culture of fail

Video gamer culture and writer culture have a lot in common; diversity, outspoken opinionated creatives, love of media, strong sense of community.

But one place they differ–and it always surprises me–is the culture of failure.

Writer-types (and in general, most creatives) can’t get very far without running into advice on failure. For instance… trivia (like which author got how many rejections on such a great book), process improvement (it takes this many hours and this many words), or the clash between art and commerce (it makes the angels weep, but where would we put it on the shelf?)

It’s assumed. You will fail.

And that’s not a value judgment. I think the reason that inside creative circles, we offer excessive support and advice on accepting failure is because outside of those circles failure means something else entirely.

I can’t help but think about the failures in my own life and how I viewed myself and others because of them. One particular incident that has shamed me whenever I think of it was a huge failure… but only because I was (and in a way, still am) unable to detach my sense of self from one specific action.

At work…

A long time ago, I took a job a couple of months after a recession hit. I knew when I took the job that they were in for a rough time; the area I lived in was economically 18 months behind the rest of the country so I had already seen the effects and ‘what was to come’. In a way, I knew the risk but the company was so optimistic of its future that I took the job.

You can guess what happened. Work slowed to a crawl within days of my arrival. The company did a lot of business-to-business work and the companies we relied on did (more) massive layoffs and slowed their orders. Four months later, I didn’t have a job.

It took me a long, long time to recover from that setback. And yes, objectively, I knew it was just a risky decision on their part to hire a new person while their primary customers were reporting quarterly losses. I’m not hurling stones. Bad business decisions happen all the time and it takes a good business to try to fix those mistakes and adapt. It was never personal.

And yet I took it personally, not in blaming them but in blaming myself. I could have worked harder, I could have been better, I could have made myself indispensable. Which is silly. No incoming work is no incoming work. Too many workers is too many.

This happened years ago, now.

A few weeks ago I was out and nearly ran into one of the people I worked with. The restaurant was busy; I doubt she saw me. And what surprised me was not that I recognized her, it was all the emotions that welled up in response to the memories. As though the moment of my terrible embarrassment was happening all over again, hot and fresh.

Years later, I’m still ashamed that I lost a job when there was nothing I could have done to keep it. It’s excessive, all the emotional baggage that failure has.

At play…

One might think that video game culture (and I’m speaking of players, not developers) would have a higher tolerance for failure. I’m sure some specific players do.

But what always surprises me is how failure in playing games is binary: if you make one bad decision that results in failure, you are a failure. There is little learning from your mistakes, getting back in there and trying again.

I mean, there is, it’s called raiding. But how many times have I had someone send me a private message complaining about some guy’s mistakes; we shouldn’t have him in the raid, he’s bad, he’s keeping us from succeeding.

A lot. It’s a common perception among non-leaders that if we just got rid of the weakest player in the group (the most obvious point of failure), everything would be hunky-dorey. And I guess that’s what determines leaders from non-leaders in a game: leaders recognize that there are a whole bunch of hurdles that keep the group from succeeding, and it’s not so simple as culling the “failures.”

(Specific to my experiences in World of Warcraft, benching the weakest link wouldn’t matter because we didn’t have a player to replace him. So yes, I’d rather go with a less-than-great team than not go at all; as in life, you have to work with what you’re given).

On my Star Wars blog (and others I follow) I run into a common theme: a player hasn’t tried something yet because they are afraid to fail. And I’d say that their fear is unwarranted, but is it? The worst that can happen is you get defeated and have to try again… right?

Early in the release, my SO went with a group to do what should have been a simple task but he didn’t know about one game mechanic specific to the fight, made a mistake, and wiped the group.

He was accused of buying his account (keep in mind, the game was a whole three weeks old at the time) and was told to (do something I won’t repeat). For one little misclick. For costing other people less than two minutes of their time. For an honest mistake.

And suddenly swarms of new gamers being afraid to try new things makes a whole lot of sense. We like to point and laugh at fails. Gaming culture suffers from a polarization between achievers and non-achievers. And nobody wants to be a non-achiever.

Because if you make a mistake (an action), you’re a baddie (a permanent status). You’ve been labeled. You can’t ever recover from the shame of one bad decision in the company of people you’ve never seen and possibly will never play with again.

Which is absurd to me. The whole point of playing a game is to play. A game is a safe environment to explore a new world and to experiment and to boldly make mistakes so you can learn from them. In other words, it should be a safe place to fail. Yet, it’s not.

At life…

When I create a new recipe for dinner, often the first attempt is pretty good.

The second attempt–when I try to recreate–is when I fail. It never turns out as good and sometimes it’s disastrously bad. I can’t explain it, it’s just how it happens.

So for the third attempt, I try to remind myself what caused me to make it in the first place. But it’d be easy to write off that strange combination of ingredients and never try it again. After all, the first could have been a fluke.

It’s easy to make choices that buffer us from failure. In fact, it’s easy for me to experiment with new dishes and hard for me to try it a second time, knowing it’s going to be less satisfying (and potentially inedible). But that’s an important push to make and I’m the only one who can make it. Without that failure in the process, the success at the end isn’t as sweet.

We as humans don’t like to fail. I can’t blame us. This dislike of failure is possibly biological, harking back to a time where failure cost a lot. If you didn’t kill that deer, you didn’t eat. If you didn’t build a good enough shelter, you froze.

The consequences for our failures and mistakes have changed a ton, yet our responses to them really haven’t. Shame and grief can overwhelm us for things that–in the long run–are completely fixable or forgettable.

We call ourselves failures (permanent status) for failing (one action).

Getting out of the habit of separating action from permanent status is hard. And there are so many books, blogs, and writings that deal with failure. You aren’t learning if you aren’t failing. Are you failing enough? Need help overcoming your failures?

The people we look up to the most tried and failed and tried again. Idealistically we’re told to emulate them but when it comes down to it, do we actually want to go through the process? Sure, that guy hit his point of hopelessness and still tried again. But there’s no guarantee that my point of hopelessness will ever result in anything other than my current flailing on the carpet. At what point am I just embarrassing myself? At what point are others embarrassed for me and wish I’d quit?

No one wants to watch us fail, unless we can fail so epically it’s funny.

Maybe everyone needs to create something at least once in their lives, if only to find themselves knee-deep in a community that embraces failure as inevitable. But here’s the catch: by embracing failure as inevitable, we have to accept that failure is the result of an action not a permanent status.

I’m not saying it’s easy. If it were, well, life would be a whole lot easier.

And maybe if we were all a little more honest about failing and how it affected us, we’d be less afraid to try.

This entry was posted in rude rambles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to culture of fail

  1. Ben says:

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for such a thoughtful commentary!

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