Kill the Goddamn Vulture

The Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, Richard Dansky  was named one of the Top Twenty Game Writers by Gamasutra in 2009. His game credits include Splinter Cell: Conviction, Outland, and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. He is also the author of five novels, including Booksense pick Firefly Rain, and his short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as The New Hero, Don’t Read This Book, and Dark Faith.


Once upon a time, they showed Bugs Bunny cartoons that featured a character named Killer. Killer was a vulture of an excessively bashful and self-effacing strain. He wasn’t particularly interested in doing vulture-ish things, he sang “Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee” when he flapped gracelessly along, and his reaction to his mother’s suggestion that he get off his feathery ass and bring home some food was always an embarrassed “Doh, nope, nope, nope, not gonna do it.”

Killer, as you might expect, is not a terrifically successful hunter. He is not what you’d call a great role model when it comes to career aspiration. And yet, he’s the guy so many burgeoning creatives reference when they get a compliment, or an opportunity. Instead of taking the compliment, they hang their heads. They blush. They stare at their shoes and mumble about how they’re really not all that good, and then they change the subject. It’s painful to watch, especially if you’re the one saying “nice work” or “do you have a story” or “you are a recognized professional, you know.”

And yet, too many smart, talented people turn into Killer the Vulture when faced with the slightest possibility of success. It doesn’t matter how good their work is, how original it might be, how salable it might be in the marketplace. Confronted with the chance to take the next step, they devolve into paroxysms of “Nope, nope, gawrsh, nope, ain’t gonna do it.” Hell, half the time Killer comes out, it’s not even in relation to a particular project or story or whatever, it’s at the mere thought that someone might be taking the next step in their career, that they might be recognized or noteworthy or, God forbid, a reputable pro.

And this, my friends, is moosepuckey. It’s a cutthroat method of self-sabotage disguised as humility. Because as long as you tell yourself that nope, that ain’t you, that can’t possibly be you, then you don’t have to try to be that person or achieve that success – and you don’t have to risk not achieving it. It’s far better, sayeth that little vulture-ish devil on your shoulder, to stay in the minor leagues. To be a big fish in a brandy glass. To listen to everyone tell you how good you are and how you should be playing to a wider audience, without ever having to run the risk of finding out that maybe the bigger audience isn’t all that interested.

Don’t argue with me here. I know it’s not a particularly charitable interpretation, but we’re past charity here and we’re on to paying work. And if I know one thing, it’s that you’re not going to get paying work, or succeed at it, if every time someone offers you an opportunity you aww-shucks it into the gutter.

So, you have to kill the vulture. Every time he rears his head, you need to wrap your hands around his metaphorical neck and squeeze, because if you don’t, he’s going to do the talking for you. He’s going to say that you’re not worthy, and you couldn’t possibly, and gosh, you have so many other (inevitably less productive/profitable/interesting) projects that suddenly became high priority to do, so you can’t. Don’t let him talk, because once he starts, he never shuts up. Clamp that beak closed, wrap duct tape around it, and throw poor old Killer in the trunk of your car.

Now, figuratively speaking that sounds easy. Nonexistent vultures don’t put up much of a fight, at least not the sort that results in broken furniture. Breaking a lifetime habit of putting yourself down before someone else can, that’s a little tougher, but for your own sake, you’ve got to do it. You need to teach yourself to think of yourself in a new way, as someone professionally and creatively worthwhile. And the best way to do that is to look at yourself like you’re someone else.

Seriously. Separate yourself from your resume, or, better yet, have someone else do it. Then run down your accomplishments, your publications, your awards. List them out. Watch them add up. Odds are, by the time the recitation is done, it’s going to be a pretty formidable list sitting there.

Then take a look at that list. Squint a little. Regard it objectively. Do not, for the love of all that is holy, start nitpicking those accomplishments or finding all the myriad ways you can diminish them. The fact remains, regardless of any caveats you can throw on there, You Accomplished Them. Then ask yourself, “If this track record belonged to someone named Elmore Q. Gherkin, would I be impressed?”

The answer should be “yes”. If people are willing to say nice things about you (and mean them) or offer projects or opportunities, it is because they are impressed with your track record and/or talent. That’s because there’s something there to be impressed by, which, if you are following my instructions, you just agreed objectively is impressive.

Which leaves the hard part: taking that “yes” and applying it to yourself. Realizing that you don’t need the goddamn vulture to protect you from success. Owning your achievements and accepting the recognition that comes with them.

It’s not easy. It’s always tempting to denigrate the stuff that you’ve done, to haul out “Oh, I knew the editor” or “I was a last-minute replacement so they couldn’t be choosy” or whatever. But that’s a sucker game. Once you start picking at one of your achievements, you won’t stop until you’ve torn up every last one, and then you’re right back where you started.

So embrace what you’ve done. Kill the vulture. Because if you don’t, you’re exactly what a vulture likes: dead meat.

3 thoughts on “Kill the Goddamn Vulture

  1. Richard, don't you think there's a middle ground you are losing here? Humility in the face of achievement is not a vice. However, being humble does not necessarily mean letting opportunities pass. I've always treated humility as an acknowledgement that I still have much to learn and strive for, as well as not letting myself get carried away. Humility is also a way of giving respect to a personal and professional support network that helped create your success.

    As a nod to your sports blog (and to throw a mid-afternoon bomb), it's like this: the LaDanian Tomlinsons of the world who would rather have a HOF career than a championship have no problem killing the vulture. The rest of us would rather have the team success, with some sacrifice, compromise, and humility to share in the victory and motivate ourselves to get better.

    If someone is waffling because of that humility, is it necessarily a problem? More to the point, is it really their responsibility to jump at a given opportunity? Confident or modest, they have a sense of their own limitations. The bigger the opportunity, the greater the risk – not just for themselves, but their families and their potential employers. If a person puts themselves in a position where compliments come with a chance for greater glory, then I would suggest that it is the complimenter who bears the responsibility. Sell them on the vision, be able to explain to them how their talents would fit in this new partnership, and help mitigate their concerns with your intricate knowledge of the situation you are inviting them into. Compliments are lovely, but idle, things. Turning that praise into something tangible is a back and forth. Creativity may be "devil may care", but that intersection between life's responsibilities and passions rarely is. I applaud the spirit of what you are saying, Richard, but I humbly disagree.

    In summation, John Kenneth Galbraith was a son of a bitch.

  2. If someone says to me that I have a great story and I should get it published, if I react with anything other than "Yes, you are right" then I'm letting the vulture speak for me. Aw, golly gee, shucks, it ain't that good. Who am I to determine if my work is any good? Who am I to keep others from enjoying my work because I don't think it's good. Let someone else be that judge (or not).

    A few thoughts on limitations: Almost all of mine have been placed there by someone else. Someone else's beliefs have shaped my own and I have, from those beliefs, created my own limitations. Are these limitations legitimate? Says who? If I say they are, it's because I've come to believe in them, but that doesn't mean they're true or realistic. Some folks out there say there are no limitations that are true and we are believing in illusions and once we can see through them, we will have no limits.

    I know there are physical limitations. I probably cannot play professional basketball or any other national sport; I'm too short. But beyond that, I truthfully have very few legitimate limitations. Any that I say I have are most likely illusions. Thanks Rich, for pointing that out.

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