This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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Much of what I create revolves around the idea of competing intelligently. My overall hypothesis about competition is that most people do it haphazardly, and expect their own intuitions — mixed with a recognition of incentives — to carry them to victory.
Thinking this way is a serious error. It leads to making the same mistakes over and over again, and creates situations where meaningful learning takes much longer than it should.
What’s more important, in my opinion, is that we recognize just how competitive the world is. Competition exists at all levels of life, all the way down to single-celled organisms. Competition is a key component of evolutionary biology, and there isn’t any form of life on earth that can escape this dynamic.
There’s competition for money, competition for status, competition for relationships. There’s competition everywhere.
Life is competition and competition is life.
With all that being said, there’s an idea that’s just as important to keep in mind: sometimes, you’re playing a game you can’t win — no matter how intelligent you are or how hard you work. When you find yourself in this kind of game, what can be called a losing game, you need to exit that game as fast as you can.
Recognizing losing games like this is a skill in and of itself, one that many people find hard to develop. It’s particularly common in American culture, where we’re constantly told that hard work is the answer to all of life’s problems.
An extreme example I like to use is professional basketball. The first requirement for playing basketball at the pro level is to be very tall, which is something you can’t train for. You’re either born with tall genetics or you aren’t.
This can be a hard pill to swallow for people who don’t hit those height requirements but love the game enough to dedicate their lives to it. Someone who is only average height can spend every waking hour refining their game, doing everything they can to get better, and still come up short.
The problem in this situation isn’t that the player isn’t committed or intelligent enough. It’s just not a game they can win — and there’s nothing they can do about that.
Instead, this same player could find another way to be involved with the game. Maybe they could find work as a talent scout, or a commentator, or a sports writer, and still play for fun in recreational leagues.
Maybe they’re an exceptional programmer or mathematician, and that could allow them to build some kind of technological product that is intertwined with basketball.
Those are all winnable games for this fictional person: they offer odds with large payoffs and none of them have requirements that are impossible to train for.
What tends to drive people like this crazy is the search for glory. They want to do what’s most admired in society, like playing a sport professionally.
The irony is that wasting time on paths like this more often than not generates an excessive amount of unnecessary misery. Most people don’t really know what they want, they just think they know, so they waste their time pursuing goals that other people or society set for them.
That same player who wants to be a player more than anything might find more fulfillment in an auxiliary role than they can estimate.
Instead of wasting years pursuing a professional playing career that ends badly, they should find something else that might even end up being more fulfilling (or even lucrative).
Sometimes you can create the game yourself, and sometimes you have to go play someone else’s game. Either way, you should be doing this kind of analysis on a regular basis. Every now and then, stop and ask yourself: Is this a game I can win?
I’ve failed at this more times than I can count, and it’s cost me dearly on a few occasions. Hopefully you can heed my words and not make the same mistakes I have. Don’t play games you can’t win — find a place where you can play with favorable odds, and then throw yourself into that.