Life as a Zero-Sum Game

I might be bending the definition slightly when I ask if a person, in order to gain one thing, must give up something else of equal value. Hm.

This line of speculation came as a result of reading the UK paper, The Independent online this morning where an article entitled, ‘Google employees confess all the things they hated most about working at Google‘ sparked the question.

The opening quote of the article was from a former employee who said, “You are given everything you could ever want, but it costs you the only things that actually matter in the end.”

That really got me thinking.

I’ll approach this post spherically by starting with my observations concerning two very different and contrasting work cultures: Mexico vs. The United States.

Workers in the US have tightly compartmentalized work lives. There is their work life and then there is their personal life. And there is a very distinct boundary between the two. Reading the Google employee article suggests that bad things can happen when the employer, Google tries to quietly erase that boundary. It causes confusion. But we’ll come back to that.

For the average Mexican worker, there is no boundary between their work life and their personal life. Both peacefully coexist in the same realm. Mexicans’ place of work include the commingling of their families, friends, and fellow workers. Many take two hours off for lunch to go home and eat with their children. Mexicans blend family, neighbors, church, work and friends together harmoniously.

I never understood the nature of work until I came to live in Mexico. Watching my neighbors in how they conducted their lives really opened my eyes. Seeing old men and women continue to happily work well into their 80s was the tipping point to my understanding.

I grew up in a culture where work was presented as a trade off. You worked to get ahead. You worked to support yourself and your family. Career advancement was both moral and necessary. If you weren’t getting ahead, you were falling behind.

But the trade off was less personal time. Two weeks (or three) of vacation time per year was accepted as the norm. Other than that, the vast majority of your days were about work; you were either working, getting ready for work, or thinking about work.

My divorce in ’91 made me rethink the whole accepted work life cycle thing. Up until that time I took my career very seriously. Promotions were very important. But it wasn’t until years later that I finally understood why my career obsessiveness came to a screeching halt about the same time my marriage ended.

I discovered that success in the workplace became meaningless once I no longer had anyone to provide for other than myself. Except for providing a comfortable life and the path to a better future for my family I was never much interested in material things.

At that time I  worked for a very demanding corporation (Intel) that had a culture that probably wasn’t that much different from Google. I’ve written thousands of words in a post on another blog so I don’t feel it necessary to go in to anymore detail here but to say that life spent in the office was increasingly more everyday like living in the dead zone.

So in early ’99 after 10 years with the company I took a 6 month leave of absence to do some soul searching. The question I had to answer was, ‘Do I really want to keep trading my valuable time for money? Or did I already have enough money?’

That was a serious question. Conventionally speaking I really didn’t have enough money. But I was an unconventional person so maybe I really did.

And I was only 43 years old when I left on that 6 month sabbatical. The fact that my dad died at 56 and more importantly, his dad died at 56 made me question if I only had another dozen years or so left to live did I really want to die of a heart attack working for a company in a culture I no longer respected and for money I probably wouldn’t live to spend?

One of the biggest secrets I’ve discovered to figuring out your life is deciding when enough is enough. But to make that work you also need to understand that life isn’t a board game that is to be played like Monopoly where the objective of winning is confined only to the material space.

So when is enough, enough?

That’s a tough one. And the easiest way to solve that problem is by reducing wants (as opposed to needs) to fit your means.

For me the whole argument was satisfactorily solved by downsizing. But that was easy because I’ve never really had an affinity for material possessions.

So I am now 61. So you might wonder how I feel now about killing my career off at the age of 43. Was it a mistake? Did I have enough money?

The answers are no and yes.

And you might wonder how I feel about the whole personal accomplishment thing. Have I wasted the last 18 years?

The true answer is I could have done more although I will say that I accomplished 9 out of the 10 major goals that I set for myself way back in ’99. (Mastering Spanish is item no. 10 and my progress remains elusive because quite frankly I don’t work hard enough at it.)

But it is all of those amazingly and seemingly insignificant little things that I probably never would have learned had I stayed corporate.

Little things like learning the true meaning of work. Appreciation for what I can only call the tiny miracles of life. Joy, satisfaction, and happiness in marveling over this tiny little life of mine. (I have often told my daughter, ‘The only thing better than being happy is knowing why your happy.’)

PS – So, I’ve come to conclude that life is not a zero-sum game. It can’t be. A person either wins or loses. And the choice – and it might be simply that, a choice – is deciding when enough is enough.

PPS – So why do I see all of the famous Google perks as dangerous boondoggles? Because in-office perks like drycleaning services, pet sitting, free food on demand, and whatnot abolishes most of the reasons why an employee needs to go home. Ergo, Google is able to parasitize more of the employee’s time and subsume more of their life.

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