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Winning Your Game of Snakes and Ladders

14th June 2019

I have said before that I think resentment and bitterness are some of the most destructive emotions. They bring others around a resentful person down, and they create more negative experiences. The concept of “deserving” plays deeply into this negative mindset – for someone to deserve ‘better’ there must surely be those who deserve ‘worse’. The person moralising these differences naturally feels an inclination to bring into reality their perception of deserving. This inevitably leads to violence.

As a coach I make it my business to understand where those feelings come from and how to address them. I’ve stumbled on a metaphor recently that I think works really well and helps visualise why we get so frustrated when we look at others we don’t know and see underserved advantages.

And that metaphor is Snakes and Ladders.

For those who don’t know, Snakes and Ladders is a game of absolute chance and randomness. You roll the dice and move that number of spaces. If you hit a snake you are moved back down. If you get a ladder you move up.

Life is a bit like a game of snakes and ladders.

Some people get great rolls all the time and steadily move up the board. Some people hit a few snakes in a row and get stuck near the beginning, and the game is over before they get where they want to go. Some people get two ladders in a row and finish first through no particular skill of their own.

Many of us get jealous and feel a little resentment seeing the person who got a few ladders up. Maybe (backing out of the metaphor for a second) their dad knew someone who got them a prestigious clerkship that helped propel their career forward. Perhaps they are really attractive and sociable, and get opportunities they aren’t qualified for because others want them around to gawk at.

The time we get really resentful, though, is when someone starts near the top of the board, or they have weighted dice, or they flip a 1 to a 6 when we go out of the room. Fairness is hardwired into our experience of the world, especially of finite games with rulesets. So we are, in some sense justifiably, outraged when people cheat to get up higher on the board.

The problem with this vision of the world is that snakes and ladders has a winner and a loser, and if someone else moves up the board in front of us we are ‘behind’. In life, we’re playing simultaneously, but not with, 7 billion other people, and we all start at different places, move at different speeds and have more or fewer snakes, and different ladders we have access to. We’re not playing the same game, we’re just very aware of the game other people are playing.

If we stop worrying about what game others are playing, and focus on our game, we will probably have more fun, and care less about the outcomes. One time we get a snake, and that sucks, but we’re playing a game of one, so just keep rolling and get back to where you were.

I thought about this a lot as I look at other people working in my space. We’re playing different games. Some of them started in the middle of the board. Maybe I started in the middle and haven’t been rolling the dice for most of my life. Focusing on them wastes my time and makes me less likely to keep playing, which is a mistake.

If you keep rolling, eventually it’s impossible for you to lose your own game. You can roll as long as you keep playing, and eventually you’ll get the rolls you need to find your version of success. Stop worrying about other people’s games. Win at your game, and the way you win is by continuing to play, not by complaining about other people’s games.



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