Foosball and the Surprising Power of Imperfection

By Steve Fisher

The other night at a bar on Saigon’s Bui Vien St. my friend Angela and I were playing foosball and I was losing badly. Angela was landing shot after shot and I quickly lost the first game 10-4. While she is the same sort of infrequent, casual player I am, as I reflected on my humiliation I noticed that there was a loose detachment to her playing style – again and again, without overthinking her shots, she knocked the ball in the general direction of my goal, and – through some mix of luck, ability and the helpful looseness of someone who’s had a drink or two – some of those shots hit their target!

This and all photos in this post are from a motorbiking trip in the mountains near Dalat, Vietnam, early April, 2016

Noting the benefits of my friend’s style, I adopted a more extreme version of this approach in our second game. Putting little thought or effort toward setting up good shots, I knocked the ball again and again in the general direction of her goal. More from the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics than skill – that ball’s gotta go somewhere! – I quickly racked up a big lead and won the second game by the same margin I had lost the first. We diplomatically stopped play there and ended the evening of great Indian food and less-than-great foosball tied 1-1.

This experience, I think, offers some interesting insights for the world away from the foosball table. In life as well, sometimes we should just take the shot! Rather than trying to create the perfect circumstances – for, say, a professional opportunity, a new personal project or a potential new relationship – maybe we should just go for it! A lot more often than we do. With new opportunities big and small, there are lots of reasons for hesitation and delay, but perhaps the biggest is fear. “Maybe that new project for my business won’t work out.” “Maybe the intriguing person on the other side of the party won’t want to talk to me.”

There are times to “take the shot”, and times to play it safe, for example while motorbiking down a curvy mountain road in Vietnam

Usually though, in life as in foosball, the risks of “taking the shot” are quite small. Even if the boss turns down the request for a raise or our new film discussion group doesn’t attract enough interest, all we really suffer is a bit of wounded pride, which after all is only a problem in our minds. Even with bigger decisions – starting a new business, say – the risks are often much smaller than we think and can be managed. And with life decisions big and small the potential rewards are often HUGE. There were reasons after all that we wanted to take that trip, jump at that new professional opportunity or talk to that interesting person at the party.

Stunning views near the peak

Basketball great Michael Jordan had something really interesting to say about this and it’s one of my favorite quotes of all time:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan missed thousands of shots! Baseball great Ichiro Suzuki has struck out nearly 1,000 times (and when I googled this I was amazed that at 42 he’s still playing and has gotten off to a great start this season). Steve Jobs, one of the mostly wildly successful and innovative tech pioneers of all time, also experienced massive failures in his career and life. In fact, all successful people fail, often quite frequently and in bigger ways than most people. Actually, I think that an important part of what makes them so successful is that they take more and bigger shots than most of us…and many of these shots miss! And, when top athletes and business leaders fail, do they go weepy weepy and retreat to safer life choices? Of course not – they quickly pick themselves up and try again. Personally, I think that this pattern of endless “try, fail, learn, try” is part of what makes great people great, and it’s a valuable idea for all of us.

Shrines beside the road, probably to people who died in car or motorbike accidents here

I sometimes think too deeply about things, but those foosball games last week really got me thinking. What other shots should I be taking in life? Well, this new blog for a start! It’s an idea that’s been percolating appealingly in my mind without action for far too long. I also launched a new food group in Saigon. And, I moved to Vietnam last Oct. and as a new resident I have been socially active and made a number of new friends, but I’ve passed up a lot of opportunities as well. I’m going to start talking to that intriguing stranger more often.

Some of the unique hazards and joys of motorbiking in Vietnam

What about you? Are you aiming for a new professional opportunity? Or thinking about starting a new personal project? Or maybe thinking about asking a potential new friend for coffee? Are you hesitating out of fear or for other reasons? I’ve been there of course, far too many times. But what’s the real risk involved? It’s probably quite small. And what are the potential rewards? They are probably quite large – after all, that’s why you’ve been thinking about the opportunity so much! So why don’t we all be like Mike and take that shot!

Lunch at a little family shop beside the road, Banh Xeo, crispy and savory Vietnamese crepes


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