People like to refer to life as a game or competition. The winners are the ones who accumulate the most or best things, achieve the most success, or attain the most power. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway, which means that most of us are playing a game we’ll never win.
We’ll never have a lot of power, or enough money to buy anything we want. That’s not to say we’re failures as human beings, but it’s realistic to assume that most of us will never be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Yet we’re out there running and chasing the other people on the playing field with no hope of catching them and it’s killing a lot of us physically, financially and emotionally. But what if this conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the real winners are the ones who have enough sense to pack up their ball and bat and go home, kick back in front of the fire, and relax?
I’m not advocating giving up and becoming a couch potato for the rest of your life. Or moving to a hippie commune and opting out of mainstream existence. There’s a difference between throwing up your hands and saying, “I give up. I’ll never be successful or rich, so why bother trying,” and “You know what? Trying to beat everyone else is hurting me. I’m going to find another game I can win,” and then going out and creating your own game with your own set of rules.
Most of us are playing a game we’ll never win.
How does this work? Let’s say you’re chasing a promotion in a job you don’t like very much. You’re chasing that promotion because it’s what’s expected of you, or you know you need the extra money to afford your lifestyle. Conventional wisdom says you aggressively chase that promotion until you get it, and then you start chasing the next one. There are therapists and heartburn medication to help you deal with the stress and the toll this takes on your body and mind.
You stay on this treadmill until you reach sixty-five and then you retire, spent and ill, to spend the rest of your life trying to work the knots out of your neck and gut. But you will have won the game! Question: Who wants to win this game? Not me, and not too many people who realistically look at their life and the consequences of playing this game. The “prize” just isn’t worth it.
The smart person, the real winner, is the one who says, “I don’t like this job and I don’t like what it’s doing to me. I’m going to find another job and I’m willing to do what I have to do to carve out a different life for myself.” Maybe they go back to school or go freelance. Maybe they drastically drop their standard of living so that they can live on a much lower paying, but more enjoyable, job. Perhaps they retire early if they’ve got enough saved to make that work. Maybe they move in with family for a while, or take in some roommates to defray expenses while they figure things out. They take action to create a game that’s winnable and offers prizes that are valuable to them, whether that’s more time with family, better health, less stress, or lower environmental impact.
Maybe it’s not the job game that you’re trying to win, but the stuff=status game. Think of the person who keeps trying to keep up with the neighbors. The neighbors get a new kitchen, so does the game player. The neighbors get an Audi, the game player gets a Jaguar. When the neighbors get a pool, the game player adds on a sunroom. The neighbors send the kids to private school and so does the game player. This is all well and good if you can afford all of this stuff and it’s what you really want but if you can’t, it’s a destructive and unwinnable game.
The winner says, “I don’t even like granite and stainless steel, and I like my older car. My kids are doing great in public school so why would I move them? I don’t care what my neighbors have. That’s their life, but I’m happy with mine the way it is.” The winner opts out of the possessions arms race and lives below their means with the amount and type of stuff that makes them content.
Winners don’t just keep racing to the same crappy finish line that gets further and further away no matter how hard they run. They find another finish line. And it doesn’t matter to them if they are the only ones running their race. They aren’t competing against anyone but themselves. They determine what constitutes success in their world. Society says you’re successful if you make $100,000 a year. The winner says, “I’m successful at $40,000 if I’m happy, have good family relationships, give something back to others, and have some fun in the bargain.” Society says you’re successful when you have the trappings of wealth or what celebrities have. Winners say, “I know what I can afford, what I need, and what I like and I stay within those three things. I don’t buy what others have just because they have it.”
Sometimes the winners in life aren’t the ones that you would expect. The winners are the ones who might seem unsuccessful in society’s eyes, but who know exactly who they are, what they need, what they enjoy, and what they can afford. They’re the ones who had enough sense to walk out on society’s game and go find or create a game they could win. It’s not a cop out to quit playing the game. Sometimes it’s the smartest, sanest thing you can do.