Life Is Fun But It’s Not a Game

Thinking of life as a game makes it more fun. Some of the most interesting (and successful) people I know think of life as though there were points to be won or lost for the sheer entertainment of playing. And game theory, the study of how logic and probability influence outcomes in games, has some good advice for everything from getting a good deal on a car to handling terrorists in a hostage crisis.

But if life is a game, it’s not really the kind game theorists look it. It’s less like chess and more like… Calvinball–and entrepreneurs need to keep this in mind. There’s a very insightful conversation described in The Black Swan that I enjoyed reading, between the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb (“NNT”), a successful businessman from the Bronx named “Fat Tony,” and “Dr. John,” an engineer working as an actuary in an insurance company:

NNT: Assume that a coin is fair, i.e., has an equal probability of coming up heads or tails when flipped. I flip it ninety-nine times and get heads each time. What are the odds of my getting tails on my next throw?

Dr. John: Trivial question. One half, of course, since you are assuming 50 percent odds for each and independence between draws.

NNT: What do you say, Tony?

Fat Tony: I’d say no more than 1 percent, of course.

NNT: Why so? I gave you the initial assumption of a fair coin, meaning that it was 50 percent either way.

Fat Tony: You are either full of crap or a pure sucker to buy that “50 pehcent” business. The coin gotta be loaded. It can’t be a fair game.

NNT: But Dr. John said 50 percent.

Fat Tony: (whispering in NNT’s ear): I know these guys with the nerd examples from the bank days. They think way too slow. And they are too commoditized. You can take them for a ride.

You can simply call it “street smarts” or “thinking outside the box” but that’s the kind of big-picture thinking that seems to help people in business–and in the game of life, the game without rules.

Back when I was in university, a friend of mine–to protect his name I’ll call him “Naaron Drigglenslaw“–and I were interested in expanding the scope of our interactions with the computer network of our alma mater. He ended up succeeding in bypassing the login screen merely by pressing Control-Break, a key combo that in DOS was originally used to end programs. I was frustratingly jealous because it never occurred to me that any self-respecting programmer would make a SECURITY screen vulnerable to a interrupt like that. It’s kind of like building a steel padlock that requires two keys and a combination, but also spontaneously opens with insistent shaking.

But Naaron didn’t make the assumption that the login screen was built intelligently. Looking back on my software development days, his was the smart guess. He now runs a great Interweb company which I’ll call the “Miracle Factory,” not to be confused with “Miracle Whip” which is a nutritional supplement for university students. Naaron’s company produces cool things like

Curiously, they don’t make any security software.