When was the last time you failed? In my entire 25 years of existence, I’ve been rarely asked this question. And I wonder if anyone has asked you this before?
The last time I failed was probably when I released a game prototype for my startup that does not seem to interest kids to learn at all. Sharing this is painful, especially when my team and I spent 1.5 years developing this prototype. Of course, there are many ways we can improve on the process. That was how we started working closely with kids as our game testers and continually improving our product. But it still does not take away the embarrassment from talking about it. It was not always like this.
When I was young, failure never seemed like a big deal. If I made a mistake, I’d brush it off. If I fell, I’ll just get back up. Other people’s opinions and judgments never crossed my mind. But I guess as I became more aware of other people’s emotions, I started getting more sensitive to failure. I held the assumption that as I grew up, I’d have to fail less. Failing seemed more acceptable for young kids. This started during University. And so I started to feel more averse to failing.
Perhaps such assumptions were formed over time as I went to school. Failing a test was often attributed to a scolding from a teacher, reprimanding from parents, shame from classmates. It was hard not to see other grades and compare it to ourselves, and feel lousy for not doing as well. Classmates that did well in school were praised, whereas classmates that failed seemed to get into trouble. Doing something wrong was associated with punishment and would require disciplinary action. I wanted to avoid the pain that came with being a “bad” student.
While such systems in place are crucial to maintaining order in society and motivating individuals to achieve more, every system comes with its own set of disadvantages. And perhaps fear of failure is one of them. When chatting with a teen the other day, I asked if she would ever want to start her own business. She mentioned: “No because I’m too afraid of the consequences of failing”. This is a sensible concern but this also reflects the adversity to failure that we have inculcated in our next generation.
Letting go of the fear of judgement
I have realised that there comes a sense of freedom and liberation after sharing my own failures. Perhaps it is because I had to let go of my fear of judgment from others. Overcoming the pride that held me back from sharing these moments made me feel grounded. After braving through the sense of shame and fear came liberation and acceptance, that I am as much of my failures than my successes. And I truly believe that teaching our next generation how to handle failure is one of the best lessons we can teach them.
So how can we do it? The past few months, my team has been investigating thoroughly the power of games. And one thing always stood out to me: failing in games never seems to be as “consequential” as in reality. We do not get scolded for not passing a level. We do not get a report book with a permanent grade for failing a mission. We just try again. Games teach kids that failing is always a part of the journey to success.
Somewhere along the way of growing up, kids stop dreaming. The consequence: they stop trying. So now maybe it’s time we learn from games. Imagine creating learning environments that make kids feel like trying and dreaming again. Or even environments that give them the freedom to explore and discover. A place where trying is more important and failing is only part of the process.
Khor Le Yi is the co-founder of Ottodot. She loves Education, Technology and Design. Her dream is to help each kid discover the best of their abilities, and she believes that a good mix of Education, Technology and Design can help her achieve these dreams. Read more of her ideas on Medium.
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