Sinking the Battleship: How to Fail Without Being a Failure

battleshipWhen you think about failure, what does it evoke for you? Do you have a fear of failing? Do you feel ashamed when you recall the things you’ve failed at in the past? Do you worry about being judged if you try something new and your efforts are a bust? If so, you’re not alone. We live in a failure-averse culture.

Going against the grain of a culture that indoctrinates its young with a neurotic fear of losing is no easy feat. It’s so extreme that some parents refuse to let their children play board games in which there are winners and losers; or they insist that any team or organization to which their children belong give everyone an award because, “Everyone’s a winner.”

I partially agree with the sentiment. I do believe everyone’s a winner. However, I also believe that everyone’s a loser. You win some, you lose some. It’s the nature of life. One of the problems with this sort of parental orchestration is that it can create an emotional fragility when the child gets old enough to catch on to what’s happening. How jarring is it for those kids the first time someone calls them out on the fact that they totally half-assed a project? It would be kinder to teach kids how to deal with loss and failure without believing that it means that they’re a failure.

Learning to view peers who possess skills that you wish you had as role models and mentors, rather than enemies, helps us grow. We can learn a lot from the people who do what we do, only better. Plus, nothing dissolves an inferiority complex and seething jealousy like genuine respect and admiration.

What I find even more disturbing is the message that is sent by removing situations where failure is a potential outcome: that failure is bad. Instead of being taught to embrace failure as a wonderful learning opportunity, a gift we can be thankful for, and an inevitable part of life, we’re taught that it’s something to avoid at all costs.

This breaks my heart, because we all deserve the opportunity to fail

You deserve the opportunity to fail without believing that it means you’re a failure. I’d go so far as to say it’s a right. You deserve to be able to screw things up; to try again, and again, and again, so that eventually you’ll get it right. You deserve to experience the elation and accomplishment that accompanies the big breakthrough after you’ve hit walls and made detours.

The illusion of safety inherent to playing it safe

Have you ever really considered what the risk-averse mean when they talk about playing it safe? Safe from what? What’s the danger they’re avoiding? If you ask me, playing it safe can be incredibly dangerous. It can mean settling for a life you don’t really want to be living; a life that is dull and devoid of passion. It can mean foregoing love, or spending thirty years in a job you hate, or putting all of your hopes and dreams into deep storage, never to see the light of day, because you might fail at them, and that would be painful. More painful than living without them and wondering what might have been? I kind of doubt it. You only get this one life, and if you’re not going to have an immersive experience, what’s the point?

I invite you to investigate the lives of people you consider successful. If you know some people like this, ask them if they’re willing to talk about this topic. I don’t really care if you define success as wealth, how many people they’ve helped, the number of books they’ve written, or the beautiful works of art they’ve created, I’ll bet you they all have one thing in common. Failure.

Ask them if they’ve ever failed at something. You’re going to learn a lot. Maybe not always, but most of the time, the people with the most success have the longest list of failures. Not only that, the bigger their achievements, the more epic the failures.

Recognize these Screw-Ups?

  1. Bill Gates
  2. Walt Disney
  3. Albert Einstein
  4. Thomas Edison
  5. Fred Astaire
  6. Lucille Ball
  7. Oliver Stone
  8. Dr. Seuss
  9. Stephen King
  10. Monet
  11. Jack London
  12. Elvis
  13. The Beatles
  14. Beethoven
  15. Michael Jordan
  16. Babe Ruth
  17. Winston Churchill
  18. Oprah Winfrey
  19. Steven Spielberg
  20. Soichiro Honda
  21. Vera Wang
  22. Sir James Dyson
  23. J.K. Rowling
  24. Richard Branson
  25. John Grisham
  26. Tim Ferris
  27. Ben Huh
  28. Steve Jobs
  29. Peter Thiel
  30. Jack Dorsey
  31. Jeff Bezos
  32. Dave Ramsey
  33. Jay-Z
  34. Simon Cowell

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill

All of these people have an impressive amount of failed attempts under their belts. Whether you’re talking about Fred Astaire being told that he couldn’t sing, couldn’t act, and could only dance a little, or Einstein’s teacher expressing that he was too stupid to learn, the only thing separating these people from a life of accomplishing next to nothing was their perseverance. If everyone gave up the first, or fiftieth, or even the five hundredth time they received a rejection slip, were ostracized and mocked by their professional peers, or got the experiment all wrong, the world would be pretty bleak.

Sinking the Battleship

Did you ever play Battleship when you were a kid? Using failure as a tool is a lot like that. In the game, you can’t see your opponent’s board. There’s a barrier between it and you, obstructing your view. Let’s say that the board you can’t see is your future.

On the board you can’t see, are several small plastic ships. On your board, you have a graph of letter and number coordinates matching the ones on the board where your opponent’s ships are positioned. You call out the coordinates, placing a tiny peg in the corresponding hole. Your opponent tells you whether you hit or missed their ships, and you use a different color of peg for hits and misses. When you get a hit, you know the general area in which to aim your next strikes. If you miss, there’s more left to chance. Either way, with every peg you place, the number of empty coordinates diminishes, and you start zeroing in on your targets.

Let’s say that your opponents ships represent your dreams and goals. The pegs represent your mistakes and successes in obtaining those dreams and goals, depending upon whether they land on a ship or an empty coordinate. With every small success, you are one step closer to getting what you want. But what about the failures? Each one is still providing you with valuable information for your next move.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

In Battleship, a miss isn’t a guarantee that you’ve lost the game. Even if you have several misses in a row, you aren’t done for. Assuming, of course, that you don’t forfeit to go pout in a corner. It’s the same with failures and goals.

Strategize and Optimize: Make the Most of Each Failed Attempt

If you’re already making up excuses about how it’s impossible to avoid making the same mistake twice, think about what you do with the pegs in Battleship. When you call out a set of coordinates that result in a miss, you place the peg in that location, and you don’t go back to that place. You don’t start pulling out the pegs and calling out those coordinates over and over again, just in case.

Love ’em and leave ’em

Don’t be afraid to get intimate with your failures. Examine them closely. Figure out whether they were close to being right and just need some subtle tweaking, or if they were entirely off base. Love them long enough to learn from them, but not a moment longer. Then move on, and don’t go back to that place. You already know what it holds.

Look, if you still have a pulse, you’ve still got some failures ahead of you. Since this is the case regardless of how boring, bland, and unsatisfying you’ve been keeping things in the name of safety, maybe you should give up on playing it safe. Do you really want to win at mediocrity?

Fail bigger than that. Fail using all of your skills and talents, and hone them like mad in the process. Fail in the direction of your dreams, and put your heart into it. Fail until you succeed, and you will.

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