What Game Are You Playing?
One more perspective on life
There are several analogies about life. One common one I’ve heard is that “life is a game”. Everyone gets dealt with some cards at birth. Sometimes these cards give us a good head start, like being born with a silver spoon. Sometimes it’s the opposite like being born a Jew in Germany in the early 1900s.
But instead of seeing life as one big game, I’d like to explore another perspective. Yes, life is a game but we’re all playing different games in life. If the game of life is the same for everyone, then the definition of winning should be the same as well. This is not the case. Winning means different things depending on who you ask.
We’re all playing different games with different objectives and strategies. Winning for a Christian could be avoiding sin in this life, even if it means suffering for it while. Winning for an emperor could be getting as much wealth and power as possible. Both people would approach life in different ways.
Trouble starts when we either don’t understand the game we’re playing or we’re playing someone else’s game.
Understand the game you’re playing
Whether we’re aware or not, we’re participating in a game. This could be our game or someone else’s. One way to understand the game you’re playing is to define the most important things to you. Start by listing everything you care about, including things you don’t have yet. You may not own a private jet but it could be on your list if you dream of owning one someday.
After creating the list, pick only five things from the list. After that, reduce the list one more time to three items. These three items are the things you care most about. This exercise will help you better understand the game you’re playing. The things you care about most are the things that drive you to do what you do.
Identical twins or identical masks?
On the surface, two people might seem to be playing the same game. This happens when they have similar external characteristics as having the same profession or are from the same family. But like the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, it also takes closer scrutiny to understand anyone’s game.
Two people might be working in the same company with similar job titles. But their games might be different. One might be in the role to climb up the corporate ladder. The other might be in the role to learn on the job and start her own company. Two people, same roles, different games.
To compete or not to compete
Knowing that our game could be different from someone else’s, we need to pick our battles and competition. Otherwise, we’ll be attempting to play by hockey when we’re supposed to be swimming.
Before competing, identify your opponent’s game. Your opponent can be anyone. A boss, sibling, parent, colleague, you name it. This person is someone standing in your way. Someone who’s going to prevent you from winning your game.
After identifying your opponent, understand the game they’re playing. If they’re playing a different game, they’re not an opponent so it’s going to be a wasted effort competing against them. There’s no winning if you have the wrong opponent in the first place.
Imagine you’re the person above who’s in the job to learn enough information to start your own thing. You soon realised there’s an open role that you and your coworker (who’s all about climbing the corporate ladder) are eligible. On the surface, it may seem you’re both competing for the role. But if you don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal, you won’t be playing their corporate-ladder game. You won’t care much about the promotion since your game was never climbing up the ladder. You’ll only care if the role would give you a better (or faster) opportunity to learn.
Choosing an ally
Like when deciding if someone is an opponent or not, we need to know someone’s game before we choose them as an ally. For the same reason, if you will be on the same team, your definition of winning must be the same. You don’t want to keep practising how to slam dunk when your teammate is busy practising the free-kick.
If you’re a very ambitious woman and want to build a billion-dollar business someday, you should strongly consider a partner or spouse who understands such ambition. If you pick someone who doesn’t, they’ll keep sabotaging your ambitions. Not because they have malicious intent but because they don’t understand the game.
Identifying someone’s life game can be challenging, especially in the short term. But pay close attention to their actions. People’s actions always give away their true intentions no matter what they say.
A personal story
These game analogies might all seem a bit abstract but here’s a personal example. Some time ago I got caught up in a dilemma at work. There were several reasons but two stood out. Having to grow into my new role (with a shiny job title) and a relationship drama. Soon, I started underperforming and I was becoming unhappy.
Eventually, I was replaced in my current role in the nicest way possible. By hiring someone above me. Realising the impact the drama and poor performance was causing, I asked myself the question — what game am I playing?
Up to that point, I was more excited about the job title than doing the job. I also cared a lot about what people thought of me after the relationship drama. But asking myself this question cleared things up for me.
First, I didn’t care as much about the job title as I cared about learning to do the job. So when the company hired a better-skilled person to replace me, I didn’t see this as a demotion. This was as an opportunity to learn and get better.
Second, the relationship drama had taught me a good lesson about maturity and I’m now a better person as a result.
When I realised the game I was playing was a growth game, it became easy to ignore the drama and job-title games going on around me.
If you’re confused about what you want to do next, or you face a lot of uncertainties, ask yourself the simple question — what game am I playing?
Of course, this is not a magic solution. Some situations are way more complex than this one question. Sometimes this question brings up more questions especially if you’ve been playing other people’s games. But this is one more way to look at life and see if you can make sense of it all.