Last time in this ongoing series, we introduced you to 10 big life lessons we learned from Divergent. This week, we’re counting down 7 awesome life lessons we learned from Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game.
The publication of Ender’s Game in 1985 is widely regarded as a watershed moment for the genre of science fiction. The novel won the Nebula Award in 1985 and the Hugo Award in 1986, and is considered required reading for many military organizations across the globe—and for genre fans of all ages.
I first read Ender’s Game in 2015, just as my writing career was getting off the ground. And even though I didn’t know it at the time, the novel would have a deep and lasting impact on both my writing and my life—just as it’s affected so many others before me.
So whether you’re a super-fan of the novel or you’ve never even heard the name, these are 7 great lessons you can take from this sci-fi classic.
Editor’s note: Be warned—spoilers for Ender’s Game follow!
1. Reorient Your Thinking
Problem-solving plays a huge role in Ender’s Game. All throughout his time in Battle School, protagonist Ender Wiggin is confronted by dozens of puzzles and tests designed to mold him into a ruthless and efficient military leader. Often these tests have grossly unfair odds or seem to have no win condition, and it is only by defying the internal logic of these “games” that Ender manages to prevail.
For instance: in a zero-gravity combat simulator, Ender quickly realizes that the lack of gravity renders traditional directional thinking useless. This leads him to conclude that “the enemy’s gate is down,” rather than forward, as it had been presented; merely by reorienting his thinking, Ender is able to master the game and dominate his opponents over and over again.
Think outside the box. Defy conventional thinking. Look at a problem from all angles. Remember that rules are meant to be broken, especially when they’re arbitrary—and particularly when somebody else made them up.
2. Take the Third Option
Early in the novel, Ender is introduced to a training simulator meant to challenge his critical thinking when he’s not in combat training. One game in this simulation, called The Giant’s Drink, is particularly vexing to our hero.
In the game, a giant cyclops presents the player with two strange drinks, and demands that he or she choose one to consume. One is poisoned, the giant claims, while the other will take the player to Fairyland. However, there is no correct answer to the puzzle—the player’s avatar is killed no matter which cup they drink from, and the “game” is meant to test for suicidal impulses among the students at Battle School.
But Ender refuses to give up. After being defeated again and again by the Giant’s Drink, he finally bypasses the game’s rules and attacks and kills the giant instead of choosing a drink. And even though the game originally had no “win condition,” the simulator’s advanced programming acknowledges Ender’s victory and generates a Fairyland for him on the spot.
Life is full of false decisions. Never take parameters for granted, and never be satisfied with the choices you’re given. Question everything, and use all your abilities to achieve your goals. Sometimes the best approach is the simplest one—and sometimes the best option isn’t even on the menu.
3. Violence Sticks with You
Ender’s Game drew a fair share of controversy when it was first published, due in part to its violent content and youth audience. The Hunger Games would stoke similar debate years later with its graphic depictions of youth-on-youth violence, but Ender’s Game’s fights involved actual children, while those in Suzanne Collins’s novel mostly featured teenagers and young adults.
Ender himself is just six years old when the novel begins, and often must resort to violence to resolve his problems, against both a mysterious alien enemy and his fellow humans. And while his actions are almost always justified—when Ender fights, he’s always either provoked, defending himself, or ordered to attack—the novel never glamorizes the violent acts its young protagonist commits.
In fact, over time, Ender begins to view himself as a monster for all the people he’s hurt over the course of the story, even if the violence was completely necessary.
Remember that violence isn’t just physical. Emotional and psychological violence leave deep scars as well; speaking thoughtlessly or behaving ruthlessly and without remorse changes you on a base level. Even if your use of violence—physical, emotional or otherwise—is entirely necessary and justified, you cannot allow yourself to become numb to it. You must acknowledge the consequences of your actions and live with the results.
And, most importantly of all, always find a way to exercise some measure of compassion in all that you do—no matter what life throws at you.
4. Intelligence Can Isolate You
Ender Wiggin is a genius—and it brings him nothing but trouble.
The same intellectual firepower that makes him a near-unbeatable military leader and strategist at only ten years old also makes him the loneliest recruit in Battle School. His enemies, of course, are envious of his success and intimidated by his abilities—but even his friends begin distancing themselves from Ender once they begin to realize what he’s capable of. Ender’s mind makes him foreign to them, something alien and unknowable—almost unhuman in its power.
Of course, this seclusion is by design: Battle School’s organizers want to isolate Ender to improve his focus and suppress his empathy, but even this raises its own questions. Do intelligent people need to be lonely? Do they choose seclusion themselves, or do we as a society force it upon them? Why do we choose to revere the best and brightest among us instead of trying to relate to them?
Like the old adage says: it’s lonely at the top. The smarter you are—or the more capable or talented you become—the harder it is for some people to relate to you, to see themselves in you. Likewise, a highly intelligent or capable person can find it more difficult to relate to people who trend more towards average.
But the world needs exceptional people—even if greatness is a miserable curse. Celebrate your unique abilities and use them as fully as you can, even if it’s painful sometimes. Your talents are worth sharing.
5. Intelligence Is Not Wisdom
While Ender might be the smartest character in the novel, he still gets outsmarted from time to time—usually by his teachers at Battle School.
How does this happen?
They prey on his youth. Ender may be intelligent, but he’s still only ten years old by the end of the book. There’s a lot he doesn’t know about the world, and he’s spent almost half his life in the controlled environment of Battle School.
Plus, even if he has the raw brainpower of a much older person, Ender still has the emotional maturity of a child. Even an unusually mature kid is still a kid at heart, and won’t have the grit and experience to compete with an adult.
So, despite the youth’s superior intelligence, Ender’s teachers use his childish trust and affection to manipulate him into doing what they want—and, ultimately, into committing genocide.
Intelligence is no substitute for experience. Wisdom is earned by living, and by learning from your mistakes, from giving yourself permission to fail and try again. Your intelligence is a powerful weapon, but it won’t insulate you from failure—nor should it.
6. Compassion Is Not Weakness
Throughout Ender’s Game, many characters are introduced to be foils to the titular hero, but none are as compelling a reflection as his older siblings, Peter and Valentine Wiggin. Both were tested as potential Battle School recruits along with Ender, but were ultimately rejected—Peter for being too bloodthirsty, and Valentine for being too sweet-tempered.
Even Ender himself isn’t considered a perfect blend of the two, as he skews too close to Valentine’s soft-heartedness for Battle School’s tastes.
But despite his teachers’ attempts to train Ender’s sympathetic inclinations out of him, it’s his innate compassion for other living things that allows him to retain his humanity after the final battle with the aliens.
To make a long story short, Ender’s teachers have to trick him into committing genocide against the Buggers—who, by the end of the book, are revealed to be peaceful and curious. Peter Wiggin would have become a bloodthirsty monster after such a conquest, and Valentine would probably have buckled under the weight of her guilt. But Ender is pragmatic enough to recognize not only that what he did was wrong, but that there are probably ways he can make up for his actions.
Ender’s compassion allows him to locate the last remaining Bugger larva, and leads him on what could be a lifelong journey to help his former enemy rebuild their entire species. While the book never reveals whether Ender succeeds, it’s implied that his quest does help him ease his conscience to a degree.
As human beings, our ability to empathize with others is our greatest strength. We instinctively care for one another—and that’s how we’ve survived as a species.
7. Hatred Can Be Misunderstanding in Disguise
The first gut-punch twist in Ender’s Game is that the final combat simulation isn’t a simulation at all: Ender has been “playing” with real ships and real human lives—and killing real alien enemies.
The second twist, however, hits even harder: the Buggers—the vile, bloodthirsty race Ender has been conditioned to hate all his life—were never hostile toward humanity in the first place.
The Buggers (or “Formics,” as they call themselves) have a collective consciousness, a hive mind controlled by a single Hive Queen, and had never encountered a race of individuals before. When they encountered humans for the first time, they killed them, not understanding that each individual being had a mind of its own and was afraid of death. When they learned of their mistake, they were horrified at the senseless slaughter they had inadvertently carried out and retreated to their homeworld.
Likewise, humanity completely misread the Buggers’ intentions. Mistaking the aliens’ earlier incursions for a full-scale invasion, they launched a counter-attack (led by Ender), destroying the Bugger homeworld to prevent another assault on Earth. And just like the Buggers before him, Ender only learned that his foe was not a threat after he’d killed nearly all of them.
Evolution has conditioned us to fear The Other. We are afraid of what we don’t understand, and we hate what we fear—but we are not slaves to evolution. Our humanity allows us to see beyond our superficial differences and empathize with our fellow man, even if that fellow man is an insectoid alien!
It takes a conscious effort to love a stranger, but it’s an effort well worth making.
Have you read Ender’s Game? What did you take away from the book? Or, alternatively, what’s a book that’s had a lasting impact on your life?
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