Whose game are you playing?

Golf pin with balls - make work like a game.I have always loved games. I have fond memories of sitting at our family cabin in Estes Park, CO – no TV or phone and internet didn’t even exist – and playing hours of games with my family. Usually, it was me hassling the family to play a game with me – “C’mon! Just one more round of Scrabble, please?!?!” Things haven’t changed much. Now I beg my husband to play games with me and am constantly on the quest for games that are well-suited for us.

I know this isn’t unique. Board game clubs and meetups are all over and many border on obsession. I used to think there was just a certain quality that led people to either enjoy games or not. Turns out, we all enjoy games, as long as they satisfy certain conditions.

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that most games help people get to the psychological state of flow – the optimal experience we’re all looking for in our work and life. And, in fact,

“The more a job inherently resembles a game … the more enjoyable it will be…”


So, of course, this got me thinking – if the work a person is in does not inherently resemble a game, how do you make your work like a game so that it is enjoyable and satisfies the psychological criteria we require for optimal experience?

Being the game expert I am, I’ve come up with 5 elements that all great games have. Below I describe how to incorporate these elements into your current work, even if it doesn’t obviously lend itself to the gaming structure.

A clear goal:  How do I win?

If you’ve read more than one of my posts before, you know this is a huge one. A good game – and a happy career – requires a clear goal. It requires some forward-looking ideal that you have defined and that is meaningful to you and that you will absolutely know when you have achieved.

To keep yourself engaged and excited, you need to know what it takes for you to win. To my knowledge, no one has come up with the secret to success in life yet. No one has decided the absolute goal to achieve at life that will result in happiness. You have to decide that for yourself in your life and your career. For the goal to be meaningful, it should follow the SMART guidelines so that you are clear once you’ve achieved that goal. Define what it will take for you to win your game and then keep moving toward it.

Feedback: Am I winning right now?

All games require some feedback mechanism to keep us motivated, and your career is no different. Think of your favorite game. My guess is, as you play, you can generally tell if you’re winning or

Old fashioned manual baseball scoreboard in a baseball outfield

losing. Points are probably the most common way games provide a clear feedback system. Another way is progression down a path, like in racing games (think Candy Land or Backgammon).

After determining how to win your career game (i.e., defining your goal), you must design some feedback mechanisms so you can tell if you’re winning. Tracking progress toward your goal keeps you motivated. The type of feedback itself does not matter. What matters is that the feedback gives you a clear signal that you are achieving your goal (winning!). That progress will keep you motivated when things get tough.

Depending on your goal, your feedback could come in a number of ways. Promotions are obvious for many people – if you want to move into senior and executive level management roles, you need to be moving up the ladder within your organization or profession. But, if your goal is not to be in management, but to be able to work 3 days a week at a sustainable level of income, then your feedback mechanism will be completely different. You might first need to transition to a role that allows for part time work within an organization or where part time work has been successfully implemented by others. Your next goal might be to get senior enough that a 40% pay decrease would still be a sustainable salary for you.

You get the picture – your feedback mechanism is determined by your goal. The feedback and milestones must bring you closer to your end game and allow you to track your progress toward your goal.

Conflict: Making the game worth playing

Every game needs some sort of conflict. Often, the conflict is between players. Sometimes, it’s between the players and the game. In any event, every good game has conflict. If it doesn’t, why would you play?

Similarly, your work needs some element of conflict – consistent challenges for you to overcome so your skills don’t stagnate. In the framework I’ve designed for a strategic and fulfilling career, this is the Engagement pillar. We all need a challenge to work toward – if the work is too easy, it’s not fulfilling.

Again, your conflict will be dictated by your goal. If you want to move up to the executive suite, you’ll need to work to hone the skills required to get you there and there will undoubtedly be conflict with your colleagues to overcome to get you there. If you’re looking to back off the working days you have, your conflict may be developing the skills to be more efficient with your time and selling a reduced schedule to your employer.

Whatever it is, you want to make sure your game isn’t too easy. If it’s too easy, it’s not worth playing, and your motivation will eventually wane.

Rules: What are the constraints to keep you on track?

Every good game has rules. Some have more than others, but they all have them. To design your work like a game, you have to define your rules. In my work with clients, I use values to define the rules of the game.

Values are like your moral compass. They drive how you feel about your interactions with others and your decisions. When you’re living life according to your values, life feels easy. When you’re not, you are stressed.

If values are your rules, and you’re not living in alignment with your rules, it can feel like you’re cheating. For many of my clients, excellence is a core value. When they aren’t permitted or incentivized to do their best work, they feel major conflict. This makes sense. It’s why choosing your workplace based on the culture and values is so important.

A theme: Why does this all make sense?

A beautiful young lady in a formal shirt is thinking about different professions. Black chalkboard as a background.

Finally, good games have a theme or a story. One of my favorite games is Settlers of Catan. Aside from the fact that it’s just a great game, I love that it has a clear theme. When you describe it to people that have never played it before, you feel a little silly because the story is so good. (For another game with a strong commitment to it’s theme, check out Hive – a quick, fun strategy game for two players)

But that’s a huge element of what makes it work. The theme makes sense. Yes, it’s a little silly, and yes it can feel contrived at times, but it helps the game make sense. It helps you put context to the goal and the rules, and provides a consistent vernacular for its players.

Similarly, your career needs a story. You need to find a way to make sense for yourself and others. This is what will get you hired and help you connect all of your different experiences into something that makes sense. When you hear stories of people with great careers, they always have a theme or story. And what’s important, is that it doesn’t just come naturally – they spent the time to connect the dots, make sense of their experiences and determine the vocabulary they will use to describe their career. You must do the same.

So, what’s your game?

With all of this in mind, do you know whose game you’re playing? Did you define your goal or was it set by someone else? Did you determine your rules or are you playing by someone else’s? If you’re ready to play your own game, download an Introduction to Your Career Framework to help you get started defining the rules of your game or schedule a call with me and let’s get started!.


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