I’m not sure where I heard the phrase first, but I know for sure I wrote it down most recently when I heard Naval say it, so I’ll offer him credit for repeating it once more that I might truly hear it: “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” Boy, have I played some stupid games in my life. To be fair, haven’t we all? Life is full of stupid games, and what are you really pursuing in the playing of it?
I once played a stupid game where we threw glass bottles in a stream and threw rocks at them to try to break them as they floated by. The thought of that horrifies me now, but I was a dumb kid in a time when it didn’t seem like a big deal to introduce litter and broken glass into a stream. My prize for playing that stupid game was getting hit by a car when I tried to run across the road to throw rocks at a bottle that had gotten away. I deserved that car windshield, and I’m grateful the prize didn’t include a coffin in my size. I’m not sure my mother deserved the prize of hearing her son was hit by a car but hey, I was playing a really stupid game and there were ample prizes to go around.
More typical stupid games are trying to be cool in school and missing out on better prizes while you play stupid. Taking a job you hate to try to play the corporate ladder game for another rung into a job you’ll hate more but has more prestige and money you’ll waste on stupid prizes. I’ve had a few dress shoes pressed into my forehead owned by ladder climbers in my time climbing ladders. Chasing metrics and KPI’s and all manner of Chutes and Ladders in the pursuit of differentiation in a red ocean of sharks feeding on one another most famously profiled in a New York Times profile on the culture five years ago at Amazon.
Stupid games include competing to get your child into the right school, with the right social activities, playing the right position in the right sport on the right travel team, to win the next “right” prize. It’s another ladder with people stepping on top of each other on the scramble, made worse as it’s removing childhood from the lives of children in the pursuit of status. That seems a particularly cruel stupid game. Rising above stupid games isn’t easy, but it’s our only hope of winning better prizes. But then again judging people for the games that they play is a stupid game in itself. What does it get you but resentment or jealousy or condescension? Now that is stupid.
It would be easy to write that I’m done playing stupid games and this pandemic has shaken me of the beliefs that made me play them. But we’re all human and will make decisions that in hindsight will be stupid. No, life itself is a game and sometimes we find ourselves pursuing stupid. I can’t guarantee to myself that I won’t pursue stupid games, but I can promise myself that I’ll stop playing the game as soon as I realize it’s stupid. There are only so many games we get to play. So I’ll at least try to raise my game and play at a higher level. A higher level where I’m not worried about prizes and how others play the game. That seems a worthy pursuit.