Failure is a fork in the road
Failure is fundamental to expertise.
Psychologist Friedrich Nietzsche got it right that struggle is necessary. All expertise is acquired through talent and effort, regardless of supposed innate talent.
Improvement of a skill requires deliberate practice as popularized by Anders Ericson, practice that is purposeful, systematic, and extremely taxing (1).
This type of effort and interest, over time, is rewarded and validated in multiple domains academically, athletically, and culturally (2).
Furthermore, struggle is the first stage of the flow cycle as popularized in Herb Benson’s Breakout Principle (3).
If we can regularly embrace discomfort and get through the struggle, we can later release and access flow.
Jesper Juul highlights this “failure-improvement cycle” in four steps (4):
- New goal is introduced.
- Failure presents the player as inadequate.
- Player searches for failure cause and improves.
- Inadequacy gone in player; player now has skills.
Yet, failure feels terrible.
Were the equation as simple as work hard and keep going, world-class performers would be a dime a dozen.
Humans generally avoid discomfort, but we need it for the continued growth and competence we also fundamentally desire on the path to mastery (5).
Our relationship to failure then is a proverbial fork in the road, one that we must take as New York Yankees great Yogi Berra once wryly said.
1. Ericsson, K. A. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Second Edition of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance: Its Development, Organization, and Content. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 3–20. doi: 10.1017/9781316480748.001
2. Bloom, B. S., & Sosniak, L. A. (1988). Developing talent in young people. New York, NY: Ballantine.
3. Benson, H., & Proctor, W. (2003). The breakout principle: how to activate the natural trigger that maximizes creativity, productivity, and personal well-being. New York: Scribner.
4. Juul, J. (2016). The art of failure: an essay on the pain of playing video games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
5. Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A Motivational Model of Video Game Engagement. Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 154–166. doi: 10.1037/a0019440