Valjean Clark

Life games

Today I read a great blog post that reinforced some of my recent thinking about games. One bit in particular stood out to me:

I learned that the consistent social rejection that I had faced throughout my childhood was not a universal property of reality; rather, I had simply failed at a particular game that I had been coerced into playing for a brief period in the past.

In a recent post, I had been thinking about games solely in the context of career, but it absolutely applies to life in general.

I went to a very small private middle school. I remember always getting the highest grades. I was middle school valedictorian, and I was on track to do the same in high school. Then we moved and I was enrolled in a fairly good public school. I was no longer #1 in my class. I wasn’t even close to #1, I think I was #40 or so. I couldn’t just ace every course; I also needed to take as many AP courses as possible and participate in extracurriculars. So I started taking AP courses and tried getting involved in some clubs. I did get closer to #1, but I never made it past #20.

Of course, getting involved in clubs and taking AP courses so I could be valedictorian was not the right approach to figuring out my interests! But I didn’t know that at the time. I was caught up in a game I thought I had to play.

In the Pentecostal church I grew up in, I remember people who seemed like better Christians than me. They waved their hands and sang loudly to the music on Sunday. They spoke with conviction about their beliefs in a way that I never could. I remember one man who would bring people to church and convert them! I was really hard on myself for not being a good enough Christian. And then, we left this church, and I no longer had to play this game anymore. It turns out it wasn’t that important! I think there are a lot of moments in life like this. There is nothing more freeing that realizing you don’t need to worry about playing a game anymore.

(This reminds me: several years ago, somebody told me they didn’t finish every book they started. I had never considered this! Up until then, I had finished every book I started. I took her advice, and I remember how good it felt to stop reading a book after the first chapter. Now I’ll stop reading a book after just a couple of pages and feel no remorse.)

This isn’t to say that all games are bad! They set rules and the constraints, and humans compete within them in interesting ways.

In San Francisco, I’ve enjoyed working at smaller companies and startups because I love building impactful things with small teams. The problem is… that’s not the game everyone else is playing. For some work is just income. For founders and early stage employees, a game might be pursuing large financial outcomes, or seeking status. I stumbled my way to the San Francisco startup scene, but I’ve learned that there are people who have been groomed in the very best schools since they were children, and becoming a founder is another step along that journey. It was easy for me to get caught up in the startup and founder games others are playing, and recently I’ve realized that may not necessarily be the game I want to play.

There are other games. Buying a home is a kind of game. For some, the stability and comfort of owning a home is very appealing. For others, it is a burden. People are given oversimplified advice like “rent is a waste of money” and “renting is cheaper than buying in [some city]” but that really doesn’t help anyone decide what game they are playing and how home ownership fits or doesn’t fit into that game.

The most impactful skill I’ve learned after having this realization about games is the ability to understand when I am playing someone else’s game. When I realize that, it’s very freeing. I can think about who has defined the game and why they have defined it this way. I can think about how this particular game is marketed to me and how it fits into the broader culture. I can decide if that game is worth playing anymore, or if I want to tweak the rules and contraints and play a variation of that game. Or perhaps I just want to create a different game altogether.