Figuring Out What It Means To Win The Game Of Life

When, exactly, have we won the game of life?

That question is not philosophical nitpicking, but an essential one to answer if we are going to be any good at it. When playing a game, it helps to know its conditions for victory.

The first thing that comes to mind is that winning the game of life means achieving your goals. According to this view, the game of life a ‘closed game’.

For instance, in his book Principles, investor Ray Dalio argues that we can achieve anything that we want if we, first, understand how reality works and, then, manipulate it in the right way. He states:

“I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. By understanding these cause-effect relationships, you can come up with decision rules (or principles) for achieving what you want.”

On this picture, reality is nothing more than a bundle of if-then connections.

First, we figure out what this network looks like.

Second, we pick our goal — the ‘then’ we want to achieve.

Third, we consult the book of reality to see which ‘ifs’ cause this ‘then’.

Fourth, we investigate how to bring about these ‘ifs’.

Fifth, we execute the plan.

Here’s Dalio again:

“People who achieve success understand the cause-effect relationships that govern reality and have principles (informed by the timeless and universal cause-effect relationships) for using them to get what they want.”

If our theory about the cause-effect relationships is accurate, and if we managed to ignite the right causes, then we will get the desired effects.

That means that this is the winning strategy for the game of life:

1) Discover what the cause-effect relationships are.

2) Figure out how set the right cause-effect relationships in motion.

A closed game indeed

In a very different essay, Charles Chu cites tech theorist Tom Chatfield who, in How to Thrive in the Digital Age, writes:

“[Games] involve a limited, bounded arena where the open-ended complexity of actuality is replaced by something simpler and more intense: a series of problems to be solved, or actions to be performed, guaranteed to work out if done correctly.”

On Dalio’s picture, the game of life is exactly like that.

Winning it requires the rule-based intelligence of basic automation that could theoretically be encoded in algorithms.

Life is a series of problems to solve, or actions to perform, guaranteed to work out if done correctly. Furthermore, if your framework of reality is accurate, then there will be no surprises, only execution errors.


When I first heard this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss here.

At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Over time, I figured it out (I think).

Weighing values

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that their ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” — Thomas Merton

This approach to the game of life is incomplete because it doesn’t tell us how to determine which problems are the ones worth fighting for.

Once we have provided Dalio’s system with some input (an effect we want to bring about), sure, it can tell us what to do (which causes to manipulate) — but we cannot use it to figure out which values are important and how to balance those.

For example, it can’t tell us how the value of time spent with loved ones stacks up against the value of time spent at work.

It falls short in solving ‘deeper’ puzzles, such as how to decide whether you should try to have children or invest your energy in pursuing other aims.

In slogan, it might be of help in how to win the game of life, but it doesn’t tell us what it means to win the game of life.

And so we’re back to the question that we started out with: when have we won?

A successful career? A big house? A flourishing family? “Happiness”?

Discovering yourself

I think the answer to this question will be different for everyone.

For example, an intense life filled with accomplishments is not necessarily better than a relaxed life filled with savoring.

I can’t tell you which one is best for you. That’s for you to figure out.

Once you have decided the values you want to realize in your life, then Dalio’s clinical method certainly has its merits.

But how do we make that decision?

On this, philosopher Charles Taylor writes:

“[In making such fundamental judgments,] it is not exactly that I have no yardstick, in the sense that anything goes, but rather that what takes the place of a yardstick is my deepest unstructured sense of what it is important.”

In deciding on our most crucial priorities, we seem to lack a benchmark, as it were, by which to measure the quality of our judgments. We can merely lean on our “unstructured sense” of what we take to matter in life.

In his Treatise of Human Nature, philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) defended an even stronger claim:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

What Hume meant is that, according to him, we cannot use reason to decide what kind of life we want most, but we can at best discover our desires about this, and, after that, use our thinking abilities only instrumentally.

However, the question returns, because now we want to know why we should take a “passion” to be a reason for action.

Dalio’s system didn’t provide a method for determining which ultimate ends are worth pursuing, but is there any philosophy that does?

I’m not sure.

Inventing yourself

Perhaps this is all primarily, quite literally, up to you.

Figuring out what it means to win the game of life is self-reflection in a special sense — it is a reflection about ourselves, engaging our whole selves in a way that judging by a fixed yardstick does not.

This is what makes it uncommonly difficult to reflect upon our most fundamental priorities. It is much easier to take the definition of “winning the game of life” or “success” that we are brought up with it, or that is accepted in our society, and use that as a guide to living well without too much questioning.

Probably, we do this more often than we think we do.

As Tim Urban observes on WaitButWhy:

“What often feels like independent reasoning when zoomed out is actually playing connect-the-dots on a pre-printed set of steps laid out by someone else. What feel like personal principles might just be the general tenets of your tribe. What feel like original opinions may have actually been spoon-fed to us by the media or our parents or friends or our religion or a celebrity.”

By contrast, the openness that we encounter when pondering our most seminal judgments about what is important in life, gives us freedom to exercise control over who we are.

The victory conditions of the game of life are not completely fixed, but are partially determined by the person who is playing.

By making a decision about what we take to be most worthwhile in life, we can genuinely “make” ourselves into persons with one identity rather than another.

When we are this far down in personal inquiry, the questions to ask are no longer ‘What should I do?’ or ‘How should I live?’. Rather, when engaging in such constitutional reflection, it’s all about ‘Who do I want to be?’ or ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’.

In making these deep-seated value judgments, the precise weight to assign to reasons is up to us. Some values involve our judging things to be valuable for them to have that value.

This crafting of our distinctive identities is, in a way, what life is all about.