The only way to win is not to play

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Feb 13

Have you seen the movie War Games? Back in the day of 2400 baud modems, our slacker hero tries to hack into the company putting out the hottest new game on the planet (hacking has been going on a long, long time).

Instead of getting into the game company, our innocent hacker, instead, gets into the WHOPPER -- the game computer used by the Defense Department to simulate what happens in Global Thermonuclear War. Choosing from a menu, our hero starts off the big one.

To the computer -- who learns strategy from playing games -- it's just another game when, in fact, it's a real event. One that has planetary implications -- the missile launch codes are controlled by the computer and unless the computer learns futility at the very end, every nuclear missile in the United States will fly away to attack the enemy.

Our hero, of course, saves the day by getting the computer to play tic-tac-toe. Put your X in the center square and no one ever wins the game. The computer learns this, then goes on an astonishingly bright techno display of all of the thousands of possible nuclear war scenarios -- all resulting in all missiles launching by everyone -- and ends with this:

"An interesting game. The only way to win is not to play."

It's a saying that's resonated with me a long time. How do you deal with passive-aggressive people? The only way to win is not to play. In the long run, how do you win at gambling? The only way to win is not to play.

After a while, anything that continuously brings out futility has the answer of "the only way to win is not to play."

All very nice, but this is a site about finding jobs, landing jobs, and doing well in your career. You might wonder what this has to do with the world of work. Well, quite a bit. And it starts with the myths we have about work. Those myths that -- surprisingly to me -- continue to exist wholesale out there in the work world that will lead you to futility over and over and over again.

I'm indispensable and won't get laid off

This myth really is a smack in the mouth when it doesn't pan out. If you believe this, you won't look for signs in the company that a layoff is imminent. You won't look for a different job to prevent financial hardship. Worse, you won't even prepare to find a different job, putting you a good month behind everyone else who at least did that much.

That myth is reinforced by career pundits constantly writing about "how to make yourself indispensable" so you won't get laid off. Well, that's all pure bullshit. If General Electric or any other company's management decides to shut down the office you work in, you're gone. Simple as that. No amount of indispensable will save you.

But the myth of indispensability lives on.

The company will care for my career

"People see the work I do. They know how good it is. I'll be rewarded in pay and promotions because the company wants to keep good people." You'd think Corporations were People, or something, and will care for you.

Sure, companies talk a good game about wanting the best for their people -- but very few back that up. Does the company offer training programs to keep you abreast of the latest in your field? Does your company pay for you to belong to professional organizations for the work you do? Does your company move you to different jobs so that you can learn new job skills to make you a more versatile employee?

Usually, you have to do all those things yourself if you want to advance your career. If you perform great in your current position, a company will most likely keep you there because you're so good at doing it -- killing your career over the long run because you won't have the right job skills to get employment somewhere else.

The company knows what it is doing, so I should support it

People have this rarified perception of managers. And, especially, of CEO's. Whether it is because of their perceived power, or how much money they make, or just believing they should be in a saluting mode when any new corporate strategy is announced, people tend to go along. It's like the initial Mac commercial from Apple in 1984 when hundreds of drones were blankly following along with the master of the universe. Where are the runners throwing down sledgehammers against this stuff?

We go along. Usually, that's okay. But managers are people and CEO's are often isolated from much of reality because no one is willing to challenge their thinking. Since most of us never talk to a CEO, we shouldn't just assume that this way of doing something is the right way. In our heads, we should consider this new approach as having the company leading us off a cliff, but people pay no attention to that.

Want an example? When Washington Mutual went out of business (I worked there) and was bought by JPMorgan Chase, employees I knew had so much faith in management knowing what it was doing that they held on to their WaMu stock all the way down from $47 a share to $0.04 a share the day the FDIC took them over. And that was all they had in their 401(k)'s. WaMu stock.

It was only the entirety of their savings. No problem with that belief in management always being right, is there?

We need to stop being passive people in our careers

Now, should we try and be indispensable in our work? Yes, if we value doing good work. Should we see the company helping our careers? Yes, as long as we don't depend on it. Should we support management? Yes, but we should be watching to see if what management is doing makes any sense.

Corporations are not people. And any company management, for good reasons or not, will change your job -- and your life -- in a heartbeat. Your office is closed down. Your department is reorganized and, oh-by-the-way, we don't need your services any more. You were happy and comfortable in your stable -- but declining -- marketplace and when the company changed strategic direction to attack the declining market (as they should do), you were the one left out in the cold.

Can we do everything to prevent bad things happening to us? Nope. We can't have job security. We can only achieve employment security. And the only way to get to some level of employment security is if we don't continue to play the game as if these myths about work were true. The company doesn't care if we believe those myths. But we should because believing them leads to futility and financial stress.

The only way to win is not to play.

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.