Goal vs game

There’s a repeating conversation that goes like this:

“Hey, did you know that we can charge extra for [fill in something that customers don’t really want]?”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t that be taking advantage of our customers? “

“Well, maybe a little bit, but it will make us more money. And we need to make money to stay in business. If we aren’t in business, then we can’t help anyone. It’s just how you play the game.”

Playing the game. How many negative acts have been justified with that statement? From lying to investors to cheating on the SAT to performing unnecessary diagnostic tests on patients – we as humans take all sorts of ethical shortcuts when we think of our work as a game.

Some people live without an ethical code and will do whatever is necessary to succeed, without remorse. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about the ones who start with a reasonable goal in mind: to create a business that provides a useful service, to help their kids succeed life, or to heal people as a doctor. People like you and me.

Somehow these same people find themselves taking actions that, if made public, would be shameful, if not criminal. All in the name of “playing the game.”

I believe that the problem begins, in part, when you stop connecting to your true goal and instead use a proxy for your goal, a proxy represented by “the game.”

See, in games, it’s typically OK to try to get away with whatever you can without breaking the rules, or maybe even getting away with whatever you can as long as you don’t get caught. Pushing the rules in a game doesn’t seem wrong – it’s just “playing”. We see this in actual games – professional sports – all the time: fouls in basketball can be aggressive actions that result in punishments, but they are also strategic moves to slow down the action. Hockey fights can erupt in fits of passion, or else they can be planned and executed as plays. It’s interesting to note that in the junior versions of these sports, these types of infractions are treated seriously and discouraged, while in the professional world they often become part of the strategy.

You need at least two things to devolve into this “game” mindset in your work: The first is a sense that adherence to the rules is what matters, not the spirit behind the rule; this makes the work feel concrete and transactional. “I can do what I want, as long as it’s not against the rules.” Or: “It’s OK to break the rules, as long as I am willing to pay the price.” And if the rules are embodied by an official who selectively applies them, either though choice or capability (they can only watch so many things at once), then it’s easy to adjust this to “I can do what I want as long as I don’t get caught.”

The second thing you need is a sense that everyone else is doing the same thing. If everyone around you seems to be bending or breaking the rules, then following the rules not only puts you at a disadvantage, it makes you a sucker. What might seem wrong at first becomes astonishingly acceptable when “everyone else is doing it.”

I’m not saying that games or a gaming mindset themselves are necessarily bad. Games are fine. I like games, and sometimes turning a chore into a game can make it fun. But when you turn something meaningful into a game, it can lose that meaning. When this happens, you will see people give brief lip service to their true purpose, but then quickly shift to a the more practical-seeming “you have to play the game” approach, perhaps denigrating focus on the true goal as impractical or pollyanna-ish. “We have to be realistic,” and “I don’t have a choice,” are typical segues to questionable actions.

Sometimes winning the game becomes such a powerful proxy for the true goal that you completely lose sight of the reason behind the effort.
It will be interesting to one day watch the documentary or movie about the current college admissions scandal, and see how an ostensible goal – the success and happiness of their kids – could be proxied and gamified to the point where it seems acceptable to pay people to take the SAT for their children and bribe coaches. If asked, what goal would the parents say they were pursuing? They appear to have been totally immersed in the game of college admissions, to the point where committing crimes seemed like a reasonable option.

While it’s easy to judge such extreme examples from the outside, it’s important to realize that many of us – most of us? – are on this road somewhere, although hopefully not quite so far along. We’ve confused the game for our true goal, and we’re pushing the limits of the rules. Have you ever helped you child on a school project to the point of essentially doing it for them? Have you ever optimized a metric in your job, knowing that it didn’t truly reflect the state of your work? Have you ever tried to get a good grade by means of a method that wasn’t really about learning the material and demonstrating mastery?

I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou when I ask these questions. I also ask them of myself and I’m not always proud of the answer. And I am also aware that people often treat their situation as a game because they feel trapped in a gamified construct. You can’t judge the parents who cheated to get their kids into school without also looking at the colleges and their admissions processes. You also have to look at employers, who use simplistic factors like college prestige as hiring criteria. And you also have to look at our education system, in which grades can sometimes be based on factors not clearly associated with the learning process. If important work is given arbitrary rules, high stakes, and serious consequences, it’s easy to lose the true goal and instead start thinking about winning the game.

This is certainly true in American healthcare, where more money is made when more procedures are performed, the billing system is endlessly complex, and regulations often feel divorced from the goal of safety and efficacy. It’s understandable that costs will creep up as healthcare providers successfully find ways to game a system that seems increasingly byzantine and uncaring – a system where acting in the best interests of your patients often means acting against your own.

I’m not saying that there aren’t realistic issues that have to be considered in order to reach your goals. Of course that’s true – every project has practical considerations. You really do have to make money and pass inspections. The prestige of the college on your resume really does affect your future employment prospects. But there’s a difference between being practical and confusing your goal with the game. You need to be able to keep your goal in mind while navigating the practical necessities of the work, without falling headlong into a transactional world.

How can you do this? I recommend a few things:

  1. State your goals explicitly. Whether it’s your mission in life, the mission statement for your company, or the goal you are trying to reach with a specific project, clearly state your goal and write it out. It’s much harder to ignore something when it’s in front of you in black and white.
  2. Create triggers to check in with your goal. It’s not realistic to expect people to constantly think about the higher goal when performing day-to-day actions. But as long as you regularly check in, you can nudge yourself back into line when you start to drift. Not every step has to be in the right direction, you but want to end up in the right place over time. Your trigger might be interval based; perhaps you check in with your life’s goals every new year, or every quarter. Other times it may be event-based and you restate your goals every time you start a new project. Pick whatever triggers are most useful to you.
  3. Create explicit limits. Maybe you feel stuck in an uncaring system. You can still decide what you will and will not do ahead of time, rather than relying on yourself to do the right thing in the moment.

State your goals, then create boundaries of behavior and triggers to check yourself. It’s all about staying on course.

Lastly, remember that sometimes you are trapped a game and sometimes you create a game for others. Have you created a structure of rewards and punishments for someone else, or for a team? When something goes wrong, do you solve the problem with a new rule? Is it difficult to tie your stated expectations back to your supposed mission?

Are you pursuing a goal, or playing a game?

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