What the Civilization series taught me about success and happiness
The premise of Civilization is simple: one turn after another, from the Stone Age to the future, guide your civilization to greatness. Through careful management of resources, production, exploration, diplomacy, and conquest, you position yourself to win, one way or another.
I first picked up the series in 2000 with Alpha Centauri, a sci-fi spinoff of the idea, and have been hooked ever since. Although I started playing for the strategy — the tactical twists that come with each new edition and expansion pack — I’ve come to appreciate the broader lessons I’ve learned in my own game of life.
The story makes the game
Alpha Centauri told an explicit story about humans’ arrival on a new planet, violent factional politics brought over from the old world, and a living planet on a cycle of death and rebirth. The cutscenes, quotes, and plot breaks made it real enough to inspire me to write terrible fanfiction (no, I don’t know where it went).
And although the earthbound Civilization games don’t tell a tale in quite the same way, they still have stories of their own.
During one play-through, two of my enemies went to war, dragging their city-states — AI-controlled smaller nations — along for the ride. Due to a glitch, the great powers sued for peace, but the city-states kept up a perpetual war that spanned for ages. Their blood feud — its original reasons lost to time — became a nuisance for everyone else. It cut into trade, blocked resources, restricted new settlements, and no matter what we tried, we couldn’t get these city-states to come to peace, an eerie mirror of more than a few historical grudge matches.
This idea of emergent stories — arising as an inevitable result of a set of rules, associations, and human quirks — has stuck with me.
With every new project, I look for how the rules shape its path and try to remember: what story did I tell to get here, and what story do I hope to tell when I finish?
Good is only good enough on easy mode
Built into every game in the series are endless small ways to optimize outcomes.
Researching, building, buying, and conquering with the right timing saves you a few gold or a few turns here and there, and the benefits add up.
Knowing and exploiting these tricks are the basic skills of the game, and on the lower levels, that’s enough. But as it gets harder, the AI has too many advantages. The enemies don’t get much smarter, but they get piles of resources you don’t, and no matter how tight your play, you won’t catch up.
The same has been true for me as a coach, writer, and businessperson: whatever market I want to grow into, wherever I strive to excel, there is already someone there with years of experience, an audience, and a pile of resources. They’ve had years to acquire momentum and an audience, and playing ‘tighter,’ tweaking my workspace and time management strategies, won’t win the game.
This is why ‘hacks’ disappoint. They’re optimization tips— undoubtedly useful — but when life cranks the difficulty from chieftain to Deity, hacks don’t cut it.
Identify your unique abilities
Each nation comes with unique abilities: buildings, units, improvements, and special rules that give them a small advantage in certain situations.
Sometimes, they may seem random, but if you look carefully and know the rules of the game, you’ll see that the designers groove a path towards victory into these combinations.
Recognizing this path, and finding every opportunity to maximize it at the right moment, becomes the only way to guarantee victory when the enemy has every advantage.
We aren’t born with character cards outlining our unique abilities, and because we can’t see them, we often forget we live in very different internal worlds from everyone else.
As I’ve grown, I’ve come to realize and appreciate how talent, privilege, and experience make a subtle groove in the road showing where I’m most likely to win my own game of life. It may not be clear, but with careful reflection, I get hints of what my unique abilities may be, and those hints guide my strategy.
Explore, then exploit
It’s not enough in Civilization to know your strengths.
At the beginning of the game, you start on a single square with just a settler, a scout, and a vast expanse of blackness. As quickly as you can, you deploy that scout to fill in the gaps, learning where resources, terrain features, and other opponents sit in relation to you.
The goal isn’t to explore randomly but to find the most powerful intersection of your gifts and the world around you.
This approach completely changed how I act as a coach. In 2006, when I first discovered CrossFit, I was convinced it was the right method every time for every lifter. It took a few years of experience and plenty of mistakes to temper that excitement.
The success of a new project or method relies on the intersection of your unique abilities, the environment, and the project’s story. Even if the idea behind a new venture is sound, you still have to get to know yourself and your environment to predict if it’s going to be right for you right now.
No matter how good an idea sounds, how universally true it may seem, It means testing each new productivity strategy with small steps before committing wholly to a program that’s not a good fit for the map.
One path, many endings
One thing that makes Civilization fun is that there are multiple ways to win. More than once, I’ve been just a few turns away from a “science” victory, launching a colonization spaceship, only to lose to some upstart who converted every player in the game to their heathen faith while I wasn’t looking.
Even when I start on a project where victory has a clear meaning, where I’m competing with someone else for a title that only one of us can win, I always try to remember to look for other routes to victory.
Is there an alliance I need to make? A new idea I need to discover and deploy? A single strategic position I can claim and hold to win?
You get to decide what victory means
A few months ago, I explored some of these ideas on Instagram and got a thoughtful reply:
Although this poster is partially right, they also miss something crucial:
As with any game, the victory conditions matter because you decide they do.
You can’t change the code itself (mods excluded), but you absolutely can decide what winning means for you. Society presents us with victory conditions: corporate ladders to climb, monthly earnings, follower counts. Win the next prize, award, election, or promotion, and someone will validate you as a winner. Fail to earn those things, and the community will happily crown someone else. That end-game screen is so apparently final that we can forget we don’t have to accept it.
In Civilization, even after the game ends, there’s a button that says:
“Wait! Just… one… more… turn…”
It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to the game’s addictive nature, but it’s also a reminder that to a degree, life is our game to play how we choose.
Maybe you sacrifice a promotion to spend more time with your family. Maybe you step off the corporate ladder entirely to take up your passion project as a new career. Maybe you devote yourself to a cause or invent a game that brings others happiness and their own victories.
When the world crowns someone else the king, you can play on, hit the button that says “one more turn” and strive for things that matter to you.