I’ve been thinking about different ways to approach situations in life.
One is to play to win – look at the rules the way they are, and figure out how to exploit those rules to your advantage to the maximum extent possible. James Carse calls this playing the finite game. Examples include:
- Figuring out how to game the system at a large company to get promoted as fast as possible – always picking high profile projects, claiming credit, making sure the right people know what you’re doing, and undermining others who might be competing with you.
- Tim Ferriss, who wrote the book The Four Hour Work Week talking about how to exploit the system to your benefit, working less, and winning a martial arts world championship by hacking the rules
- The guy who turned $3k of pudding cups into 1.25 million air miles
- The current Republican party (I’ll talk more about this below)
The common theme to this finite game approach is a win-at-all-costs attitude. It doesn’t matter what happens to others, so long as I get what I want. In fact, other people can get in the way of my success, so they are seen as impediments rather than as people. This comes from a Big Assumption of scarcity – success is limited, so I have to get to the finish line of success first before anybody else can get there.
We are taught this finite game approach to life by a culture of sports that encourages doing anything to win (including cheating, doping, etc); as the quote goes, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” We are also taught this in school by teachers that grade on a curve – if somebody does well, that makes other people look bad. We are taught this in companies that employ a “rank-and-yank” system, where the bottom 10% of performers are let go each year. Each of these cultures reinforce the finite game philosophy that the way to win is to exploit the rules in any way possible, and those who aren’t doing so will lose at the game of life.
Another way to approach situations is to start with a Big Assumption of non-zero-sum abundance, where if others succeed, the overall pie grows, so even though my relative share of the pie is smaller, I may be getting more in absolute terms. James Carse calls this non-zero-sum attitude playing the infinite game, where we change the rules so that we can keep playing – it’s not about who wins or loses, but about finding meaning in the playing of the game itself.
I also now think of it as playing to include, overloading the diversity term. The idea is that the more people that are included in the game, the more interesting and rich possibilities emerge. This is the area of emergent properties, of serendipity, of complexity theory, of awesome things happening that nobody could have predicted because the system did not previously include those possibilities. Examples include:
- Why teams with more diversity get better results
- Why teams with psychological safety perform better
- Why capitalist markets originally outperformed centrally planned economies, before those markets were captured by special interests to change the rules to benefit themselves.
- Kids playing make believe where they include new kids with curiosity and compassion, and don’t care about how the new kid can benefit them with income or connections – sadly, they learn that in the cutthroat social environment of middle and high school.
- People at companies who make decisions from the perspective of what will be best for the company, not of what will benefit them most personally.
- The soldier that sacrifices themselves to protect their unit by jumping on a grenade.
- Parenthood – research shows makes you less happy in absolute terms but most parents say it’s worth it.
In some sense, these approaches to life are encapsulated by the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where the best individual choice is to always defect, but the best collective outcome only happens if you collaborate. The winning strategy for Prisoner’s Dilemma in a situation where you will play repeatedly is Tit-for-Tat, where you initially collaborate and then match the other player’s decision.
How to respond to the Prisoner’s Dilemma depends entirely on how much you trust the other party. I would expand that to posit that you can’t play the infinite game unless you trust in many things:
- that there is a reliable future (if you are in an unreliable environment, you grab what you can now)
- that other players won’t screw you over
- that there will be more than one interaction, so there will be consequences to your actions if you behave poorly
- that there will be time for the pie to grow, so investing in the future will pay off
If somebody doesn’t have those forms of trust in the world, they will play the finite game and get all they can in the moment. There is no reason to collaborate or look out for others if they don’t trust they will benefit from that in the future.
Obviously, the reason I’m writing this post is to help process my thoughts on the current US political situation. The Republican party has gone all in on playing to win, maximizing the rules to get what they want, and essentially shouting “Scoreboard!” (we have the votes, so go home, losers). The Kavanaugh vote is yet another example, where the senators voting yes represent 143 million Americans, and the ones voting no represent 181 million Americans. And while there’s much to dislike about the Democratic party, they are trying, however ineptly, to be the party of inclusion, to increase possibilities for people, rather than just win at all costs for their own benefit, even though the Republicans assume everybody is playing the same finite game that they are.
Everything the Republican party does demonstrates a lack of trust – they don’t trust other countries, and are pulling out of treaties and the International Court of Justice. They don’t trust in the future and are getting what they can now with the tax cut, even if it costs trillions of dollars down the line. They don’t trust anybody who’s not white or not from America, because those people might take something from them e.g. take their jobs, take their share, take their “hard-earned” money through taxes. So they exploit the system to take what they can now, rather than believe in the possibility of a better future.
The American political landscape feels pretty hopeless and depressing right now, but writing this post clarified for me that trust may be one of the key factors to address (and I’m feeling hopeful personally). I wonder how we can start building trust as a country again:
- Trust in each other
- Trust in institutions, from companies to Congress to regulators to bureaucrats
- Trust in the future – shout out to the Long Now Foundation, for trying to get people to think more about the long-term future
- Trust in the present moment and in our collective ability to make a difference.
Any ideas on how to develop trust at a country scale? I have written up my thoughts on how to build trust at the team scale, where I noted that trust and respect is earned over a period of time, as people execute their responsibilities consistently. But I don’t know how to do that at a country scale – how do we rebuild the trust in our institutions? Perhaps the start is to catalyze the conversation about what our country and institutions are for? Who do they serve? What do you think?