Failing faster

What only a few of you know is how much I’ve loved and still love gaming, ever since I programmed my own games on the ZX Spectrum when I was sixteen. In the increasingly busy schedule that’s become my professional and private life, gaming offers a mental holiday from the daily. My wife would say that it’s often not that relaxing ...

After offering the game my undivided 80 hour attention I finally completed Horizon Zero Dawn on my PS4 just last weekend. As a Dutchman this game is something to be proud of. It’s not only by far the best game I’ve ever played, it’s also a product from my homeland. I cannot applaud Guerrilla Games enough for creating and adventure that truly transported me to an alternative reality that was engaging, engrossing and utterly beautiful. The story, the gameplay mechanics, the visuals and the sheer size of the adventure is ... staggering.

It has become my custom to play games at a high difficulty level, just short of insane. In reality this translates to abundant opportunities for failure. Dozens and dozens failed attempts, near misses and complete and utter disasters. It should come as no surprise that the final stage took me about three hours to complete.

When I finally cracked the many approaches I needed to beat the level, I started wondering. How had I been able to do it? Well, for starters, what didn’t work, simply didn’t work, no matter how often I tried repeating it. I remember thinking to myself, “this isn’t working, I need another approach”.
In another vein I recognised that I had become accustomed to certain ways of playing (it safe) that simply weren’t working for me. I had to get out of carefully crafted habits that weren’t serving me (at all) and I had to do this fast, such is the pace of games I love to play.

This process of failing, experimenting, failing again, failing forward and faster and stringing partial solutions, started me thinking on mindset. We’ve all become so fond of it, haven’t we: the poster child of learning and development. A growth mindset. A mindset where we take daily steps to improve and get better. Where we measure ourselves by our commitment, our drive, our grit, our approaches and methods, rather than only the results these achieve. As a side note you’ll always hear us say that a growth mindset requires learning and that learning requires failing.
But how often do we fail in real life? How often do we not fail once and mop up the mess afterwards, but fail dozens of times? So often in fact, that giving up becomes an attractive alternative to the rotten feeling of being beaten. In my line of work and at my seniority level this frequency of failure would be frowned upon.

But what are we denying ourselves by not failing faster and failing forward? As machines are rapidly becoming strong learners, shouldn’t we up the pace of our failure?

By getting out of the rut of the habitual approaches that weren’t working, Horizon Zero Dawn forced me to come up with an approach that was fast, fluid and elegant. An approach that was totally new and fresh to me, a 60 hour veteran of the game. Such a surprise, such a delight.
I can’t help thinking that I could surpass myself in my work by failing a lot more often.

What’s your view on this?

Join me at the 2017 ATD Conference in Atlanta, GA, where Koko Nakahara from Japan, Ger Driesen from the Netherlands and I will host a panel discussion on the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on our field of learning and development. Or join Ria van Dinteren and myself while we explore the many ways we can spot, develop and retain talent.

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