Playing a Career Game You Actually Want to Win

What would you be doing if no one else knew about it?

Nika Benedictova / Unsplash

After a half-decade of working in tech marketing, I grew disillusioned by the corporate presentations and ad campaigns. I wanted to be a real writer. So I decided to pursue a degree to legitimize my intention. 

Unlike law or medicine, a formal journalism degree is not a prerequisite for joining the field, but going to grad school was just something people in my family did, so I applied to Columbia, Berkeley, and Stanford, some of the most prestigious journalism programs in the country.

Submitting the applications felt like making progress toward what I thought was my goal. There were boxes to check and essays to write. I was good at this game; I had spent my life jumping through academic hoops. But it wasn’t until after I was admitted that I had to wrestle with whether I actually wanted to go.

I sought the advice of a mentor, the author Robin Sloan. We met for coffee on a drizzly morning at a café under an Oakland freeway overpass. After listening to me ramble on about the pros/cons list I had sketched in my head, Robin asked me a question that cut through the noise: “If you could go, but you couldn’t tell anyone that you went, would you still do it?”

That question helped me consider my intrinsic motivation. Was I actually interested in learning, or just in being someone with a graduate degree? Did I want to play the game, or did I only want to win? 

I decided to go back to school, and I’m glad that I did. Robin helped me recognize that I was interested in taking classes and working on my craft, not just having a credential. But if it weren’t for him, I may have never taken the time to ask myself what mattered to me, irrespective of others’ perceptions.

Fast-forward five years, and I’m about to publish a book about work culture in America. I interviewed over 100 workers—from kayak guides in Alaska to Wall Street bankers in Manhattan—and met several people who achieved nearly every goal set out for them, only to realize they were winning a game they didn’t enjoy playing. 

How do so many of us find ourselves in this position, climbing ladders we don’t truly want to be on? C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher and game design researcher at the University of Utah, has some answers. Nguyen coined the term “value capture,” a phenomenon that I came to see all around me after I learned about it. Here’s how it works. 

Most games establish a world with a clear goal and rankable achievements: Pac-Man must eat all the dots; Mario must save the princess. Video games offer what Nguyen calls “a seductive level of value clarity.” Get points, defeat the boss, win. In many ways, video games are the only true meritocratic games people can play. Everyone plays within clearly defined boundaries, with the same set of inputs. The most skilled wins.

Our careers are different. The games we play with our working hours also come with their own values and metrics that matter. Success is measured by how much money you make—for your company and for yourself. Promotions, bonuses, and raises mark the path to success, like dots along the Pac-Man maze.

These metrics are seductive because of their simplicity. “You might have a nuanced personal definition of success,” Nguyen told me, “but once someone presents you with these simple quantified representations of a value—especially ones that are shared across a company—that clarity trumps your subtler values.” In other words, it is easier to adopt the values of the game than to determine your own. That’s value capture.

There are countless examples of value capture in daily life. You get a Fitbit because you want to improve your health but become obsessed with maximizing your steps. You become a professor in order to inspire students but become fixated on how often your research is cited. You join Twitter because you want to connect with others but become preoccupied by the virality of your content. Naturally, maximizing your steps or citations or retweets is good for the platforms on which these status games are played.

The higher-education rankings in U.S. News & World Report exemplify value capture at an institutional level. Before U.S. News, standardized rankings for law schools didn’t exist. Law schools each had their own missions and areas of expertise: one school emphasized legal theory, while another prioritized corporate litigation. In order to pick a school, prospective students would determine what mattered to them, and then choose a school to fit their unique tastes. The U.S. News rankings changed that.

In a 14-year study, professors Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder researched how the law school ranking system became an “engine of anxiety.” In their report, they explained how universities reoriented their admissions standards and educational priorities based on the rankings, which emphasized GPAs, LSAT scores, and the employment rates of graduates. Schools largely did away with their varied specializations and missions in order to position themselves in a way that might help them rise in the rankings. Espeland and Sauder found that rankings dominated other factors in students’ enrollment decisions. The “best” school in the rankings became synonymous with the best in the students’ eyes.

U.S. News & World Report creating a standard of excellence was not necessarily the problem. But as students and institutions internalized the rankings as the standard, they no longer had to grapple with what they themselves valued in a school. In other words, when someone else determines what it means to be successful, there is no need to define it for yourself.

Nguyen offers an alternative to value capture—“value self-determination”—that essentially means figuring out what you care about. Studies show that when we have a clearer sense of what we value, we make more decisive decisions and are more resilient in the face of adversity. And there are many ways to uncover your values—this Every article is a good place to start.

Ask yourself what Robin asked me that morning under the freeway overpass: If you could get the thing you supposedly want, but couldn’t tell anyone that you got it, would you still want it? Maybe this question alone will help you recognize the game you’re playing, and determine whether it’s one you want to win. 

Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco–based author, journalist, and designer. His book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work is currently available for pre-order. If you liked this piece, you can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his free newsletter.

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