Believe in Failure!
I got put in Gifted & Talented when I was in 3rd Grade. For 8 year-old me, this was the greatest thing that had ever happened up to that point in my very short life. I wasn't just good at school. I was smart. I was born to be this good at reading Redwall books and knowing how to divide two numbers. I was sure I would be Gifted & Talented forever.
I was not Gifted & Talented forever.
This was a surprise to me as I went on in life. As I picked up new things, I found out I was not naturally good at them like I was previously.
It did not add up.
Being born into an East African family, I wasn't going to get an explanation out of my parents. Immigrating to America was meant to be a chance for improvement. This meant that success in school was to be expected, and I didn't want to worry them. I stumbled my way through High School and University with better than average grades, which was enough to satisfy them. I did not do much to tell them about my confusion. Why was this so hard for me? Why was I so bad at everything when I started it? Was I just dumb? Was I really not Gifted & Talented? Did I pick the wrong subjects?
I didn't really get an answer for a very long time, and it was frustrating. This was especially true when it came to hobbies. I'd try to draw, see the incredible pieces that would appear online, get frustrated, and give up. I'd try to make music, not understand how notes were supposed to come out, get frustrated, and give up.
And boy was it true when it came to Fighting Games. I've had as turbulent a relationship with them as any other hobby, but it was my efforts here that hurt me the hardest. I may have been a failure at everything else I had ever tried, but videogames were supposed to be my domain. I beat Link's Awakening when I was four years old, for crying out loud! But there's a big difference between a single player game that pits you against the world, solving puzzles and fighting bosses, and a fighting game, where you go up against another human being and try to defeat them.
When I was a kid, I had always shied away from competition in general, for reasons I would not realize until a few years ago. But I figured I'd be able to get past that anxiety when it came to fighting games, at the very least. I was always interested in them, and had dabbled in Street Fighter and Soul Caliber, like anyone else. But I wanted to move beyond button mashing, be competent enough to beat more than a CPU. "No excuses!" I told myself. "Even if it takes you 100 hours, you're going to learn how to do a hadoken."
What came after that was research. Lots of it. I poured over everything from "Masher to Master" by Patrick Miller to videos explaining every potential mechanic that could show up in a fighting game. Crush counters, tick throws, reversals — you name it, I learned what it was. I got a copy of Under Night In Birth, which I had heard was relatively beginner friendly. I picked a character and went to work. I labbed for hours with Wagner, practicing combos and block-strings and corner pressure. Finally, a week later, I felt I was ready to enter a lobby and fight someone for real.
I got destroyed.
Not just once, or twice, or five times. Every single time I queued up for a match I was absolutely dunked on. This was a given, in retrospect, but in the moment I was devastated. I thought I had done everything right. Sure, I didn't pick up fighting games naturally, but I put in the effort, more than for any other hobby I had tried to take on up to that point. I practiced and practiced and practiced, and it still didn't amount to anything.
What I didn't realize was that this was just the beginning. I thought I was near the summit of the mountain, when really all the work I had done up to that point was the equivalent of packing my gear.
You see, my real problem wasn't that I hadn't put in enough effort into the new thing I was learning. It was that I hated failing at it. I never learned how to fail. I didn't have the mechanism that allowed me to learn from failure, rather than shy away from it, and I mistook failure to be something bad, that I needed to avoid at any and all costs.
That's basically impossible to do in a fighting game, where there are people who have thousands of hours of experience on you. You are going to take an L, and it's possible, if not likely, that people will see it. I was so embarrassed by my track record that I simply put the game away for a while afterwards.
This was for the best. There was still a lot of growing that I needed to do as a person before I tried to pick up an arcade stick again. At the start of 2020, I made one of my New Year's Resolutions be to not fear failure so much. I picked up Tanking in FFXIV, fighting the fear of being the leader of a party, or pulling improperly and getting a wipe. And I picked up fighting games yet again, this time with Granblue Fantasy. At first, the fear of going online again was very real. I spent the first week I owned the game repeating the steps I took with Under Night, spending time in the lab and flip-flopping on a main.
This week, however, was a turning point for me. In a moment of spontaneity (I don't have many of those), I signed up for Quarantined Rapport, an online tournament to fight COVID-19. It was almost like I was racing against myself filling out my tournament info, as if I was worried I'd talk myself out of it — and I probably would have if I gave myself the chance. Having done that, I realized I needed practice, so I finally threw myself into a lobby.
And for the first time...I actually enjoyed myself.
Don't get me wrong, I lost way more sets than I won. But for once, a defeat didn't send me spiraling. In all this time, I've been slowly untangling the synapses in my brain that associated failure with a personal statement about myself. If I didn't do something right the first time, I was bad. I've only recently been able to take a loss as a learning experience, a chance to do better next time. I saved a replay of every loss I took, playing them back to see where, how and why I messed up. Hell, even when I won I knew why I succeeded.
This is probably a small thing for most people. What came as revelatory for me is probably standard for others. But I've let the specter of failure drag me down in every aspect of my life. Fighting games let me learn how to deal with that anxiety, and turn it into something positive. I am, frankly, proud of myself for coming this far, both in terms of dealing with failure and my improvement as a player of fighting games. On March 28th I will take part of Quarantined Report. I'm sure my heart will attempt to beat out of my chest when my first match starts, and there's a very high chance that I will get absolutely bodied. But for once, I'll walk away from the experience happy to have been able to participate, rather than upset that I failed.
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