Learning From Failure


Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. – Henry Ford

Fail better. – Samuel Beckett

Nothing instructs quite so well as failure. This is as true of life as it is of games. For, through success, we learn only one thing: how to succeed. Through failure, we learn at least two things: how to fail and how not to succeed.

Looking back on my past experiences, the ones that stand out most distinctly from the fog of personal history are the memories of my deepest personal failures, moments about which, after the fact, I sometimes wish I could have done things differently. These are experiences that caused me pain, or contributed to the pain of others, but most of all represent an opportunity lost or an achievement squandered. Yet they are also the source of much of my strength.

At The Escapist, I’ve worked with a lot of people with similar backgrounds to my own. We are gamer nerds who, blessed with intellectual curiosity greater than social prowess, turned to the mind’s arts to find meaning for ourselves. We are highly intelligent. Many of us come from backgrounds filled with excessive academic achievement. Frequently we are used to being the smartest – or at least most capable – people in the room.

You would think this level of excellence would be a strength – and it usually is – but it is also a weakness. Natural strengths are funny things. People with an abundance of natural talent and intellectual gifts most often have yet to discover their limits – and when they do, it’s catastrophic. Failure, for one who has never failed, can be crushing and paralyzing.

Worse, still, the possibility of failure, even, can often lead people to question their abilities, doubt themselves and stand in their own way of reaching their full potential. That’s the other side of the self-awareness coin. Often people will know they’ve never faced defeat, and know that it would be crushing – and so avoid it at all costs, playing it safe, holding back. Failing, in other words, by refusing to try.

I can accuse myself of this. I spent the better part of my grade school years refusing to engage in tests of my abilities. I settled for Bs when I was capable of As. I skipped assignments out of fear of coming up short. I ditched class, ignored reading assignments and winged it on tests. Sure, it’s a testament to my ability that I graduated at all, but I could have done better – and should have. At the time I believed I was proving my mettle as a marvel of intelligence, exerting minimal effort for nominal reward. In truth, I was a fool, refusing to learn to fly for fear of falling.

My first, true experience with failure came much later, after I’d left school and started a theater company. I wrote a play I thought people would enjoy, formed a troupe, rented a stage and began rehearsals. All was going well until it wasn’t. Rehearsals went badly, word leaked out and we opened to house that was empty but for two lonely people. Relatives of someone’s. Everyone tried to take it in stride, but there’s not much positive spin you can put on an empty house. It wasn’t that people didn’t like what we had done, they weren’t even interested enough to give it a try. I was crushed.

Then something miraculous happened: The cast and I decided to erase the parts of the play that weren’t working and improvise a new play on the spot. It was radical, audacious and extremely difficult, but had the virtue of being more fun that performing a play we knew was flawed. Besides, if we failed, there’d only be two people in the world who would know it. The plan was, as they say, just crazy enough to work.

We stumbled our way through an improvised play.The result wasn’t perfect, but it was fun. It was the first night since the start of rehearsals that I could tell the actors were enjoying themselves and that enjoyment came through in their performances. The play felt better because the players felt better about playing it. We still needed work, but at least we now knew the way. Night after night we improvised, playing to larger and larger crowds, until one night, less than two weeks into our run, we nailed it. Everyone pitched in, playing for laughs, adding bits, deleting others. It was a monumental group effort and one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Each night, as I walked onto the stage, I was never sure what would happen, but was confident we’d make it work as a team.

I had booked the theater for only three weeks, but the entire last week was sold out, standing room only. We had a hit on our hands. Unfortunately, it was bittersweet. The success came too late for me to make back the money I’d spent, and at the end of our run, the company was forced to dissolve.

In the end, my theater company existed for less than a year and had produced only two plays (both, after a fashion, successful), but it couldn’t quite be considered a success. I moved on to other things, still owing money, and the rest of the crew drifted in their own directions. I’m not even sure where most of them are right now, but I hope they took as much from the experience as I did. For in spite of the fact that my first experiment in running a company crashed and burned, the lessons I took away from the experience have made me better, stronger, and more capable of dealing with a world that isn’t always the way we wished it would be. Foremost among them: Failure is just a stepping stone to success.

I’ve never been one for giving too much advice. I believe we must each find our own path, but if I were asked to offer words of wisdom to a young person still finding their way, to paraphrase Beckett, I would say, yes, fail better. Take your lumps and own them. Don’t build them into a wall behind which to hide from the world, but rather a ladder, upon which you can climb to new heights. Fail better, for sure, but also fail early, fail often and above all else, fail upward.


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