Your Life, Made Up of Many Finite Games, Summing to One Infinite Game

In my presentation to NYSSA last Friday, I posed the question:

  • Are you playing Wall Street’s game
  • Or is it playing yours?

The bittersweet truth is, Wall Street is itself a kind of infinite game but many games played on the Street are high stakes, finite games that turn people into unemployment statistics.

To have success on Wall Street or anywhere else, it is important to stay in the game, no matter what. This is one of the first lessons I learned as a card-counter on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade…. My then-employer, Richard Dennis, had a better grasp of equity and risk than all the members of the Basel Committee put together. He knew instinctively to absorb risk with equity capital, but also used his knowledge of risk to build equity capital.

In my presentation, I offered three ways of thinking about building emotional staying power to weather uncertainties and transitions. The most valuable tool I have used in this connection is Confucius’ structural view on the stages in human life, in Chapter 2.2 of the Analects:

  • Age 15 or thereabouts is about learning to think for yourself and solve problems. You can become a mean test-taking machine, but you’re a drone if you don’t learn how to bring your game to the next stage.
  • Age 30 is about building political and social capital to gain others’ recognition. This is about telling the world that you count. But, this heady stage is the last time the world will forgive you for taking yourself too seriously.
  • Age 40 is about balancing the complexity of who you are with with others want you to be. It means saying no, so that your yes counts for more.
  • Age 50 is about self-mastery: understanding why you are here. If you fail to reach this level because you need to be the hero in your life, you die.
  • Age 60 gives you distance and perspective–and with that, humor, pleasure and philosophy.
  • At age 70, should you be live so long and well, you can do as you like.

Each of these phases poses the risk of stagnation or the opportunity for a greater life than you could have envisaged when you were younger. The choice hinges on seeing risk as an asset, not just a liability. Temporary setbacks and difficult choices offer the richest opportunities for developing skills that build emotional staying power and make the one big game more interesting.