Failure is a fork in the road

Photo by Kurt Anderson on Unsplash

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):

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



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kevin Votaw

Flow Coach. Applying flow in school, sports, and life: ❌ Flow x Fiero ♦️North of Happy ⚾ The Pitching DJ 🧠