Chapter 1: Work is a Game

Nothing is like it seems, but everything is exactly like it is.
–Yogi Berra[1]

How Can Work Be a Game?

After more than thirty years working and coaching hundreds of professionals on success, I know work is essentially a game.

Work encompasses the activities you do to earn money to buy the stuff you and your loved ones need for survival—as well as enjoyment. You may have worked hard to gain the education and experience required to do your job. In addition, part of your identity may be tied to what you do for a living.

Think about how often “What do you do?” and “Who do you work for?” come up in casual conversations with acquaintances. For better or worse, people rank and categorize our place in society based on our work.

In contrast, games are activities we usually take part in for fun. If you lose a game, you might say, “No big deal. I’ll get ’em next time.” However, if you lose your job, that probably won’t be your reaction. So I get it. It feels weird to frame work as a game, because work is such an important organizing force in your life. But that’s precisely why I propose that you look at it this way. It provides much-needed perspective.

Gaining Objectivity to be Strategic

We can get so attached to our work that we have a hard time being objective about it. It’s so personal. I see it all the time in my coaching practice when clients experience difficulty at work. It’s natural to get emotionally involved in what’s going on and feel helpless, hopeless, or angry and at a loss about how to make the situation better. This causes stress, which spills over and affects personal relationships and health—physically and mentally.

If you think about it, work and games have many things in common. Much like a game, work has an objective, which in for-profit businesses, is making money, and it has rules about how you play, as well as strategies that employees use to get ahead. The advantage of viewing work as a game is that it creates some distance between you as the “player” and the dynamics of the business.

It enables you to see the larger game board and opportunities that would be impossible to see when you’re in the middle of the activity. When you understand this, you can be more strategic and focus on achieving longer-term goals.

When you fail to create this type of distance, you can’t see the whole board, and this can leave you feeling like a pawn. If you can’t see what’s going on around you, you can’t be strategic. When you leave yourself no moves, you are at the mercy of savvy players. That can leave you feeling helpless, and no one wants to feel that way.

There’s More to Work Than It Seems

I used to look at the workplace dynamic as a simplistic relationship between employer and employee. The business had an objective—to make money. The employer made up the rules of how that would happen, decided what the employees would do (or not do) to deliver the value that customers paid for.

The employees showed up, performed the activities associated with their roles, picked up a paycheck, and went home. Wash, rinse, repeat. The employees who did their jobs in a superlative way would naturally be recognized and promoted. It seemed simple.

Maybe you picked up this book because, in your career, it’s become apparent that it’s not that simple after all. You might feel a little lost, even cheated, if you’re not getting the results you expect from your efforts at work.

Your frustration is understandable. If you’re confused about where you are and about the rules of unsuccess that you have to unlearn, your feelings are justified. Let’s work through it. The best revenge is success, right? So let the lessons begin.

Playing by the Wrong Rules

If you’re not getting the success and satisfaction from your job, it may be because work really is a game, and you don’t know the rules. After all, if you’re not achieving the objectives you desire, then something is not working.

Many factors can contribute to unattained goals. However, if you’re experienced, working hard on the right things, and still not getting the results you desire, you could be metaphorically playing Monopoly by Twister’s rules.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

I started this chapter with a quote widely attributed to Yogi Berra. He was a catcher with the New York Yankees for eighteen seasons between the 1940s to the 1960s, and though he holds the record for the most World Series Championships as a player (ten),[2] he is arguably best known nowadays for his quirky quotes. Even if you’re not familiar with Berra, you’ve probably heard (or even repeated) some of his sayings, such as, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”[3]

The fascinating thing about these “Yogisms,” and a large part of why his name is still brought up today, is the ironic wisdom they contain. At face value, the sayings contradict themselves and make no sense, yet a deeper truth comes from them that isn’t perceived initially. Like the quote at the beginning of this chapter, there can be a big difference between what seems to be and what actually is.

Start Playing by the “Right” Rules

When you’re in the middle of your work and unable to recognize that you’re on a playing field, you may think you know what’s going on. You know the “rules” and are following them to the T. You’re working hard and expecting to earn the rewards, but then someone else gets the recognition or raise or promotion, and you’re left wondering what the heck went wrong. You may feel robbed or cheated. You may want to blame those who received the reward you were expecting. After all, you are the one playing by the rules, and they aren’t.

The reality is that they are playing Monopoly by the rules of Monopoly, and you’re playing by some other rules that you believeare the proper rules, but they may actually be the rules to Twister. Because you don’t understand the game, you’re twisting yourself into a pretzel trying to win Twister while your colleague is calmly putting hotels on Boardwalk and collecting all the rewards that go with it.

That’s where the wisdom of Berra’s saying comes in . . . Nothing is like it seems. Yet it is what it is. You can continue to operate based on what you think the rules are or what you think they should be, or you can take a step back, see the dynamic of what’s really going on at your work, and base your actions on what is.

On the Topic of Corporate “Playahs”

Another reason why some people have a hard time viewing work as a game is thanks to the “playahs” who exist in many workplaces. People who don’t seem to work as hard yet reap the rewards. Some people rise within organizations by manipulating those around them.

But others rise quickly for another reason that the rest of us should sit up and take note of: They simply understand the rules of the game of work. They show up equipped. They show up pretrained. They show up ready to play, rather than struggling to understand. Sometimes they may work shorter hours, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They work for impact.

Isn’t a baseball game that’s won 1-0 as much of a win as a game that’s 10–9? I might even argue that a game that’s 1–0 is more efficient and used fewer resources.

Inside Baseball

Many analogies in the sports world illustrate the differences between those who seem to rise effortlessly and those who toil away with little to show for it. When I was ten or eleven years old, I would play baseball with the kids in my neighborhood in an empty lot behind my house. We had no strategy. The team with the most runs when we were called home for dinner was the winning team.

Because I played sandlot baseball countless times, I thought I understood baseball. As I got older and began watching major league games, I noticed all the moves and substitutions that the managers made, and it dawned on me that baseball was a muchdeeper and more complex game than I’d understood as a child.

Trading Time for Money—Easy-Peasy

Do you remember your first job? I do. I scooped ice cream at a neighborhood store for $2 per hour. I traded my time for money. As long as I showed up for work on time, I got my paycheck every other Friday. Besides the minor drama that arises when a bunch of high school girls worked together, it was pretty simple. Show up, work, get paid. Easy-peasy.

Much the way I thought I knew the game of baseball because I played as a child, early in my post-college career, I thought I understood what it took to be successful at work because I held a few jobs between age fourteen and twenty-two.

Back then, I thought the key to success was as simple as working hard, showing my dedication, and letting my natural talent and intelligence wow my boss. I assumed I knew what to expect at my first real-world job at the publishing company. My boss liked me, I worked hard, and I figured in no time I’d be rewarded with a promotion.

Dennis Walks Out with My Promotion

As I shared in the introduction, I had a rude awakening at my first job when I realized that ambition and hard work weren’t enough to move ahead. I was so excited about the promotion that Dennis had promised me. It would be my first step out of administrative support. I would graduate from answering phones and typing letters to helping create the company’s marketing strategy.

When Dennis quit (or was fired), I was still optimistic that the hard work I’d put in would be recognized and rewarded by his successor. I saw myself as bright and dedicated and felt sure that was evident to everyone around me, including Dennis’s replacement, Mike. I realize now that Mike probably saw me as Dennis’s girl. He had no loyalty to me and was not under any obligation to follow through on Dennis’s promise to promote me.

I felt so cheated when Mike hired someone from outside to fill that role. At the time, I was naive and didn’t understand anything about office politics. I didn’t know that new leaders usually have their own ideas and don’t typically follow the playbook left behind by their predecessor—especially when the person they replaced was fired.

To say the least, that was an eye-opener, but a valuable lesson that has served me well in my career since then. It trained me to step back and look at the larger playing field—not just at the moves that I thought the other players were going to make. When circumstances change, everything else can change as well.

It Takes More Than Talent

You may believe that if you get educated, get a good job with a great company, and work hard that you’ll ascend the ranks of your organization, be recognized as a leader, and make lots of money. But as many smart, overachieving professionals have discovered, that’s not all there is to getting ahead at work.

It’s like a naturally gifted athlete thinking that if he got drafted by the New York Yankees, with some grit and hard work, he’d soon be wearing a World Series ring. The reality is that talent is only one factor required to achieve that goal.

Advancing at work also depends on:

  • · What you do to improve your skills,

  • · Who you surround yourself with,

  • · Who you choose to follow,

  • · How you perform in moments of crisis (or opportunity),

  • · How you interact with team members,

  • · The organization’s strategy,

  • · Your own mind-set,

  • · Timing,

  • · And many other factors.

It’s Not Personal

I learned this lesson (and many others) the hard way. Too often, I was attached to the things that happened. I took the disappointments personally. I questioned why people didn’t think I was “good enough.”

I focused my anger in ways that had no productive results and did nothing but make me unhappy. At times, because of my reactions, I probably caused people to give me a wide berth when I could have used more friends.

As you’ll read in the chapters dedicated to telling other real career stories, it’s pretty common to take things that happen to us personally, when in reality, it’s “just business.” In some cases, employees are laid off not because they weren’t providing value, but because the company’s strategy changed or due to economic factors that negatively impacted business.

Accessing Your Power

When we step back from feeling like a change is personal, it enables us to have more access to the energy required to recover and move on. When we stay mired in feeling like a victim, not only are we wasting time we could be spending on what’s next, but we can also repel people who could help us find that next opportunity.

My objective with this book is to share my own stories and stories of some interesting and accomplished professionals—the funny ones, the depressing ones, the happy ones, and even the humiliating ones. If even one person learns something from my experiences and those of the people I interviewed, then the mishaps will have been worth it.

Waking Up to Find Your Job Isn’t a Fit

I’ve coached many mid-career professionals whose primary goal getting out of college was to get a job—really any job. They wanted to start making money and making a career for themselves without much thought about their passions and strengths. High-achieving people are typically able to do a lot of things, and often they just look for someone willing to exchange money for tasks that they can do. This is a common theme in several of the career stories in the book.

Fast forward ten or twenty years, and they can find themselves “successful” in a career that they actually didn’t consciously choose and may not be a great fit for them. Even if you don’t like your job, it can be tough to leave, especially if you’re highly compensated and your lifestyle is based on that income.

Several of the people I interviewed in the book had similar experiences and were able to reevaluate what they loved to do and were good at, then find a fit between those skills that they enjoyed using and the needs within the marketplace.

Understanding the Balance of Power

Workers sometimes feel that the employer holds all the cards and that they, as employees, have little control over the path of their careers. It can really depend on the situation, but often the employees have much more control than they recognize.

The reality is that employers need employees to create the value that their customers buy. While not every organization is this enlightened, the best employers recognize that aligning their employees’ skill sets and passions with the needs of the business increases employee engagement, productivity, and innovation, which benefits the company and their customers.

How Career Contributes to Identity

Though you might still have a hard time looking at work as a game, its distinct advantage has to do with how closely we associate our jobs with our identities. Much like when I didn’t get the promotion at my first job and felt betrayed, many people can get attached to things that happen at work. Our judgment can become clouded with emotion.

The actions and outcomes may or may not have anything to do with us personally, but nevertheless, we can take them that way. Strong emotions lead to all kinds of actions that can be a problem at work—from losing control (think crying or yelling) to holding grudges that don’t make for a happy or productive work environment.

Roll the Dice and Play the Game

When you think of your work situation as a game, it helps to remove you from the “day-to-day” as you gain a broader perspective and see the whole game board. Your boss, company leaders, peers, direct reports, and customers are the players. You can observe the dynamics of how various players interact with each other and choose how you’d like to play. The goal is to recognize that it’s your perception of the events that give them meaning. When you see things from a different perspective, the meanings can begin to change as well.

Roll the dice and start playing the

[1] “Yogi Berra Quote.” Accessed February 1, 2020.

[2]. Posnanski, Joe. “The Meaning of Yogi: It’s déjà vu all over again.” Sports Illustrated, July 4, 2011, pp. 64–66.

[3]. Berra, Yogi. The Yogi Book. Workman Publishing, 1998, p. 9.

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© 2018 Terry B. McDougall