Remembering How to Play

In 7th grade I participated in a science fair by trying to build a catapult out of some plywood and elastic bands to launch various balls from and measure how far they would fly. The catapult barely worked, and if I remember correctly I fudged most of my data. But I had so much fun learning how to use saws and hack things together.

I also remember feeling a bit disappointed that things didn’t work out as I expected. In hindsight, that disappointment mattered a lot. It discouraged me from trying something like it again.

I’m 10 years older now. I imagined it would be easier to deal with disappointment and failure. But the truth is, when things fall short of expectation it still hurts quite a bit. It makes it harder to dust myself off and try again.

I try not to be too critical of myself.

Adam Grant, a fancy PhD from University of Pennsylvania, has a podcast where he talked about dealing with failure and growing from it. He’s achieved a lot of success, and he got there through lots of trial and failure. His take goes something like this:

When you finally find success, you have the expectation to succeed in the future. But in reality your chance of success doesn’t increase as you find more success. It’s the opposite. Once you find success, you’re likely to move onto bigger and more complex projects. And if you’re taking on larger and more complicated projects, you should expect your chance of success to drop!

It’s important to remember that failing doesn’t necessarily imply a regression or some hard ceiling on your ability to perform. It could, of course, but not always.

There’s always the chance that what you were trying to do is truly hard. That, more often than not, you’re going to get it wrong before you get it right.

And for some of the most interesting, creative, and challenging problems to solve, getting it right once doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it right next time. It might take some more tricks before you get it right every time (if you can get it right every time).

At some point, my life became less about having fun and more about being right. It’s cliche and a bit naive and the message has been beaten to death. But I wish we could all remember how to play a little more and care about being right a little less.