One thing it helps to know about me is I like to win.
I haven’t done any writing or used my public voice for the last year or so. Since Doug and I separated at the end of last year I’ve been figuring out how to be and who I am when I’m by myself, and consequently I haven’t felt like being reflective in public. But reflecting out loud is also a huge part of who I am, so it was only a matter of time.
I am someone who likes to win and today I want to reflect on what that means. I also want to reflect on planning, goal setting and how I get things done, since I’ve come to realise this is something about me people find intriguing but don’t really understand, and also would like a little bit of for themselves.
This song called ‘Game Winner’ by Joey Dosik is a belter (thanks Steve!) Aside from the amazing chords, rhythm and gospel harmonies – as if someone had given Sam Smith 40,000 volts of personality – and the fact that it invents and owns the category ‘basketball love song’, it is actually the simplest and most euphonious expression of how I go about life:
‘Give me the ball, I’ll hit the game winner...’
That’s really the only plan I ever have. All the associated activity and apparatus of goal-setting and organising that you might see me doing is really just about getting to a point where that could actually happen.
Of course, to win, you first need to know what game you’re playing. This is not as easy as it sounds. I’m not one of those people who knew at age six with lightning bolt certainty what they wanted to be and then carefully and systematically laid out a series of steps to get there. I call them Plan A people. I am not on Plan A. In fact at this point I’m running out of alphabet.
I’m more of a FOMO person. There is nothing I can see that I really want to be, but there are lots of things that interest me that I’d like to be involved with and experience. I’m also at heart an idealist and an optimist, which means by the time I was a teenager I’d taken a good look at the world and found it wanting. This assessment hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older, I just have a better vocabulary with which to make sense of it.
There are rules to any game, and one of the most important rules of life is that no-one gets out alive. Therefore, time is your most crucial resource. You get dealt some at the start and you don’t get any more along the way. You also don’t know how much you have. So what’s the best strategy? If you’re a Plan A person, it’s simple – proceed to the objective as quickly as possible. But what if you don’t have an objective and you don’t know what the ‘win condition’ looks like? Well then you’re like most of us – thrown into the world and spending most of the time we have just figuring out the rules of the game. The technical term for this is living.
Another important rule of life is that not all the things are available to you, and the range of available options tends to shrink over time. At the most basic level, as a child born in Brisbane to British parents, I can’t decide to be the prince of Saudia Arabia for a while, for instance. To paraphrase Marx, we make our own choices, but not in the circumstances of our choosing. We could think of the way circumstances put limits on our available choices as the possibility space in which we can play around.
Paying attention to your possibility space is crucial, especially the way it can be stretched, squeezed or otherwise shaped by the things you do or things that are going on around you. Being prince of Saudi Arabia was never in my possibility space and never will be, but if I’m not attentive enough, some things that were in my possibility space might fall away without me noticing, or there may be things that are possible that I’m not aware of and therefore won’t experience. For a FOMO person, both prospects are unbearable on pretty much a cellular level. With that in mind, I put a lot of effort into tending to my possibility space, with the aim of keeping it as wide as possible at any given moment.
I’m very conscious that not everyone has the same drive as I do, which is why I’m not suggesting that anyone go about things the way I do. But I also believe most people have more drive than they let on. Of course, most of us are afraid that if we do find ourselves with the ball — any ball — that we won’t hit the game winner, and what then? Safer to watch others hit it, or read about hitting it, or make plans for that time when you’ll eventually hit it, or talk about how you’d hit it if it weren’t for xyz, or – safest of all – teach others how to hit it. If we don’t ever hit the ball, we’ll never have to find out if we hit the game winner. That’s not so much fear of missing out as fear of finding out. The good news is that if not-finding-out is a game you want to play, it’s easy to win. The other good news is that, as Lewis Carroll observed, if you genuinely don’t mind where you want to go, then any road will take you there.
But if you do care what options end up being available to you and you want to exercise some influence over that, depth is also important. One thing I really want to do is run a large organisation, but that’s not something anyone can do from a standing start. No-one is going to give me a large organisation to run, and if I start an organisation, not only will it not be large, but it is unlikely that it will become so without a lot of things going right over a sustained period of time. Starting an organisation is actually easy – it’s keeping an organisation going that’s difficult. (Unless it’s a sleepwalking zombie kind of organisation like neoliberalism, the patriarchy or Telstra, but such monstrosities come about as part of a different game with different rules.)
I don’t know what kind of large organisation I want to run or what would happen if I did, and actually it doesn’t matter at this point. Give me the ball, I’ll do something amazing with it. All the work is in becoming plausible as someone to give the ball to, which requires depth in several areas. Let’s call developing that depth my plausibility space.
Plausibility is a slippery concept that involves a lot of messy human social and political stuff about power, perception and performance. It’s also relational. I can’t be plausible all by myself in a vacuum. I must always be plausible to someone. That can include being plausible to myself, which brings its own challenges. But it definitely means being plausible to others. Winning is social. Someone has to give me the ball, someone has to see me hit it and someone has to know what game we are playing and the meaning of my actions in order to comprehend whether or not I hit the game winner. All of that is what makes the ‘magic circle’ in which we play out our lives. If I don’t engage seriously with the social and performative parts of plausibility, the only game I can ever win is Calvinball.
A simple and obvious initial strategy to winning at FOMO is to do lots of things — if I don’t want to miss out, then I’ll do all the things! I have certainly relied on this strategy for long periods of my life. But it’s important to pay attention to how you’re playing, and change your strategy as the circumstances of your life change, especially with age. As Keynes once said, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?’
I ran a company in my twenties. Someone did give me the ball, but what I hit with it could not be described in even the most generous sense as the game-winner of any game but Calvinball. I learned a lot about both possibility and plausibility spaces from that experience, though the terms I’m using to reflect with I’ve only acquired recently. ‘Possibility space’ comes from the games studies literature and ‘plausibility space’ is, to the best of my knowledge, a term of my own devising that popped into my head as I was writing this journal entry.
The point of mentioning this is to illustrate something important about how I go about things. When my company failed and I lost all my money and status and a lot of some other people’s as well, I distinctly remember thinking two things. One was – well this sucks and it’s going to take me a long long time to recover, which is not how I had counted on spending my time. The second was – next time I do this I’m going to be more prepared.
I am someone who likes to win. So how do you win at failure and bankruptcy?
I started by accepting that both my possibility and plausibility space were now greatly reduced and to have any hope of expanding them again, I’d need a new strategy. The foreseeable future looked sucky, but I was determined to wring every possible ounce of good out of it and make the best use of my time, which is after all my most important and finite resource. The strategy I adopted was to learn how to play other people’s games for a while and take the magic circle of their rules and meanings seriously, not just insist on playing my own. Specifically, I went and got a vocabulary, some credentials and some financial stability, the latter of which took longest and was the hardest. And at each step along the way I parlayed what I had into consolidating and expanding my options as much as possible. In this way I managed to go in ten years from a high school dropout with a failed business and an aversion to formal education, to someone with two policy degrees and a job managing the performance of research at a well-regarded international university, about all of which I knew nothing when I started.
That’s not a boast. It’s not a plan either. It’s just a mindset that you follow through with action. I am someone who likes to win, so I decided to go devour the corpus of social and political science and learn all about the messy power, performance and perception stuff so I would never be beaten that way again, and I worked hard to become plausible enough such that some day someone will give me another ball and when they do I will fucking hit it out of the park.
These days I more or less wield bureaucracy for a living, where both the rules of the game and how to win are unclear, and the main tools I have at my disposal are the proactive use of passivity, opportunistic interpretations of policy and the surgical application of empathy. I’m not really working towards anything in particular, because there is nothing I can see that I really want to be, and now that I’ve seen and understand more of the world, I find it just as wanting as ever. I figure the only way I can really do anything about that is to make something that doesn’t exist yet, but there’s no point making plans for something that doesn’t exist. My plans are more about what I need to do to be the kind of person who would create something good if given the chance.
Now that I’ve recovered from the failure and bankruptcy of my twenties, I experience my drive as something fun and creative moreso than something that gnaws away at my insides during every waking moment. But in fact the strategy now is much the same as what got me through that time. I continue to maximise the total area of my possibility and plausibility space, so that I can increase the chances both of cool opportunities and my ability to reach out and grab them when they come up.
I do this by forcing myself to reset my focus often. If I make a plan for the week on Monday at 8am, then by 9am I’ve already thrown it away or forgotten what it was, because that’s what life is like. My only hope of winning is to create opportunities for myself to step out of the crazy stream of life often enough that I can see where I’ve drifted to and remind myself of what’s important and therefore what I need to organise my life around. And then once I have reset with that clarity, I need to be relentless about applying it so that every choice I make supports what I’m organising my life around and drives it forward. I don’t know how much time I have or where the next ball is coming from, so I can’t afford to waste any time on choices that aren’t the ones that will help the most.
I’m not afraid of what I don’t know. All that focussed effort and determination is just so that when I get the chance, I will do something amazing for you all to see. Just give me the ball… I’m ready to let it fly.