Jay Shirley

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The Daily Practice

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Defying Failure, or rather, Failing trying to Defy Failure

Published: 03 Nov 2011

One of my all-time favorite movies is War Games. Any respectable geek will understand why. I wasn’t old enough to see it when it came out. I’m not even really sure how old I was when I saw it first. I know I was already programming.

I’ve seen the movie countless times. By the time I was 16 I’m sure I’d watched it at least 20 times. I would put it on just because I was bored, and really, Ally Sheedy was in it.

It wasn’t until I was older, I think with kids or at least getting close to that point, that I actually understood the real message.

The only way to win is not to play.

It’s not really about winning. That’s what I missed. For years. It’s about being successful and doing the right thing.

Professor Falken explains this in vague terms. The price of failure, or even winning individually is extinction. To be successful means that you consistently are awesome. That’s his point with it. If you are not consistently fit to survive, you don’t.

As I stumbled through my mid- to late teenage years, I seemingly sought out these games to play. I think they gave me a sense of worth, or at least a metric to evaluate my own worth. I don’t really think I ever succeeded. I’m not sure how I would have even managed success. These experiences are where I developed one of my golden rules. Never act without a victory condition.

I struggled through these situations with no clear goal or idea of if I was succeeding. It was an aimless existence. I mostly felt devoid of purpose.

It was during this period where I think the entrepreneurial spark first ignited. I thought of all the effort I was expending just to see if I could give myself some quantifiable measurement. This was dumb.

My floundering was hard to give up, and I honestly think if I didn’t meet my wife when I did I would still be engaged in it. I didn’t value peace and quiet. I may have outgrown it, but I know it would have taken me a lot longer.

Now I strive to maintain a simple balance in life. It may be selfish or hedonistic, but it really doesn’t feel that way to me. I exclude myself from negative situations and people.

Sometimes this is hard, but there is always a way out. A lot of situations come up that seem very good but fall quickly into a morass of disappointment and despair. It’s important to be able to remove the emotional aspect of these situations before they impact general mental health.

The challenge is finding a new opportunity that is truly better. When you’re waist-deep in shit anything seems like an improvement. The problem is making a bad decision and ending up neck-deep in a different type of shit.

The key that I’ve found is that it’s easier to remove yourself from a negative situation or person and not replace them unless you are certain. Nothing, as in the absence of anything, can be a big improvement over a negative or hastily decided action.

The victory condition in these cases is to restore balance to life. If I find myself thinking, “my luck is bad” it’s usually because my situation is bad. Taking all the negative things out helps. I usually find myself having good luck after that.

This realization on luck is what finally allowed me to understand War Games. The message isn’t really about winning by not playing a game.

The only way to live is not to play.