Dealing With Your Own Failure

Written by Matt Sauers

Written by Matt Sauers

I wanted to take a minute to expand on a simple topic mentioned in the January 2012 conference in Indy. Thanks again to Peter Jahn for the excellent topic! I was inspired by that to write this, when I saw some of the looks of rapt attention from some of the folks in the crowd who do not possess my count of years nor my intestinal fortitude in dealing with the errors we commit ourselves. I hope those in need can find this answer key useful.


FACT: The only element common to all of your failures is you.

That’s good news! This means it can be fixed, and guess what: who better to fix them than you! I mean, you know what you did wrong, so there’s nobody better at figuring the fix out than you. Years of engineering education and practice have taught me a lot about failing, and there are whole courses on the subjects of failure modes, and there’s even a whole field of failure modes and effects analysis (called “FMEA“).

We choose our actions. We may not always choose wise or sane actions, but we choose them. Therefore, each of us chooses to fail. We do not choose “I wanna fail!” but rather we choose to embark on a path of failure potential. We must know our reason(s) to choose such a path, and there we find our reasons we choose to fail. Once we know the reasons (causes) we can ascertain the methods to avoid the failure (effects).

I have found reasons to choose my path, and so I know the choices I make to fail. My apologies if this seems obvious, but I can only share what I find between my ears here. First and foremost, there is little risk of injury or death, much less felony or misdemeanor, should I fail in delivering a judge call correctly. Second, I will fail in front of a number of people, and all humans have this fear in varying degree (so its presence is a baseline rather than anomaly). If I take my time, read the cards, and listen to the question, I will buy enough time for another judge to wander over (as they do and should, I do so to learn) and listen in as I deliver the ruling. If I get the ruling wrong, and there isn’t another judge, a player may appeal. Third, something may get way out of hand (physical) but these cases are remote. Lastly, I can fail to listen to or know Good Advice and deviate from the Path of Reason.

So, that’s it. That’s all that can go wrong. I have chosen this path for judging because I feel it is legal, moral, ethical, sporting, and simple. These also feel like the basis for gaming as a whole with regard to how society interacts in much of physical amateur sport.

Peter wisely discussed the basics of Judging mistakes: Fix it if you can, apologize, explain the right answer, then deal with it — get right back on the horse. I wanted to talk about that last part, which he left for some discussion at the conference. It strikes me that one such as myself so skilled in failure (generally by failing) and the subsequent analysis might be well-suited to tackle this topic for the education of my peers if they need it. Wisdom is what you get just after you needed it, and the best way to acquire it is learning from the failure of others.

You are not alone. We all raised our hands when asked if we made a bad judge call. This means you are surrounded by your siblings-in-fail when you are surrounded by judges. I thought mine were pretty impressive until I heard personal horror stories from other judges. So, here is an algorithm I have developed through my own personal experience which is likely well-known and mirrored by folks in my shoes:


Step 0: Fail

I was at GenCon running a few small events, and I was called over. I actually didn’t know the answer, but I was pretty sure it was a Game Loss. Knowing that I couldn’t hand out a Game Loss for stuff other than tardiness (a common policy I hear at tournaments),
I told them to hold on and I would get the HJ to deliver the ruling. I walked away from the table and another judge nearby asked what I told them. I said, “nothing, I would get the HJ” and the other judge replied “well go back there and tell them something!
Don’t just walk away!” I kind of hesitated and then returned and did my job. I didn’t remember it was crappy service just to leave them hanging. Fail: I was focusing on letters of laws and missing the game, from a lack of experience judging; wisdom earned
and lesson learned. It’s possible I was also afraid to tell the guy. I didn’t fail any letter of a policy, I failed the big picture, the fails that you’re not always paying attention for. Welcome to Failtown, population: me.

This is one case I feel comfortable enough sharing anyway, there are more I feel less so.


Step 1: Admit Your Failure

Don’t sugar-coat it, don’t try to think of it in nice terms, you screwed up. Perhaps royally. You might have cost a regular World Champ his title with your bum ruling. Stare it in the face, say it out loud to yourself in the mirror, talk to other folks about
it, whatever works for you to indelibly burn it into your mind. This is your battle-scar, and every scar from battle bears a story of the blade that made it. This is what the apologizing part is for when you apologize to the player — your admission of culpability
that sets you on the path to Never Doing That Again ™.

You must first find the fail. Talk to another judge. Look up your ruling on your PDA / Smartphone / iDevice / gizmo or borrow one from another person or judge. Then talk to another judge. And don’t forget to talk to another judge, preferably the HJ who
corrected your ruling or is finding out about it now. If you have any other doubts about it then talk to a judge, maybe on-line somewhere even. Judges are really helpful kinds of folks, and part of the privilege of access to such a dedicated group of folks
is access to all the knowledge they are willing to impart. I believe that the more these stories are shared and understood in a wider audience, the more fail can be recognized, its occurrence minimized, and its effects reduced overall, which I believe to
be good customer service. It may even help folks sleep at night.

You have to recognize the fail. Part of this is perhaps battling hubris, but if you assume all your rulings are wrong, they will go through the same analysis (whatever method you like). Good results for the ruling doesn’t mean you did the right thing or in
the right way. Ask yourself what you would expect and understand, and it’s helpful to figure out the way you would have gotten to the error yourself. I assume a good judge does this before opening his mouth in the first place, but until I correctly develop
that skill I recommend using it afterward when you can give it some critical thought.

You have to own the fail. What you say goes. If you’re the head judge, this seems even more so. If something went wrong in any ruling you made, it was your error. But there is solace: we adhere to fairly comprehensive and adaptive rules for the game and
for infractions. One (MIPG 1.3) even notes that the specific game and state can’t influence your adherence to the policy. This means you can avoid the fail in the future, and you can identify the fail now. Own it.


Step 2: Quantize the Failure

Figure out if it was the set-up, the board, the explanation, your own lack of knowledge about the rules, whatever — it will always be traced to a combination of your lack of understanding the situation, and your lack of rules knowledge for that situation.
Once you quantize it you can tackle it and solve it. If you had bad input data, you didn’t ask enough questions. If you have bad output data, you parsed the data wrong or used a bad reference or just plain brain-farted and forgot the right call. Figure
out what level of “failure to understand the situation / question” versus your “failure to determine the right ruling,” then work on that.

Since the failure is yours, you set the parameters with which to quantize the fail. Not understanding the question has the same result as not understanding the situation, since your mental analysis of the situation on the table is based on your ability
to gather the correct inputs, part of which are out on the board or in the hand and part of which is the question. Any analysis suffers the same weakness: they are GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) processes which generally arrive at erroneous results with
erroneous inputs. The point of talking to other judges is that you have to explain the situation over and over again; and this process, while focused initially on gathering inputs for errors, also reduces the question in your mind to the correct common elements
to the description for parsing the situation and question into a consistent correct result. Thus this process of judge-talking collects in your mind the criteria to verify the inputs and perhaps review the question in a few different ways. Then you stick
this into your brain so you remember it. Correct identification of a problem is the first step in correcting the behavior, and knowing what not to do. Part of wisdom is knowing what not to do.


Step 3: Live with Your Fear

Maybe you need to keep a mountain lion in your car to help you drive faster. The truth is that the only part of wisdom that grows from experience is knowing that you’re just on the road to your next failure, and it’s up to you how many successes you want to make along the way between failures. Call it “design intent.” I choose the path fraught with the least amount of fail I can choose, so I will only fail at this when I either don’t know the right path or I misjudged the perceived fail quanta a given route offers.

So, you take time to recognize and own your failures, quantify and understand them and their sources, and compile a list of elements you need to draw together into a cohesive whole and understand how to harness this and drive it to something useful. Composing
the mosaic of fail elements help direct you to areas to work on. And it’s always a good idea to talk to your fellow judges and also your RC. Putting these fails into a cohesive form is to identify fear, which is the killer of reason.

I tell my kids all the time that I am afraid of heights which is why we don’t have lights on
all the eaves of the house at Yule, but if I need to go up there I will. Courage is not living without fear, courage is doing the right thing in spite of that fear. Being courageous is a choice, one you can make. To paraphrase Henry Ford: whether you think you can or you think you can’t you’re right. Don’t let yourself get sucked into the abyss of fail-town, you can choose not to. Accept that you will fail again, and it’s up to you to minimize the occurrence.

To be courageous or to do an act of courage is an act of will, and therefore a choice. Courage itself is merely a tool of logic (rather than an abundance of bravado), finding a sufficiently large dose of reason to assuage a generally small amount of fear. Fear may still skew risk analysis so it’s best to find those fears and embrace them, understand them, and realize again that failing is just part of the deal, and you will earn respect (and confidence!) from the effort to minimize your failures.


Step 4. Eliminate the Failure

This is the part that will actually make you feel good about it, because the next time you get that call, buddy, you know you’re getting it right. Once you understand what you did wrong and how you need to live with that, then you will know what it is and how to fix it. Talk it through with your peers and your RC to see where you went wrong, then tell them what you do to plan to fix it. If you like a hug or something afterwards, I highly recommend it, but always check with your RC and local assault laws before you wrap your arms around him or her.

It’s not a matter of “not doing it wrong” but remembering what to do right. And you will find new ways to apply this “getting it right” because there are common philosophy elements in the rules. I am still trying to work at “getting” the philosophy because in my 18 years of play I have seen a number of changes in “philosophy” that unlearning the old ones has been the challenge for me. But through practice, avoiding errors becomes easier.


Step 5: Accept that You Will Fail Again


This is the hardest part. There is no absolution, no forgiveness. There is no compassion, no solace you can offer yourself, no re-do’s or do-overs, no way to avoid it or prevent it. All you can do is minimize it and accept it. Why? Ingrid Lind-Jahn said it best: nobody is harder on you than you. Especially true for the human-types interested in judging in the first place. You know your weaknesses, you know your skeletons, and you know your ignorance. Let this knowledge be your shield to thwart the slings and errors. Knowing that failure is imminent is the drive to be vigilant against it, and knowing that it is under your control eliminates the fear of the unknown: When will you fail? How will you fail? Heck, you know both those answers: when you least expect it, and in the only ways you have left. That means you have knowledge, and knowledge is power — let it be light that casts aside the shadows in the corners. When you do, you will be sharing those epic fail stories like a warrior telling the stories of his battle scars. This is best done with friends, relaxation time, and beer.

Accepting that you choose to fail is also a challenge. By subjecting yourself to failure, you should really actually try to be prepared for it. Knowing why you choose – teaching others, stewardship, service, camaraderie – is important as well since it will be the source of your joy for doing it right, satisfaction for doing it well, being the one who actually tried to help out, and the one who took the time to make the commitment to the program in person on time with the right knowledge, attitude, and drive to deliver the best quality gaming experience a player could ask for. These all sound like good reasons to stick with it, and failure here isn’t so unbearable in perspective.

Acceptance is the balm that soothes the wounds. In time, your perspective will shift and you will realize that your failures don’t cost people their lives or livelihoods, their loved ones, nor anything of any material on this planet. Generally the worst that can happen is a PR issue that fades in time, while the game endures and players keep coming more than ever before, so the overall service must be improving. Luckily for us, Magic is a game. We have already overcome the biggest obstacle – caring to not suck as a judge. Everything else is just a process.

I hope you found this useful.

Matt Sauers
L2, Indianapolis, Indiana