What Makes a Man

Hey. I'm writing this paper for a pretty unusual reason. For the future. I believe that being said now these words will have much more weight, than years from now and hopefully come helpful for someone with a heavy heart.

This whole thing will probably look like a blog post with me ranting and trying to convey some sort of a message through it all.

The circumstance

Hi, I'm Andrew. I'm 20 and I make videogames. I knew would be making them for a living by the time I was 13.

On my videogame artists path I've been through some weird shit.

Somewhere along the age of 13\14, while every one of my friends was hanging out, getting drunk and doing some more fun kid stuff I was hard at work on my art and took some programming and art courses, while trying to keep up with just being a kid. For years I studied at school as a normal person and then spent my evenings studying game art.

I live in the last dictatorship country in Europe and many things range from different to repulsing. How about serving in the army in command of a pathetic little bully with an inferiority complex and remainders of the Soviet Union arsenal? At first, In order to avoid it I had to get to university, since it allows you a delay in your service. And the university is as authoritarian as everything else. Imaging your dean staring you dead in the eye and telling you that he likes his students clean shaven and with short haircuts and unless you comply you will not pass your exams. I had pass the same exam 7 times until they let me, leaving my appearances up to me. And of course on top of all that studying I still took a great amount of time to try to teach myself game art.

Around 16 I started doing some freelancing gigs and got not paid more often than not.
Around the age of 17 I was already living by myself.
It was kind of hard. I was completely incompetent in taking care of myself and found eating and stuff to just be distractions from work. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, for I needed to get out and this was my only option. I wanted to live in a place where, at least even though your voice doesn’t matter, it is not punishable by lifetimes in jail to have one, where people have an idea about what it’s like to live happy without regular alcohol intake, with a chance to deserve yourself the best life there is.

Being caught up in this long race I really sabotaged my own health and got a bad case of acute sinusitis. I was hospitalized and almost had two holes drilled right in my forehead. I was lucky that the surgeons where too fucking indifferent to come out to work on weekends even for an acute case like mine, ‘cause when I more or less regained consciousness I denied this barbaric medical practices that are still very widely spread in the free and people-oriented medical care in our island of prosperity and socialism.

I recuperated with no forehead drilling, though working sick hours became harder. But I still proceeded with University at day, 3d art at night.

I’ve tried applying to all kinds of videogame art companies, that I could find in Belarus and that’s not much, to say the least. Having not got a job I still dumped my uni determined to pursue my videogame art studies anyway. I landed a job a month later only to leave it after a year because I felt that the biggest thing holding me back was, surprisingly, my job. I’ve managed to save some money, that I was living off for the next year. I was extremely limited in my expenses. Eating once a day and wearing 5 year old cloth that had more holes in them, then Swiss cheese. Having a wonderful girlfriend that I did my best to never deny anything I could. Food, apartment, electricity, internet, tv, security, water and a girlfriend for less than 300$ per month. I fainted from hunger and vomited with my stomach juice. I slowly started getting some weird diseases because of my weakened immune system. But in spite all of this I kept working. That was everything I could think of. I needed a job someplace out of here. I hoped that someone would see in me something that I know there is, and take me away.

The anxiety

So, after all this years I finally came to a point where I knew, that my portfolio was at least on the level with some people, that I knew got jobs at good places. So I put up my website, wrote a resume and send it out to all the people I have great respect for.

I think, that in life of every human being with a goal comes something you would call “the moment of truth”. A time when you think you’ve done everything you could so far and the only thing left is to wait for the result. This moment could last half a second or days, weeks, months and even years.

In my case it was a month. So much time companies maximally take to review your application. And, man, that was one hell of a hard time. Especially when you're living on a dream to actually start living someday and this could be your winning ticket. It was a torture, a constant swing from keeping faith to abandoning it from fear of getting hurt too much. The more time passes the more restless you become. You start analyzing the amount of effort you've put in through all this years and comparing it with the outcome you've got so far, trying to justify all your hard work. And when time starts running out your anxiety starts chocking you like a razor wire.
And then…

…nobody replies to you. And your feel chewed up and spit out by the wheels of your dreams. All your hopes of normal life that so many people probably take for granted all around the world are shattered to pieces, because you dared to believe could earn yourself a right for something similar. Your life becomes your prison cell. As much as you love it, all you do is work and not eat and not sleep and you can't force yourself to do anything else. With your health deteriorating you start asking yourself how much really could you take and if dreams are really meant to be unreachable. You feel like you've hit the rock bottom and broken all the bones you had left.

I’ve seen quite a bunch of people in circumstances so bad, that they had to really question their future and now I’ve finally gotten a chance to analyze myself in a situation like this. I’m always interested in the stories of those who “made it”, hoping to pick up a useful piece of wisdom. But all they can say is usually just “keep at it”, that doesn’t sound all that encouraging when you haven’t eaten for a day and out of a hundred applications you have 0 replies. And that is exactly why I’m writing this right here right now. I don’t believe in fortune telling but now I want to read you a little bit of my future:

Someday someone will ask me how did I “make it” and you know what I'll do? I link them here. I'll tell them that “there's only a minor difference between you and the person you want to become: the latter didn't give up when he had a chance. That's it. No matter how much discouraged you are, how hard and inhuman it is, backtracking will get you nowhere. There are no right or wrong choices in life. There are only choices you Want to make. And it's up to you and only you to make those choices right or wrong, to see through their consequences and come out victorious or defeated. So if there's something I learned in recent weeks, it's that “the bottom” is not a place, never a place, it's a state of mind, that you can get over. And if you wonder how people make it – here's how it is. Life's ugly for some, probably for most, so it's up to you, to take what's yours. And I know you can. You don't need an advice to succeed – there just is none. You just need a little bit of encouragement to hold on just a little longer and eventually, you'll see it through.

I'm sure you will.”



Down the road

It’s funny to be reading this after years have passed. It’s funny how I thought I knew what rock bottom was. I’ll tell you a secret folks: rock bottom – is bottomless. Especially when you’re sure there’s no way things could get worse, believe me, they’ll find a way to. Some things I’ve omitted the last time, some things are new, but here’s how this story goes:

Feel all crushed from conjuring up your portfolio, full of hopes dreams that are denied by no interest in your persona? Try doing that consecutively for 2 more years after that, flat broke and with zero job opportunities.

Sounds fun? Try adding police prosecution in a dictatorship country on top. The first freelance job I did, where I totally had to prove myself, I did hiding under the table in the dark of my apartment with police banging at my door. Winter coat and shoes right by my side in case I had to jump off the balcony and make a run for it. So much nerve tissue burned up living in fear for months upon months with all those near misses and plans turned train wrecks that make you think that they just might lock you up for real this time. And with all the peaceful protests that took place here not so long ago It’s a miracle the I haven’t been detained even once.

Felt poor living on 300$ per month? Try 100$. No, try 80$. When crazy inflation kicks off and prices skyrocket. It’s a funny feeling knowing that you’ve got 5 bucks to feed yourself for a week, because when you know you must not want to eat – panic hits you and you feel twice as hungry all the time. When having to run for two minutes makes you almost faint and you have to do your best to pretend you’re ok in front of the people you know. And when you’re out of frying oil or a deodorant you cannot afford a new one for a month until you finally “save up”. And when it seems like it couldn’t get worse your front door just flipping falls off on you, you washing machine breaks, you plumbing damages and your light bulbs start exploding right over your head one by one and all of that in a matter of weeks. And there you are, right in the geographical center of Europe, sitting there in your dark apartment with no hot water eating carrots and potatoes.

But hey, at least I had a chance to work. How was I doing on that front? Well, I had artists, who were extremely kind to spare me some of their time, from some of the greatest studios around the world tell me that they have no idea how come I don’t have a job yet. Some of them went as far recommend me straight to HRs and guess what? Still nothing. HRs never wrote back and I wish I knew why. Of course for me there’s only one reason – I was not good enough, but …it still hurts having recruiters look you up saying that they have a well know AAA project they want you to work on, only to disappear without a trace once they find out where you are from. (Though I totally understand them – getting a visa took me 12 month. If I was a company I wouldn’t touch myself with a 10-foot stick.)

Getting what you want

But let’s say you’ve got a job, what next: celebration and happy ever after? Not really. Now you’ve got to wait another six months as it usually happens sinking 1000$ into this, which is almost as much as you spend a year. In the process you realize that no country really wants you. “Admission to Wherever is a Privilege Not a Right” they say in bold font on most documents and you certainly feel that way. You application is stretched as much as possible, every additional piece of paper or test there might be – prepare to undergo it and pay money for it. And then if they miss a deadline and require you do redo stuff and pay money again – you can’t complain ‘cause it’s all a privilege.

Now imagine you’ve been waiting for 7-8 months already, and that’s on top of all the years of hard work that you earned that job with. You’re waiting to see if they would allow you to have something you’ve earned many months ago. And a month after their self-imposed deadline expires you finally get a letter that says:

“Dear so and so we believe you have Tuberculosis – go do a 2 month test. You have 3 months to return the results to us. Signed 1 month ago.”

And you thought you were going somewhere?

Couldn’t be worse? Think again. You’re out of time because your letter was a month late, so in such a hurry, while having to appear for tests at the hospital for a number of days in a row, you catch pneumonia. And interesting turn, but not interesting enough – after weeks of fighting with pneumonia you get an intercostal nerves inflammation. In layman's term the thing that hurts hurts. Paralyzed, you can’t move, you hardly breathe and it doesn’t go away for days. That’s the bonus I got.

The fun is that I also organized lectures all around to share with aspiring artists whatever I could, so their journey would hopefully lack much of the meaningless obstacles. And I had to do some of those while sick and feverish.

It’s interesting to read stories of other “starving” artists from time to time. They all are usually “starving” until up they are good enough, which makes sense. But not in my case.
It’s funny – I had my artwork displayed on front pages of some of the most renowned international game art communities, the educational materials I’ve put up helped thousands of people around the world, I get letters from students asking for my advice on their term projects and dissertations or just plain thanks for the knowledge or inspiration which is very flattering, I had lead artists of studios thanking me for helping “step up their game”, my talks and papers were published on biggest Russian speaking CG websites and I’ve lectured at places all the way up to the National Academy of Arts yet I’m still broke as fuck, lead a semi-reclusive lifestyle from the amount of work I have to do and still have no job.

And then you go online and see people go “Duh! UK is the worst place to be now if you are in games!” or “There’s no job for a 3D modeler in L.A.!” Then you give yourself a little smirk and think of all the people who got it so much worse then you, think how lucky you are and just get back to work.

I get asked from time to time if I ever regret choosing what I do and I don’t hesitate for a second: ”NO”. I’m luckier than most - I get to what I love every single day.

I spent hours upon hours lecturing why talent does not exist and the only thing worth pursuing are your dreams, but now I’m not even sure it was worth talking about. The whole idea of not doing what you love seems ridiculous to me. Choosing something else because it’s easier or more available is like denying you like oranges because they don’t grow where you live. Don’t confuse being full with being happy.

So what makes a man? Not “sticking out” and not “paying your dues” – Love. When you're ready to believe you’ve made the right choice - you won’t mind all this crap life’s definitely gonna put you through. But if you’re there for the easiest thing you’ll snap at the first sign of hardship.

So let me plant some confidence in you: no matter how bad things are, or how impossible you dreams seem – there’s nothing unachievable. History knows of billions of people who got nowhere from very favorable circumstance yet there are thousands who got what’s theirs beating the most ferocious odds. So it’s not about the odds – it’s about the people. Which one do you want to be?

I’d stand by you and tell you “you’ll do great” a million times if I had to, but actions are so much better than words. So within a few hours when I board my plane, take some comfort in that. Know that I’m doing it for you, so you know you will do it too someday if you just follow your excitement. And us? We’ll be waiting for you here…


All text and artwork (c) Andrew Maximov unless stated otherwise. Header image by Anastatisa Kot