Wordle provides safe way to fail

The morning of May 6, I played my 100th game of Wordle. From my Facebook feed alone, I know some of you play daily with the rest of the 300,000-plus participants, but for those of you who haven’t heard of it, Wordle is an online word game created by software engineer Josh Wardle and recently sold to The New York Times, that gives the player six tries to guess the day’s five-letter word.

The only clue to begin is that the word contains five letters represented by five gray boxes. By process of elimination, the player works toward guessing the correct word by inserting any five-letter word. If a letter is in the word and the correct location, the box turns green; if the letter is in the word but the incorrect location, the box turns yellow. If the player guesses the word correctly, all boxes turn green and the game is finished until the next day. If the word hasn’t been guessed after the sixth try, the game is a loss for the day. Everyone guesses the same word, and a new Wordle is available to play every 24-hours.

Sound fun? I enjoy it and so do my husband and daughters. A fascinating observation I’ve made is that, while we each have the same daily word to guess, we seem to have a slightly different method of solving the puzzle. It seems people on my socials do, too. Some participants use the same start word each day. Some use the same start word and include as many vowels as possible. Some use whatever word comes to mind and go from there.

When I first began playing, I used the latter strategy. I would think of a five-letter word, any five-letter word, insert and enter. Then I saw a Facebook post from a guy I consider intelligent describing his method: use the same word each day. I want to do my best at things I’m involved with, so I took his strategy and tried it on for size. It didn’t fit for long as I increasingly got bored using the same word. Sure, it “worked” but so had my random-word strategy. This sent me on a quest to determine why I preferred one strategy over the other and landed here: I needed something in my life that I could make low-risk, rapid-fire decisions without consequence.

In a pandemic season where I’ve tried to make good decisions for our knowingly high-risk family – and also weighed the decision-making of everyone we might come into contact with – my nerves are shot. The risks have been high and decision-making, agonizing. This silly little word game has given me a moment every day where I don’t have to think long and hard about options if I don’t want to. I can enter a start word and blaze through the game. If I lose, I lose. The only consequence: my “streak” resets to zero and my win percentage decreases.

For instance, game No.104, I lost to the word gecko. I had “e” and “o” in place from try two, but I couldn’t get it done. The failure took longer than I would have liked, actually. I wanted to put myself out of my misery, but I kept coming up with blanks for options.

Anymore, a loss doesn’t phase me. Life goes on whether I win Wordle or not. The first time I lost, though, was harder, as I had yet to process the benefit of failing without consequence. It was the first loss that catapulted me into realizing a thing or two, so really, it was a win. I think participating in Wordle has also helped my kids practice failing in a low-stakes way, and I’m glad. If they fail at school, it affects their grades. If they fail in a tryout, it affects their participation. If they fail in Wordle, it affects nothing of consequence.

When we first began playing, family members looked to me for hints because I generally play first. In the beginning, I handed hints out like candy – protecting them from failure. Recently I’ve sensed a shift. We still don’t WANT to lose, but we’ve each realized the world keeps right on spinning. We don’t get bad grades. We don’t lose a spot on a team or in a group. We occasionally fail and keep going.

I recently heard a podcast interview on The Russell Moore Show between Moore and Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor, psychologist and author, where Haidt said this: “I teach in a business school and we’re always talking about the importance of taking risks – the people who made big breakthroughs took risks. And pretty much all the great people failed over and over again. You need to take risks and you need to fail, especially in a low-stakes environment. And I think what we’re beginning to see is that Gen Z is so anxious, they’re not going to take risks, so this is actually putting our economy in danger. We have a generation that isn’t suited for capitalism, that plays it safe, that is afraid, that sees the world as threatening, that hasn’t learned to find its way through the world. And this isn’t just a tragedy for the kids and their families. I think America could lose its economic vitality.”

This concerns me beyond business school and capitalism. And it’s not just Gen Z, though I’m raising a few Gen Z’ers. At 39, I’m a millennial and I’m impacted by the fear of failure, too. I’ve spent years where failure affected grades and participation and I learned to play it safe. I’ve been in situations where failure affected my position and reputation. As an adult I haven’t had enough low-stakes options to practice failing. Everything feels large and consequential. But Wordle’s helping.

If you haven’t played, I’d encourage you to try; to loosen your grip and let the letters fly.

(Wordle: https://www.nytimes.com/games/wordle/index.html; Podcast: https://www.russellmoore.com/2022/04/21/jonathan-haidt-says-social-media-is-making-america-stupid/)

Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com, or find her on social media @MalindaDJust.


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