Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fun and Games

We just took our grandson on a college visit. Campuses always remind me of all the interesting directions we can go with our lives. And that doesn't stop in our teens and twenties, not even in our sixties. If I were to embark on a new career, I think I'd explore the study of game theory. I love games that present a puzzle and especially those that make use of words. But it is not just the challenge of games that intrigues me, it is the lessons that live within them. They reveal our fundamental nature and offer us clues on how we can begin to improve on it. They also give us insight into other people and how we interact with them.

My husband and I got to know each other over a Scrabble game. I noted several important things about him. He had a good vocabulary and was strategic and competitive. Anything less and there would not have been a second date. Those were fundamental requirements. 

Over time I began to observe a difference in our styles. I knew all the two letter words and could wedge them into tight spots. I played a game that hugged the board. He on the other hand loved the grand gesture, laying out a seven letter word with a flourish. For a while we stayed in our separate spheres, tight spots versus expansive gestures. One day it dawned on me that the best way to beat him was to master his game while retaining my own. I began to look at words differently, identifying beginnings and endings and building on them. Most importantly I began with the premise that a seven letter word could be hiding in those letters. I stopped treating it like a lucky rarity and assumed it was there. Suddenly I began to spot them. I decided that I could be someone who put down seven letter words much as I decided at age 30 that I could be someone who traveled. Part of altering our life is embedded in that decision about who we will be and how we perceive our possibilities and limitations.

There are a few lessons here...

1) Allow for the possibilities in the world and in your own capacity to grasp them. You won't find them if you assume they don't exist and especially if you don't believe in your own ability to find them.

2) Look for components and how they connect. Even in the grand gesture, you can build in segments. I've always described myself as an incrementalist, one who builds things step by step.  There are moments when an entire word or idea or even a painting bursts forth fully formed, but more often we need to assemble the pieces in a gradual process.

3) Learn an unfamiliar approach to expand on your existing approach.

I've moved on from Scrabble to Words With Friends and Word Streak and along the way gathered a few more lessons. One rather jarring one is...

4) There is always someone better than me. Or you.

I've written of that time I had a career upset and my father said, "it was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug." Games keep me humble and there are times that is a good thing. Ask those who know me. I win a lot of games, but just when I start feeling rather smug, someone creams me.

Now at first I lick my wounds and then I realize there is an opportunity to learn, just as I did from my husband. So lesson # 5, the corollary to #4 is that you can always get better. One of the best ways?

5) Learn from your opponent.

I start analyzing their game. What words do they get that I don't? How do they maximize endings? Do they win on speed or vocabulary or both? How strategically do they make use of bonus points? I figure out what they are doing successfully and then try my hand at it. I believe they call that "beating them at their own game".  

The strategy you use against one person may not be the strategy for the next.  Each of us is different and acknowledging the differences allows you to study that person rather than simply projecting from yourself.  Seeing clearly without getting in your own way, is an important part of engaging with another person.  And what are games, but an engagement with another person.

Games reveal a lot about us and our opponent, but they also show us how to take on the world in a different way and embrace its possibilities as our own.

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