Life as learning: Do it like Donkey Kong

My affection for video games started early in life. Video game arcades of the early 80s were my sanctuary; a dark, bleeping, blinking holy den of wonder. For a single US quarter dollar, I could prove my worth and become someone more than I ever thought I could be.

Video games have come a long way since those days, but the premise behind the experience remains the same: apply yourself to overcome obstacles, learn from your mistakes, build experience and skill, and achieve a goal. Several decades later, I often draw on the game metaphor to provide perspective in coaching conversations.

Do it like Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong

Most people are familiar with the original Donkey Kong game. A plumber navigates a series of platforms and ladders to defeat the gorilla (which is nothing like a donkey) and rescue the princess. If you need a refresher on the concept, you can have a free play at

Imagine you are playing Donkey Kong. You are walking along and you get hit by a barrel. What do you do?

One response may be to throw your arms in the air, despair loudly in anguish, tell yourself and those around you how you are worthless, and walk away angry or depressed. Most rational people with some degree of maturity realise that is a silly response. Yet in life that can be exactly what we do.

Life is full of barrels to overcome, ladders to climb, and gorillas to beat. We have a belief of some cause worth saving, which prompts our intent to conquer the gorilla that stands in our way, and so we take action to walk down the platform. We don’t get too far down the path when along comes a barrel to promptly bowl us over.

Donkey Kong Dead

As we lie there collecting ourselves with a proverbial halo over our head, we consider our options. We can get up and try again. We might be out of lives, which means we may need to dig deep and pull out another quarter. Or we can give up and walk away.

If our belief in the cause is strong enough and we have enough quarters in reserve, we may get up and try again only to be hit by another barrel…. and another… and another. This can continue until someone comes along, taps us on the arm, and quietly asks “Have you heard of the jump button?

Donkey Kong jump

Our world immediately expands! Our options seem limitless! The barrels that had been insurmountable with our previous skills and perspectives are now easy obstacles to overcome.

Barrels as life’s feedback


And such is the way of life. Many barrels come from quests we create for ourselves, such as tasks in our professional lives or physical milestones when we exercise. Other barrels can seem to come out of nowhere.

The question is not whether or not we will get bowled over by the barrels. That is a given.

Borrowing from my previous post on Gandhi’s views of life as an experiment, it is whether we will learn from the experience. The question is whether we will take the barrels as personal attacks on our self-worth, or whether we will be open to feedback from ourselves and others who may show us strategies and techniques to overcome our barrels.

This metaphor in no way minimises some of the serious challenges people face. Comparing life to a video game can seem a stretch when dealing with some of the significant challenges in life.

Yet deal with such things we must, and our choice of narrative is important in determining our outlook and outcome. Using narratives can help to create a metaphor for our challenges to allow us to keep them in perspective and learn from them.

The more challenging the barrels we overcome, the more we also have to offer to others who are playing their own game.

What are your barrels? If you are in the process of getting hit by barrels, I encourage you to dig deep for your quarters and remain open to those who may be able to point you towards your jump button. If you have found a way to climb your ladders, I encourage you to seek out those who may be stuck a few levels down and share what you learned about jumping the barrels.

If part of your giving back involves social media, then perhaps using the social media links below may be a way to share with others. I also invite you to share your barrel jumping story in the comments below.

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