The most important thing we can do right now, individually and collectively, is to change the game we’re playing.
“The game we play” is another way of thinking about the story or worldview we’re living out. Adopting a new game (or worldview) changes the conversations we have and the questions we consider worthy of exploring. It alters what seems reasonable to do, or not do. It changes who gets to play the game and who controls the bank.
For decades (if not centuries), much of human civilization has been structured as if it were one big game of Monopoly, where hoarding is the aim and beating down all the other players is the winning strategy.
And that has brought us to where we are now: the edge of extinction.
Clearly, what we need is a game whose very rules and structures don’t lead inexorably to ecological collapse, social turmoil and personal trauma. A game that instead puts us in natural alignment with life’s universal design principles.
You’d think that would be The Game of Life (pictured above). But alas: that one is just another hoarding, dog-eat-dog competition.
Apparently, we need to get more specific: we need a game whose objective is enabling life — all life — to thrive.
Let’s imagine that we might call this game “Thrivability.” Instead of hoarding, the goal of this game is healing, a word whose root is “to make whole.” “Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity,” as I wrote elsewhere. “Healing our hearts and bodies. Healing our relationships with each other and with the Earth’s countless other species. Healing the soils and the waters. Healing our communities.”
Within this game, the playing field is understood to be our every organization, institution and community as living systems within the larger living biosphere.
Instead of beating down all the other players — and all other forms of life — the winning strategy in the game of Thrivability is to cultivate the fertile conditions for all life to thrive, as an ever-expanding, ever-evolving practice.
Where the inevitable dynamic of Monopoly has proven to be reductionist, channeling wealth to the very few, Thrivability is expansive, creating ever more possibilities and more wealth, in all its forms, for all. That is the true nature of nature, after all: to be generative and even re-generative, creating ever more diversity, connection and possibility.
No matter what your context, no matter what the scale, this is the game you need to be playing from now on. This is the game we need to structure our civilization around.
If we don’t fully understand the nature and rules of this new game, then we risk making only incremental change within the same old game of Monopoly — adding more energy-efficient houses and hotels or swapping out the Community Chest cards for a digital version. These piecemeal adaptations won’t get us where we so urgently need to go.
To avoid that shortfall, I offer these five simple rules for playing the game of Thrivability, as I understand it. They can be summarized as: (1) the informed (2) intention (3) and practice of (4) stewarding (5) life.
Here’s how that breaks down.
Rule #1: Get informed: What does it mean for life to thrive — and what does it take? If we’re going to create the conditions for thrivability, we’re going to need some information about what that involves. Some kind of theory of change will be useful.
To get there, we can find guidance in models and frameworks, in our own experiences and intuitions, in conversations, in art and poetry, in indigenous languages and perspectives, in nature, in spirituality, in many things. Each of us will have our own ways of exploring and integrating the emerging, expanded story of life. Here’s a link to my version of life’s universal design principles, as they appear in our organizations, communities and economies. Find what seems like useful guidance for you.
Rule #2: Set a Clear Intention: If we don’t aim for thriving, we’ll never get there. As a civilization and as organizations and individuals, we are generally setting our sights on something far less than thriving and, as a result, we’re falling catastrophically short of that goal. Instead, we need to hold the explicit intention to enable thriving for ourselves and for the whole community of life. This objective has to be front-and-center in everything we do — in every conversation, every meeting, every project, every strategic plan. Life is the new bottom line.
Rule #3: Embrace the Ongoing Practice: We don’t play the game of Thrivability to get to some end-point or to “win.” Instead, thrivability is an ongoing design practice, a continuously unfolding inquiry, in which we ask: “What would bring the most life to this situation? What conditions are needed in this moment, within these circumstances, to support life’s ability to thrive as fully as possible at every level?”
Inspired by these questions, we can design and prototype new structures and systems to hold, nurture and propel us — and all life. We can imagine new ways of being together in community, in organization, in family, in learning. And we can celebrate, let go of and mourn the structures and systems that no longer serve us fully, creating space for new life to emerge in their place.
At the foundation of our design practice is a personal practice, like a martial arts or spiritual practice. In this way, thrivability is a craft developed over time. It is the lifelong journey of growing into wisdom, compassion and the ability to sense what is needed and to respond with effective action.
Rule #4: Step into a Stance of Stewardship: In our civilization-wide game of Monopoly, we’ve seen ourselves as managers, controlling the pieces on the board, moving along a simple, linear trajectory. In the game of Thrivability, we recognize that life is complex, emergent and self-organizing. It can’t be controlled, but it can be invited and nurtured. And so our role is to be gardeners and stewards, listening for what we are called to care for and tending to life’s fertile conditions with reverence and responsibility.
Rule #5: Honor Life: In stark contrast to Monopoly’s single-minded worship of money, the game of Thrivability is most of all an acknowledgement of the precious gift of aliveness, source of our kinship with all existence. To play this game is to savor the experience of life — the joy, the pain and everything in between.
These are the rules of the game of Thrivability, as I understand them. Embracing these rules changes both the nature and the quality of our conversations, as we ask in every setting and every sphere of our lives: “How can we enable as much thriving as possible?”
As I write in my book, The Age of Thrivability:
“We need to see ourselves more fully as active stewards of life’s unfolding process and as part of a larger living world. With this broader view, we can see that our organizations [and communities] have the potential to be places where we are nourished by our relationships and by the opportunity to contribute and develop our gifts…. Where we can experience beauty, wholeness and healing within our communities and our workplaces. Where we can grow into wisdom alongside each other, with trust that this is the most direct path to effective action. And where these are the express purposes of coming together.”
Who’s ready to play?