The most important choice you can make in life is deciding which games you’re going to play.
Life is full of games. There’s the getting-in-shape game, the climbing-the-corporate-ladder game, the saving-enough-for-retirement game and the get-married-and-have-kids game.
Like all games, these all have objectives, rules and players. Sometimes the games are strictly well-defined, like the becoming-an-Olympic-athlete game. In others, the rules are mostly implicit, but most the players still understand what they’re playing for and why.
Most people spend their lives playing games and trying to win at them.
Far fewer think deeply about which games they want to play in the first place.
Why We Play Games
Games are just a metaphor, of course. But something like this is happening in most of our minds. It’s hard to think about life in the big picture. It’s too big, fuzzy and important to think clearly about.
As a result of this, we tend to break apart the big puzzle into smaller and smaller games, so we can understand them better. The games we play just for fun, are formed on this idea: break off some section of reality and give it strict rules, boundaries and choices.
Life, as an ambiguous, grand thing, therefore tends to get spliced down to smaller games which can actually be won.
Games Within Games
Sometimes the first efforts to cleave apart the messiness of life into tidy little games still leaves quite a bit of confusion. Therefore, we tend to break those bigger games into smaller ones.
The career game, for many people who start working in a large company, often gets replaced with the earning-pay-raises-and-promotions game. For other people, the career game gets reduced to the becoming-a-prestigious-expert game or the earning-more-money game.
The more complex of the games we play for fun show the same pattern. Chess masters often talk about playing the King’s Indian or Spanish game, as if it were a separate, sub-game within chess. The game of chess is so complex that we need to further tighten the boundaries to think clearly about it.
As a result, life is not just playing games, but playing games within games within games. Each level inherits the assumptions and boundaries of the one above it, but adds new constraints and rules, while narrowing the scope of the objective.
How We Choose What to Play
Most people choose what games to play by following a simple heuristic: look around them to see what others are playing and join in.
On the whole, this isn’t such a bad idea. Games are more fun with other people. Plus, the bigger, higher-order games tend to value social perception as a partial objective, so more popular games are often intrinsically more valuable to play.
However, this copycat approach suffers from a few key flaws.
First, when everyone copycats, this can result in people too many people playing the same game. The game becomes so competitive and cutthroat that winning the larger game which contains it becomes harder and harder to do.
Second, this limits the invention of new games. Most people are so busy playing the games they see everyone else playing, that they don’t recognize that there is even a choice involved in picking which game to play.
Most people think the objective of the career game is earn more money, gain a higher rank or increase your professional stature. Then, along comes someone who decides that a game involving living on a low-income and retiring exceptionally young sounds like a lot more fun.
Most people think the consumer game is about having the most and best stuff. Then, along comes people who decide having fewer things is the way to win.
Most people think being rich is the way to win. While others compete to give things away.
Picking the Games Worth Playing
The first step is to realize that you have a choice. That you’ve always had a choice about which games you want to play.
The second step is to see what games you’re playing already. Everyone is playing games. Human nature is to play games. Those who claim to not be playing games are usually just so deep inside their own game that they fail to see it as one anymore.
The third step is to ask yourself if you’d like to play a different game. Maybe you’re playing one game and you realize some people are playing a different one and you’d like to join them. Maybe you want to invent your own game to play and see if other people join you.
Finally, the most important thing to realize is that play is voluntary. Games have consequences, of course, but as long as you accept the price of losing, nothing can force you to participate. It’s this choice of which games not to play, that is ultimately the most valuable. Only by giving up on some games, can you win the ones that matter to you.