I read on a forum about a father who played board games with his son and was worried that the boy kept losing. He wanted to know how he could simplify the games so the kid had a chance of winning once in a while.

I thought, instead of teaching children games so they learn how to win, why don’t we teach them how to lose?

At least, how to make the best out of losing, anyway. There’s a five-year-old I know who plays a board game called Splendor with me. The game is amazingly simple to learn (basically if you can differentiate colours and count up to 15, you’re probably OK). However, it’s difficult to play well. You need to be able to plan ahead, and then stick to that plan.

Thing is, when I play with her, I don’t give her a chance. I don’t bully her either, but I play like I would with an adult who’s new to the game. And most importantly, I let her make mistakes so she can learn from them.

Truth is, I have long been an advocate of seeing failure as a positive thing. It isn’t just me either. This has long been a mantra of those in the IT sector (“fail fast, fail often” is the popular quote). There is even a conference called FailCon where hundreds of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come to share their mistakes.

So why embrace failure? Partly because failing is essential to the learning process. Neuroscientists have long understood that failure is a feedback to tweak what we learn. For example, if we guess the wrong answer and get it corrected, we are more likely to remember it than if we had made a right guess in the first place.

But it isn’t quite as simple as fail and then learn. There are two things to take into consideration.

First is, how does the learner view mistakes? Is it something to be avoided or accepted? If you believe the former, then there is a possibility that you fear mistakes. This means you try to avoid it to avoid feeling bad, which then means you take fewer risks.

However, if you see a mistake as an opportunity to learn, then you will actually engage them. You will take time to observe what went wrong and try something else next time.

If you’re not sure which category you fall into, think about what you say when something goes wrong. Is it “Darn it!”? Or “Interesting…”?

The second thing – and possibly more important – is that the learner should believe they can learn from mistakes if they put in the effort. In an oft-quoted study by professor of psychology Carol Dweck, children were asked to complete a simple puzzle. Half were told they did well because they were “clever” and another half were instead praised for their “hard work”.

In other words, are you told you succeeded because you were talented? Or did you work hard?

The children were then given a more complicated puzzle. Generally speaking, those who were told they did well because of an innate ability (they were “clever”) were more likely to be frustrated and give up with the harder puzzle. Those who were told they did well because of their effort, not only spent more time on it, they actually were more likely to enjoy the challenging work.

To top it all off, when the children were then offered a choice for a new third puzzle to solve, the first group (“clever”) chose easier puzzles compared to the second group (“hardworking”).

So there are two elements to this. In order to best learn from mistakes, you must first understand it is possible to do so; secondly you must also believe that learning (and by corollary, success) is a product of using effort to improve ability.

I have long criticised aspects of the Malaysian education system. One huge fault that I saw was that students were often ridiculed or punished for making mistakes. One person I talked to said that their teacher would cane their palm once for every wrong answer they gave in a weekly test. Yes, punishment can produce results, but at the cost of insecurity. People do well in tests, but it may be because they are afraid of the consequences if they fail.

What about determination? On the one hand, the press always highlights grade-A students who come from difficult or lower-income backgrounds. And yet, nobody talks about how much work every student has to go through to get those As.

And if you know that most (if not all) universities in Malaysia take attendance for lectures (and punish those who don’t turn up), it’s obvious that perseverance is an issue even for 20-year-olds.

In fact, when we look at the results from the World Values Survey (a global survey of people’s attitudes by country), something interesting emerges. One of the questions talks about qualities you might want to see taught to children at home – respondents were asked to pick up to five from a list. The most popular answers in Malaysia are “Tolerance and respect”, “Independence”, “Feeling of responsibility”, “Religious faith” and “Thrift”.

Only 43.6% said they wanted children to be taught “Hard work” and 40.1% said “Determination and perserverance”.

Now, of course all of the options given are important, but it illustrates how low down those two are.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of wearing failure as a badge of success (which sounds like a mixed-up sentiment if ever there was one).

But understand that failure is a part of the process of learning, in tandem with practice and determination. And the younger you are when you realise this, the better.

It’s not that I had all this in mind when I taught my young friend how to play board games. I was thinking, if she enjoys playing, then we should encourage her. Every point she got was a success we celebrated so that the failure of not winning was really more a final step not quite taken.

As you might have already guessed, last week she finally won her first ever game, beating two adults along the way. I can honestly say she did it with practically no help, and it never crossed her mind to ask.

I would like to say it was a proud moment for me. But the truth is, I already felt that every time she decided to play the game – and thoroughly enjoying it – despite losing every single time before that.


Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my.