The Value of Failure

I play a Scrabble-like word game online. One person I play with kills me, I mean decimates me, I mean against him I have a batting average of .166, and probably I won the games I won only because he was not paying attention. Overall my success with this game (like my life, one could argue) is all over the map. The beauty (or curse) of online play is that it keeps track of wins and losses, from which my simple calculations reveal my current averages of .853, .714, .636 (i.e. usually I win these games, but not always), .262 and .315 (besides the .166, usually I lose these, but not always) and .533 and .555 (neck in neck).

A recent game looked like this. I lost. (Bravo, Nancy!)


The statistics do not reflect whether you lose by 33 points or by 3 or by 147. If you lose, you lose. That’s the way games work. That’s life. (Deal with it.)

I am not a super competitive person and do not stress about the score or the win-loss stats. In fact I seldom look at them. Today was the first time (for the sake of this post) that I calculated my batting average. I do not take great joy in beating someone. Nor do I lose sleep over how poorly I stand up next to opponents who make short work of me. I just play. It’s a game.

But in the years I’ve been playing it, I’ve learned a few tricks such as not flippantly using valuable letters like S, J, Q, Z and H, not setting up your opponent for an easy triple, and playing parallel rather than perpendicular words whenever possible. I’ve learned that OK is not an acceptable word but OKAY is. I’ve learned (and try to remember) words like KA, XU, EME and QAT. Unlike the board game on your coffee table, the online version allows you to keep trying combinations until you get one that works. Sometimes you simply don’t have the right letters. Sometimes you say “I didn’t know HOER was a word!”

Against one person I am batting 1.000. 14 wins, 0 losses. Good for me, bad for him, right? Poor fellow. A wonder he still wants to play, wouldn’t you say? It all started when, not long ago, I told him about the game and he said he wanted to play. You’re the writer but I know how to play, he said. Being a writer has nothing to do with it, I tried to tell him. The three people who clobber me the worst in Scrabble or Wordfeud (you know who you are!) are not writers. Instead, they recognize and remember patterns (including spellings) and they play strategically, blocking my moves and setting up their own. Sometimes you get lucky and all the letters you need for a great word are just there. Yay! Sometimes you have them but you have no place to put them! Sometimes you have awful letters, and you have to make the best of it.

Back to: “in the years I’ve been playing.” Some people play solitaire in their idle moments, some check the weather, some text their friends. I play Wordfeud. With time and practice, my game has improved. I tried to tell this to my batting-1.000 opponent. I tried to say You are new at this. I have been playing for years. Give it time. And I tried to give him hints, such as never getting one point for an S. Be careful with S’s. They are very valuable.

The first time he said “I give up” during a game, I said “You don’t have to play.” No one was holding a gun to his head about it. He kept playing so I assumed he was willing to try to learn the tricks and the strategy and the obscure words. There is no other way to learn, right? Experts don’t fall from the sky, as they say in German. In my early days of playing tennis, I played as much as possible with people who were better than I was (if I could get them to want to play with me) because you get better by playing with someone who is better than you are. You write better by reading the prose or poetry of someone who writes better than you do (and paying attention and trying to learn from their mastery). You cook better by following the guidance of someone who cooks better than you do. You build a better bench by working with someone who has made a bench before.

You don’t necessarily win the Wordfeud game (or make it to the USOpen, or write a Pulitzer Prize winner, or land your own cooking show, or remember how to use the biscuit joiner next time), but you get better, and in the big picture, this is what you want.

Near the end of our most recent game, he said “I give up” (again) in the game’s chat function.


“I don’t know all the secret words like Qi and have no chance because of that.”

I don’t know how anyone could think that after only 14 games, they should know what they need to know and have learned what they need to learn. I should perhaps have had more compassion, or at least more empathy in regard to his bruised ego, but I felt disappointed. I am a slow learner myself and have played hundreds of games to get to my own particular skill level, and I have absolutely no doubt that Mark, Lincoln and Samuel would still kill me if we played a game tonight. But they wouldn’t kill me as bad as they have in the past!

What I know for sure is that you don’t improve if you give up. You don’t succeed if you give up. Just ask Michael Jordan.  “Twenty-six times,” he will tell you, twenty-six times he was “trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.” He failed sometimes, he failed miserably sometimes, but he kept on playing. Ask J.K. Rowling or Warren Buffet* or any of the highly successful people in the world who got to their pinnacle only after many failures, devastating failures, failures that would cause other people to give up.

Granted, there are times when giving up is the right or expedient or sensible thing to do. I’m not saying you should do your own wiring if you are not comfortable with the fuse box. Or that you should enter a marathon if you can’t run a 5K. But if you set out to learn something new or do something new or improve something you do only marginally well, there will be failures, stumbling blocks, challenges, points of frustration – whatever you want to call them. They are par for the course, a term borrowed from golf meaning the normal or expected. It is normal to fail sometimes. Unless you fail sometimes, you won’t improve. Failure is a good teacher if you don’t let it debilitate you.

You want to learn a game? Play the game. My friend Fred played golf yesterday when it was 38F – rather nippy! – but he is determined to improve his skills, to learn to play better than he does now. When I told him I played tennis in the cold many times, he asked, “Did people call you crazy too?” Maybe, but I didn’t care.

You want to learn how to cook? Cook something. My friend Millicent made a quiche the other day with ham, bacon, cheese, spinach and onion. She was super excited not only that it turned out super well but also because “I feel like I accomplished something today.”

Millicent's quiche.jpeg

Fred and Millicent are not sitting around wishing they were good at golfing and cooking. They are golfing and cooking – tentatively perhaps, with full knowledge that they have a ways to go perhaps – but they are golfing and cooking.

Golf, cook, play, tinker, build, write, DO whatever you enjoy and want to get better at. Just keep doing it.


*Many thanks to Jeff Stibel for his wonderful Profiles in Failure articles.

Here a Word, There a Word

At odd moments throughout the day or night, I play a word on the scrabble-type game on my phone called Wordfeud. On any given day I have six or seven games ongoing, which could mean I play six or seven words or could mean dozens. Playing is good for us! Maybe I’m just trying to justify an activity that some might deem pointless, but truly, I observe numerous benefits.

First and always first for me is the connection I maintain with other people. My most active opponent is Nancy. She and I live far away from each other, but she’s a wonderful person and I like her a lot and this is our thing. Through the consistency of play and occasional chats – even just to say “I never heard of that word!” or “Well done!” (to which she invariably and modestly replies “I had the right letters”) – we maintain a lovely friendship.

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Secondly, playing a word takes me away from whatever else happens to be going on at the moment, or gives me a reason to redirect my thoughts. The momentary distraction somehow helps me do the thing I was doing before just a little better. Why? Maybe my brain chemistry is jumpy? Maybe the back and forth allows it to rest and regroup and carry on more efficiently overall? I have no idea. All I know is that I get things done despite this background activity.

Also, I enjoy the challenge. Do I remember how many U’s there are and count how many have already been used before I decide I need to find another way to play my late-game Q? No. Do I remember all the two-letter words that start with D? Is DE a word? DI? DU? No. How many times did I play QUO (as in status quo) and have it tell me “QUO is not in our dictionary”? (Why not? That one baffles me!) But even though I am not as competitive as some people, I still get a thrill from making high-scoring words so I keep trying to do it.

Mainly though, I enjoy the not-always-obvious parallels to everyday life. Here are ten that have occurred to me:

  1. You don’t always get what you want. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just don’t have what it takes to make it work. If I had had a T in the game above, I could have made NIGHT out of NIGH, and used that to connect to the DW (Double Word) space that later held the K in AUK. I could sit there all day wishing I had a T, but I don’t. I could sit here all day wishing I had the money to make my vision of a new kitchen become a reality, but I don’t. No amount of wishing makes certain things happen. I simply don’t have the T or the money. Onward we go with what we have.
  2. You sometimes learn something new. What is AUK, you may ask? According to Wikipedia, “an awk or alcid is a bird of the family Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes. The alcid family includes the murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets.” Did I know this when, not having a T, I played that word? No. But it worked. Do I try to know what the words mean that are unknown to me but work? Sometimes. The main thing is that it’s new, and I am stretched intellectually and possibly enlightened about something I didn’t know before. John Holt’s book Learning All the Time articulated beautifully for me (at a time in my life when this truth was not self-evident) that we do not stop learning when we graduate from whatever school we attend. Ideally, we should be learning our whole lives long. ZINE is a word? FEATER? PIA? Apparently!
  3. Some of what we do is predictable and that’s not always bad. When I go first, I almost always start at the left and move right toward the center space (which you have to cover in the first move) or I start above that space and work down to it. I seldom start at the middle space and play a word down or to the right. Similarly, I almost always put milk and sugar in my earl grey tea. I almost always park my car in the same spot. Life is full of what’s unpredictable and challenging. Some elements being almost always the same is stabilizing and helpful.
  4. Sometimes something funny comes along and you get a smile. In my game this morning, Nancy played FLIRTY, which brought its own images to my mind (you have your images, I have mine!). BLAH brings to mind Frog and Toad Are Friends, a silly kids’ book by Arnold Lobel. (Frog ran up the path to Toad’s house. He knocked on the door. “Toad, Toad,” shouted Frog, “wake up. It is spring!” “Blah,” said a voice from inside the house….) In our everyday world, people say and do funny things randomly, and they make us smile. The more of this, the better, I say.
  5. Sometimes you get really lucky. The more of this, the better too! Having the right letters to make a word using all of your seven letters in one word happens occasionally (and results in a lot of points which of course could be pivotal in winning), and we applaud it and bask in it – until the next maddening collection of letters is at the bottom of our screen, waiting for use. The fact is, a good bit of life is the luck of the draw and in different ways we all have blessings. You got really good parents, or a fabulous teacher that the kids in the other class didn’t get, or you had a boss who believed in you and made career advancement possible, or someone couldn’t use those concert tickets and gave them to you for free! What I get (or got) is different than what you get or got, but we all have something someone else doesn’t. Take note of what you have that’s good. Don’t lose sight of it.
  6. You can’t argue with the authority. If the game says it’s not a word, it’s not a word, and you can’t play it. Some things are confusing. Why is JELLO a word? I would think it’s a proper noun like TUESDAY and therefore unacceptable. But it works in Wordfeud. Do I have the right to argue this? Will my protest matter? No. I have to deal with it whether I agree or not, whether it makes sense or not, whether I like it or not. Likewise, if the result of a given election (not that I have a particular one in mind!) is objectionable to you, you have to find a way to deal with it. If the county regulations require a permit for building a porch, you get one. If the street sign says One Way, you go that way. If a tennis ball hits the line during a game, it’s in. If you don’t water house plants, they die. Some things cannot be argued with.
  7. You don’t always see a way at first. I sometimes look at the possibilities and could play this word or that one and can’t make up my mind, or I don’t see anything good at all, and I just close it up. Not always, but sometimes I find that if I wait a bit, I see things in a way I didn’t see them before and all of a sudden I have a move to make. Where did that come from? I had rainwater washing into my chicken coop area making not only a wet mess but also an unhealthy environment for my chickens. I stared at it and stared at it. Then a berm came to mind. A retaining wall came to mind. The shovel came out, and the power tools and measuring devices, and now the rainwater washes around the coop instead of into it. Did I plan it that way from the start? No. Did I see the solution at first? No. But wait. Think on it some.
  8. Some people are just better. Whether they have better skill, better memory, better (consistently better!) luck, I don’t know, but my sons Lincoln and Samuel kill me almost every time. I don’t know how they do it. They rack up the points unbelievably almost every time! You’ve maybe heard that statistic about how if the underdog doesn’t win x-percentage of the time (with rats it might be 30%) they get too frustrated and don’t want to play anymore. It might also sometimes work in reverse where it’s not fun for the winner to always cream his opponent either. Nonetheless, isn’t it the same in life? Doesn’t it seem like some people get all the breaks? There are reasons for this, as there are reasons for Lincoln and Samuel’s domination in this game, but when the reasons are not apparent, it can be maddening.
  9. Unexpected (good) things happen sometimes. You’re behind by 85 points, you’re sure this game is going to become the next loss in your personal stats, and suddenly you have all the right letters for a killer word. Yes! (Or if you’re me it’s Oh dear! if I’m already ahead by a wide margin and don’t wish to demotivate or otherwise deflate my opponent.) The same in life. You can have a string of bad luck with bosses and then find yourself with a gem. You can have a pain in your leg and then happen upon a particular position or exercise that makes it – voila! – suddenly better! You can be too tired to take the pans of newly-made granola out of the oven when it’s done (before going to bed but after you’ve turned the oven off) and find that the delay made for a marvelous, perfect crunch (yes, I will post my granola recipe soon!). Ultimately we control so little. But random delightful surprises pepper our life with joy and fun. Bring it on!
  10. In the end, a lot of things don’t matter that much. If I win or lose this game, life goes on. If I play a word and then realize I could have played a better one, oh well, too late. If I don’t get my new kitchen, I’ll still be able to cook dinner in my old one. If I absentmindedly park in a handicapped spot and get a $180 ticket (bother!), I have to pay the fine. If I am out of milk and instead put just honey in my tea this morning, or nothing at all, it’s not the end of the world. This game helps me keep a good perspective.

All good reasons to keep playing, don’t you think?