Meditations on failure

I've been having some thoughts about failure over the past few days that I wanted to get out of my head for the next time that I start thinking that I've failed or am a failure. I hope you'll indulge me while I write these out.

I recently submitted a RPG setting for Pelgrane Press' Community Content Contest. It was difficult work. It was based off of a historical event that I thought was interesting. Unfortunately like most historical events the more I dug into it the ore complex and complicated it became. I started doing research and watching videos about the event. Every time I opened a book or watched a video I picked up another nugget of information. Suddenly what I thought would be a small scenario turned into a book report. Notes filled my pages where I would need to have prose.

Many times throughout the process I thought about taking what I had and just throwing it up on this site to be done with it.

I'm not sure I'll win with this scenario. One area that I didn't try to do was describe the appearance and mannerisms of the folks involved, because I would have been copying huge swaths of text from other books. Another was trying to tread the line between exposition and game material.

All the while I was working on this I was thinking "what's the point? This isn't going to win. You might as well stop now. Why are you doing this to yourself?"

There were two things that kept me going. The first was that it had a deadline. The second is that what I had was in such a state that I didn't want to publish what I had. It was literally in such a state that I would have been ashamed to publish it.

But then it dawned on me that the worst I would receive with this is constructive feedback about what to do for the next time. That's not horrible. The judge for this contest is Robin D. Laws (a game designer I admire) so I might receive some valuable insight on what was lacking and what could be improved. That's huge.

When I think of failure I'm reminded of the times when I would receive a bad grade for some bit of work that I turned in at school. That "F", circled in red, never felt like feedback; it felt like a sentence. It also felt personal. YOU failed. YOU didn't measure up to the exacting standards set out for this assignment. YOU produced defective work. It never felt like a moment for contemplation, reflection, and constructive feedback; it was academic damnation.

That carried on into many different jobs throughout my career. Whenever I received a bug report about something I did it felt like a personal attack. Immediately the stress levels went through the roof. I internalized every little failure to the point where doing risky things felt even more daunting because I'd already painted a scenario where failure was not only possible but had already happened.

I've been working with the idea of failure as feedback, and about dropping the ego when it comes to my work. That's been helpful with allowing myself to decouple myself from the work that I produce and think about it more objectively.

It also helps that folks that I admire have also been frank about their own perceived failures. Chris Crawford's recent posting about Forty Years of Failure resonated with me (though I do not agree with the premise that Chris Crawford is a failure, but I've said as much). Also this quote by Alan Kay resonates with me: "If you don't fail at least 90 percent of the time, you're not aiming high enough." That's not only being OK with failure but encouraging it.

The period that I wrote about for the contest was one where things could have gone horribly wrong if people hadn't shown up at the right time with the right skills to make it work. They faced many setbacks for a daunting task. Yet they persevered. They did the work and had an amazing demonstration of their work. Unfortunately the industry they wanted to change didn't adopt what they were proposing until much later. I'm sure there were some who considered that a failure, but I've come to learn that how folks perceive our work isn't up to us. How many composers died unknown in their time, only to receive recognition later in life? It's hard to tell what impact we have in the moment.

So I await whatever feedback I can receive for this submission and move on to the next project. Nothing that I will ever create will be perfect, but failure is off the table now (or at least the failure of old). In its place is the feedback box where the useful bits of feedback get added back to make it better. The constructive feedback becomes a collaboration tool, and the non-constructive feedback gets a polite "thank you". The work gets better, and I continue to press onward in my creative and other pursuits.

In juggling there was the saying "if you're not dropping you're not learning". There's many ways to say the same idea, but eventually I'll internalize it so I don't have to go through this existential crisis for my next creative work.