Jenga the great failure metaphor

Many of us have been there. You and your friends or family are gathered around a table, your hands are shaking, you take hold of one of the rectangular wooden pieces and tug at it… there is resistance, and the tower sways. It might fall, but it also might stay up. You don’t know how the stack of blocks will respond to your touch before you try and remove it. Failure, is always a possibility.

Jenga is a simple game but has real consequences. There are only two rules:

  1. Take one block on a turn from any level of the tower (except the one below an incomplete top level), and
  2. placing it on the topmost level to complete it (players may use only one hand at a time; either hand may be used, but only one hand may touch the tower at any time) (source).

If you are successful, you live to see your opponent face the very same obstacle, remove a piece and build the tower higher. If you fail, there is clear visual and audible feedback. CRASH!

I’m a gamer, and I love myself a good board game. Similarly, I love a good metaphor. So when I talk with people who say, “Oh, that won’t work, we tried that before and it failed”, I think about Jenga.

Jenga as a metaphor for failure

Jenga is the perfect metaphor for failure. Just because something failed for you doesn’t mean it will fail for me. It’s about finesse, touch, and feel. Each piece you move adds more pressure somewhere else in the tower but relieves that pressure elsewhere. Sure, the tower might topple but without seeing how, I cannot learn from it. I need to see how the structure collapses. If the tower comes down, guess what? I build it back up and play the game again. If I get knocked down, I get up again, no ones going to keep me down (yes, this is a Chumbawamba reference).

Photo of a window with the quote from Sugar Ray Leonard, "If you never know failure, you will never know success".

When I play Jenga it always starts as a competition, me vs. you. However, rarely does Jenga end as a competition with me. Instead, I shift from “I hope you topple this tower”, to “let’s see how tall we can get this thing”!

Games have the power to teach us many things. Jenga teaches us how to fail. It allows us to see, feel, and hear that failure. Sometimes, I need to see it fail for myself. Don’t let people scare you into being afraid of failure, embrace it, learn from it and move forward stronger than before.

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