In the game of life, every failure is practice

As a child, I loved games. Arcade games, DOS games, 8-bit TV video games, which then upgraded to more modern PC games that required a CD for installation. Since my brothers and I had good parents, our screen time was limited, of course, and every minute spent gaming was precious.

I’ve long seen games as an analogy for life. We’re all on a journey, trying to get to the next level, with obstacles and enemies of all kinds that we have to overcome. Some of them we can anticipate and easily vanquish. Others come out of the blue, leaving us blindsided and caught off guard. Sometimes, we recover from taking a hit and are able to continue on to the next level.

Other times, taking one too many hits requires starting all over again — from the beginning. Having lived through a little over three decades of life, I’ve realized there’s quite a lot I don’t know and a lot more I have to learn. But I have learnt a few things. I’ve learnt that starting all over again is not a bad thing. Sure, it can feel crippling and frustrating at first. As a kid, when I “died” and had to restart the game, I’d get so furious I would slam the keyboard in frustration.

It felt a little like that when I got divorced. I took out a chunk of my savings to pay for the divorce — two years after I’d pretty much spent all of my savings from the first four years of my career on the wedding. But it wasn’t just starting all over again financially. I’d met my ex-husband through church, and most of our social life and weekends revolved around acquaintances from the church. Getting divorced forced me to reevaluate and reestablish my social connections as well. Even post-divorce, dating and going through breakups after being in a serious, committed relationship still feels, for a period of time, like I will never find love again.

Starting over education-wise felt similar. When I got conditionally admitted to an MBA program in 2016, having little more than an 11th grade background in math, there were moments I thought I would not pass the mandatory math prep. My ability to cram was no longer what it was at 18. When it came down to the wire, I did eventually fail one of the subjects, but the margin of failure was small enough that I was given the chance to retake the test — and the second time around, I passed.

But, just like in video games, if you keep at it each time you start again, you’ll realize you’ve gained a few more skills each time around. Even if the only skill you’ve gained is familiarity, and the confidence that comes with knowing the terrain. Knowing that even if you fail, you will survive and get the chance to try again. Maybe that confidence makes you try a few new moves and maneuvers you wouldn’t have had the courage to try before. And each time, usually, you get a little bit further than you did the last time. Each round you play, it’s practice, and the more you practice, the better you get at it.

I certainly see my relationships that way. It’s easy to dismiss it as a string of wrong choices and conclude that I simply haven’t met ‘the One’. But I know that great relationships take more than chemistry — they also take skill and effort. And if I were to look back at every single relationship I’ve been in, I can honestly say that the quality of them have gotten better over time. Sure, it may not have been ‘forever’ — but with each person, I’ve had deeper, more honest conversations, faced more of my demons, walked beside another person as they faced some of theirs, and journeyed with that person as we figured out what we wanted in life. It has been the case in the relationships I’ve been in, so far, that eventually what we wanted in life took us our separate ways. That does not in any way diminish the skills we both acquired through sharing a chapter of our lives together — skills that can only be learnt through experience and practice.

I certainly see my career that way too. On one hand, I am aware the world is changing and careers are no longer linear and in fact, multiple concurrent careers are becoming increasingly commonplace as people pursue gigs and side hustles while keeping their day jobs. On the other hand, I am still searching for my ‘vocation’ — a career where my skills will meet my ‘calling’ that will meet one of the many deep needs of this world.

I’ve yet to find a company or a role that has captured my imagination enough for me to stay longer than a few years. Every few years, I’ve ‘started over’, for the last eleven years. Yet each experience has built on the last. I appreciate every place I’ve worked in, every boss I’ve worked for, and every team I’ve worked with. Each of them have taught me skills I’ve brought into my next role, allowing me to build what most would call a good career. I’ve accumulated generalist skills in one discipline (marketing) while setting myself apart by specializing in a niche skill (writing) — essentially, becoming the T-shaped person described by former IDEO CEO, Tim Brown.

I could say the same thing about my journey with faith and spirituality, which I’ve reconsidered and reexamined again and again over the years. But that is a whole other story on its own and would take up too many paragraphs for the point I’m trying to make.

The point is, perhaps that is what life is about — the pursuit of practice. Just as the most immersive video games are not easy to win — they continue to present us with new, unexpected challenges at every level that test our mettle and push us to the limits of our skill — the best experiences in life aren’t always the ones we win at. We don’t appreciate the wins that come too easily. The best wins in life are those that come with a story. Of how many times we failed before we finally succeeded, or how hard we tried, again and again, before the muscle memory built by hours of practice kicked in, and we made it through.

I remember spending hours testing different routes and approaches to a game, discussing with friends how to approach a certain level, and searching the internet for cheat codes and Easter eggs to unlock hidden abilities. And those things — the pursuit — is perhaps more engaging than winning in itself. The conversations we have with friends about the hard stuff in life, the curiosity to hunt for life hacks and pro tips to get better at things — that is the stuff that makes life meaningful and interesting.

So as we enter a new year, here’s a reminder to all of us (myself included):

Let’s live with a little less fear of failure, and a little more enthusiasm for starting over again. Every single one of us can probably think of at least one way we’ve had to start over in 2021 — and it probably sucked hard, if not still. But perhaps we can see starting over a little differently, as a fresh chance to do things differently, perhaps better. Fully knowing that even this next time around, we still might fail again. We still might see everything we’ve built swept away, again. But if we choose to see our failures as teachers, what we gain can never be taken away: a bit more skill, a bit more knowledge, and a bit more confidence that more failure = more practice = getting better.

Here’s to continuing to level up.

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Crystal Cha

Crystal Cha

In search of what it means to live, love, and learn well.