Many years ago, when my children were still quite young, we got a visit for the weekend from my friend Peter Russell. You may know him from his book, “The Global Brain,” and more recently, “From Science to God.” He came to visit us for the weekend to get a break from his busy teaching and writing schedule. He wanted some time off. So that Saturday afternoon he organized a grand Monopoly tournament with my two sons, who were around six and nine at the time.
As the game wore on, someone had built up hotels on Park Avenue, and someone else had bought all the utility companies; you know how Monopoly goes. I was glad to get a break from looking after the kids, so I wandered in and out from time to time to see how they were getting on.
What I learned that afternoon has stayed with me ever since.
My youngest son, Shuba, who was only six at the time, got very caught up in the game, as kids often do. So at one point, when he landed on Pete’s two hotels on Park Avenue and had to pay thousands of dollars in rent, he lost it. He ran to his room crying, saying he hated all of us. It took us 15 minutes to coax him out. When the game went better for him, on the other hand, he was overjoyed, ecstatic, and wanted to play forever. Pete, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying himself no matter what. He rolled his dice, and if his fortunes were good he laughed. He rolled the dice again, and if his fortunes were bad…he still laughed.
Shuba is older now. He’s been through the peaks and the valleys and he’s learned to laugh too.
Now tell me, what was the difference between Pete’s experience that afternoon and Shuba’s? Both had their small winning streaks. Both had their disappointments. One was experiencing extreme peaks and valleys, ecstasy and misery. The other was having a great time no matter what. The answer, of course, has not to do with what was happening, but with their relationship to the game itself. On that particular day, Shuba was playing to win, Pete was playing to play.
As you might have noticed, even if you’re paying attention just a little bit, the nature of the game we’re all playing has changed considerably in the last months. During the nineties and this decade, we were living in a time of unprecedented economic expansion. Real estate, the stock market, manufacturing and services were all fueled by enormous speculation. It was relatively easy to play to win, and to move from the rush of one small triumph to another. But an economy based on that kind of speculation, where material gains become largely divorced from the contribution of value, cannot last forever. It’s a bubble that has to burst. The real estate bubble has burst. The Wall Street bubble has burst. The dot-com bubble burst a few years ago. And many people, like my son Shuba on that day many years ago, find themselves running to their rooms screaming “I hate everybody,” and no amount of coaxing will bring them out again.
The difference between playing to play and playing to win lies in your state of consciousness. If our sense of well-being is intrinsically caught up with the kind of car we drive, how many square feet the house has, with acquisition and power, our happiness is very fragile. It only takes landing on someone else’s hotels to throw us for a loop. When you’re playing to play, your sense of well-being comes from somewhere else. You’re here to participate and perhaps to contribute, to connect with other players, and then it doesn’t matter who’s having a winning streak, and who is in a temporary defeat. It’s all part of the game. You can enjoy yourself immensely, whether you’re winning or losing.
I’ve been researching this extensively over the last 20 years or so, and there’s a funny little caveat to all this. People who play to play and who learn to accept winning and losing as inevitable cycles in the game actually increase their changes of winning. Their stress levels come down. They can meet new opportunity free of fear and greed. They learn to cooperate with people more easily. So the less attached they become to winning, the more winning streaks they find coming their way.
There are specific, reliable, repeatable and precise ways to shift your state of consciousness from acquisition to contribution. I’m going to share the most reliable of these tools with you over the next weeks in this column, but you can start today with a simply inquiry. If you feel defeated sometimes, if you feel a sense of failure, if you want to give up, if it all feels too much, just stop and ask yourself, in this moment, am I playing to play or am I playing to win?