended consequences tells us that issues are rarely as simple as we think they are. We have to stop, listen, and learn when others have things to say – friends and opponents alike.

Lessons from West Wing

West WingWe can all learn from the lessons of The West Wing. The White House staffers are Heroes trying to do what is right in the pressure cooker of the political arena. They need to find ways to get Congress to pass good laws, and they need to get and keep public support for the President and his ideas. We all face similar challenges in making friends and in doing our work competently and ethically. When we hear messages of prejudice and hate, we must find ways to answer them even when it is uncomfortable or dangerous to speak up. That is the only way we can make a positive difference in our work and in the world.