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How Playing Tetris Taught Me This Valuable Life Skill

10/23/2013 12:22 EDT | Updated 12/23/2013 05:12 EST

I've been playing a lot of Tetris lately. When I get up in the mornings, I roll over and check my phone -- cycle through the usual Facebook/Twitter/Instagram feeds--and then I open the app on my phone that takes me to the game.

I've been a Tetris player for the last decade or so, ever since Tetris Attack! dominated the common room of my sixteen-roommate house for the better part of two years. I've become accustomed to closing my eyes and seeing little falling blocks -- teal logs, purple hills, yellow squares. (I'm not alone in this: there's even a phenomenon called "the Tetris effect," which I'm sharing with probably a million people right now.) And while I never got into Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, I totally play a lot of Tetris. It goes in waves: sometimes, I'll play a few times a week, while other times I'll play nine or ten games a day. Right now, I'm in heavy-play mode. Tetris all the time for me.

Here's the thing about this: I've started to win. My particular game only goes up to level fifteen, so once I clear 150 lines of blocks, I'm rewarded with a screen featuring little dancing purple pieces. (It's totally cute.) I never used to win at Tetris. I didn't actually realize that I could win until the first time I beat the game.

What I find interesting about this is that the less I cared about winning, the better I played. When I first started playing this game, I would obsessively check the level counter and the "lines needed" box that told me how many more blocks I had to clear before my next achievement. I would panic as the pieces fell faster and faster, making easily avoided mistakes. I would set aside pieces in the interest of "saving them for later," and then never actually use them. As my wins continued, I learned things; for example, it usually takes me a game or two to warm up before winning, and there's a point in every game at which past mistakes will come back to haunt you.

It's not hard to see the metaphor in this.

In life, as in Tetris, being in the moment is a valuable skill. When I learned to relax, and take it one line at a time, I became much, much more likely to move onto the next level. Feeling stupid for mistakes served me poorly; instead, working my way out of them was a much better strategy.

I've spent a long time struggling with perfectionism. Often, I don't even start a project because I'm so freaked out by the possibility of doing it poorly. I don't ask questions because I don't want to seem dumb. And I constantly judge myself against other people's performances and choices --in work, in relationships, in appearance, in fitness, in lifestyle. It is exhausting and never-ending.

Weirdly, Tetris has given me a way that I can practice going easy on myself. I don't have to maintain a spot on someone else's leader board, or have each game trump my last. I can be more... zen. I can relax. And, much to my surprise, this zen feeling has translated into other areas of my life. I take it a bit easier on myself when I have to ask a question, or when a deadline I've set for myself sails by unfulfilled. I'm trying to keep what my teacher once called "beginner's mind," when every time is the first, low-stakes, we're-all-new-here time.

Deciding to not be a perfectionist is like deciding you don't have the flu when you're running a temperature of 104. It just doesn't work. People need to practice self-care skills, and practice them in a way that doesn't feel high-stakes. For me, it was Tetris. For someone else, it might be baking pies, or collage, or Lego. Or ax-throwing. Who knows?

But it does makes a difference when you have a safe, failure-friendly place to learn and make mistakes. This is especially true as an adult, when it feels like all our responses and habits are so ingrained as to be unchangeable. And, once you've experienced the thrill of learning, trying, failing and succeeding, bringing those feelings to other areas of our lives can make them that much fuller.

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