I find myself in the elevator of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Seattle, where for the second year in a row, I’m attending a week-long video game tournament with my teenage son — last year at his request, this year at mine. We stop at the second floor, the doors open, and in walk two twenty-somethings looking much like somebody you would expect to attend a week-long video game tournament. That they’re wearing their entrance badges is also a hint.
Given that it’s still before 10 a.m., I’ve already been up for a few hours, and I’m more than a little buzzed up on the morning’s caffeine; I’m excited, wired, and ready to get to the show. Combined, it’s all I need to attempt a conversation.
“You guys heading over to the tournament.”
Without looking up they begrudgingly reply, “Uh, yeah.”
“Did you see that match last night? Such great play by Fear and Universe. I know it’s never been done but I think EG has a shot at repeating this year.”
Smiling, they fire back, “Not a chance. Wings is unstoppable. Innocence is completely unpredictable and is killing it with the draft. Plus iceice is having a great tournament. Wings is going to win the whole thing. No doubt about.”
And with that, the doors opened and we’re all on our way.
Now if you’re reading this and were born before 1980, chances are pretty good that you have no idea what we we’re talking about. That’s okay. To put it briefly, DOTA is an online game where two five-player teams battle to destroy each other’s towers. But perhaps all you really need to know is that it’s a major video game and eSport played and watched by millions of gamers, boasting tournament prize pools that support dozens of professional teams around the world — $20,770,460 (USD) for this event alone.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.
So to summarize, yes I was in Seattle attending an eSport tournament; and yes that means for six straight days I was sitting and watching other people play a video game from roughly 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. And if by chance that strikes you as incredibly boring, perhaps a little silly, or maybe even stupid, hold on to that feeling for a minute.
As we walked out of the hotel and headed towards the arena I said to my son, “I don’t think those guys wanted to talk to me very much.”
To which he replied, “You know why right?”
“It was just a defense mechanism. Because you look like an adult they figured you were going to think the whole thing was pretty stupid since that’s what all the other adults think. Didn’t you notice how they were totally cool once they realized you were into it too?”
His comment made me realize that their experience was pretty much the same as my own given that when I tried to describe it to people my own age, often as not, they just looked at me like I was an idiot.
And it was then that I understood, at least for a moment, why teenagers and young adults so often seem reluctant to engage or talk with those of us who aren’t. They’re waiting for us to make the first move, to show that we’re not going to judge or criticize or critique. Generally speaking they’re more than happy to share their interests and stories as long as we’re willing to listen and not criticize.
For those of us born before the Internet, smartphones, video games, or a thousand songs in our pocket; it’s easy to be critical and dismissive of those who grew up with those things. We’re quick to agree with the articles and books ridiculing startups run by “children”; characterizing Millennials as spoiled, entitled, and incapable of hard work; or complaining about all the teenagers spending too much time “alone together”. In doing so however, we’re not only distancing them and isolating ourselves, we’re also unfairly judging them through the lens of our own experience rather than acknowledging that they are coming of age in a world that is very, very different from the one in which we grew up.
The challenge of being in tech when you’re over 40 is the challenge of constantly setting aside your expectations of how things should work, repeatedly questioning your assumptions, and constantly re-evaluating your positions. It’s the challenge of being a lifelong learner; cultivating the humility of the beginner, the passion of the practitioner, and the joy of the master. It is the challenge of not being so quick to apply old analysis, rely on outdated experience, or expect what worked before to work again.
And no doubt that as with any challenge, there are moments when we struggle, when we revert to old habits or outdated mind frames – moments when we first hear about something like a video game that’s attracted millions of fans and dismiss it as silly or stupid or dumb – and when that happens, I encourage you to pause for a moment, embrace the feeling, and repeat after me, “Don’t judge, just observe. Don’t judge, just observe.”
Bob Baxley is a design executive who lives and works in Silicon Valley. He most recently served as the Head of Product Design at Pinterest. Prior to that, Bob spent over eight years at Apple, where he served in senior leadership roles for Apple’s retail and e-commerce teams. As a Director of Design, Bob hired and led the creative team responsible for a broad variety of applications including the Apple Online Store and the Apple Store app. The author of Making the Web Work, Bob has given numerous talks about his experiences and observations of design, technology, innovation, and Silicon Valley culture.