Pyramids of Giza under a blue sky

This year, as I mash up some fresh guacamole and settle in to watch Super Bowl LIII, I’ll remember (as I do every year) how my oldest daughter reacted to her very first sight of American football. Two-year-old Katie peered at the TV screen and proclaimed, “That not football. That head ball.” She’d been taught that balls are round, and the roundest things on that field were the players’ helmets. Once I’d explained about the pointy pigskin, Katie came back with a question. “But mommy,” she said, “why those guys do that?”

I paused, thinking about zillion-dollar contracts, sponsorship deals, stratospheric fame. None of that would make sense to a two-year-old. Then it occurred to me that everyone in the Super Bowl had spent thousands of hours playing football long before becoming a champion. There’s only one thing that could make anyone work that hard. I said, “They love to play.” And that made perfect sense to Katie.

If only we could all remember what we knew when we were two.

The basic premise of playing games seems to be hardwired into the human brain: in every area of life we choose goals, agree on rules, and then try like mad to “win.” That’s fine, as long as we love the games we play and play the games we love. But many of us don’t make clear, informed choices about which games we want to join. Super Bowl Sunday is a perfect time to stop and think about choosing “life games” that are worthy of our efforts.


Games, games, and more games


Humans are so obsessed with games that virtually everything you’ve ever done might have been presented to you like a competitive sport. Be the quietest preschooler and get a gold star! Win the spelling bee and become the national champion! Be super cool and wear the Homecoming crown! Go to the right college, get the right job, marry the right partner, etc., etc., until you get the most-attended funeral ever! Seriously, the Great Pyramid of Giza is nothing more than the final prize for a guy who absolutely crushed his culture’s life games.

Most of the things we do to win such games are as arbitrary as kicking a piece of inflated leather through a pair of goalposts. Our culture’s wealth obsession (“He who dies with the most toys wins”) looks insane from the perspective of cultures that see wealth as living in harmony with nature. We try to win the “fashion” game by wearing designer clothes, while the Omo people paint their bodies with colored earth, and people from the Muri tribe stretch their lower lips around discs the size of salad plates. Any goal a culture designates as a “win” people will do gladly, often without question.

Games emerge in small groups as well as large ones. Maybe “winning” in your family or friendship circle means being impeccably polite, or writing literary novels, or slamming a case of whiskey in a single sitting, or cooking a fantastic haggis. The people next door might be playing a completely different game.


How to notice when you’re playing the wrong game


We try desperately to win cultural games because we believe that winning will bring us happiness But because winning is so rare, most of us never get to the point where we realize this assumption may not be true.

I’ve worked with athletes who won literal games—the World Series, the Olympics, and other famous contests. They all trained with the tenacity of pit bulls on Adderall, and once they had those coveted trophies or medals, they felt…stunned, empty, sometimes terrified. Other athletes might have felt differently, but these people sought me out because victory didn’t feel the way they expected it to. “I’ve pushed myself my whole life for this one thing,” one athlete told me. “Now I’ve accomplished it. But I have no idea what to do next. I feel like a wind-up toy that only knows how to keep going and going without ever getting anywhere.”

I’ve heard similar stories from people who won other kinds of games. Most were ordinary folks who’d managed to earn degrees, marry well, get good jobs, raise lovely children. Others were unusually successful: the rock star addicted to pills, the genius engineer who couldn’t shake his depression, the socialite who told me, “If I have to be gracious to one more person this week, I’m going to run in front of a bus.” One man called me the day after his business went public and he became a billionaire. “It’s not enough!” he almost yelled into the phone. “When will it ever be enough?”

The answer to this question is that winning a game will never be enough to fulfill us. Fulfillment comes from choosing a game where the effort of playing, itself, is intrinsically rewarding.


How to choose the right game


People who are miserable playing cultural games often misdiagnose their unhappiness problem. They think the game they’re playing is too hard, and that what they want is to do something that comes easily to them. Many, many clients come to me thinking that what they need is a lifelong beach vacation. They’re wrong.

We humans are not at our happiest just sitting around. On the contrary, research shows that we’re at our most blissful when we’re doing something that’s almost too hard for us. The state called “flow,” characterized by high levels of dopamine in the brain, occurs when we push our boundaries, when our whole vast ability to learn and focus is taxed by something interesting. Then we get swept away, enraptured, by this incredibly difficult thing.

I think this is the underlying reason humans turn so many things into games: we need to play hard at something we care about to be completely fulfilled.

If you’re playing a life game you hate just because it’s easy or safe, stop. If you’re doing anything because you think you’ll be happy when you finally win, stop. Blow the whistle and get out of that game. Find something that can put you in “flow.” You’ll know it because what fascinates you will be the process of doing, not the prospect of winning. And remember, this isn’t just about making a living. This is about any area of life where you’re expending effort to reach a goal.

Once you choose a game that interests you, play it hard. Push yourself to the edge of your ability, then beyond. You’ll feel frustrated and stumped and confused and exhausted—and completely, wonderfully alive. “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “for the harder I work the more I live…. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible.”

The prize is never the point. Learning and loving the game is. You knew that when you were two years old.


Your big game is waiting for you


When we play hard at games that interest us, we can expect to get a bit roughed up. Every time we go out in the world, dressed in our pads of flesh and our helmets of bone, we may face hard work and take hard knocks. Even the very best of us have playing careers that don’t last all that long—usually less than a hundred years.

And yet.

Today, when I watch those freakishly talented athletes hit the field and push themselves beyond all reasonable limits, something in me will rejoice. I’ll be gobsmacked all over again by the human ability to run and catch and throw and strategize and take a hit. I will find it exciting and terrible and glorious. Like the rest of life.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, take time this Super Bowl Sunday to think about the games you’ve been playing with your time and talent. Make a vow to get into the games that truly fascinate you, and leave the others behind. Because the big game of your life is already underway. It’s happening right now, as you read these words. And it’s never too late for you to start playing.

This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.