Editor's Note: Learning From Failure

Learning From Failure

Through failure, we learn at least two things: how to fail and how not to succeed.

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Wow. That was one of the most magnificently inspiring works I've ever read. I did not expect that on this early Monday morning.

I can sympathize with settling for B's in school and not A's. If I would have done better... Oh, I could have done so much better...

This could have been a commencement speech. And frankly, it probably should be.

Russ, find a school nearby and go give this speech to the graduates. It'll be a hit. And you won't have to improvise.

Thanks. I needed this.

I hit a wall last week. I, for the first time ever after a year and a half of doing it, did poorly at stand up comedy trying some new material.

It also happened to be the day an important talent scout was there, some TV people, and a couple of pro comedians.

I think today is the day I'm over it.

This is one of the best article I've read here.

It's actually a little inspiring!


You really do write some great stuff, Mr Pitts.

Russ Pitts:
Editor's Note: Learning From Failure

Through failure, we learn at least two things: how to fail and how not to succeed.

Read Full Article

A fantastic letter--we really appreciate you sharing this with us!

This is going to prompt some fantastic discussion this week, both regarding the success/failure of developers and the success/failure of the player within the game. I'm really, really looking forward to all of that!

I apologize wholeheartedly in advance for the length of this post.

This isn't only true for video games or theatre. We're increasingly designing a world that fails to challenge, and thus fails to inspire. I know I run the risk of sounding a little, "Gawh, kids this days!" while shaking my fist at the local skateboarders, but it's something that is true. There is something that we are teaching our children from an earlier and earlier age. It's not a lesson that is good for them, it's one that's convenient for us. We're teaching them that discomfort and failure can and should be avoided at all costs.

We're teaching them how to quit.

As an infant, you once wanted to walk, but could not. You watched others do it, and you were, in your own way, envious. They could get around faster. They could reach things. They could hold a cookie and still move about. It was glorious to behold, and you wanted it. So, you set about learning. You tried standing, holding a coffee table or something to stay up. You couldn't stay up long before your little legs would tire, but eventually you got better. Before long, you were making hurried laps around that table, but you were still crawling when you had to go somewhere else. Realizing this, one day, you decided that had to end. You took your first steps.

It didn't go well. Accounts vary, but in all likelihood you fell flat on your face. Maybe you even caught a piece of the table to your forehead on the way down. Falling hurt. The sensation of falling was confusing and terrifying. It was frustrating to have shown yourself unable to do what you wanted. Make no mistake, infants can feel all of this. It was a wholly negative experience for you, but you had one ace up your sleeve: No one ever told you that you could just quit, so you didn't.

Next time, you failed, but you failed a little less. And then a little less than that. So it went for trial after trial, with all the bumps and bruises that came with each. Eventually, "big failure" became "small failure," became "small success," became "big success." And within a few weeks, there wasn't a single part of your brain or body that remembered not being able to do this.

This is learning. This is how it is done. Learning is coming face-to-face with something you can't do or don't know, with which you are not comfortable or proficient, and doing battle until you've added it to the list of things you can do. It is the arduous trek from "awful" to "great," and the gulf that separates the two is only crossable on a bridge you construct from your failures.

Failure, however, is not the enemy. When failure comes to us, it can only do one of two things. It can teach us, or it can stop us. At first, we aren't aware of the latter, but somewhere along the line, we learn life's worst lesson: "If something gets too hard, you can just quit and go do something else. No need to endure the discomfort, the pain, or the embarrassment of what you can't do. Just go find something else to do." This lesson is what can turn failure's stepping stones into stumbling blocks.

There are three ways in which we teach our children this awful lesson, as parents or as teachers.

1. We protect them too much. We work so hard to shield them from any pain or discomfort, both physically and emotionally. It's for their safety, but also because we'd rather believe they can go through life in an entirely positive way. Sadly, that's just not how it works. No one wants to intentionally put kids in negative or hurtful situations, but there are times where you have to let them happen. Because eventually hurt and failure are going to find them.

Think of this like the chickenpox. It's out there, we recognize it will find our kids eventually. And we know that it is far less dangerous to a child than to an adult. So what do a lot of parents do? They find a kid with the chickenpox and send their own child to play with the sick one. Why? To get it out of the way early, when it can't do as much damage. We do this to allow their immune systems to develop strength early on, even if we don't understand it in that way.

Beyond this, medical studies are finding that kids who never get dirty, like those in our hyper-sanitized environments, tend to develop more allergies (which are just our own immune systems over-reacting to normally innocuous things) because their immune systems don't learn how to handle these things early enough.

If only we could apply this same logic (though in a careful, judicial manner) to their emotional and social "immune systems"--the mind's defense when dealing with negative input from the world. If you shelter and "hyper-sanitize" a child's world, they never learn to develop any sort of immunity to it. And when (not if) it hits, it will hit harder.

2. We play too often to the child's strengths. Kids will inevitably develop strengths and weaknesses based on combinations of genetics and development (though I tend to favor development). "Well, Billy is good at reading, but he's not very good at math." This may be an accurate statement, but the difference comes in how we use that information. Does it mean we pile on the reading, and we marginalize the math? Or does it mean that we put a bit more focus, from time to time, on where he's weak?

If a child is found to have a "lazy eye," it simply means one eye is weaker than the other in terms of its ability to focus. One eye is dominating, and the other eye becomes increasingly weak. You see the same kind of thing happen in countless pairings where one side is strong than the other. The highly-complicated and futuristic way in which they deal with a lazy eye early on? An eye patch. On the good eye. This forces the weaker eye to develop the strength to do what it needs to do and bring it up to the same level as the stronger eye.

We use the same logic when someone has an injured leg. Yes, you keep the weight off while it's healing... but as you get toward the middle and end of the process, you've got to start putting weight on it, bending it, gradually increasing the capabilities of the "bad leg." If you don't, muscles won't be ready, stitches can re-open, and bones won't be able to handle the stress. If you always avoid putting weight on a weakness, it stays a weakness forever. Sometimes you have to steer a child away from a strength (just momentarily) so that they can develop other strengths, and so that they can learn that weakness don't have to stay that way--they're a sign that you've got a harder road, not a dead end.

3. We just don't care enough, sometimes. It can really be that sad and simple. #1 and #2 teach our kids that they should quit, and this is how we often teach them that they can. The child tries something new, finds that it's harder than they thought, and they want to quit. Without even looking up from what we're doing, we just casually wave them off, "Sure. There's plenty of other stuff you could do." (Personal testimony follows. Feel free to skip to cut some length from this post.)

Growth can never occur in a state of comfort. As a child, you know you're growing when your clothes fit funny, your legs hurt, your voice gets all crackly, and a million other uncomfortable things. Growth requires a certain amount of discomfort, and we've got to be willing to endure it--and hold our kids and students to the same task.

Video games fall into the same trap. They can't be "too challenging," because there are tons of simpler games out there for people to run to. You've got to make the player comfortable, because challenge breeds discomfort. It causes the player to face what they're not good at (which should be read "not good at yet"), and most can't handle that. Games are supposed to be "fun," right? And facing your weaknesses, even a little, just isn't fun.

I know that the content I've read in this issue so far mostly speaks to failure as a developer, but I think the issue extends to how the player handles failure, and the implications of that on how games can move forward.

If you made it this far, I commend you. Go have some coffee. Or a nap.

Double. Bugger. Sorry.

I've been described by one of my teachers in high school as one of the greatest underachievers he's had a chance of knowing. He said if I had bothered to do more than the minimum I could have been one of his greatest students.

/raise hands up

That was a great story backing what you are saying about failure, truely inspirational.

I remember struggling with a really tough project at work several years ago, and having lots of problems. I remember discussing my frustration with my boss. He told me: "The only people who never fail are those who never try". It was the best morale booster I'd ever gotten from a boss.

Fail better, for sure, but also fail early, fail often and above all else, fail upward

Epic. Thats all I have to say. Thanks for that!

I wish I was that kid who could get straight A's if they wanted to. I've been trying, very hard I might add, to get that A. And I'm saddled with a sea of B's, and even a C. And, while I realize that I'm taking classes above the average difficulty, with above average students, when I'm surrounded by nothing but these things, they become the norm to me, and it's pretty saddening.

I'm wondering if anyone who is complimenting this editor's note on its inspiring message are actually going through a series of failures at the moment, because this article is sure as hell doing nothing for me. Not that I'm saying that I'm going through particularly hard falls.


This is very true.

It's incredibly easy to discourage kids though.

I know when I was older I stopped trying.
When I was younger, I just struggled, and struggled with certain things, but I was also considered some kind of genius.

In any event, at some point I was doing all the work given to me flawlessly, and still getting bad grades because my teacher thought I should be enthusiastic about my work.

But then... If getting things perfect isn't good enough, how is that supposed to do anything for your enthusiasm?

If doing your best doesn't accomplish anything more than making the bare minimum of effort, who would continue to put in the effort exactly?

So, it shows how easily you can fall into this trap.

And unfortunately, I'm suffering for it now, because I find it very difficult to manage things which are an actual challenge.

And it's not so much giving up when things get difficult, as giving up before I even start.

It took a handful of years to learn that it wasn't worth making an effort...
10 years to learn why that was wrong...

And 8 years of trying to undo the damage this has caused, with only limited success.

But, as we're talking about here, the only way forward is to learn from your mistakes, and try and improve on them.

And that even applies to learning to overcome the 'I give up' mentality.

And that even applies to learning to overcome the 'I give up' mentality.

I think what you're experiencing is how learning the wrong lessons about failure can have an impact. Mostly, it can lead to bad habits of the worst kind--when we learn something one way (You failed even though you tried very hard) and our mind begins applying it in reverse (Don't bother trying hard, because you'll just fail).

In this case, you learned that you "failed" at being perfect. Not much of a failure, mind you, but if you're taught that it's a failure, that's where your mind will file it. So, despite your best efforts, 99% is the best you got. And one of the dangers of being a perfectionist is the risk of constant disappointment... 99% is viewed as a failure, but a failure that took staggering effort to attain, and you're forced to look at that 1% with envious eyes.

Over time, if no one helps you get a different perspective, you begin to feel like Sisyphus--shoving that boulder with all your might, never quite reaching the top, the very portrait of futility. But because you are capable of viewing the situation from the outside, you're able to see that futility, so you (quite reasonably) decide that if you can't reach the top, there's no point starting the climb.

Of course, just because you can view the situation from the outside doesn't mean you're viewing it objectively. Perfection is desirable, but not the requirement. Each time you fall short, the idea is to fall a little less short. And that's all--that's success. Our efforts move us along an asymptote to perfection, approaching nearer and nearer but never quite reaching. And that is alright.

You can never be good at something if you're not willing to be bad at it first. For instance, I am awful at golf. Absolutely foul at it. And when I visit home and my Dad wants to go golfing, I know that I'll be spending over $40 to go and be bad at golf. I do this because I love my Dad. But also, I know that unless I go "be bad at golf," I'm certainly never going to get any better. Each time, I'm a little less awful.

The trick for me? I stopped keeping score. I live swing by swing. "I feel good about that swing." or "That swing was a little wobbly. I think I looked up at the end." See, if I kept score, I would see that my "good shots" were in a sad little lonely minority. Rather than seeing them as the goal, and as momentary brushes with meeting that goal, I'd be seeing them as the scattered exceptions to the greater rule--I suck at golf.

You've got two voices in your head. The "yes" voice, and the "no" voice. The "no" voice is the one that focuses on the negative. It catalogs your mistakes, minimalizes your successes, compares you unfairly to others (or to an unattainable ideal), and generally holds you back. It's your pride's self-defense mechanism--"If I can keep you from trying, we'll both save ourselves a lot of embarrassment."

It all sounds a bit hippy-ish at first, but the principles behind it are sound. Tell that voice to shut up and get out of the way. Focus on your failures just long enough to learn something, and then move forward. Don't over-analyze your successes to the point that you get in the way of repeating them. Go into a task focused on what goals you want to accomplish, not what mistakes you want to avoid. Let the "yes" voice be louder.

For a short book that does a good job of exploring this dynamic, I might recommend W. Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis. I don't play tennis, but I actually found that helpful when reading this book, because I wasn't focused on the subject. Just the process. Since I wasn't failing at tennis, I didn't have that subconscious need to second-guess the advice the book was giving. If you get a chance, give it a go...


And that even applies to learning to overcome the 'I give up' mentality.

That's pretty good. Like I said, I've been working on dealing with failure better when I figured out what I'd gotten myself into.

And like you say, a large part of it is not spending so much time worrying about if everything's perfect or not, and just accepting failures as they happen, rather than avoiding situations that could go badly.

I've certainly made progress, so it's not all bad, things just feel a little messed up sometimes when I'm reminded pf what people expected me to be capable of.

Anyway, if you give up before you even begin, you'll definitely fail.

That was one of the best things I've ever read. Thank you very much for that.

That was a very interesting read, I should apply that to CoD every time I die; so as to not fly into a fit of rage every 10 minutes.

Without a doubt, the most interesting, entertaining, and- gosh!- educational classes I've taken are the ones that utterly kicked my straight-A ass.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that our education system is screwed that way. We treat people who take classes that they breeze through without effort like superstars and fill people who have to struggle with dread. It often looks better on your transcripts that you got 'A's in bonehead Geometry than that you struggled your way up to a C- in honors Calculus.

Western culture, and American culture in particular, celebrates victory far more than struggle. We often seem to love our software billionares not so much because they worked hard to get where they are, but because they make it seem so easy- we imagine that if we had had the same "right place, right time" serendipity, we would be the ones in their place. Sure, we love a "self-made man" story, but there's little respect for someone who works twice as hard just to keep food on his or her family's table working two minimum-wage jobs.

Employers don't look for "tried hard" on a resume. Scholarships are more likely to fall into the hands of the A-cruiser than the honors-level-C-struggler. And the guy who self-promotes and takes credit for others' work is at least as likely to get the promotion as the one who actually stays late.

A shame, isn't it? We practically school ourselves not to become better people.

Thanks for that.

Very nice piece Russ.
Thanks for sharing.

To quote Neil Gaiman:
"Is it that hard to fail? Is it really so terrifying to fall?"
"Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly."




I find myself in similar straits. Filled with doubt about myself and my abilities, unsure if I'm enjoying what I do and almost completely paralyzed when I think about taking another step. This affects me both in my work and social life.

It's not exactly fear that holds me back its more like doubt, imaginings of the unknown, good and bad alike. One of the factors is that I've never learned how to work for something, never struggled to reach something. I also think I've never made a meaningful choice for myself in my life because I've always been steered or supported. And now I find myself depending upon others because I've never learned anything but academic knowledge, instead of something with practical use.

I've failed twice now, one job and one relationship. I'm currently in the process of picking myself up and am plagued by the above. It's hard but I'm determined not to let myself strand at this juncture. Everybody's saying it'll get better, that I'll find something and someone I like. At this point I wish I was as convinced as they are but I soldier on regardless, self-loathing be damned.

I thought the 'fail early' comment was the most insightful. I am coming up on 39 years of age and have suddenly decided I want to make use of the illustration skills I have had since childhood and my indoctrinated mind keeps forecasting hardship and failure. I am enlightened enough to know that all success (and failure) is relative and have unquestioning belief in my ability but a lifetime of hard work for minimum reward has developed an apathy towards effort.
I think what I am trying to say, is that how we handle success is as important as how we handle failure, or more accurately; there is no such thing as success or failure only stagnation and degrees of improvement.

I guess that explains why most of the games I play have no scoring system.

Great, NOW I wish I'd stuck with MY theater class! O~O

Naw just kidding, The thing was I stopped going after freshmen year because the teacher got fired over some job verification issues or something. That was a mistake, cause the new teacher was great to.

Thanks Russ! I'll have to remember to read these articles of yours more often.

The key is to adequately challenge yourself, and not wait around for others to do it. I believe the problem with underachievers is a combination of behavioral and educational factors, but whenever I've tried to drill down on it, it's become a matter of properly taking oneself to task. It's so easy to say, hey, I'll just get by with the minimum amount because my minimum is good enough, and isn't it great that I can just coast on by while all these other suckers have to work hard at it!

The problem is that, ultimately, you leave yourself unfulfilled and underutilized. Sometimes failure doesn't look quite so obvious as getting fired and moving back in with your parents, but could actually look a lot like marginal success. We all know inside ourselves, however, the decisions we've made and the risks we did or didn't take, and whether or not we're living up to what we believe our potential really is.

Something to keep in mind! Dastardly's comments are also great.

I'd like to say "thanks" to both Russ Pitts and Mr. Dastardly.
I've had my fair share of failures in life, and I give up too quickly. I've had a guitar in my bedroom, for instance, that's been gathering dust for a few months. I love music, but I find it so difficult to push myself through the initial phase of not being able to play much of anything nice at all.
My other passion is to draw, but giving up when faced with (something I deem to be) a bad drawing is just so easy.

I'm going to read these posts over a few more times, really let the words sink in. I feel more motivated not to give up.
Again, thank you.

Russ Pitts:
Editor's Note: Learning From Failure

Through failure, we learn at least two things: how to fail and how not to succeed.

*Applauds* So many people push an idea so far, only to be discouraged, when they really only need to step it up one more notch to succeed. I hope many of the younger Escapist read this and really take it to heart.

Great quotes... Here's my favorite though. "I didn't fail, I found 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb; I only need to find one way to make it work." - Thomas Edison


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