How To Design A Better Life Using Game Theory

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Reading time: 5 minutes

What do game theory, fish economics, and life-altering decisions have in common? More than you think. At least that’s what I learned last Sunday while visiting the zoo. It all started as a lazy, mildly educational afternoon with my daughter. We admired the giraffes, laughed at the penguins, and tried not to pet the panther. But then we got to the seals. And our quiet stroll turned into an invaluable lesson about life and decision making.

SEAL – See, Analyze, Learn

After seeing the penguins happily waddling along, we took a right turn and saw a crowd of excited kids gathered around a pool. So we went that way. Turns out, we were just in time for the seal’s training session. And what I saw during the following 10 minutes was a magnificent demonstration of one of the most important concepts in game theory and economic theory.

But for you to fully understand this principle, I first have to describe what we were looking at.

seal looking at you
Photo by shannon VanDenHeuvel on Unsplash

A seal trainer was walking around the pool, holding a bucket. In the pool were five seals, who knew exactly what was in that bucket: juicy, delicious fish. Just for them. All they had to do was clap their flippers.

In the middle of the pool was a podium. And every time a seal would climb on the podium, the trainer would show them how to clap. She even showed them the fish, just waiting for the seals to do their thing so she could reward them.

But the seals wouldn’t clap. In fact, they couldn’t. As soon as one seal climbed up the podium, another one would jump, push it back in the water, and take its place. Now the new seal had the trainer’s full attention. But it too couldn’t clap, being too busy securing its spot on the podium. Soon enough another seal would come up, push it back in the water, and take its place.

And so it went on for a while. The seals were constantly competing for the limelight. But they were missing the point! This struggle for attention had only one outcome: no seal was clapping. And no clapping meant no fish.

Eventually, one of the seals came up with an ingenious solution to game the system. And by the end of this post, you will know how to apply the same trick in your own life. But before we get to that, let’s look at what all the other seals got wrong. And what life lessons we can learn from them.

Don’t Play a Zero-Sum Game

A zero-sum game is a concept used in game theory to describe a win-lose scenario. It illustrates a situation in which there can only be one winner. So if I want to win, I have to make sure you lose. And usually, there are multiple players involved. So in order to win, I have to make sure none of the other players gets closer to the prize than me.

It’s a dog-eat-dog game. If you want a happy and fulfilled life, you should avoid zero-sum games.

blue stop sign
Photo by Jose Aragones on Unsplash

Some common examples of such games include:

  • Competing for status (social, political, organizational, etc)
  • Playing professional poker, chess, individual sports for a living 
  • Chasing professorship/tenure track (that’s one of the reasons why I decided to leave academia)

Without knowing it, the seals were playing a zero-sum game. And, as is usually the case with such games, they were all dissatisfied.

But there’s something else the seals got wrong. Something we people also tend to do.

Don’t Focus on Money or Attention

We all crave attention. It’s a basic desire, spread throughout the animal kingdom. And we all want more money ⏤ a trap that only humans fall into. But both these desires have one thing in common: they address our primitive brain.

Money and attention will make you happy. But it’s a very short-lived kind of happiness. Even worse, it’s coupled with a release of dopamine, and thus highly addictive. Similar to feel-good drugs, you have to get more and more of it just to obtain a baseline effect.

This is a losing battle. Another race not worth entering. Because without the much-needed dose, you will end up feeling empty and alone.

Luckily, there’s a solution for this.

Let’s go back to the seals again. They were competing over the trainer’s attention. Instead, they should have focussed on clapping their flippers. That’s what the trainer (and all the kids watching) wanted to see: a display of skill.

programming code skill
Photo by Branko Stancevic on Unsplash

So what can we learn from this?

Stop craving attention and start focussing on developing your skills. If you become good enough, the attention will automatically follow. And it will be tenfold.

Become so good they can’t ignore you

Cal Newport

The same principle applies to money. Stop looking for a quick buck. Invest some time and effort in becoming better. Developing valuable skills will help you make a lot more money in the long run.

Design a Sure-Fire Winning Strategy

So far we’ve learned what the seals were doing wrong and how we can avoid making the same mistakes in our own lives. But you surely remember there was one seal that managed to game the system. And that’s the seal from which we can learn the most valuable lesson.

While all the others were fighting over the podium, one seal quietly swam away. It got out of the pool, just a few meters away from the trainer, where it was undisturbed. It now had enough time and space to properly stand on its tail and find its equilibrium. Then, to everyone’s delight, it started clapping.

What happened next is key to understanding the brilliance of this tactic. When she saw the seal clapping, the trainer turned away from the podium and gave the seal a big juicy fish. Then another one. And another one.

Soon enough a second seal got out on the other side of the pool and did the same thing. It also got some fish. Then a third followed. And it too was rewarded.

These seals managed to turn a zero-sum game into a positive-sum game ⏤ a win-win scenario, in which all the players win. They stopped competing for one spot and started focussing on their skill. And they all got some fish. The trainer was happy, the kids were ecstatic, and I learned an invaluable lesson about lifestyle design. All thanks to that one seal who broke the mold.

game theory table

Here’s my final piece of advice. At regular intervals (like every 6-9 months) set aside some time to look at the big picture. Try to get an outside view of your life and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you focussing on the right things?
  • Are you moving in the right direction?
  • And, most importantly, are you part of a zero-sum game?

If you don’t like the answers, it’s time to make a change. Take a step back and look for alternatives. Turn the game around, try and make it a positive-sum game. Or maybe leave the current game and move on to something else.

Either way, don’t be that seal fighting a losing battle. You deserve better.


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