I dropped into the neighbourhood thrift shop this morning and found, nestled beside a long row of moldy VCR movies, The Game Of Life. Dusting off the board game and my childhood memories, I definitely thought the game seemed bigger and more vibrant back then. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, it more or less reflects the modern conquest of the American Dream from college to retirement. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, incur debts from luxury spending, and get to retirement more or less intact.
My friends and I usually grew tired of the regular rules, so we modified them so that you could really burn through money in the game, which usually resulted in selling the car, spouse, and kids (another rule modification) to keep up with our luxurious habits and debts. And of course, whenever we came to the marriage stop, we never grew tired of putting two blue or two pink sticks in the car. I’m pretty sure every normal kid did the same thing too.
The game’s principal concept made me think about how most of us play the real Game of Life:
Get to the end as comfortably as possible.
This, of course, involves taking as few risks as possible. Or settling for less than you’d like. It may also include other minute details such as criticizing those that fall out of bounds, feigning happiness with superficial wealth, unconstrained consumption and accumulation, letting a past injustice dominate your life, or defining your entire existence, your purpose in life and the justification of your circumstances, to your spouse and kids.
I actually won’t say the above is wrong. I really mean it. People come from all walks of life, have different pursuits, and similarly possess varying tolerance levels for risk and failure (note: these two are inversely related, if one applies him/herself correctly) . I confess too, that once in a blue moon, I fantasize about negotiating my way back into The Matrix. The ones with the highest tolerances, however, seem to have come from backgrounds where their Game of Life is much more humble. Think of the number of immigrants who’ve really made their mark in the world. You might even know some of them as your parents or grandparents.
Of course, if you’re reading this post, then comfort is something you’ve probably learned to simultaneously love and hate. It drops off life’s luxuries and content moments once in a while only to secretly plunder your time and energy on its way out. You’ll have a nice home to come to, yet carry a conflicted internal dialogue rationalizing how you spent your day. Spent as in “wasted it all away in a dull cubicle facing an Excel spreadsheet.”
Last Friday, I was teaching an older student, “Ron”, some social dancing. Ron’s approaching 50, and he has emphatically decided that now that he’s almost finished putting his kids through college, it’s time to re-focus on himself. I have to admit, Ron and I really come from two different worlds. Not apples and oranges different, but apples and Darth Vader different. And yet, as the universe would have it, apples and Darth Vader converged last Friday to coax out the “Lady Gaga’s backup dancer” that was sheepishly hiding inside of Ron.
Somewhere in between “gangster hip-hop hands” and “how to dip me” properly, Ron and I started talking about the real Game of Life. Piqued by curiosity upon finding out of my engineering past life, Ron inquired about the new path I’ve taken. I opened my heart a little and expressed some of my self-doubts and uncertainties, to which he enthusiastically retorted:
“Hey, I’ve got a 3600 square foot house and some nice cars, but I couldn’t care less if they’re all gone. All my kids will finish college without debt, and once the last one leaves the house, we’re downsizing. Just a kitchen, living room, and bedroom, so there’s no chance any of them can come back. I’ll tell you what. All your friends want to do the same thing you’re doing, but they’re too proud to admit it. They all hide behind their veils but secretly want to be like you. Good for you. Don’t give up. Don’t stop what you’re doing!”
I can’t verify if my friends really envy my squalor, but at the least, it felt really good to hear some encouragement. So, if you’re feeling a little lost, I want you to re-read what Ron said above, and pretend he’s saying it to you. You may also assume I’m saying it to you, if that’s any better, minus the part about the giant house and sports cars. And multiple children.
Ron’s got no regrets, which is great, because there’s nothing you can do about the past, but he’s lit a fire in his heart that he won’t disavow, which is even greater. His wife is also going to get a killer surprise dance to boot.
Here’s the rub. Many people will offer their advice on the real game of life. Some will be defeated, and chime off sarcastic and cynical. Others will dish out conservatism and practicality to the point of being religious. The bottom line is that YOU have to distill all this advice, even mine (if there is any), stop focusing on the other people’s game, and focus on your own journey. YOU have figure out how you want to play the game, how to make the most of it, and determine what the goals are. At the same time, you have to remember that you’re playing right now, and the best way to succeed is to enjoy each step you take.
Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.
-Robert Louis Stevenson