Welcome, Player One, to a strategy guide for the game known as Life.
As you’ve undoubtedly discovered, the game of Life is often quite difficult. You will face unexpected challenges and long periods of frustration. You will often struggle with self-doubt, feel overwhelmed by helplessness and loss, and sometimes take a shit when you’re out of toilet paper.
Yes, Life is hard, as the saying goes.
But fear not, this short guide is designed to help you complete your missions and complete the game at the highest possible level.
HOW TO WIN AT LIFE
The goal of Life is simple: it is to Level Up as much as possible. Each Level in life presents a particular challenge that you must overcome. Once you overcome that challenge, you get to move on to the next Level. The goal is to complete as many levels as possible. At the end of the game, the person at the highest level gets to have the best funeral.
There are five levels in life:
- Level 1 — Find food; find a bed to sleep in at night
- Level 2 — Know you’re not going to die
- Level 3 — Find your people
- Level 4 — Do something that’s important and valuable to both yourself and others
- Level 5 — Create a legacy
Level 1 just means you’re not homeless and/or starving. This is a prerequisite for just about everything else. Chances are, if you’re stuck on Level 1, you aren’t even reading this right now.
Level 2 gets a bit more complicated, because a lot of people do have a nice bed to sleep in every night, but they can’t sleep because of gunshots outside or bombs exploding over their city, or maybe Dad’s a drunk and keeps trying to set the house on fire.
None of these things are cool. Level 2 requires that you find a secure and stable home to base yourself out of. Getting past Level 2 requires finding a way to successfully remove yourself from these dangerous situations.
Level 3 means relationships, finding the right people to love and the right people who love you.
This sounds way easier and more fun than it is. Mainly because, as you’ve likely found out by now, most people suck.
Navigating to the ones who don’t is a whole tricky matter that I’ll get to in a bit.
Level 4 means building up some skill or knowledge or ability that adds value to the world around you and also makes you feel like kind of a badass in the process.
Level 5 just means making sure your life mattered when you’re dead. Good luck with that champ.
Most of us get a nice head start due to our parents. If you’re lucky, your parents will have successfully guided you through Levels 1–3 and even give you a nice boost in achieving Level 4.
If your parents took care of you but they were kind of emotional fuck ups, then you’ll have Levels 1 and 2 down pat but be totally on your own for Level 3.
If you were raised by wolves, a) congratulations on figuring out how to read, and b) please refrain from chewing on your mobile device.
THE DESIGN OF LIFE
Life is a big and complex game. It’s the largest open world game known to date. We all begin with different starting stats and we’re placed into a wide range of environments that can either give us advantages or disadvantages.
But because most people have trouble conceptualizing Life, they therefore assume that they have no control over Life. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Life’s game design is actually surprisingly simple. It is guided by a few basic principles that are designed to give the player an experience of a large amount of randomness.
1. Life is designed to continually throw difficult and unexpected problems at you. Life is a never-ending stream of problems that must be confronted, surmounted and/or solved. If at any point, Life runs out of problems to give us, then as players, we will unconsciously invent problems for ourselves. Problems are what keep us occupied and give our lives meaning and are, therefore, necessary to conquer Levels 4 and 5 (give value and leave a legacy).
As players, we spend most of our time preparing ourselves for problems that are expected. But it is because of this preparation that, by definition, the most difficult problems we experience in Life will be unexpected.
This steady barrage of unexpected problems gives the player a sense that she lacks control over her own Life, when in fact, the purpose of Life is not to control what happens to you, but rather control and choose higher level reactions to what happens to you.
2. Players may respond to problems with either Solutions or Distractions. All players must meet problems with a reaction (even choosing not to react to a problem, is itself, a reaction).
All reactions can be divided up in two ways: Solutions and Distractions.
Solutions are actions and pursuits that resolve a problem preventing it from continuing or happening again in the future. Distractions are actions or pursuits designed to either make the Player unaware of the problem’s existence or to dull the pain the problem may be causing.
If a Player feels they understand a problem and are capable of handling it, they will pursue a Solution. If players are just sick of Life’s shit, then they will likely pursue Distractions to help them pretend the problem isn’t actually there.
3. The more each Solution or Distraction is used, the easier and more automatic it will be in the future. The more often you use a Solution or Distraction, the easier it will be to use again, to the point where it will eventually become unconscious and automatic. Once a Solution or Distraction is unconscious and automatic, it becomes a Habit.
Habits are necessary because they prevent you from falling back to previous Levels you’ve already conquered. A player, once they’ve found a Solution to a Level, must employ that Solution enough times to make it a Habit, thus mastering that level and allowing them to move on to the next Level.
4. Solutions move us towards the next Level, Distractions keep us on the same Level. Since gaining Levels in Life requires solving problems, distracting ourselves from our problems guarantees that we will become stuck on the same Level.
If our Distractions become Habits, then we will become perpetually stuck at a level and not even be conscious of it. If you’ve ever wondered why all of your relationships have failed miserably in the past decade, then chances are your Distraction-Habits are preventing you from achieving the real intimacy necessary to beat Level 3.
5. The formula for winning at the game of Life is therefore actually incredibly simple:
- a) correctly identify your Solutions and Distractions
- b) eliminate the Distractions
- c) ????
- d) profit
One simple example: There’s a problem at work and my boss hates me, so I can either pursue a Solution (confront my boss, look to be transferred, work harder, etc.) or I can pursue a Distraction (party every night, smoke crack, masturbate while watching Disney cartoons, etc.).
The more often I choose a Solution, the more it will make choosing subsequent Solutions easier, thus leading to an eventual Level Up. The more often I choose Distraction, the more it will make choosing subsequent Distractions easier, thus making me a deadbeat with a weird sex fetish.
One final note before I teach you how to totally cheat life and get a giant pyramid built for you when you die:
Just because you Level Up doesn’t mean problems stop at previous levels. A bro’s still gotta eat (Level 1). We all need to be safe to accomplish anything (Level 2). Relationships take work (Level 3), yadda, yadda.
So think of Leveling Up as not necessarily going from juggling baseballs to juggling knives. Rather, Leveling Up is like going from juggling three knives to four, then five, and so on.
Below are the five cheat codes to help you navigate your way through Life and reach the end fully satisfied and Leveled-Up.
Entering these cheat codes is easy: just press Tab at the View Screen to access your Mind’s Eye. The Mind’s Eye is where you actively observe yourself and choose what to think about. From there, just type in the cheats below at the “Brain” prompt and hit ENTER.
(Note: These cheats, like Solutions and Distractions, also require repetition to work. So be patient with them. They will also eventually become their own Habits.)
CHEAT #1: I AM RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS
The number one way people fuck up is by telling themselves that there’s nothing they can do about the problems Life gives them.
You can always do something about the problems Life gives you.
When you decide that there’s nothing you can do to solve a problem, you immediately limit your possible reactions to Distractions. And if you limit your responses to Distractions enough, pretty soon you will build a Life that is made up of nothing but Habits of Distractions. You’ll be running away from everything, and everyone, all the time. And you’ll probably turn into a grade-A selfish prick at that.
(Another Note: “selfishness” is essentially a propensity for Distractions over Solutions. Since the people around you and your relationships benefit from Solutions and Distractions generally isolate you from others, constantly pursuing Distractions will likely make you into someone no one else wants to really hang around with — unless, that is, they pursue the same Distractions that you do. You know, two peas in a crack-pipe and all that.)
This first “cheat” is so important, I once wrote an article about it called “The Prime Belief” and posted it on Facebook like three whole times. Some people even shared it and it wasn’t just my Mom. Cheat #1 is so important, I dedicated an entire chapter in my book to it. It’s so important that if you passed out drunk at a party, I’d write it on your forehead with a sharpie.
CHEAT #2: WRITE THIS SHIT DOWN
No, I’m not talking about writing down that you owe your buddy, Mike, $12 for those beers you drank. Although, that’s probably worth noting.
Separating Solutions from Distractions in your life is surprisingly difficult and complicated. This is because we have a tendency to lie to ourselves about our Distractions. We tell ourselves that we need our Distractions. We tell ourselves that our Distractions are just innocent fun. That we totally have them under control, and yeah, maybe I woke up under a bridge in my own vomit, but at least I remembered where I parked the car. See, I am responsible.
But worst of all, sometimes we come to believe that our Distraction is actually a Solution. We think that spending 12 hours a day at the office will give us the loving family we want, that playing violin in the park for spare change is a career waiting to happen.
We can often spend years (or decades) pursuing what we believe will level us up only to discover that we’ve basically been tweaking our nipples for the last 12 years, and while it felt good, we have nothing to show for it.
As such, we all need to develop an ability to observe our own thoughts. Psychologists sometimes call this “metacognition.” In the past, I’ve referred to it as meta-awesomeness. Here, I’m just going to call it “not being a fuckface.”
To observe your own thoughts and not be a fuckface, you need to get your thoughts out in front of you and pretend that they aren’t yours. Only then can you hear how utterly ridiculous they sound.
One common way to do this is to write down your thoughts regularly.
This can be a journal, a blog (how do you think all this stuff started, anyway?), or even letters/emails to friends and family.
The important part is that you are actively digging into the problems in your life and looking at your behavior from a third-person perspective.
Like, I know it sounds amazing when you decide to deal with your Mommy issues by popping pills and sleeping with a series of emotionally needy women just so you can take pleasure in telling them to fuck off later. That might feel like a good idea. But write it down. Then see what a fuckface you are.
Therapy also works in this regard. You go sit on a couch and say a bunch of things to this person who sits there and pretends to care. Then that person says your thoughts back to you, just in a different way. And then you’re like, “Oh wait, that sounds completely irrational. Thanks, Doc.” And then you get screwed over because your health insurance doesn’t cover it.
So, if you’re like the rest of the people in the US and are uninsured, you can accomplish almost as much by simply developing a habit of writing shit down.
CHEAT #3: STOP FUCKING COMPLAINING
Complaining literally accomplishes nothing. Plane late? Taxi ride bumpy? Favorite pizza restaurant ran out of pepperoncini?
Take a deep breath… and then hold it in… forever, because you need to shut the fuck up.
Complaining takes a problem and then prolongs it. It takes this experience that is anywhere from a nuisance to legit painful and then turns it into this social entity, and social entities suck because then we feel obligated to stand by them and defend them and make sure everybody understands them AND AGREES WITH US. And then you become that dude who is ADAMANT that this restaurant sucks, and will defend your opinion to the death, even when in truth, you really don’t care that much, and you might even kind of like the place if you hadn’t turned it into this big deal.
People complain not because something sucks. People complain because they’re looking for empathy and to feel connected with those around them.
Unfortunately, complaining is maybe the least useful way to connect with other human beings. It’s like working on your cardio by swimming through raw sewage. Yeah, you’re getting a workout, but uhh, what’s that thing growing on your face?
CHEAT #4: STOP FANTASIZING
Back when I was in college, I went on a Zen retreat, and I remember the zen master, during a Q&A session, suggested trying to stop daydreaming in our daily lives and to let go of fantasizing in general.
I was like 20-years-old at the time, and thus, spent most of my waking hours fantasizing about either a) hot girls, b) rocking out on guitar in front of a bunch of hot girls, or c) throwing really cool parties that would be full of really hot girls.
Needless to say, the zen master’s suggestion destroyed pretty much the only thoughts that gave me any semblance of happiness at the time. I resisted the notion the way a cat resists a bath.
But then I got older, eventually got over the whole obsession-with-hot-girls thing that I think is a requirement for any man seeking even the appearance of maturity, and realized that Ms. Zen master (yes, it was a woman) was right all along.
The human imagination is a powerful thing. And the imagination is a fun thing to play with — it’s what attracts us to books and movies and TV shows that we binge-watch in a single weekend.
But when applied to ourselves, the imagination can become another form of Distraction. It can be a way of avoiding what is real and true for us in the moment, a way to live vicariously through the images and ideas fed to us by others. It’s a way to feel a sense of accomplishment, all while sitting on our couch, alone.
Most recurring fantasies we have about ourselves are reactions to our insecurities.
I’ll give you one guess what my one huge glaring insecurity was when I was 20-years-old… Yup, hot girls (or sex, or being attractive/desired/loved, or whatever you want to call it).
And those fantasies didn’t help me resolve that insecurity. On the contrary, my propensity to live in a fantasy-world (*cough* porn *cough*) obsessed with objectifying women and seeing them as sexual conquests pushed me into behavior and obsessions in my real life that were harder to relinquish than they needed to be.
If you spend years fantasizing about that yacht, then chances are you’ll be the guy who will wreck the rest of his life just to buy it. If you obsessively fantasize about being admired and loved by all, then you will fail to stand up for yourself in those many moments where you’ll need to most.
Fantasies are like any other Distraction — they are to be used sparingly and for nothing other than pure enjoyment. It’s when they begin to sustain your sense of self-worth, your desire for importance in this world, that you will be hobbling yourself, and you will never Level Up again in Life.
CHEAT #5: SHARE YOUR SHAME
I’m about to sum up the biggest problem everyone deals with in the game of Life in one paragraph. Are you ready?
When we’re children, we are genuinely powerless to many of the problems in life. We therefore rely on our parents to help us find Solutions. But the more our parents fail to find Solutions, the more Distractions we must create for ourselves (notice how much children fantasize? That’s not a coincidence) in order to cope with the difficulty of Life. The more Distractions we create for ourselves as children, and/or the more Distractions our parents teach us themselves, the more they will form into Habits that will continue into adulthood. Once adults, we will forget that our Distractions were merely reactions to problems, and we will come to believe that there is something inherently flawed or wrong about us and we must hide it from other people at all costs.
And so, we hide these things about ourselves, and to hide them, we must distract ourselves even further, and it just creates this downward spiral of Distraction and shame.
The best way to get rid of our Distractions and to reclaim the problems that have been haunting us since childhood is to expose them, to share them, and recognize that a) no, you’re not a freak, most people struggle(d) with the same problem, and b) that your Distractions are just that: unhealthy ways to compensate for how shitty you feel about yourself.
There’s an old saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Well, that’s true for ourselves as well. The only way to cure the darkest parts of yourself is to shine light on them.
Good luck Player One. Remember, the game of Life is designed to be complex and confusing. The difficulty is not winning, but knowing what winning itself means. Because that’s the real challenge: deciding what our own life is worth and then having the courage to go out and live it.
HOW TO KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE
We all think we know ourselves well, but psychological studies show otherwise. In fact, most of us are somewhat deluded about ourselves. I put together a 22-page ebook explaining how we can come to know ourselves better. Check it out.
Originally published at markmanson.net on March 30, 2017.