Satoru Iwata Found A Place For Logic In Human Communication

This weekend’s news of the passing of Satoru Iwata was shocking– not only because he drew so little attention to his health problems, but because he was so well-regarded. His death has inspired tributes and anecdotes from every corner of the games industry, and that’s as it should be. He was a brilliant man, one of the few company executives that I truly respected. He began his career as a developer, and ended it the president of Nintendo. I don’t doubt that this success was made possible in part by his ability to apply the lessons he learned in one job to the challenges he faced in another.

The world of programming is all logic. If it does not work, you’re the one to blame. I also apply this to communication among people. If my message is not conveyed as intended, I search for the reason on my side, and not blame the other. If it does not work, you’re the reason for it. If there’s miscommunication between someone, I do not blame them for not understanding. There are always factors on my side. Having been a programmer enables me to think this way.

Satoru Iwata, in a 2007 interview

The above quote represents just one of the lessons that Iwata had to teach, one that’s particularly relevant to me as a developer. It describes a problem that I still face every day. I’ve gotten better at it over time, but there’s always more for me to learn about the value of empathy and intospection as a part of effective communication.

But Iwata was beloved for more reasons than that. When folks who worked with Iwata share their memories of him, they speak of his calm and cheerful demeanor, his gentleness, his sense of humor. These are wonderful to read, and though Iwata left us at far too young an age, his family should feel proud that he is remembered so fondly; it’s as much as any individual can hope to have when they leave this world.

I respected Iwata-san greatly, and have often looked to the examples he set for guidance on how I should conduct myself through the different stages of my career. When folks think of Iwata, they think of intelligence, kindness, joy. A colleague pulled me aside today and told me that I often sound angry, even when I’m not. Conversations that will seem fine to me will leave others with the impression that I’m angry at them. This isn’t my intent, of course; but as Iwata-san said, if my message is not conveyed as intended, I must search for the reason on my side. And when doing so, I mustn’t blame others– if something’s not working, I’m the reason for it.

Since I was a young boy, I’ve frequently had experiences that have reinforced the notion that my presence cannot positively contribute to a group. I’ve developed some useful computer skills, and have been able to use them to help others, which is great. Some folks like my deadpan sense of humor, and I can make them laugh; it’s a wonderful feeling. Aside from that, I keep quiet, knowing my colleagues don’t share my interests. And I keep my distance, too. I’ve seen how repulsed others are at the idea of touching an overweight nerdy guy like me. It’s true that I’m no different than anyone else, but neither do I want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

This approach to life and work has kept me out of trouble. Even if I’m unhappy, as long as I’m not causing problems for anyone, I’d hesitate to say that something’s not working. But after that bit of feedback from my colleague, I have to wonder if maybe I’m wrong about that. When you operate on the assumption that other folks won’t be interested in anything you have to say, you eventually stop thinking as much about how the things that you do say will be received. This sort of thing can change, I think. It’s something that I think I can correct, given enough time and self-governance. I’m able to arrive at this conclusion, in part because of the wisdom of Iwata-san, who was able to take a lesson that I’ve learned about software development and re-contextualize it for life in general.