Invert the Introvert

The following was my guest post for the Thiel Fellowship blog. A heartwarming tale of how I stopped being horribly awkward.

“So, um… here’s the game I made… on my own.”
That’s great, Nick, would you like to talk more about it?
“If… if you don’t mind.”

There’s some truth in the stereotype of the socially awkward programmer.

Two years ago, I took a year off from school, to fly down to the Bay Area for an internship at Electronic Arts. On my first day, I introduced myself to our studio with zero confidence, as if I was afraid of myself. Fortunately, each Friday, I got to show my week’s work to the team. And each Friday, I got better at presenting my work and myself.

By the end of my internship, I was confident in both my technical abilities and people skills. To be precise, just confident enough to be dangerous.

During that summer, I made a game-creation tool, using my newfound programming prowesses. My project garnered interest on a game developer forum, and I opened myself up to constructive criticism. It stung for a bit, but it was much needed medicine. With the forum’s help, I made the tool bigger and better.

Confident, I took the project further. I launched a Kickstarter campaign, thinking to myself the five dreaded words: how hard could this be?

For every day of the Kickstarter campaign, I pestered my friends, cold-called dozens of blogs, and spammed my favourite forums and communities. I was strained for 30 days straight, soured some friendships, and was blocked or banned by people I admired. The Kickstarter barely succeeded, but at what cost?

The experience left me drained. I was convinced I would never be cut out for entrepreneurship. As school started up again, I slipped back into my old antisocial habits, and neglected the people I knew. All my friends in school had moved on to the next year while I took a year off. All my friends in Electronic Arts were in another country.

I was alone with the one person I was most afraid of:

One month later, I visited that same game developer forum where it all began.

I helped others with technical problems, gave them constructive feedback, and shared my ups and downs with them. A forum regular recognized me from all those months back, and wondered why my project had halted? It turns out he once had a project similar to mine, and he was an alumnus of WebFWD, Mozilla’s startup accelerator program. He liked what I was doing, and wanted to connect me with the Director of WebFWD.

If this was me just a few years ago, I would have sheepishly said Thanks, but no thanks. But this time, something sparked in me. Maybe it was ambition for where I wanted to be, or anger at where I currently was. Whatever it was, I dropped all my courses the next day, and met with the Director.

He said yes.

Social skills aren’t like technical skills.

You can’t just memorize a bunch of tips and tricks, it’s about fundamentally changing who you are. In true techie fashion, I shall summarize my findings in a numbered list.

1) Always get outside feedback.
Not only can feedback help you test & refine your work, it can help you come up with new ideas. If you avoid or ignore constructive feedback, that’s not “sticking to your vision”, that’s vanity.

2) Help others because you want to.
Not just because you shouldn’t expect anything in return, but also because you literally can’t. There’s no way of knowing who your best connections will be. I’ve contacted dozens of journalists to no avail, but it was one guy on a forum who got me into WebFWD.

3) Connect with others, for your own safety.
Startups are stressful, and as young as we are, we have to be careful. We need to support each other, and be there for each other when it all just gets too much – and it will.

. . .

A few weeks ago, I flew down to the Bay Area for my WebFWD inauguration. I met up with my former mentor from Electronic Arts, to catch up with each other, for old times’ sake.

Hey Nick! How’s that game-creation project you’re working on?
“It’s going great! Would you like me to talk more about it?”
If you don’t mind.