The Game of Life

Or: how to deal with the fact that we are all completely irrational. 

We are at the airport, waiting to board. Outside, the sun sinks behind the hulking figure of a Boeing 747. The shadows are long on the ground, and the word DELAYED badges the destination name, portending a long night.

I sigh, fiddling with an empty bowl of clam chowder. The meal satisfied my hunger, but not my listlessness. Now, all that’s left is a roll of bread, stiff like it’s trying out for the role of rock in a stage play.

For the purposes of healthier living, I have forsworn bread. Its taste is pretty much a no-op for me anyway. As I see it, its only value is as a vehicle for sauce and butter.

In front of me, a father’s infant stirs in her stroller. He leans down, smiles, and covers his eyes with his hands. Seconds later, the hands flap open like shutters as his face dips. Boo! The baby crows with delight. The hand-shutters close; a moment of anticipation. And then: Boo!

They play this game again and again and again, and the baby does not tire of it. Her giggles are the soundtrack to the setting sun.

I take a bite out of the crusty old roll, disappointed with myself.

We are in Banff National Park, cruising down the TransCanandian Highway. In my hand is a list of nearby attractions—turquoise lakes, proud mountains, hanging glaciers, weeping falls. Scores of trails promising breathtaking views. Too many picnic spots to enumerate.

We have only one day.

“How many of these things do you want to see?” I ask my favorite travel companion, Mike.

“As many as possible.” He lists seven things off the list, including a glacier excursion and a three-mile ridge hike.

“That’s not relaxing at all.”

He grins. “But it’ll last longer.”

It’s a subtle nod to an article we read recently, about how the human mind processes time in chunks of discrete experiences. Why did time seem to pass by slower when we were young? Why does time whiz by now that we are adults? Because learning and discovery were commonplace for children. Nowadays, in our older ager, we execute more than we learn; memories are recalled in the span of projects or seasons. Live the same experiences every day, and those days eventually clump together.

Mike and I brace ourselves. That day at Banff, we spot rainbows in misty waters, trace the shape of a crow’s foot in the mountains, stomp on glaciers, and listen to the history of rocks.

He’s right. The day seems to last forever.

We humans are such irrational creatures. We wait hours in line for a free scarf worth $20 during Black Friday, but don’t think $40 off a $300-jacket is such a good deal. We think whatever our friends are doing is normal, even if they’re extraordinary. We are more sympathetic to stories about people with names and faces than to statistics. We behave more stereotypically when people remind us of the negative stereotypes that describe our group. We make better decisions in the morning than at the end of the day.

We think that the past supports our theories. We think we knew what was going to happen all along.

We are silly, silly. Our willpower is mutable like putty. Our instincts lead us astray.

With this sort of genetic code, how can we ever trust ourselves?

In the game of Super Mario Brothers, the rules are well-understood. Big Mario can smash bricks, but small Mario can’t. You can go down some pipes, but not all. It’s fine to jump on top of goombas, but if you run into one you’ll lose a life. Why is it like that? That’s just how things work in the Mushroom Kingdom. Those are the rules, and while they may seem arbitrary, an entire game has been crafted around them that is challenging, fun, and rewarding for the player.

In the game of peek-a-boo, the rules are well-understood. The baby is just beginning to understand object permanence—that things exist even when she cannot see them. And that’s what makes the appearances and disappearance so amusing. A father, armed with this knowledge, can keep his baby entertained in the dullest of situations.

In the game of life, the rules are becoming more and more well-understood. We are predictably irrational. Each of us has our own biases and triggers. Stress makes me inhale flaming hot cheetoes. Not having a cup of coffee turns me snippy. The words come more easily at night, the ideas strike hardest during the dinner hour.

The key to living a better life, then, is to take advantage of those rules. Craft an environment that counteracts the bad habits and rewards the good ones.

Life is but a game.

I have a terrible habit of procrastinating bedtime. In a perfect world, my head would hit the pillow at 12:30am. In practice, it’s generally closer to 1:30. In the most egregious cases, 2:00am or later.

I need eight hours of sleep to feel my best. Seven doesn’t really cut it. But I also need to make it to morning meetings. So if I go to bed late, I’m tired the next morning. It sucks when I’m tired. I know this well.

And yet. I can’t make myself go to bed earlier. It’s stupid, of course. I’ve had years to improve, to muster up the tiny bit of willpower and common sense to make the next day easier for myself.

I can’t.

Noticing this perplexing, problem, my favorite roommate, Mike, devised a simple game not too long ago.

“I’ll give you five points,” he said one evening, “if you can go to bed at 12:30. And four points at 12:40. And three points at 12:50. And so forth. Past 1:00am, you accrue negative points.”

“Hm.” I said. “What good are these points for?”

He pauses a beat. “Cookies,” he finally says. “5 points for a choco-chip fresh out of the oven.”


It’s stupid, of course. We are creating an artificial game. Setting up fake boundaries. I could eat a cookie any day of the week.

Guess what? It works better than any amount of willpower mustering ever did.

The other night, I am eating at a restaurant with my favorite dinner companion, Mike.

We talk about ways to hack our lives. It is one of our favorite topics—understanding the human psyche. Figuring out how to craft an environment that incentives the right behavior. Behavior that leads to meaning and fulfillment, not just for the now, but for the long game.

The waiter comes by with a basket of bread.

“No thanks,” I tell him. “No bread here.”

“You sure?” he asks. “I could just leave the basket.”

I give Mike a knowing smile. We both know this. Removing temptations is easier than relying on willpower.

“I’m sure.”

And for the rest of the meal, nary a mouthful of bread was consumed.

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