This buffalo is terrible at golf.
I know what you’re thinking, “Jason, Jason…this is a bison, not a buffalo.”
Yes, apparently this is a bison. I grew up calling it a buffalo, but whatever.
Either way, it’s like a wooly mammoth version of a cow. And it is an American icon. And they’re a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
Like the bison that once roamed the Midwestern plains by the millions, the American Dream is fading away.
It’s not gone, it’s just different. It used to involve a house with a white picket fence (do they still make those anymore?). But now, in a fitting reflection of the diversity we enjoy in this country, the American Dream has splintered into a hundred different versions. I like to think of these options as games.
Just because we don’t think of them as “games” in the same way we think of basketball as a game, doesn’t mean we haven’t devised ways to keep score at the activities in which we participate. In the old version, the white picket fence served as the trophy to prove that you made it. You won.
Rather than tracking three-pointers, we might measure things like money, square footage, body weight, degrees, awards, connections, sales, and followers.
For instance, there’s the “Retire By The Time I’m 50” game.
The “Make Partner in My Firm” game.
The “Solve the Homelessness Problem in My Community” game.
The “Own the Biggest House in the Neighborhood” game.
The “Enter and Win Marathons” game.
The “Get Elected to Public Office” game.
The “Find and Do Work That Matters to Me” game.
The “Become Debt-Free as Soon As Possible” game.
The “Get My Kids Into Prestigious Universities” game.
It’s possible to play a number of different games during your lifetime, even a few at the same time. I hope you can see that “winning” at any of the aforementioned games requires trade-offs that will limit your chances of success at the others.
You know that feeling of overwhelm you get trying to maintain some semblance of “life balance?” That’s a telltale sign that you’re playing too many games.
The more games you play, the less chance you have of winning any.
So…What game are YOU playing?
I am convinced that my neighbor waters his lawn with angel tears and fertilizes it with unicorn poop. Sometimes I beat myself up for not having a lawn as nice as his. But then I remember that I am not competing in the “Best Lawn in the Neighborhood” Olympics. I am playing the “Spend as Much Free Time As Possible with My Kids When They’re Young” game. As such, the more time I spend looking for, harvesting, and spreading magical unicorn poop takes me away from spending time with my kids.
Mind you, this is not about labeling games as good or bad. (Unless you’re playing the “Sell Drugs to Everyone in My Neighborhood” game, which is most definitely bad.) As far as I know, my neighbor, who is retired and has grown children, considers tending to his lawn as his happy place.
In many ways, The American Dream is as strong as ever. It’s always been about taking advantage of the freedom to make a life for yourself in the pursuit of happiness. That pursuit can be different for different folks. When the writers of the Declaration of Independence wrote about the pursuit of happiness, I don’t think they had pining for the newest iPhone in mind, but you do you.
We are in the middle of a great and turbulent upheaval right now, which is actually good news, because it has awakened us to the games we’ve been playing, challenges us to examine whether or not they are games we want to play, and has opened up new opportunities to embrace.
This is your life. You get to pick your own version of the American Dream. You decide what game you want to play. But you can’t play and hope to win them all. If you’re not careful, you can get duped into playing a game you don’t even care about and end up making choices that distract you from a game that does.
And, as Naval Ravikant correctly points out, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
The cool thing is that once you identify the game that matters to you, you can let go of all the burdensome jealousy, envy, and guilt that you feel when you compare yourself to people playing different games. (After all, Tiger Woods never beat himself up for not having as good a free throw percentage as Steph Curry.) Instead, be happy for the people who are winning the games they’re playing. Most importantly, you can be free of the self-loathing thoughts that you’re not good enough.
I’ll admit it: I’m getting blown out in the games that are being played by some of my friends, family, and peers. You might be, too. But the game that matters to me? I’m leading the league, which is all that really matters.
This buffalo – sorry, bison – doesn’t give a flip about his golf swing. He’s playing a different game.
Two lessons here: Get really clear on what game you’re playing.
And don’t beat yourself up for being in last place in the games you’re not.