Life Is Like A Game Of Cards Essay

Albert Einstein

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.


The Rules that Govern Our Lives

We come into this world not knowing nor understanding what life has installed for us. We are beginners learning to live in a world that other people have created over the course of human history. Within this world, people live life on their terms. Well, okay… maybe partly on their terms and partly following the terms set by other people and society. Either way, they make a life following a certain set or conscious and often unconscious directives that shape their choices, decisions, and actions each and every day.

All these people, just like you and me, live according to a set of rules. These rules govern how they live their life day-to-day. But I’m of course not talking about laws created by governments and institutions. I’m specifically referring to the set of rules that go deep into the unconscious. These rules are reflected in our values, beliefs, convictions, and in our personal standards. Every day of our lives we live in accordance with these rules without ever questioning them.

These rules have been conditioned into our psyche over the course of a lifetime by others and by society in general. However, we have also played our part in this conditioning process. We have been willing participants and have accepted things to be one way over another way. At one point or another, we made that conscious (or maybe unconscious) choice and have consequently accepted to live and perceive life a very specific way. And now this conditioned way of looking and responding to life events and circumstances is shaping our future, whether we like it or not.

The honest truth is that many of us are living on autopilot. We are living our lives in accordance with a very specific set of habitual rules that might not be serving our greater good. Yes, we all have good intentions and honorable hopes, dreams, and goals for the future, however, the rules by which we live our lives, unfortunately, won’t allow us to realize our desired destination. Instead, another destination awaits. One that is missing the things we want most out of life.

The reason why so many of us go wrong and don’t end up attaining our desired goals and objectives is that our rules are too constrictive. They just don’t allow us the freedom to experiment, to fail, to make mistakes and to wholeheartedly enjoy this process. Or to put it another way, these rules we live by don’t allow us to live life the way it was meant to be lived: AS A GAME!

It’s unfortunate that most people live life too seriously. When things get out of control they feel overwhelmed; when they lose something they start to panic; when they face a problem they can’t solve they get frustrated; when someone disagrees with them they get angry; when they encounter an unfamiliar situation they succumb to their fears, and so forth. These people are living by a set of habitual rules that have been conditioned into them over a lifetime of experience. And instead of helping them get more out of life, these rules are preventing them from moving forward.


The Innocence of Childhood

Think back for a moment to your childhood. Think back to the youthful innocence and enthusiasm that you brought forth into every activity. Back then you treated everything as a game. Everything you did was injected with a little fun and excitement — that was up until the moment someone told you to “grow up”; suddenly changing all your rules for how life should be played. You were told that life isn’t a game and that you must take things more seriously. You were told that your actions have negative consequences; that you need to protect yourself from pain; that you must hold on tight to the things you have, and that you must follow the universally accepted rules that everybody else has grown up with. That’s the only way to live your life, and that’s the way you must now live your life from this moment moving forward.

In an instant, your childhood innocence and unbridled enthusiasm were ripped away as harshly as a band-aid. Life was no longer a game, it was rather an endless struggle. A struggle to protect yourself from pain and harm. And you have lived this way following exactly these rules ever since, probably never even questioning that life could be lived another way — a better way, under a different set of rules just like when you were a child.

Isn’t it about time you recaptured the “magic” of childhood and once again lived life as it should be lived: AS A GAME?


Succeeding at the Game of Life

Before delving into the rules of how to live life as a game, let’s first briefly take a look at what life requires from each one of us every single day. These requirements are essentials for living your life to the highest level of fulfillment and satisfaction. These are the non-negotiable’s that you must fully acknowledge and accept before moving on. In other words, you must wholeheartedly agree with the following statements in order to begin shifting your rules for playing the game of life.

Succeeding at the game of life requires:

  • Acknowledging that the results you get from life are a direct reflection of your habitual thoughts, words, and actions.
  • Choosing your own path and not the path laid out for you by others.
  • Dedicating yourself to something worthwhile. This is your higher purpose or in other words your personal legend.
  • Dedicating yourself to daily growth and to learning from experience, from other people, from mistakes, and from failure.
  • Taking advantage of opportunities to move your life forward in a better way.
  • Taking full responsibility for your life, choices, decisions, and actions without complaining, blaming or making excuses.
  • Cultivating curiosity each and every day.
  • Asking plenty of thought-provoking and insightful questions about your life, problems, and circumstances.
  • Remaining flexible in thought and open-minded to new perspectives, ideas, and opinions.
  • Holding true to your highest core values.
  • Making the necessary short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.
  • Making tough decisions that feel uncomfortable and may involve considerable risk.
  • Regularly giving back to society.
  • Consistently challenging yourself and continuously raising your personal standards.
  • Overcoming unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, habits, and fears that are holding you back from living life in an optimal way.
  • Choosing to fight and stand-up for your values, beliefs, and convictions.
  • Avoiding getting caught-up in the cycle of procrastination and instant gratification.
  • Fully accepting that life isn’t always fair, that it can be uncertain, that it is full of pitfalls and is constantly changing.

These are the requirements for living life in an optimal way. By acknowledging and accepting these principles you will put yourself in an optimal mental state-of-mind that will shift how you think about your life and circumstances. Only then will you be fully ready to absorb and integrate the 10 fundamental rules of how to live life as a game.


Life is Like a Computer Game?

In order to be successful at playing the game of life, we first need to accept the harsh realities that life has to offer.

As with any game you play, whether it’s a computer game or a board game or a sports competition, the reality is that there will undoubtedly be ups and downs. There will be exhilarating moments when everything is going well and you feel unstoppable, but there will also be moments during the game when things don’t go so well. In fact, everything might suddenly go wrong, and what seemed like a “sure thing” has now turned into a dire struggle for survival. You might of course not like how things are going, but you’re still committed to playing the game. You are still committed to giving your “all” despite the unfavorable circumstances of the game. You could of course just leave the game and quit. But that could do you more harm than good.

You see, playing a game, any game is an experience. Of course, you want to win, but above all else, you want to have the “experience” of playing the game. And the more you play the game the more experience you gain, and the more experience you gain the more you know what to do and/or what not to do the next time you play this game.

Let’s, for instance, use a computer game as an example. When playing a brand new computer game everything is a mystery. You don’t quite know what will happen, and you certainly don’t know what to expect. However, you’re excited because this is something new; something that will challenge you in a brand new way. And so you play the game — rather poorly at first. You play poorly because you haven’t yet had the experience, the practice and the knowledge required to play the game successfully. And so you make poor decisions, you make mistakes and you fail time and again. But this is all okay. In fact, it’s expected. You can’t just suddenly be good at something without the necessary experience, practice, and knowledge. And so you keep playing and perfecting your skills.

Every time you make a mistake in the game you learn from that mistake. Yes, you may very well need to start the game all over again, but each time you play it you are better and more experienced than you were before. Each time you play the game over again things are easier and you do things much faster. The early stages of the game might have initially been a little challenging, however, now everything is a breeze. You are no doubt enjoying the ease of the early levels of this game, however, you revel in the challenges that you haven’t yet overcome. And it’s the new challenges that you struggle most with that make this game fun and enjoyable. These challenges are the reason why you play this game.

Imagine for a moment playing a computer game that posed no challenge at all. You would begin playing at level 1 and move through 50 levels without making a single mistake. At the conclusion of this game, how would you feel? Would you feel fulfilled or satisfied with what was accomplished? Maybe, just a little, or maybe not at all. However, on the flip-side imagine playing a very difficult and challenging game where you made hundreds of mistakes and failed time and time again. In fact, it took you an entire month to finish playing this game. How do you think you would feel at the end of the month having successfully overcome all those difficulties? Probably much better than at the conclusion of the easy game, right?

The computer game you just played is really not that different to the life you live. I guess the main difference is that when playing a computer game you are playing a character in an imaginary world. You are the character in the game, but you are also another character outside the game living in the real world. Therefore you can kind of disassociate yourself from the hardships of the game by returning to the real world where you don’t necessarily face those same challenges.

When you face real-world challenges there is no real escape. What you face is real and because it’s real it hurts most when things don’t go your way. However, how you choose to respond to these challenges in real life doesn’t necessarily have to be any different than how you respond to them in a “computer game” scenario. All you need to do is shift your perspective and begin to see your life situation from a detached vantage point.


The Harsh Truth About Life

Whether we accept it or not, life is not always filled with green grass and pretty flowers on a sunny day in the park. No, life challenges and tests us all of the time. In fact, the harsh truth about life is that:

These are the harsh realities of life. They are the things that are certain to happen without a question sooner or later, and maybe more often than you ever imagined. In fact, if we take Murphy’s Law into account, then everything that could go wrong, may very well go wrong at the worst possible time when you least expect it.  That’s life, and we must accept that. Only by accepting the fact that life is a certain way, we naturally give up the need to resist it. And when you give up the need to resist the harsh realities of life, you are then better able to deal with them in a more positive way.

One method that leads to acceptance is the act of disassociating yourself emotionally from these experiences. In reality, there are no good or bad situations, there are only interpretations that people make. What one person might interpret as an unfortunate event, another person will interpret that exact same event in a more favorable way. And because they see it in a favorable way, they can now make the most of the situation instead of playing the victim card.

One way to disassociate yourself from the harsh realities of life is to treat life as a game. Yes, actually see yourself as a character within a computer game. Every challenge you experience is an opportunity to learn something new in order to make further progress in the game. And once you have enough experience from the many mistakes and failed attempts, you will finally overcome your challenges and can then progress to the next level of the game where you will face higher level challenges still. You will no doubt make mistakes and fail time and again facing these bigger challenges. You may even need to restart the game and do things all over again. But that’s just part of the game. It’s part of the game of life you have subscribed to play. You learn from your mistakes and failures and as a result, you successfully overcome these challenges and keep moving onto higher levels within the game.

In order to disassociate yourself in such a way, you need to see yourself from a higher perspective. You are here on earth as a human “being” human. You are BEING HUMAN, and the prerequisite for “being human” is that you make mistakes and learn from them, just like a computer game. However, on a spiritual level, you are not human. You are “being human” here on earth, but you are in reality a spiritual entity that is playing this game that requires it to “be human”. Therefore you are not a human being, you are just a character “being human” for the purpose of this game.

Seeing your life in this way allows you to disassociate yourself from the “human being” experience. You are now no longer within this experience, you are rather the character outside this experience who is playing the game of life using planet earth as the platform for this game.

I can certainly understand that it might not be easy for some people to shift their experience of reality in this way, especially for those who don’t have any spiritual beliefs. However, seeing your life from this vantage point can be of tremendous value. Having the ability to detach yourself from the harsh realities of life means that you can begin living your life as though it’s a computer game. And in this way, every new experience, every mistake, and every failure is just another opportunity to learn something new and begin again. Moreover, every challenge overcome takes you to the next level of your life where you will undoubtedly face even greater challenges, and of course, greater challenges bring higher level rewards, and that is essentially why you decided to play the game in the first place.

Taking this approach on board will do wonders for your self-confidence. You now essentially have the necessary perspective required for living life at an optimal level. Now all that’s left is to learn how to play this game of life.


The 10 Rules for Playing the Game of Life

If life as we know it is nothing more than a game, then there must be a set of rules for playing this game. Understanding these rules can help you play the game of life at a higher level. And playing at a higher level means you are more likely to succeed and even potentially win this game. Now, of course, your definition of what winning looks like may be very different to someone else’s definition, and that’s okay. As such, it’s important to determine what success or winning means to you. Ask yourself:

  • What does winning at the game of life mean to me?
  • What is my definition of success? What does it look like? Feel like? Sound like?

With a clear understanding of what winning at the game of life means to you, it’s now time to learn the rules of the game. These 10 rules are the guidelines you must follow in order to be successful playing this game of life.

Just like with every game, you must follow a set of rules. In fact, you need to play the game within the boundaries of those rules in order to succeed. Yes, of course, you can cheat and take shortcuts hoping that nobody will notice, but in such instances, you are only cheating yourself, and these kinds of tactics can often backfire and hurt you in the long-run. As such, it’s important to stick to playing the game of life in accordance with these 10 steadfast rules, for that is the only way to win at the game of life.

What follows are a set of rules for living life to an optimal level.

Rule #1: Set Clear Goals

The first rule of life is to set clear goals. Setting clear goals gives you a definite direction in life and helps you live with a sense of purpose. It redirects all your efforts towards clear aims. This is of course very important as many people who fail at playing this game are often scattered and distracted. They have very little direction and certainly live with no clear purpose. As a result, they get very poor results and never win this game.

When you set clear goals, this naturally improves your levels of productivity because you are more committed to your daily actions and more focused on the results you would like to attain. There is really no substitute for having clear goals.

Rule #2: Have Sense of Humor

This game of life will often throw you curve balls when you least expect them. And at other times it will hit you in the head like a ton of bricks. Yes, adversity comes in many forms including setbacks, criticism, rejection, failure and making critical mistakes. The usual response in such instances is to get angry, frustrated, despondent and/or overwhelmed. In fact, it’s very easy to get disheartened and discouraged, and many people fall into this trap and never dig themselves out.

Humor is your greatest weapon against the adversity that life throws your way. Humor will allow you to move through these difficulties without falling into the “victim mentality” trap. Playing the victim card is not going to help you win at the game of life. You must instead use humor to keep your spirits high while you move forward through these challenges. That is the only way to win at the game of life.

Rule #3: Expose Yourself to New Experiences

In order to succeed at the game of life you need to be constantly opening yourself up to a world of new experiences. These experiences can come in the form of ideas, people, places, and knowledge.

Every new experience you come across will provide you with new perspectives. And new perspectives, of course, can lead to new ways of thinking about things. And as you begin to think differently about your life and circumstances you gather unique ideas that you can use to help move your life forward in a better way. New experiences also bring with them new opportunities to help you win at the game of life.

On the flip-side, those who don’t regularly expose themselves to new experiences tend not to grow to a great extent mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually. And as a result, they stagnate and don’t make much progress through the game because of a lack of ideas and opportunities.

Rule #4: Take Calculated Risks

Those people who don’t venture outside their comfort zone have no chance of winning at the game of life. Taking calculated risks and stepping beyond the confines of your comfort zone helps expand opportunities, provides a platform for growth and new insights, helps you solve problems, and also goes a long way towards helping you make better decisions as you make progress through this game of life.

All your problems are solvable, however, you will rarely solve them while within the confines of your comfort zone. You must stretch beyond your comfort zone for that is where the opportunity lies in new understandings and perspectives to help you find solutions. And the more experience you have in solving problems, the better decisions you will tend to make down the line when inevitably even more problems arise.

Rule #5: Cherish Your Friendships

One pivotal key to winning the game of life rests in the hands of other people. Yes, you can no doubt make progress towards your desired aims by yourself, but at one point or another you will get stuck, and you will need the help and assistance of other people to move your forward. That is why it’s absolutely crucial to cherish your friendships.

You need to have a strong support network of people behind you because winning the game of life is impossible if you try and go at it alone. However, this isn’t about taking from others to support your own aims. It’s rather about giving to others first and foremost without expecting anything back in return. Help enough people get what they want most out of life, pretty much guarantees that you will eventually get what you want. However, building these relationships will take time. There are no shortcuts here. Sooner or later you will most certainly need the support of others to help you win this game. Therefore start by cultivating your friendships today.

Rule #6: Be Willing to Make Mistakes

If you think you are going to go through the game of life without making any mistakes, then I’m sorry to say but you are totally mistaken. 😉 Life involves the process of learning and growth. And the only way we learn and grow is by making mistakes. In other words, through the process of “experience”, we learn what works and what doesn’t work and then respond accordingly. It’s all about trial and error. Mistakes are simply an inevitable part of life. You are going to make them sooner or later. The question is whether or not you will learn from your mistakes or continue to repeat the same mistakes time and again.

I have already discussed the value of making mistakes at great length, however, I do want to mention a couple of key takeaways.

First of all when you make mistakes you gain valuable feedback about your choices, decisions, and actions in the moment. Learning from this experience can help improve your results moving forward. Therefore mistakes are only as valuable as the lessons you derive from them. Making mistakes and learning nothing will just lead to further problems and stagnation.

Secondly, making mistakes helps you succeed long-term. Why? Because learning from a small mistake made today can potentially save you from making a bigger mistake tomorrow. Or learning from a big mistake today can help you gain the clarity you need to move forward in a better way. They are all simply lessons that need to be learned.

Rule #7: Generate Plenty of Bad Ideas

Many people often struggle to come up with good ideas to help them overcome their personal, business and/or career problems. Why? Because they are mentally incompetent. It’s hard to think, and it’s certainly very difficult to generate good ideas that can help you move your life forward in a better way. And as a result, these people never get anywhere in life. They never get anywhere because they simply don’t understand that in order to come up with good ideas they must first generate plenty of bad ones. And that is precisely what the game of life requires from you.

Anyone who has achieved anything of significance will probably tell you stories of how they failed time and again because of ideas that just didn’t pan out as they had expected. However, the more ideas they generated and the more things they tried and the more experience they gained. This experience coupled with new knowledge turned into wisdom that helped them think in a new way. And as a result, they were eventually able to generate some brilliant ideas that helped them score some valuable points in the game of life.

Succeeding at the game of life is simply a number’s game. Things will often not work out, but with persistent effort and flexibility-in-thought and action, you will eventually find a way to break through.

Rule #8: Be Kind to Others

It’s easy to see kindness as a form of weakness. You might be thinking that “those who show kindness will eventually be taken advantage of”. And in some respects, you would be right. There will be people who will certainly take advantage of your kindness, however, that’s part of the game of life.

Sometimes life will throw you a curve ball when you were expecting a fastball. Just take it with a grain of salt and move on. It’s just part of life. You cannot always protect yourself, however, that shouldn’t stop you from doing good in this world.

When you are kind to others it often activates the power of reciprocity. When a kind act is “done onto you” you naturally feel as though you owe the other person something in return. You feel somewhat motivated to give back in some way. Now, of course, I don’t specifically mean giving back something physical. Kindness, for instance, can be given through actions, gestures or even through words. No matter which way it’s given, it’s coming back to you in some way, shape or form.

All this is of value because when you are kind to others you naturally feel better about yourself. You feel more confident, in control, and fulfilled that you have made a positive difference in someone else’s life. This confidence naturally becomes who you are and as a result, this empowers your daily decisions and actions that help move your life forward in a better way. You simply wouldn’t be able to experience those same feelings without regularly giving through the “act of kindness”.

Rule #9: Strive for Balance

When we think about life and the natural world, one thing is very clear: a delicate balance exists. With this delicate balance intact, there is harmony. Everything works seamlessly with everything else. There is a sense of synergy and cooperation between all parts of the organism, which is essentially how life demands we live and play the game of life.

You are never going to win the game of life by focusing too much energy on only one area of your life while neglecting the rest. Yes, you might achieve a great deal in that one life area, however, your life as a whole will not be a successful one. A successful life is a balanced life. A successful life is a life that promotes good health and provides long-term emotional stability. And the only way to achieve both is to strive for balance in your career, relationships, and well-being.

Rule #10: Work Smarter AND Harder

The final rule for winning at the game of life is to work smarter AND harder. Of course, working smarter not harder is the ultimate aim. However, those who achieve high levels of success in any field of endeavor work harder than anyone could ever imagine. And as a result of “working harder” this naturally improves their luck and helps them take advantage of opportunities that they otherwise would not have had. And that is exactly why they are successful.

Yes, certainly think of ways you can do things better and faster than they have been done before. Improving your effectiveness and efficiency can certainly help you work smarter. However, the smartest people are rarely the most successful people. In the end it all comes down to your level of work-ethic. And it essentially comes down to asking yourself:

Do I have what it takes to work harder than anyone else to achieve this goal?

Will Smith once said something that I think gets at the core of this idea. I’ll leave you with his quote as it summarizes quite nicely what it typically takes to win at the game of life:

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things — you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right? You’re not going to out-work me. It’s such a simple, basic concept. The guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the guy that just gets that loose ball.”

“The majority of people who aren’t getting the places they want or aren’t achieving the things that they want in this business is strictly based on hustle. It’s strictly based on being out-worked; it’s strictly based on missing crucial opportunities. I say all the time if you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”

Below you will find an interesting video that takes you through the top 10 reasons the universe is God’s video game. Makes for an intriguing debate. 🙂


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In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St Paul takes a firm line on what it means to be an adult: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things.’ Lately, I’ve wondered more and more whether he was right as events have taken a somewhat different turn for me. My second childhood was kindly delivered to me by my children. This, I suspect, was no coincidence. Children know something that adults have forgotten — something adults have to forget when they begin playing the great game of growing up and becoming someone.

It started with the running. I had run for most of my adult life, but when I became a father, this activity took on a new regularity, intensity, and perhaps desperate ferocity. This, I suppose, was not entirely unexpected. Compared with spending three hours with two boys, both below the age five — which, don’t misunderstand me, I love doing — running 20 miles is a relaxing break. But running was just the beginning.

My older son, four years old at the time, was getting bullied at school. The advice of his parents diverged. One of us told him not hit the bully back, but to tell the teacher. The other (the rather less enlightened one) told him to hit the bully back but not to tell the teacher. The poor boy took the worst of both worlds, reporting to his teacher: ‘I hit him with my fist — just like my daddy showed me!’ On reflection, I decided that a more sober and systematic approach to his self-defence might be required. Off we went to the local martial arts training centre, the dojo. At this point, my son drops out of the story, at least for the rest of the paragraph. He liked karate well enough, but I was absolutely entranced. Martial arts, in various forms, were something that I had done as a boy, and as a young man. But now, staring down the barrel of 50, I just couldn’t resist a new immersion. There were some bumps in the road, naturally. A few weeks in, I ruptured my Achilles tendon — a partial tear. It was, as are most things, my fault. My sparring against a 24-year-old black belt was going as well as could be hoped. In the grip of an ill-advised exuberance, I decided to insert an ‘Ali shuffle’ into the proceedings. Snap: I was assaulted by gravity, which doesn’t seem to like me anywhere near as much as it once did. And even then I couldn’t stay away, limping my way through class as my Achilles tendon slowly healed.

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Whenever we do something only for the sake of something else, we are working — even if we receive no financial reward

During my recuperation, I would find myself gazing longingly at the tennis courts in the park across the street. Tennis, too, had been a game of my childhood, and the people playing seemed to be having so much fun. How could I resist? I did what any father in the grip of an incipient second childhood would do: I marched my sons — both of them this time — down to the nearest tennis school and insisted they have lessons, whether they wanted to or not. They liked tennis well enough. But I was … well you see the pattern.

And so my week has become a patchwork of athletic activities. I run most days, and try to fit in a marathon when I can. I go to the dojo three days a week (and I bought a heavy bag to hit on the off days). I play tennis as often as I can. A few years ago, I was a confirmed couch potato. But now my life has taken on the general contours of the life of my childhood — a life that I thought had disappeared with the snows of yesteryear. What’s behind all this?

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you. Money or medicine are good examples. Their value lies not in themselves but in what they can buy or the health they can restore. Money and medicine are not activities but things. Activities, however, can also have instrumental value. Work is the classic example. We work because we want to be paid or rewarded with status. As the German philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick said, whenever we do something only for the sake of something else, we are, in effect, working — even if we receive no financial reward. Most of our adult lives are taken up with work in this broad sense.

Naturally, it’s tempting to explain the value of the activities of one’s second childhood in terms of this general template of their usefulness, their contribution to our other goals. Running keeps you healthy, happy, or even alive. Tennis ditto — and don’t forget the numerous social opportunities both afford. Martial arts are often portrayed as good — that is useful — because they breed discipline, confidence, and other virtues of that ilk. Not that these claims are false. Far from it. Not only are they sometimes true, they can also be distinctly useful — for example, in convincing a sceptical partner: ‘Just think of what it’s doing for my heart.’ Astride my dangerous heart attack years as I am, there really is no comeback when I play the ‘good for the heart’ card.

But it’s a rationalisation. I am not, in fact, running because of its beneficial effect on my heart, health, or happiness: not really. Nor am I doing karate because I care inordinately about the virtues of discipline or self-confidence.

The idea that we can explain the value of the activities of second childhood in terms merely of their usefulness is to assume that their value is instrumental. That is, we justify doing them because of the things we get: health, happiness, confidence, and discipline. Unwittingly, these arguments for sport and exercise assimilate those activities into the broad category of work. And that is to completely misunderstand the second childhood.

The grim alternative is that satisfaction is always deferred, always just around the corner

It might be that most of the things we do in life we do for the sake of something else. But there are still some things we do just to do them — for their own sake and not for the sake of anything else. If the former category is work, then the latter category is play. Work is activity directed at an external goal. Play is activity whose goal is internal or intrinsic to it. In its pure form, play has no external purpose or reward. We play just to play. When my sons’ volleys have been sufficiently consistent and accurate, their tennis coach will instigate a game. He yells, ‘Fruit basket!’ and lobs several balls into the air in quick succession. They have to drop their rackets, run and catch the balls before they stop bouncing. This is done amid much cackling and squeals of delight on their part — almost as if the rest of their lesson was work aimed at unleashing this bout of play. I love watching this, because I cannot imagine a purer form of play. There is no external goal or purpose. My sons do it simply because at that precise moment in time — and the squeals of delight are testament to this — there is nothing in the world they would rather be doing. To play is to dedicate oneself cheerfully to the deed and not to any external goal; to the activity itself and not the outcome.

We had better hope there is something in our lives that at least bears some resemblance to this. A life that is taken up with work and nothing else is a life where everything is done for the sake of something else. Value is never found in the here and now. The things that have value lie always just a little further down the road. Such a life would resemble the punishment of Tantalus: condemned to stand in a pool of water, underneath branches of fruit. Whenever he stooped to drink, the water would recede. Whenever he attempted to pluck the fruit, the branches would pull away from him.

Aristotle first identified the problem. Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else. The grim alternative is that we encounter no such thing and satisfaction is always deferred, always just around the corner (indeed many would argue that this is the treadmill of consumerism). If our lives are to mean anything, there must be something that’s valuable for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might get you. This, in the parlance of philosophers, is called intrinsic value. Most obviously, we should be able to find intrinsic value in the other people in our lives. If we focus just on our activities — on what we do — then it is clear that it will not be found in work (in my sense above, of things we do for something else) but only in play. It is play, and not work, that gives value to our lives.

Anyone who has run, or engaged in martial arts or tennis — anyone who has played — with a certain level of ferocious commitment, will know that these things are not ‘fun’ in any simple sense of that term. Pleasure, fun, and enjoyment are not goals of these activities. Sometimes they are there, sometimes they are not: at most, they complete the activity, as Aristotle once put it. The significance of this kind of serious play is that it leads to certain moments when all the points and purposes — all the external goals — of life briefly come to an end. There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

The idea of intrinsic value is the contemporary expression of a much older idea. Plato developed a comprehensive account of reality, and at the apex of this account lay what he called the form of the good. The form of the good is goodness itself — good for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might yield. According to Plato, the form of the good is the most important and real thing there is, but it lies beyond the physical world, in an ideal world of forms. Plato thought we could understand the good but our access to it was highly intellectual. One had to study mathematics and philosophy for many years — preferably with him. I propose that we take Plato’s idea of the form of the good, but strip it of these metaphysical trappings. Far from belonging to another world of non-physical forms, intrinsic value belongs to this world. It is part of the fabric of things. And in certain forms of play, we are able to experience it directly, rather than to merely theorise about it. It is felt rather than cerebral. Play, in its purest form, is the embodied apprehension of intrinsic value — the form of the good — as it makes itself known in a person’s life.

Children know what is important in life: they know instinctively and effortlessly. For adults, it is hard work

The idea of a second childhood is often portrayed as a time of decline. ‘He has returned to his second childhood,’ one might say, meaning that his intellectual capacities are on the slide — perhaps that he is becoming a little senile. As Schlick also pointed out, we naturally think of childhood as a time of immaturity, a time of preparation for the important part of life that comes later. We often imagine that, if we think hard enough and are skilful enough in our thinking, the meaning of life will one day reveal itself to us, in our maturity. Like Schlick, I suspect this gets things around the wrong way. Children know what is important in life: they know instinctively and effortlessly. For adults, it is hard work. We have to rediscover it all over again. Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake. And all those other things: they are just unfortunate — inconveniences thrust upon us by an intransigent world. We all knew this once, but we forgot it because we chose to play a demanding game — the great game of growing up. It is a good game, one of the best. But it is also a jealous and dissembling one: dissembling because it refuses to recognise that it is a game, and jealous because it allows no other games. The ‘return to a second childhood’ is a way of rediscovering this thing that we once knew but had to forget.

My sons will grow up in the blink of an eye and engage in their own great game. I hope I will have had the courage to have imparted to them one piece of advice. There are a lucky few for whom their work is play. What makes something play as opposed to work is not what you do, but why you do it. Even the most mundane work can be transformed into play if you do it just for itself and for no reasons besides — if the financial rewards you accrue are merely incidental bonuses. The most important and most difficult thing in life is to find something that is play for you — something that you would do anyway, just to do it. And then, if you are lucky, find someone who will pay you to do it.

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Mark Rowlands

is professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. His latest book is Running with the Pack (Granta).

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