Am I Afraid of Failing?

How a cute, silly game made me question my whole life

It started Halloween morning with a text message:

The text message that started this whole thing

For reference, this conversation is about the doodle on Google’s home page on October 31, 2016; you can find an archive of all of Google’s doodles here. In this game, the player must defeat waves of ghost characters by drawing the shapes that appear over their head. Each level gets more difficult and has a “boss” character at the end to defeat.

Halp! They’re everywhere!

So there I was, furiously clicking away with my mouse to draw the shapes to vanquish foe after foe, strategically holding out on drawing the lightning shape that would appear over some ghosts in order to clear the most number of enemies as possible. I was getting pretty good at it, clearing wave after wave of nefarious-yet-cute ghost-blob-things, when suddenly I realized I should get back to work. I told myself, “you know, this is as good a time as any to stop,” and gave myself a pat on the back for beating the second boss. I closed that tab in my browser and shot back that final message you see in the image above:

I beat the second boss but then decided I should stop lol

As soon as I sent the message, however, I realized something:

That wasn’t really why I wanted to stop.

A friend of mine once told me that it doesn’t really matter what your reasons are for doing the right thing, all that matters is the outcome; this is a gross paraphrase of the conversation, but I think this gets the heart of the message. This sounds dangerously close to the saying “the ends justify the means,” which I do not condone in most cases; the difference here is that the former has to do with why you do something (for a certain outcome) and the latter has to do with how you do something (for a certain outcome), but I digress.

In any event, now I was plagued with this thought:

I decided to quit the game not because I ought to get back to work, but because I am afraid of failure.

At first, I was shocked. Did I really just think that? Of course I’m not afraid of a game-over screen. That would just be silly. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It seemed more satisfying to quit after a small win, rather than press on to a much greater victory that would doubtless require numerous failures to attain.

“Drama Llama” poster from Cafe Press

A bit dramatic? Certainly. We’re talking about a game here. There’s no way a set of simple shapes and symbols, constructed to convey complex characters and content, directed by one’s decisions and deeds, could confound and confuse the agent who animated these actors. I mean, I’m a grown-ass man. I can do what I want, when I want, and it doesn’t matter why; I realize that is probably the most entitled, self-centered, millennial statement one can make.

And yet, I put the proverbial pen to paper and published this. The stakes in the situation I describe are laughably low, and this article is more farce than tragedy. Nonetheless it is an accurate picture of how I live my life at times. I often choose the path of least resistance that ultimately does not satisfy, rather than grasp the greater prize that will likely require me to repeatedly run face-first into a brick wall.

This is the same reason that I go to sites like Codecademy and learn new languages or technologies. I pick up these new skills so I can sit back and say, “Yeah, I kinda know Vue, and React, and Angular,” and feel proud of my self-improvement. But you know what would be way more rewarding? Painstakingly investing the hours to use that skillset to build an actual, usable application, not just another todo app example.

So basically, I’m feeling this way because I quit an in-browser game after playing for 5 minutes because I didn’t want to eventually, maybe be presented with a “Game Over” screen.