Turning Over Leaves: On Failure and Renewal

A few months ago, I failed. I had set myself the ambitious goal of blogging for the Our Gamified World site once a week. This seemed to be the ideal way to keep generating content relating to the web series while we were taking a break after our Level 1 episodes. I took pride in the fact that I was consistently checking the task off on my Habitica profile – new blogs were even created in the midst of the festive season and over the New Year. I even blogged about future plans to look at various aspects of Pokémon GO. Things were going well. Then, after religiously creating a series of twenty-three weekly posts, the blogs suddenly stopped.

OGW site.png
Screenshot of Our Gamified World home page, 15 March 2017

The above scenario was a frustrating one. It even took me a couple of days and some willpower to tap the negative button on my gamified to-do list – not so much due to the hit to my avatar’s health, but because it acknowledged a failure to achieve something I was both personally and professionally invested in and had been pushing myself to do. I could dwell at length on the role of a heavy workload, the distractions of Summer, and the persistent challenges to motivation, but these things are hardly new to anyone reading this. The ‘busy-ness’ of everyday life leaves a lot of victims in its wake. Here I don’t want to dwell on the causes; I want to focus on something more productive: what I’m going to do about it.

Head in Hands
Head in Hands by Alex Proimos (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is a blog about failure and renewal. I blogged about ‘failure’ last year in the post, ‘Sometimes Things Go Wrong: Embracing Failure and Imperfection‘, but here I’m talking about failure in a very different sense. It’s actually been some time since I’ve posted a blog on this site, in large part because I’d redirected attention to developing material for Our Gamified World (so a double-failure?). The purpose of this Exploring Digital Zones blog has changed over time. With the exception of a couple of research-related posts at its beginning, this site’s initial years (2013-2015) mainly saw the creation of extra optional content on weekly topics for those extra keen undergraduate students in a digital media unit I designed. My audience was narrow but clear, and it worked fine for what it was meant to be.

Now, my potential audiences are more diverse: undergraduate and postgraduate students enrolled in multiple units; students who’ve completed these units and stayed connected through the #ALCalumni community; PhD students interested in developing their online presence; other teachers curious about digital media possibilities; an expanding network of industry practitioners; and that weird guy who keeps staring at me through my window. He’s doing it again right now… And with all this in mind, my blogs over the past year or so have been written differently in an effort to relate (hopefully) to people outside my ‘classroom’. I even adopted a new title and template mid-way through 2016 to signify this rebirth – as much for myself as anyone else (as shown in the world’s shortest slideshow below!). I’m even considering whether or not I should now delete dozens of earlier blogs to complete the renewal process…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The phrase ‘turning over a new leaf’, which gave me the first inklings of what this blog needed to be about, usually implies a transformation of a more profound and singular kind. The words are probably most declared to others or whispered to oneself as part of hopeful ‘New Year’s Resolutions’, which I’ve always had little interest in. The plurality of this blog’s title – ‘Turning Over Leaves’ – points instead to the numerous times in any one year, month, week, or even day when one finds oneself failing to achieve something and needing to reassess, recover, and redeem. The leaves I generally aim to turn are virtual ones: little activities and challenges I frequently think about and plan to achieve (not always successfully) by a certain time (not always in the most punctual manner). Whether the leaves are the metaphorical pages of a book or the detritus of my backyard, it’s always either a pretty big book or a messy-as-hell garden. I’m sure you feel the same?

In the realm of media-making and keeping active online – both major imperatives of my teaching approach and ‘philosophy’ – I’ve witnessed countless students over the years commit to plans they haven’t followed through with, in part or at all. And that’s just the larger scale stuff – continuing to blog frequently, filming a new video, trying out something completely new just for the sake of upskilling. On the micro-level, I won’t even know about most students’ self-made targets: even the pledge to tweet on a semi-regular basis isn’t always followed through on. If you’re reading this and you’re in this boat, it’s okay, it happens (see the start of this blog, for instance). As I’ve found myself saying a lot over the past year, the hardest week of an eleven-week trimester is Week 12…

The longer that ‘failure’ is left to linger (or fester, if that’s not too harsh a word?), the harder it is to get back on track. I remember seeing this firsthand when I began my current full-time position as an academic. I had a conversation with a highly experienced lecturer, then only a few years from retirement, who admitted he’d lost the confidence to delve into research endeavours as it had been so long since his last publication. The same phenomenon seems to apply to many areas, not least of all to the ongoing creation and negotiation of an online presence and portfolio. There is no universal solution; the impetus to get back on track might be as individualised as the obstacles that people encounter. Confidence and resilience are character-building and character-revealing, but you have to push yourself first.

Failure is Always an Option
Made with Canva, 15 March 2017

Rebirth: New Adventure Available!

Gamification has for me been an immensely productive discovery, not only in my teaching strategies but also in my personal/professional life. Having checked the Habitica site during the writing of this blog, it was promising to find that a recent development in the app reinforces exactly what I’m talking about here: the importance of renewal. Here’s the text of a pop-up notification headed ‘Rebirth: New Adventure Available’, which I received just a moment ago:

You’ve unlocked Rebirth! This special Market item allows you to begin a new game at level 1 while keeping your tasks, achievements, pets, and more. Use it to breathe new life into Habitica if you feel you’ve achieved it all, or to experience new features with the fresh eyes of a beginning character!

I don’t want to detail the app’s features and benefits here – if you’re interested in finding out more, we made an episode about Habitica in 2016. What I will say is that it certainly works for me on multiple levels. Although I still stumble and fall often enough, this gamified system serves as a useful reminder to its users that things need to get done, because for the most part, no one else is going to do them.

There is genuine value in failure, but only when you look for the opportunity it presents, find it, learn from it, and act on it. Nobody meets their own expectations, much less others’ expectations, all the time. The sense of achievement and reward in getting stuff done is much stronger when it closely follows the feeling of letting oneself down. The other members of the ‘Digital Deakinites’ Habitica party I’m a member of also seem to go through ebbs and flows themselves (I can only guess; the details of anyone’s activities and inactivities are mostly hidden from other users). I’m no different, but tonight at least I’m going to click the ‘positive’ button next to my ‘Blog’ goal.

perseverence by tommy kuo.jpg
perseverence by Tommy Kuo (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ll get moving again with the Our Gamified World site in the fullness of time, and the blogs about Pokémon GO will come. One day soon I’ll act on that podcast idea I had over Summer and ramp up my content in that area. Next week I’ll make another blog post here – at least that’s what I’m telling myself… and you. In the meantime, I’ll keep turning over those Autumn leaves until I find the patch of land I’m working on is tidy enough, then turn around to find the area behind me needs some work too. The yard will never be entirely empty, but at least I’ll be happy that I’m making progress…

Thanks for reading! How have you failed lately? And, more importantly, how did you or will you pick yourself up and try again? Hit me up in a comment below or on Twitter!

Featured image: Leaves by Ashley Webb (CC BY 2.0)

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. It is so tempting to write criticisms about the blog, ideas to stay motivated or comments about my own motivation, failure and retrials… however I will refrain because of this Calendar Entry (my daily morning distraction issue) that is not directly related, but would be if I were to write criticisms or comments:
    “Take criticism seriously, but not personally. If there is truth or merit in the criticism, try to learn from it. Otherwise, let it roll right off you. – HILLARY CLINTON

  2. Adam Brown says:

    Thanks for reading Steven – is it one of those quote-a-day calendars? I’m certainly never above criticism (some – most? – of the best comments made about my online work have been from students 🙂

  3. keithedson says:

    Do you struggle when gamifying something you do for personal gain, justifying extrinsic reward? Chocolate seems to be a *not so great* downfall of mine…

  4. Adam Brown says:

    Thanks for reading Keith – reward is definitely an important factor. I often do something like give myself some Netflix/movie time if I reach a goal – although when work piles up I sometimes skip the reward too, which isn’t a great thing… I’m in the fortunate position where most things I do online are personally rewarding as much as professionally (I doubt I’d get a lot of it done otherwise, as the former is the main incentive of any online innovation in pretty much any industry), though I do gamify purely personal things too… usually positive results, but always mixed. Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise 🙂

  5. I felt like I was failing last night trying to work out Slideshare and Prezi . I was about to give up, so I told myself to keep going, then I tried Canva and wow! Its so clear and easy to use, a bit like Publisher. After that I felt a lot better !

  6. Adam Brown says:

    Excellent to hear – well done on putting learning-by-doing into practice to the letter! 🙂

  7. This blog post also got me thinking about how we measure success. As a micro-measure we can measure success against achieving goals, but where do these goals sit in making our life a better or happy place to live within? Does a balanced life equal success or compromise success? Often to ‘succeed’ in something it comes at the cost of others areas of our life. If we divide our life into segments e.g. Fun, fitness, career, education, health, relationship, home, spirit, friendships etc and scored each area with the goal being equal or similar scores across all areas rather than high scores because that would be successful ‘balance’ … is this success or a way to happiness. Are happiness and success the same thing? To achieve a high score in one area does that come at the cost of low scores in other areas, so to succeed at something do we need to allow ourselves to fail in other areas of our life?

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Coco – balance is certainly a crucial issue that I’ve have only gotten better at managing over time. Would certainly be a difficult set of scores to evaluate for anyone. I imagine ‘happiness’ can only be judged by each person according to their goals and priorities – it’s plausible that not everyone would agree on the idea (construct) of ‘balance’ itself anyway (no matter how many health and wellbeing studies and professionals tout it), and thankfully something that’s not within my remit to worry too much about (for anyone but myself and those close to me, I guess 🙂

      1. Prior to this comment I wrote another that I managed somehow NOT to post by the wrong click of a button and ‘poof’ it was gone. I talked about a similar topic that I tweeted to Mikala today hence wy I incuded your handle. In the world of advertising and design (and possibly gamification) there is a school of thought that argues that in order to aid our productivity, creativity and motivation we must add fun and pleasure to our lives, and more importantly our brain chemistry! A failure can be more than a lack of motivation or inspiration, and whilst there is always something to learn from failure, how we pick ourselves up from a a disapointment and not get distracted from achieving goals is an interesting topic. It reminds me of that drawing “people think success is a stright line but it looks like this (squiggly line)”.

      2. Adam Brown says:

        Indeed, Danielle and I have found that gamification in large part works because of what (game)play does to the mind, signalling a distinct overlap between creativity and enjoyment. You just don’t see the same kind of affective responses in many other areas relating to media interaction… On your great point about failure, there is a strong argument that the educational system(s) generally don’t prepare and assist people in being able to deal with ‘failure’ (for me, this is intertwined with the problem of not talking about motivation explicitly enough)… thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Emily Wade says:

    As an ‘ideas person’ who regularly sets herself challenging personal goals, this blog post rang true with me. Over time I have learnt that failures are never truly that. ‘Failure’ is only ever subjective. My sanity has been saved by the learned ability to accept failures as a necessary ‘evil’. Failure prompts reflection, and re-grouping. When I fail at something, there is usually a very good reason: I need to re-evaluate and prioritise my goals, and often change my approach to achieving them. There is no value in dwelling on the failure itself, only in learning and moving on positively.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for your comment Emily – I like the use of scare quotes around ‘evil’, as you’re absolutely right in the valuable contribution failure can have – or rather, that we can make it have for us… thanks for reading!

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