Playing a Different Game

I am playing a different game than everyone else. If you ask most high school students what they are going to do after they graduate, their answer will generally be one of two things: college, or a full-time “starter” job. They feel as if college will prepare them to get a great job in the future — perhaps in consulting, investing, medicine, law, or something similar. Or they feel as if their “starter” job will help them break into a new industry. Before I continue, I should state there is nothing wrong with these paths. Indeed, most people will benefit from going down these more traditional routes — they are safe and secure.

This essay is not about college or starter jobs, however. This essay is about the game that I am playing, and why I am not conforming with societal norms in terms of careers. Over the next few months, most of my fellow high school students will get jobs. Most of them will end up working for a local business — some may move to a bigger city to work. Others may go to college. They will start making their own money, be able to name-drop a local employer that has a good standing within the community, or be able to name-drop a good college into which they have been admitted.

I, on the other hand, will not be able to do this. My friends will be seen by others to be smart if they can successfully get into a good college. Their families and friends will fully support their journey toward earning a college degree or working their way up the career ladder. They will feel great that they are now more independent and have either started learning a new subject in more depth in college, or are earning their own money in a job.

I could follow the traditional “9 to 5” life path, but I have chosen not to. Indeed, there may be a point where I have to do this in order to advance. However, I am working hard so that my career choices are not limited to those jobs — I want to be able to do something meaningful and impactful. I will sit back and listen to my high school friends talk about the great colleges they have gotten into. But I will not let that affect me, because I am just playing a different game. Success for them is college, success for me is engaging in meaningful work that I want to do. For those who are not well versed in non-traditional paths, you may be asking “How are you going to succeed if you don’t go to college or go into a 9 to 5 job?”

The simple answer is: you don’t need to. I am producing independent research in the Income Share Agreement which has been recognized by leaders across the industry, and I hope to pursue that further as a career. The reason my work has been so successful is that I am playing a different game than everyone else. I was getting Bs and was the same as everyone else in other industries, but when I started doing research, I noticed that I was able to accelerate my success significantly.

Because I am playing a different game, it leaves me a significant path for growth. I am realizing success in the games that nobody else is playing or is interested in playing. Most people are either not aware of research as a path, are scared to do something so risky, don’t have access, or are otherwise unwilling to take a risk. If you are playing the same game as everyone else, you will have to work harder to compete with them, which leaves you less time to engage in meaningful work. I am working hard to get ahead of the game, and can work faster because there are fewer people doing the work I do.

How do I play a different game from others? You should only play games where the odds are stacked in your favor — where you have some sort of unfair advantage that allows you to succeed. If you are very tall, it is easier for you to advance in basketball. If you are short, you will find it very difficult to pursue a successful career in the industry. So you should find something else, work hard, and pursue it. Rather than doing what everyone else is doing, you should instead find something that you are uniquely great at.

Playing a different game is easier when you pursue a secret hidden in plain sight. Secrets give you a competitive advantage over everyone else, because you know something that other people don’t which can help give you a greater insight into a particular subject. In my case, I am pursuing Income Share Agreements because I know they will be big in the future, but there are still very few people involved. This allows me to get ahead quicker, because my work can have a greater impact on the nascent industry, and also help it grow.

Steve Jobs wanted to make it easier to listen to music and be productive, and so he invented the iPhone. Stewart Butterfield wanted to make it easier to communicate within the workplace, and so he founded Slack. People knew they wanted these things, but nobody had the insight required to do something different. Jobs was going against massive phone companies, Butterfield was going against email in the workplace. The odds were stacked in their favor because they were doing something completely different to everyone else — they were playing their own game.

This is not an easy path. As everyone drops the name of their college and employer, there will likely be times where I feel that I have not been as successful as everyone else — I may feel like perhaps I have made a mistake. The thing to remember is that everyone is playing their own game, but some people are just playing better games than others.

The most difficult part about playing a different game is that we, as humans, naturally seek validation for our work. We will talk to our friends or parents about our work and expect that they support us. In the case that they don’t, that can make you feel as if you are doing something wrong — if they don’t recognize your path, then you may think it doesn’t exist. The best advice I can give is to stop seeking external validation.

If you are going to play your own game, you need to be driven by your internal compass that tells you what to do. This can be really hard to adopt, especially if you don’t have the support of your friends and/or family. The best way to address this is to ask yourself: doesn’t your own approval and happiness matter more? If you are happy pursuing a specific path, and it provides you with great value, then why should you let others’ view of you get in the way of pursuing that path. Don’t let approval from other people get in the way of your success. In the end, if you work hard, you will be able to look back and show everyone why your path was the right choice for you.

Developing your internal compass is important because we have been taught in schools that college and finding a job in investing, consulting, medicine, accounting, et cetera, constitute a perfect career. It is difficult to go against this conventional wisdom and say “I am going to do something different.” Most people have a specific idea of what a successful career is: one where you go to college and get a job at a massive company. If you want to play your own game, you should applaud yourself on having a different view of the world. If you understand that working “9 to 5” is not the only option for success, you are already on your way to getting ahead of the game. If you are willing to go against conventional wisdom to pursue your dreams, you will likely be successful in the future, if you work hard.

Playing a different game also requires you to be understanding of the traditional paths that other people are pursuing. College and working in a “9 to 5” job are not bad paths — for many, they will be the only paths they can pursue that will help them get ahead. You should not compare yourself to others, but rather understand that you are all playing different games, and success means something else for each individual. For some people, success is the name of the college they are attending. For others, success is the salary they are earning.

On that note, if you want to play a different game, you should try to prioritize creating value over anything else. Let your internal compass guide you toward success, and focus solely on making a difference, rather than maximizing your chances of getting a job at Google or JP Morgan in the future. Do meaningful work that you enjoy doing, and focus on how you can create value, rather than the size of your salary. If you do this, you will gain a firmer appreciation of your life. You will also learn that playing your own game allows you to pave your future, rather than letting a system determine what your next steps are.

Do not conform with societal norms. Seek validation from within. Don’t give up. Listen to your internal compass — it is what matters most.