choosing the games to play
“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” — Dostoyevsky
If you’re so smart, why are you playing other people’s games? I suspect it’s usually because of imitation. The skill that we all honed since the day we were born, that allowed us to learn how to walk and how to talk.
How many of the games you play are the product of your own desires, of your own dreams? Those are the most interesting games to play.
What is playing other’s games than lying to yourself? Dostoyevsky, again: “Never, never lie to yourself. Don’t lie to others, but least of all to yourself”. Self-deception is the default state, and it’s easy to find an excuse for doing so. Mimicry is safe; going your own path is terrifying.
Just realizing you’re lying to yourself is difficult if you never ask yourself what you want. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll borrow your wants from others. But the next step in actively pursuing what you want usually requires some courage which is becoming scarce.
As James Carse writes in Finite and Infinite Games: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” I think finite games are usually played because of some kind of mimicry. They are the default games played to achieve success, fame, or wealth. Infinite games, on the other hand, are played to satisfy intrinsic motives. Infinite players are not concerned about winning or peer recognition — they just want the play to continue. Ironically, this indifference is attractive, which makes them more popular or cool. And ironically, playing games just for fame and fortune will usually have the opposite effect. The game is rigged. James Carse: “Whoever must play, cannot play.”
There’s a quote from Bukowski that reminds me of infinite games a lot:
“You don't try. That's very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation, or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall.”
Not trying is playing the infinite game. Simply not caring about the outcome, yet continuing to play and wishing the game to continue.
Envy is one hell of a drug. And most of us are hooked on it, although we get absolutely nothing from it. Of course, we only compare ourselves with the better bits of someone else’s life and always with our peers, never with someone who we perceive as much lower or higher status. We only pick aspects that we like in someone else’s life, not realizing that the good things come with costs paid in some other aspect. What a dumb feeling — which pushes us toward finite games.
Not playing the right games is doing a disservice to society because it means not reaching your full potential, and by not doing that, you don’t enrich society. The world is impoverished instead of enriched by what you could’ve achieved or shared. Instead, you remain in the perpetual cycle chasing the next thing on the endless conveyor belt of inherited desires.
Choosing the games to play sometimes looks like insanity to people that are so used to playing other people’s games. For example: choosing to take Fridays off instead of getting a higher hourly rate, quitting a $100k a year job to try to build your own business, switching to another job that pays less but is more aligned with your desires, working less instead of more to have more time for your hobbies, etc. Most people usually have difficulty understanding what’s going on.
As adults, we have forgotten how to play — we are obsessed with status games, money, and power, which has severed the relationship with play we had as kids. Playing has become almost taboo which is why most of us feel guilty when we are not productive, even during weekends. We are usually looking to squeeze every last drop of energy into something that brings us immediate monetary value. But we are not machines — play brings us back to our humanity.
I love this view on play and art:
“Oscar Wilde said that some things are too important to be taken seriously. Art is one of those things. Setting the bar low, especially to get started, frees you to play, explore, and test without attachment to results.”
Rick Rubin, The Creative Act
We get bogged down by perfectionism which turns every play into labor that eliminates any pleasure we might’ve had from the activity. This attachment to results means we are more focused on outcomes than on the play itself. The play could’ve been more satisfying had we focused more on it.
Or this perspective on “whoever must play, cannot play”:
“It’s worth reflecting on this one for a bit. For Feynman, taking physics seriously meant being playful and silly with it. As I revisit my own drafts and notes, I often find the same issue – I want to write essays that mean something to me, but when they become tedious, solemn obligations, then I don’t wanna. That’s the tension to navigate. It’s not complicated.”
Are You Serious?, Visakan Veerasamy
What is focusing on the outcomes other than taking play more seriously than we should? Our vision gets clouded, and we stop being authentic just because we seek attention and recognition. Just like Resistance, the voice that will tell me anything to stop me from publishing, there is this Recognition voice that will distract me from my play to turn it into labor, sap all the life from it, and make it more mediocre.
Someone said: “the only person you should compare yourself to is your past self”. My teenage self would be impressed with where I am currently. This is easy to forget because it’s easy to get used to a better life and start taking it for granted.
I shouldn’t compare my writing to those of writers I envy; I should only compare it to my past writing. I’m satisfied if each of my essays is better than the ones before, in whatever way I define it. Quality is the thing under my control; recognition is outside it.