Isa Adney
5 min readMar 16, 2018

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How to Show up Even After You’re Destroyed

I have two brothers and they were always better at video games than me. And no — not because they are boys, but because they were willing to die a lot more than I was. They were willing to play the same level over and over and over and over again until they beat it.

I always loved the first level of a video game. It was exciting to jump over those little brick boxes or get past the green tube before the Little-Shop-of-Horrors-like plant monster got you. And oh — that wonderful moment — when you beat the level.

But then I’d get to the second level — like in Donkey Kong where you’d have to swing from ropes in the rain to grab the bananas. I’d be flying high from my level one win, gloriously swinging from rope to rope, planning a new banana room to hold all my prizes, when, suddenly, I’d fall.

Game over.

I’d try maybe one more time, and then fall again.

All of a sudden, just like that. I was bored. It was not fun anymore. At least to me — because I didn’t have the video-game-grit to keep going. I didn’t have what it takes to be awesome at gaming.

I also don’t have what it takes to be awesome at skiing, surfing, or mountain climbing. I’ve tried all three, liked them for about 60 seconds, but then as soon as I got knocked in the face with a surfboard or almost fell in a lake, I was done. I preferred the warm sand, the cozy cabin, the delicious butter cookies the mountain climbing guides had for us on the ground.

So do pro mountain climbers, surfers, skiers, or my video-game-champ brothers have different initial experiences than I did?

Did they rock the proverbial level two perfectly without incident or injury? Were they just better at these things than me?

Maybe.

But I actually have a very different hypothesis from what I’ve observed: They just wanted it bad enough to keep going.

They found the challenge intriguing.

They didn’t care that they had salt water up their nose.

They saw something on the other end of failure that was worth it.

Worth scraping your knees on a mountain.

Worth playing the same level a dozen times.

Worth falling off a snowy mountain and almost falling into a lake as your ski’s fly off while a five-year-old stands there expertly wondering why you are so bad at this.

Zac Hill knows what I’m talking about. He is a friend of mine I interviewed whose childhood dream was to be a video game designer. In his early days he actually began by competing in a game called Magic: The Gathering (spoiler alert: that’s also the game he ended up becoming a designer for!).

What stood out to me about Zac’s story is what happened the first time he competed: “I showed up to my first tournament and got destroyed — I mean annihilated.”

This is the point where you give up if you don’t really care about this thing, if you don’t see anything on the other end worth getting annihilated for. And that’s perfectly okay. Me and surfing? Just not my thing.

But how do you know if you really have what it takes to beat the second level and go on to the third and maybe even beat the whole game?

You know it’s worth it if after getting annihilated, this is your attitude: “I learned a lot and I started to get better the second time around.” Instead of thinking, this is not for me, you think, okay I learned something that I can use to do better next time.

That’s how my brothers beat Donkey Kong while I could never get past level two.

And that is how people like Zac get closer to their dreams. Show up. Learn. Repeat. This pattern led to Zac winning thousands of dollars on the professional gamer circuit and eventually to his becoming a designer for his favorite game.

But all this learning from failure does not mean that the failure doesn’t still hurt. Quite the contrary. Failure along the way to your dream sometimes can hurt so much more than failure in something you don’t care all that much about. When that surfboard hit me in the head it sure physically hurt, but emotionally it didn’t hurt me at all. That first time I read a one-star review for my first book on Amazon though? It made me instantly forget about all the five-star reviews I had and led me to crying on the staircase below my office.

The sting will always be there, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it’s actually a sign that you care a lot, and that level of care will help you go farther than someone who doesn’t care that much. I’ve interviewed professional artists and Oscar winners who tell me that the negative stuff still hurts them every time — they’re never immune. But they get through it the same way Zac did, and the same way I do now:

1. Zac remembered that his dream required losing.
Losing didn’t say anything about him — it’s just how the game is played. And he reminded himself of that constantly: “The thing about gaming is that you just lose.

2. He separated the failure from who he was as a person.
“Failing a thing does not define you as a person. Where people get derailed is when they internalize that failure as if it means something about them. But that’s not true, and you’ll be very stressed if you believe that.”

3. He redefined failure and turned it into a simple choice.
“Failure simply means that you did not succeed at something. You can either use that to improve and do better next time, or you can stop moving forward. And if you do the latter, you don’t have to justify it — it’s okay to just fail at something and move on.”

4. He remembered that you don’t have to be the best at everything.(WHAT?! — Me, aka type-A-personality). “I realized that you don’t have to yield to a society that wants us to be the best at everything; I am not going to be perfect all the time and I don’t have to be. Finally realizing that was an empowering experience for me, because it allowed me to view failure as a reality instead of a personal flaw.”

Dreams are like video games. You just lose.

To have a chance at your dream coming true, you have to choose a dream that is worth losing for, worth showing up for, and worth learning about and adjusting for, again and again and again and again and again and again.

Because who knows, maybe even your craziest childhood dream could still come true, like Zac’s.

Or maybe you’ll just finally beat Donkey Kong.

Either way. Win-win.

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