You hear the phrase “the game of life” all the time.
There are books on Amazon instructing us on how to win at the “game of life”. Hell, Milton Bradley’s “The Game of Life” from 1860 — still sold today — was the first popular board game in the United States.
In the Real World, the game of life’s rules and criteria for success are vague and never explicitly stated. But we all know what they are. To win, you need:
- money (or, more accurately, conspicuous consumption)
- physical attractiveness
- kids who go to great schools and are athletically successful
- and so on
“The game of life” has become more than a metaphor. Many people — obsessed with their status, career, or where their kids go to school — have internalized this idea and literally view their life not as something to enjoy, but as a competition to be won.
This is a tragedy. Life is not a game.
A game is an activity where you compete against others. In games, players pursue goals with no intrinsic value. It doesn’t really matter who puts a ball through a hoop (or over an arbitrary line) more frequently, right? Games are governed by external rules that the players have no role in creating but which they nevertheless must follow. In most games, there’s only one winning player or team. Most participants are “losers”.
Before I go on, let me say I love sports — both playing and watching. Games are a lot of fun. They’re great hobbies.
Games are, however, a terrible template for life.
The Good Life
For one, that which is important in life can’t be competed over. While each of us has our own specific vision of the good life, we can all agree a good life tends to have certain characteristics: living by a set of ethics, maintaining meaningful relationships, time to pursue hobbies, and fulfilling work.
Interestingly, these are all abstract, subjective goals that don’t fit into a competitive framework. It’s impossible to measure and compare whether Tom Smith or Jane Doe have more meaningful relationships. How can you say who is more fulfilled at work? How do you quantify how well you (or I) adhere to a code of ethics?
On the other hand, it’s easy to compare the tangible, objective criteria of “success”: who has a nicer car, a bigger house, a more prestigious job, and kids at better schools.
If you view life as a competition, you naturally prioritize those things that can be measured, those things that can be competed for. This means that you focus on objective — but ultimately petty — concerns. The competition subordinates what is meaningful in life to trivial prizes that can be competed over.
Choose Relationships over Competition
What’s more, competition corrodes relationships.
While relationships are complex, at their core all healthy fulfilling relationships require genuine mutual affection. Simply put, you should be rooting for the people in your life to succeed, happy if they get a promotion or their kid gets into Harvard. This is next to impossible if you view your life as a competition and the people in it as competitors.
When you view life as a game, you want others to fail — or at least to be slightly less successful than you are. Viewing life as a competition converts friends and family from people you care about to these uneasy, ambiguous relationships where you’re partially rooting for these people…but simultaneously also trying to beat them at the game of life.
Needless to say, this isn’t conducive to genuine closeness.
Play by Your Own Rules
Following other people’s criteria for success negates what you value.
You’re a unique individual, with your own strengths and weaknesses, your own goals and preferences. The good life is about trying to live according to your values and make the trade-offs that maximize your happiness. This simply isn’t possible when you abide by what the game values: money, consumption, academic prestige, youth athletic excellence.
The moment you enter the game, you’ve surrendered your autonomy and are prioritizing what others deem important. You’re chasing life goals that you had no role in formulating but which now you’re pursuing for the sake of “winning.” Any “victory” in a game where you’re living life on other’s terms will ultimately prove to be Pyrrhic.
Prepare to Lose
You can (and likely will) lose the game of life, which like all games is zero-sum.
Maybe you’re one of the .01% who is incredibly smart, affluent, charming, and physically attractive, who finds a wonderful spouse, and has a bunch of cute kids who end up in the Ivy Leagues. If that’s the case, I’m happy for you.
For the other 99.99% of us, the bad news is that we’re going to deal with frustrations and setbacks and many things we simply don’t excel at and never will. The good news is that we can still have a great life if we simply deal with those things as they come, comfortable with who we are, surrounded by people we care about and who love us unconditionally.
However, it’s difficult to have a good life when every time we fail we feel shame and embarrassment as we compare ourselves, unfavorably, to people we deem more successful. If you’re playing a “game,” the stakes of life’s inevitable failures and disappointments are so high that it makes life a terrifying ordeal, haunted by a specter of public defeat at the game.
This is no way to live.
Comparing yourself to others has no good outcome. Either you look around and consider yourself inferior to your peers (which makes you insecure and unhappy), or you deem yourself superior (which makes you arrogant and egotistical). Neither is conducive to happiness or to being a good person.
Games are fun and competition is fulfilling — provided they involve trivial things. By all means, go all out to win when you golf, run a 5k, or play fantasy football. But when those things are over, look around at your family, friends, career, and value system and realize that those things are way, way too important to be trivialized by turning them into a game.