Play is an Essential Part of Failure: Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing

If you’ve ever been around children while they’re playing tag, you’ve probably had to make a difficult interpretation. Are they screaming because they’re having fun? Or are they screaming because they’re terrified and need help? Without context, it can be really difficult to tell the difference. Play is frequently reminiscent of behaviours that are dangerous or just plain boring. Have you ever seen a toddler playing with dolls? It boils down to changing the doll’s clothes or pretending to go to work – things that, in reality, are just uneventful rituals of our daily lives. As adults, the behaviours we pretended to do when we played as kids become the norm. Picking out a shirt in the morning isn’t the fun process that it was with the dolls because we do it every day.

Play, at its core, is one of the most difficult-to-interpret behaviours that a living creature can exhibit. If you’ve ever witnessed two dogs playing, it can look vicious. They snarl, bite, and the noises they make can even be scary if you don’t know them well. In fact, modern psychology views play as a learning tool for practicing behaviours that won’t be necessary until later. Tag looks so much like running from a predator because that’s exactly what it is emulating. Play is the reason we don’t have to teach ourselves how to run and scream when a predator really does come our way.

If you can subscribe to this interpretation of play, then it shouldn’t be a huge leap to see how play helps us even in our adult lives. But, at some point, playing tag and dress-up became a thing that kids do and we don’t. Is there really any reason for that? The desire to play is still there. Video games and organized sports are still fun for adults, after all.

So where did the toys and the children’s games go? Why did they stop becoming as much fun as they used to be? One way to interpret it is this: we stop playing tag because we’ve already learned to run as fast as we can. We stop playing dress-up because we know what kind of clothes we like to put on in the morning. Now that we’ve got the basics down, play takes a different form of modeling the other behaviours we still need to practice. For programmers, this might be fooling around with a new programming language. For artists, it could be drawing exaggerated, ridiculous creatures that never make it to the final draft. This is the most important part of play: it gives us a circumstance in which failure is okay. In fact, it’s even encouraged.

There are several reasons why the majority of start-ups fail. Here at ShiftKey Labs, we completely embody the philosophy that failure should be an integral part of developing any business idea. However, if failure is going to happen, it should be early enough in the development of your idea that the consequences aren’t severe. And how do we ensure that failure happens early? We play, of course!

This isn’t to say that students at ShiftKey Labs are running around playing tag (although, under the right circumstances, they could be). Instead, play could involve making a cardboard cut-out of a fake phone with paper screens to simulate how an app might work. It could be roleplaying a phone call to a new pizza delivery service. If it seems silly, it should. If we are simulating an environment where failure is an encouraged option, then that environment should positive, fun, and contain at least a little laughter. Play makes it hilarious when you realize that you forgot to add a button to bring your user back to the main menu. And, more importantly, play makes it easy to modify your idea when it does fail. It is so much easier to add a paper screen to your cardboard phone than to program a button into your app.

Encouragement to fail even extends beyond modifying just one idea. Part of the design process involves generating as many ideas as possible. Some of those ideas might not be practical, plausible, or even possible. Maybe that edible pizza box just isn’t sanitary. But ridiculous ideas can be a great place to start. After all, a blank page can be so much more intimidating than one full of scribbles. Students who come into the lab almost never end with the idea they started with. Sometimes, ideas have to be scrapped. Sometimes, a great idea has already been done. It happens to the best of us. But it’s how we move on in the face of failure that matters so much more. Having a drawing board with more ideas ready to try out means that failure is taking a few steps back instead starting at the beginning. And if we’re going to fail, we should probably do it with a smile on our face.

So prepare for failure. Embrace it. Have fun with it. ShiftKey Labs is one of the Nova Scotia Sandboxes for exactly that reason. Build a sand castle. Laugh when the tide washes it way. Reshape it. Rebuild it. Build a moat to protect it from the water. We believe that if you can play with failure, you’ll have built your sand empire by the end of the day.