When you’re the least qualified person in the room

A few weeks ago, I was invited to my alma mater to speak as a DigiPen alumni to a College 101 class full of adorable aspiring game developers. I was a little scatter-brained that day, so while I wasn’t most structured guest speaker, most of the time this devolves into the students just asking questions anyway, which it did.

I got the typical “How did you survive?”, “Are you working on anything cool?”, “What are your student loans like?”. But then, this kid in the front row with a powerful head of curly hair slowly raised his hand. When I called him, he asked quietly “What do you do when you’re the least qualified person in the room?” He went on to describe how he felt like he wasn’t a good asset to his team and that he wasn’t very good at what he was doing. He looked like he was about to burst into tears, fuck I was about to burst into tears. This other kid across the room tells him he’s great and he’s fine, trying to give him a little encouragement, but I still needed to answer the question.

DigiPen is a place where you’re surrounded by people who are amazing at what they do. Literally, the talent of the students there is leaking out the walls. As creatives (programmers/engineers included), it’s natural to feel like we’re not good enough, but this feeling is 10x worse at DigiPen. Aside from the garbage grading system where, if you do everything you’re supposed to do, you get a C. You’re average if you do everything right. Make sense? The As and Bs come in when you do exceptional and industry-level work. And, to be honest, while I attended DigiPen, I totally bought into this system. It seemed perfectly rational. I still have to talk myself out of normalizing this grading scale when I describe it to others because it’s absolute garbage (and I say that as someone who did pretty well at DigiPen and graduated, not as a bitter dropout like some people we know) because DigiPen is a school. (Don’t even get me started how doing everything right negatively affects your financial aid and… whatever, basically there’s a plethora of problems.)

Anyway, I started to answer his question by making a joke. “Lol I feel inadequate all the time, it’s just natural. I feel unqualified right now, who am I to talk to you guys, ya know?” And then I got serious.

I work with a handful of the most talented designers and devs in the tabletop games industry. I even get to put my hands on the work of our partners like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. And I won’t forget Penny Arcade’s Thornwatch. These people are extremely reputable and have, at minimum, 10 years more experience than me.

I just graduated from college and my name is on a sprinkling of games. I am DEFINITELY the least qualified person in the room. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to offer.

Now, I know my cool boss and super reputable game designer, Mike Selinker, is probably gonna read this, and maybe my coworkers will too (Hi!), but I don’t feel like I need to be cautious of anything that I say because even though I am young and green and inexperienced, I’m barely ever made to feel that way (okay maybe when I don’t understand a reference from before I was born but on a professional level, rarely). Whenever I get something wrong, my coworkers just correct me (usually involving discussion) and show me how to do it properly for next time, and that’s what really makes me feel like I’m on their level, or at least I’ll get there eventually. They respect me enough to help me instead of pointing out that I don’t know.

And this goes both ways. There are times, although much less often than the above case, where I offer up some gem and it’s taken into consideration. The fact that these amazing and uber-talented people take the time to scrutinize what I say and give me feedback (good or bad) shows me that, actually: I am A qualified person in the room. I may be the lowest on the totem pole, but I still make a difference. The fact that I was pretty sick this week and took two days off to recover and there was work that wasn’t getting done because I was out shows me how much my job matters; these games wouldn’t be what they are without me in the equation.

When the feeling of not belonging comes from being surrounded by so many talented people, try to remember that you’re next to them for a reason. You do have something unique to offer this industry and you’ll make it if you nurture and own that unique part of yourself that brought you to this place.

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