It’s difficult to know what really goes on inside a person’s head. In many respects, most of the people we know seem like your run-of-the-mill modern professional; a designer here, an engineer there. But there's something different about their approach to work. While other people are worried about promotions, climbing the corporate ladder, or proving themselves to others, these people are focused on building something great. They aren't just playing a different game, they're playing their own game—and defining their own rules along the way.
We all have a limited amount of time to make our mark on the world. Far too often, we only see the paths that are laid out before us, ignoring our ability to carve a new path for ourselves. In many cases, the only way to truly make an impact is to diverge. Unfortunately, for many, it’s easier to sit on the sideline and criticize those who fight the traditional path in an effort to achieve something great. But, as Teddy Roosevelt reminds us, the credit belongs to those who are actually ‘in the arena’:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
— Theodore Roosevelt
Before becoming an entrepreneur, I felt that I needed to play the game in order to be happy and fulfilled. In time, I’ve come to realize that the game I was playing wasn’t for me, and it kept me from achieving what I really wanted in life. I was playing someone else’s game, and therefore, was always subject to their rules.
Can you imagine a sumo wrestler trying to win the New York Marathon? They can train, eat right, and take all the right steps, but in the end, it may just be the wrong game for them.
It’s important to separate difficulty from suitability. Difficult challenges are a critical part of growth and development. Without some struggle, life—and work—has little meaning. When the game is just not a fit, the difficulty is irrelevant. In fact, you can be great at a game that has little value to you. But how do we know if the game is not the right game or if it’s just challenging for us?
Zones of Proximal Development
Playing the right game doesn’t mean that you have to play it alone. This is where the zone of proximal development (aka ZPD) becomes critical. In principle, our growth is siloed to our experience and effort. In practice, we often need help to achieve our goals. ZPD is often presented as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” Meaning, the more we collaborate with more knowledgable peers, the greater our learning potential.
But in someone else’s game, we’re restricted to learning the curriculum and rules of that game. Our constraints are set. But once we create our own game, we have more opportunities to invite new players; sometimes these players will come from other games, but our expanded ruleset facilitates the expansion of our ZPD.
What does it mean to play your own game?
Every time you’re asked to change the way your work, think, or act, you’re playing someone else’s game. It’s great to start to recognize those signals so you can mentally note a few starting points for creating and playing your own game. For me, here’s how it’s played out:
- First, play the game you want to play, not the one others want you to play. Until you realize you’re playing their game, you can’t change it.
- Define a few rules, but be ready to rapidly adjust the rules. Just like any game, the longer it goes on the more you learn about its flaws and edge cases. If the rules don’t evolve, you’re essentially playing a game defined by an older version of you (aka someone else).
- Don't automatically assume you’ll win, just because it's your game. That's part of the challenge. If you could always win, why even play?
What happens when you start playing your own game?
Once you’ve released yourself from the shackles of someone else’s game, you’ll find that a few major changes take shape. For starters, you’ll notice an increase in productivity and effective output. This is primarily due to the additional focus and willingness to do what others are not. Furthermore, you’ll have the freedom to explore the depths of skill or idea, even if it doesn't immediately map to another game. Others who see you will be inspired to also set their own path and create their own game.
The small sacrifices “game designers” make showcase the possible futures and paths available for the next generation. Additional divergence doesn’t lead to chaos, it leads to freedom. Surround yourself with people who help you learn by doing and then start playing your own game.
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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,
— Kevin K.