“Failing to Fail”, Part 2.

Posted by jlubans on December 28, 2015


“You have to lose to know how great it is to win.” – A Monopoly™ executive on why not to “throw” a game to a family member.

It’s that time of year. Festive family gatherings. Board games like Monopoly will be played. Winners will smile gleefully. Losers will cry. Some losers will vow to never play again. Most will survive to play another day, yet feelings may be bruised and grievances linger.
Back in 2011 I wrote “Failing to Fail”,
my assessment of how difficult it is to accept failure in ourselves, or, if we have the choice and the ability, to let others fail. We intervene out of mankind’s tendency for altruism. And, we may intervene for other less lofty reasons, like the parent who lets a young child win at Monopoly. (More on that below.)
Regardless of what we are told about losing, the glory goes to the winner. It’s almost as if failure is something shameful, the very opposite of success. We rarely see failure and success as inter-related, hand in hand, like the sign with the arrows pointing in the same direction. Rather, in our culture, there are two roads, one is success, and the other is failure. Quo vadis?
My 2011 essay was about how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – the self managing orchestra which plays at the highest level without a conductor - coaches student orchestras to play like Orpheus, sans conductor. But, and this is a big but, the theory does not always work out in practice. The time pressure of an imminent public performance and poor decision making by the student players may turn the Orpheus coach into the traditional conductor, telling not showing. Like the parent who wants his child to succeed at Monopoly, the Orpheus coach wants the students orchestra to “succeed”. (After all, there’s more at stake than the student orchestra’s putting on a good show. The Orpheus philosophy of organization is also on display.)
I asked, rhetorically, what would happen if the students’ orchestra “failed”? If failure is a great teacher, why not let the students take responsibility and learn from it? Or, if the coach backs off - after explaining what’s at stake - during rehearsal, will the students get it together before the performance? Isn’t that what happens in the happy-ending movies?
I once helped facilitate an outdoor problem solving exercise for engineering students.
These were first year students from a prestigious engineering school. Each of several groups of 6 or 8 students was assigned a half day problem-solving task: build a raft out of lengths of rope, several plastic barrels, wooden poles and, most important of all, their ingenuity and resourcefulness as incipient engineers. After much discussion and construction, each group was ready to put its raft to the test. Ooops! The rafts sank and all hands went down with their ships in the muddy water.
I have rarely seen a more downcast group of students. The debrief, in which we talk about what went well and what could have gone better, lasted about five minutes and was largely a glum silence, even with prompts from me. I intuited some blame coming my way, as if I were that parent playing Monopoly and holding back hints. Alas, as sometimes happens, I had no technical hints to offer beyond notions about group dynamics, communication, teamwork and advising them, gently, to “use all your resources”. If only the rafts had floated, what shouts of joy might have been heard on that summer’s day, echoing along the riverbanks.
So, was this failure on the river useful in helping these students become better engineers? Hard to tell when no one is talking!
I like to think these kids reflected and used it to improve how they would problem solve; that this failure, however bitter, prepared them for future success. Or, was this failure written off as an aberration, a failure on the part of those who organized the event?
Back to Monopoly.
In an article just in time for Christmas, the author asks the question, “Should you let your child win at Monopoly?” and responds with a quote from an child psychiatrist:
“Everyone remembers the kid in the playground who kicked the ball into the woods when he lost the game.” “That kid wasn’t given the skills to recover from failure. You don’t want to be that kid.”
What can we derive from failure? If we choose to ignore it, to write it off, or to cheat to avoid it, it seems there’s not much gained. What can parents and children, leaders and followers, do to avoid being “that kid”?
A letter to the editor followed the Monopoly article. It was from a grand mother who explained that two can play at “throwing” the game. The worse she played (on purpose) the kids played even worse! She was never happier than when her 7-year-old grandson beat her for real at chess.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

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