One of the first jobs I had was a position named banquet houseman at a hotel. Our job was to assist in various levels of setting up and tearing down events like weddings and business conferences.
During my time there I met a man named Harka, who is truly a hero and inspiration to me. While working there, many of his implicit actions and ingrained behaviors shaped my ideas on how to build a thriving career doing work I enjoy and find meaningful.
I first realized he was a cool guy because of many little things he would do to make my life and the whole operation of our team easier and more smooth. For example, I would sometimes make small mistakes like forgetting to add the correct number of chairs to a room or calculating slightly wrong table configurations.
These are easy to fix upon the arrival of the customers, but it creates stress for them and it’s not a great customer experience. I would notice my mistakes and rush to fix them before the customer arrived or noticed. But I would often find that Harka had fixed it the night before without mentioning it to me or our supervisor.
I greatly appreciated this and we developed an unspoken bond to look out for each other. It turned into a game looking for opportunities to make Harka’s life easier. He liked this game and began to play with me.
Looking back, I think this not only made our time working together more enjoyable, but also enriched the business and its customers.
Big Idea 1: Ditch the Status Game
At first, Harka and I never talked much about the game or our shared philosophy for work. He’s an immigrant from Nepal and when we first met there was a significant language gap.
Over two years, his English improved rapidly and I started picking up some very basic Nepali.
As we got to know each other, I learned this was one of three jobs he had to support his family of 6.
On top of working as a houseman at the hotel, he also worked as a waiter and at a gas station part time. Also, he was learning English at a breakneck speed because in Nepal he was an advanced chemistry teacher and he missed that work.
This brings us to our first big idea about status and not hating the work we do.
It comes from the twitter philosopher Naval in his essay about getting rich without getting lucky.
Seek wealth, not money or status. Wealth is having assets that earn while you sleep. Money is how we transfer time and wealth. Status is your place in the social hierarchy.
— Naval (@naval) May 31, 2018
Note that Naval’s essay is explicitly covering the game of wealth creation and comparing it favorably to the game of looking cool in front of friends and family. Let’s bracket the former (wealth creation) until our next big idea about infinite games and focus solely on status.
Returning to Harka:
It’s hard for me to think of a more remarkable individual. I’ve only ever worked two jobs at once and it was extremely exhausting for me.
I don’t have children, but I can imagine from experiences of my cousins and god daughter that having 6 of them while working three jobs would be a challenge. Also, I have been slowly trying to learn Spanish for over 5 years and have not made nearly the progress Harka made during the time we worked together.
None of this is to overglorify Harka or put myself down. It’s just to point out the absurdity of using status as a proxy for having admirable traits. From a status perspective, gas station worker, waiter, and hotel jobs are a major step down from teaching college level chemistry.
It would have been easy for Harka to be resentful and angry about the situation. Though he was a smarter and better worker than most of us, he faced some disadvantages that made things harder and weren’t his fault. However, by crushing his job, he was able to rise up the ranks and eventually make enough tutoring chemistry SAT and the job at the hotel to quit waiting and the gas station.
When I asked him about his absurd work ethic, he shared a religious principle about facing each situation in life with precision and accuracy.
This is a blog about accelerating careers and I’m not going to comment on the religious level of analysis. However, if we compare it with Naval’s idea about wealth vs status games, it shows us that we can apply his concept to our own individual principles and values embedding work within a personal worldview. This turns the most low status, boring jobs into opportunities for creating the states of mind we most enjoy.
To summarize the first big idea, status rarely captures the qualities we find most aspirational.
The most technically proficient painters are rarely stars in the art world, the most visionary entrepreneurs are often too early to get famous, and the most admirable people rarely have their story told.
There is nothing inherently wrong with status, it’s just that it relies on things like luck, whims of preference, and other things we have no control over.
If we’re willing to stop caring about what our friends and family may or may not think about current and future opportunities it opens up space to build skills in jobs that others look down on.
Many people spend their work day in state of aversion fantasizing about future notions of better jobs instead of building skills in the moment that will lead to opportunities not yet imagined.
To build those skills, we have to first build a better game.
Big idea 2: Build a better game
The next idea is built from ideas discussed in the highly recommended Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. Many of his foundational concepts are built into the DNA of the Praxis experience and both Isaac Morehouse and T.K. Coleman have covered them on their blogs.
The concept is well worth the effort to explore thoroughly, but in this post I will offer a brief theoretical overview before diving into applying this big idea to planning a career that doesn’t suck.
To summarize, we play finite games if there is some end outcome in mind. A way to win. Examples include becoming president, retiring, or taking a company public. We play infinite games only for the purpose of playing. Examples include wealth creation, happiness, or doing work as with as much precision as possible.
A classic example Carse uses to illustrate is the difference between the rules of debate and the rules of language itself. Debates are designed to have a winner and loser. Languages dynamically evolve in such a way that we can continue to talk and communicate as clearly as possible.
What most people don’t realize is that work can be much more fun when you realize it’s an infinite game.
The best part of infinite games is we have a ton of agency and flexibility in designing what that looks like for us personally. The only constraints are that it can’t be a finite game.
Also, games are generally more fun when there are enough people playing that social communities with shared interests form or already exist.
With that in my mind, I’ll share a fun game called the self-actualizing game.
The term comes from psychologist Abraham Maslow in his book Motivation and Personality from the chapter called “self actualizing people”
In it he provides 19 qualities of high performing artists, business people, and other historical figures.
Below are quotes on three of those infinite games that I’ve found particularly fun and useful to play during work.
The perception of reality game:
These individuals tend to have a “superior relationship with reality” and are “generally unthreatened and unfrightened by the unknown.” In fact, “They accept it, are comfortable with it, and, often are even more attracted by it than by the known. They not only tolerate the ambiguous and unstructured—they like it.”
The peak experiences game:
It’s also called flow or being in the zone. Maslow shares case studies of various ways self actualizers explain and experience these states of mind.
The creativity game:
According to Maslow, “This is a universal characteristic of all the people studied or observed. There is no exception.”
If we briefly return to the story of Harka and the ideas of Naval we see example of two more infinite games. In Harka’s case he strives to be as accurate and precise in his work as possible. Naval enjoys wealth creation games.
Personally, I like self-actualizing games because there is a lot of room to be dynamic and try new approaches within that worldview. The action item from this big idea is to identify infinite games that seem the most fun and useful for you personally.
Then, start playing them as well as possible in your current job or opportunity. There is no reason to wait for a “better” (higher status) job to start playing.
However, don’t be fooled that this shift in mindset is incompatible with ambition to do well and succeed. Now that we’ve framed work as something that’s not based on the whims of status and is actually enjoyable we can get really, really good at the game and see real results
Big Idea 3: Play the better game better
This is a big idea inspired by the book Mastery and the deep learning projects of Scott Young. These are interesting approaches to learning, but they’re best approached when tempered with the real world results we’ve produced at Praxis helping hundreds of people step into thriving careers.
Before diving in it’s important to realize that any real learning or skill development is done from practice and not theory. It’s smart to internalize the practice > practice > theory mindset and avoid the preparation mindset like rancid meat baking in the hot Arizona sun.
However, it is helpful to develop learning and skill development projects that will help us create value for others so we can continue playing our favorite games.
The first step is picking a skill to learn. Will it be a soft skill or something technical? I suggest picking a skill that directly helps you improve in your current job. It doesn’t matter if your job is in retail, fast food, customer service or something similar. Start developing soft skills, then document the results on a blog, and focus on producing a knowledge product of some kind.
Returning to Naval:
If you can’t code, write books and blogs, record videos and podcasts.
— Naval (@naval) May 31, 2018
For example, I’ve never been able to find a book on how to thrive as a Mcdonald’s employee. My current work places me one degree of separation from hundreds of growing startups looking to add talent. I can tell you with 100% certainty that someone who identifies a soft skill to improve, does it, blogs the results, and transforms the experience into a product can find a role in a startup.
How can you put this idea into action?
Just get started. Find a skill that will increase your ability to play an infinite game of your choosing.
Learn out loud and develop an online paper trail of the results. We can indulge in one more resource: a free summary of the personal development project, the framework Praxis participants use throughout their experience.
If you want to supercharge this process apply to Praxis and see if we’re a good fit for your goals.
In this article, we discussed three big ideas to plan a career that doesn’t suck.
First, drop status games and find better proxies to measure success. Second, build a better personal framework for finding meaning in your work through the ideas of Finite and Infinite Games. Lastly, learn some actual tactics that you can apply to getting better at fun and useful games.
Thanks for reading and if you try any of these ideas let me know on Twitter!