In my last post, I proposed that taking a purely goal-setting focused approach to chasing success was a limiting strategy, especially if you are dealing with ever changing and chaotic environments.
If the playing field is always in flux, it is difficult to set and be rigidly committed to specific goals. Let’s say in 2019, you had the goal of visiting every country in the world in the year 2020. How would you even begin to get that done considering the global pandemic?
Your goals can become irrelevant or obsolete overnight due to factors outside your control. How do we respond to chaos?
By focusing more on intention.
Goals are of course, still incredibly useful. They give us something to aim at and be accountable to. But this is life after all, we know many things will happen to throw us off course and make it difficult to get there. Holding on to intention becomes a more viable option.
If a goal is about achieving a specific thing, intention is the reason you want to achieve that thing. It is the result you are actually trying to achieve, the state you are trying to access with the goal you have chosen.
There are the goals we seek – a fat bank account, loving relationships, successful career, and the outcomes we really want – a sense of security and freedom, the experience of being seen and heard and connected, the feeling of being fulfilled and productive. That is the core of our grasping, that is our intention.
Intention is what we truly want, a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create. Goals are akin to the paths we take to get there, and there are many paths to get what we want. When we are overly focused on a goal, it means we are so fixated on a path that we ignore all the other possible ways to get to what we want.
If we hold on to the intention, we are flexible enough to hold goals loosely until we eventually find the right combo of goals and actions to get there.
Holding intention means that despite obstacles and problems, even though we are not hitting arbitrary numbers, we still flow towards the aims we seek in a relaxed and almost automatic way.
This doesn’t mean leaving everything up to chance, wishing and hoping on a star, lounging around waiting for the universe to align. It means dancing with the universe as equal partners. Miracles and incredible things do happen, but we must also play our part.
So what does it even mean to hold an intention and how do you do it successfully?
To hold intention basically means to keep a thing front and center in your mind. There are many things that will cross your mind from from minute to minute, but this will be an anchor, a strong gravitational pull that aligns all your other concerns, actions and behaviours in the right orbits. This is the intention we will return to in meditation and prayer.
This is the use of intention not just as a vague daydream, but as a beacon and driving force to inspire action.
As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.Proverbs 23:7
The power of intention
You may have experienced some times in your life that if you kept your mind focused on a thing, eventually, you brought it to pass. Holding intention is about exploiting that spiritual law, about focusing and clarifying vision. It is about imagination, and visualisation, converging all your energy towards a defined direction.
Holding intention means staying primed and magnetised towards what you want. Doing it in a relaxed way means that we are not too beholden to rigid rules and schedules, but can ebb and flow. Some days on, some days off. The days off allow us to rest and recover, to fill the other areas of our lives, and recharge us for the days we are ‘on’.
Intentionality means being clear. It means being still enough to figure out what you really want and what you should focus on.
I might have the goal to grow my business to an income of x amount/month goal. What I’m really looking for is the feeling of success, the feeling of financial abundance, the feeling of accomplishment, and the feeling of a craftsman designing a good system. My overarching intention is to develop profitable, smooth-running business systems and enjoy financial abundance.
The intentionality captures the essence, the true purpose of the goal, and keeps that front and centre.
7 things to do to hold an intention
Simple strategies to help make sure that you are geared towards what you desire.
- Distil your intention and goal into a statement that you meditate on day and night.
For instance: The theme of my year is living intentionally and getting tangible results. My intention is to design and build very profitable, smooth-running business systems that give me financial abundance. I want to have the experience of having everything I need to focus on living and building a life of holistic excellence. My goal is presently to build my income to $10,000 a month.
Take some time out to reflect and think about your main goal and your intention behind that goal, and then summarise it into a statement you can repeat to yourself often. Great if you can do this in the morning and at night. But look at it as often as works for you.
2. Create a totem
A totem is an object that serves as a physical representation of your intention. It is a reminder and a useful tool. For me, I like to use journals. Filled with my notes, and specially printed pages, it becomes a visual expression of my goals and targets that i can quickly refer to and monitor. It also reminds me of what i am aiming for and where I am going. Using this often helps to reinforce whatever direction I am embarking on.
3. Design cues into your environment that remind you and reinforce it
Your environment is a powerful tool in shaping who you are and influencing your success. As much as possible you want to have control over your space and put things in there that will help you move forward. It could be a poster of a hero, a sticky note with your favourite quote, a piece of equipment that helps you work towards your intention, the way you set up your workspace, books. As long as it reminds you and nudges you towards more of the person you are trying to be.
4. Reinforce your intention in your mind
Your internal space is also key. Actually the most important thing. Intention is about holding thought energy. It is about mind state. It is about letting your desire, your chief aim become the central focal point of your life. You have to feed your mind with things pertaining to that to nurse the fire along. You can do this with movies, stories, motivation, books, podcasts, research. You have to keep learning and and implementing around your intention.
5. Take massive and inspired action from this state
As you do all of these, you will become primed. Your mind, body and soul geared towards your chief aim, your great intention. In this state, ideas will spark, you will get sudden nudges to take certain action or create certain things. Take action on them, go in, do what you need to do. Here the rubber hits the road and you get to work. You might be inspired to set goals. In this state you can set goals and confidently go for them, knowing they are aligned with your true intentions.
6. Take time off when you need to and celebrate your wins
Don’t burn out. The whole idea about intention is in flexibility. Knowing when to be on, and when to be off. Knowing that you dont have to be at full tilt, gung ho all the time to be excellent or get what you want. Respect the ebb and flow of energy and allow the space for the universe to do its thing.
7. Rinse and repeat
As humans, we will grow and evolve constantly. Same with our desires, ambitions and intentions. And as one intention ceases to serve us anymore, we can release it and embrace the next.
With this philosophy and framework, we can build organically from the inside out, becoming more and more the person we want to become, growing, progressing and hitting the targets we set.
“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Somehow I think I might achieve more.
As the year 2020 rolled in a few months back, I had the strong intuition to not set any goals. See, I had gone into 2019 very gung-ho, very eager to get things moving and moving fast. I had all these things I wanted to achieve and get done. Projects to roll out, a business to grow, a life to set up. It was a slow start to the year, but I trudged along. Until August happened.
For the next 6 months, I was in constant physical pain. Pain and discomfort that kept me mostly house ridden and confined to the couch. A lot happens to you and in you when you are in that state. When despite your best intentions, and all the plans you make, something from left field hits hard and there’s nothing you can do.
During that experience, I realised a couple of things. Perhaps chief among them, not to take any of this too seriously. By this I mean life, and our cultural obsession with achievement. Sure, I still have dreams and things to pursue, create and explore. But with the randomness that is life, with so much outside our control, don’t take things too seriously. Stretch yourself and grow, but be sure to have fun.
So, I came into 2020 with a more open ended perspective, I decided I would simply set my intentions and hold those, acting and responding to what life gave me, as opposed to pursuing highly specific goals of things I wanted to do or achieve.
They say ‘Man plans and God laughs’. Well I’d rather plan, tell God, have a good belly laugh about it together and then figure out what her plan is and then respond to that’.
The limitation of goals
Goals are powerful and useful. But they are especially effective in a restricted system, where the rules are clear and there isn’t much variance. If you know exactly what the parameters are and what to expect, you can set a target and hit it reasonably.
However in dynamic systems, where the rules and goalposts change all the time, goals fall apart.
Goals are also limited in the long view of things. What happens after you achieve your goal? On to the next one? Does your life then become a constant reach for a goal after the other? What happens when you get close or you achieve the goal and find out you don’t want it anymore, or that you have been climbing a ladder leaning against the wrong wall?
Setting goals in a dynamic system is like saying once the game whistle starts, you are going to run straight down the field with the ball and score. But you are not the only one on the field, there are many other players, there are so many different factors. You cannot completely anticipate what will happen and where. Chaos ensues once the whistle blows, and all you really can do is adapt and try to control the flow of the game until you score on the other side.
Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth. – Mike Tyson
Then you have to adapt.
That is where intention comes in, offering us a more flexible approach.
The flexibility of intention
A goal says I want to lose ‘x’ pounds, an intention says I want to live a healthy and active life.
A goal says I want to earn x amount. An intention says I want to have an abundant and healthy relationship of money.
One is rigid and overly focused (which is useful), the other is more flexible and diffuse, allowing your desires to show up in ways that you could not have imagined. And that is the point, allowing the flexibility for things to happen in new ways, instead of forcing them to manifest in a particular format.
I see it like this, as a homing device, or like searching for coins with a metal detector on a beach. Your intention moves you in the direction of the things you want. It might not give you specifics but it will put you in the ball park, giving you a general direction in which to move.
You want to live a healthier life, so you just begin by eating better – consume less junk, get more sleep and do whatever exercise you can manage. Nothing too hectic or rigid, just a continuous tweak and improvement to move in that direction. It allows you to align gradually over time with the person you want to be. And when curveballs come your way, as they definitely will, they are easier to navigate.
Oh there is a virus running through the world right now and you can’t make it to the gym. Guess I can make up for it by investing in some equipment and doing my workouts at home. Heck, its even more convenient to pop into the garage and workout than hop into the car and go the gym.
Intentions give us flexibility, allowing us to learn and adapt and we move towards that which we desire.
Making them work together
But goals are important still. They do hold us more accountable and apply more pressure than intentions would. Whereas intentions are more concerned with the general direction you are headed, goals are binary. You either get it or you don’t. They are effective when you approach them in shorter bursts within the larger scheme of an intention.
You set the intention first, and make small but consistent changes. You start to limit your junk food intake. You cook a bit more often. You do a few exercises before you hit the shower everyday. You make small changes that slowly move you in the direction you want to. You make it easier for yourself to live the life you want.
Once the intention is set and in motion, you can begin to really set targets to hit. At this point, you are already in the ball park and things around you are aligned so you have everything you need to go for it. You spend 3 months really pushing and working hard towards a set goal. Working with a trainer and eating a strict diet. You put in focused and consistent effort and eventually you achieve your goal.
And once the goal is accomplished, you can make another one, or you can ease off and relax into your original intention. Living a more chilled life and routine, but still staying generally healthy.
Goals are phenomenal. But they work best when the factors are known, when things are generally stable and all you have to do is work the steps till you get there. Intentions allow more breathing room and space for chaos. They allow you to tackle the nebulous until you get there.
And in these trying and uncertain times, they just might be the more useful tool.
- So why do I think going the intention route will work better? Well, because intentions are more fluid and flexible, done correctly, I should always remain in range of what I want, regardless of what happens thats outside my control. It gives me a sense of resilience I wouldn’t ordinarily have.
- Working with intention means paying attention to flow. Instead of trying to force certain things, you so what is appropriate for the time you are in while staying in the general range of what it is you want. Maybe you cant pull the trigger on a certain plan, so you focus on something else, or just refining your ideas before it’s go time. You save your energy, you go with the flow and you stay alert for your opening.
- When it is time to move, you move and fast. If you have been holding intention correctly, you should be more or less ready for anything. Your base lifestyle and habits should be keeping you warmed up and ready to double down and go in. You don’t have to get ready, if you stay ready. You just blast off like a bullet towards your goal.
- So in that way, I think I might achieve more. Intention keeps me with the basic habits I need to have some sort of systemic movement towards my desired result. In a way that is focused, but flexible, reacting to the world and environment around me. Instead of being rigidly focused on one outcome, I am able to recognise opportunities I may not have paid attention to before, and once I see it, I can seize it and achieve more than I thought possible.
I am a little bit obsessed with the idea of empty space.
You see, life can get very busy. There is so much to do, we all get caught up in the business of living. In this state of perpetual motion, it is easy to get swept up by the currents of life demands, dragged along by the expectations of others or our environment.
If you want to live more intentionally, then you have to create a gap, you have to create empty space.
Empty space is a block of time, a presence of mind that exists separate from everything else. A created vacuum. This space is important because it pulls you out of the hustle and bustle of your life and places you above it. In this space, you can observe, analyse, reflect, make corrections and changes, strategise and push forward.
We access this space in meditation, in the blocks of time set aside for solitude and contemplation. We access it on our days off, in the times that are just for us, in the moments where we are free to exercise complete and deliberate autonomy.
But, empty space is not actually just empty, as I may have assumed all this time.
It actually has a lot of stuff going on in it.
And if empty space should fulfil its purpose at helping us live more intentionally and successfully, then empty space can take on four guises.
Space for rest
I’ve always understood empty space as a space for rest. That’s the first thing we need once we disconnect from the grind. We pull back to recover, to heal and revitalise.
If we don’t rest, we burn out fast.
Life is a marathon and we should approach it as such. It is tempting to just keep working, keep putting in more hours and effort. If it were possible, the most workaholic amongst us would rather stay on the grind and keep crushing it.
But that is not how it works. At some point, we will hit a wall. We are human, we need rest.
The time we take out to rest allows us to be even more productive once we get back to the grind.
Space for research
The best companies in the world spend a massive amount of manpower and money on research & development. That is because to stay competitive in an ever changing fast paced world, companies cannot afford to rely on the success of yesterday, they have to embrace new methods and new realities. They have to reinvent themselves.
What worked yesterday, might not work today.
It is the same with your life. Your sustained success in your career or life’s work depends on your ability to learn and assimilate new things. To discover what you need to know and do.
You will need to learn new skills, connect with new people, start or contribute to new projects. You will not find these things without doing research.
This means exploration. Look out to see what’s out there. Instead of going down the same routes and looking at the same things all the time. Explore new topics, new ideas, new tools.
Work deliberately to expose your self to new ideas, opportunities and possibilities.
It will keep you moving forward
Space for learning
Being a life long learner is absolutely necessary to growth and development.
As you do research and discover new paths to take, go ahead and dive right in. Learn how to learn. Learn new skills, new ideas, new tools. Learn new ways of looking at old things.
In doing this you stay fresh and mentally active instead atrophying into comfortable ruts.
Deepen your mastery of your craft. Revisit the basics, learn new techniques and solutions to problems, do creative studies. Become better, faster, more nuanced, and richer in your craft. You might get a lot of practice in already when you do in the work in your real life. But it is the time you set aside outside the work to learn and test and practice that you can really push your skills and knowledge forward.
Dabble in other fields and cross-pollinate ideas. To grow exponentially in what you do, it pays to look outside. Explore a new hobby, a new field, an unrelated skill. You will harvest new ideas, new ways of seeing that will take you to the next level. The insights that separate you from everyone else and gives you a true edge, a unique thing to contribute.
Space for strategising
To succeed, we have to be deliberate. We have to take a portfolio of actions that will take us from point A to point B. If we are obsessed and focused on results, hitting the mark, then we have to be effective as opposed to just being efficient, or worse, busy.
Strategy helps us manage our limited resources to create outsized opportunities. It gives us leverage. It is important to use empty space to reflect on what we are doing and reinforce where we are going. In this space we find ways around the challenges that have stumped us. We plan and set our plans in motion. We create opportunity.
Life is busy and we have demands on our time and resources continually. It is good to be in the arena, fighting and working. But we must retreat into the calmness of empty space from time to time, using this time to rest, investigate, learn and plan. In this way, we make sure that our days are focused, that we are not just busy, not just productive but deliberate in a way that makes sure that we move forward and grow.
This is how we win.
Sure books can guide you, but your heart defines you – Jay Z (Beach Chair)
So for the past few months, my reading rate plummeted drastically. I went from reading multiple books and consuming self-help content on an almost constant basis, to not wanting to see another Tom Bilyeu, Tai Lopez or Gary Vee video.
Well, first, I am a person of extremes.
I tend to swing from one end to the other.
When I get into something, I really get into it, to the point of obsession. And then at some point, I just get over it and walk away. It is my nature, I need the balance of opposites to feel whole.
It was in early 2015, I really started to hunker down on my personal development and business knowledge. I watched and listened to a lot of Tai, and then eventually Gary, and then Tom and others over the years. Their content was incredibly useful in transforming my mindset and putting me in a different space.
I needed that.
It was their words and ideas changed the way I thought and my default settings to life. I literally rewired my brain with their content, consuming it every waking hour – at the gym, just lounging around in my apartment, on the train in between meetings, just before bed, and of course, while I worked.
It was awesome. I was practicing something I call ‘full-immersion’. Bombarding my mind to change the way it worked.
Fast forward to today, and I am barely consuming any self-help content at all. My YouTube playlist has morphed from Valuetainment, Gary Vee and Impact Theory shows to video essays and comedic videos breaking down the narrative and philosophical themes of my favourite pop culture movies, literature and video games. Now I write things like this and this.
I don’t know what to tell you. I like what I like.
Which brings me to my second point.
Life is a complex matrix, full of many moving parts and unique experiences.
You can not be one-dimensional. Most of the personal development space is that, one-dimensional and repetitive. The same lists and ideas sprouted off over and over again.
It is like if you are not waking up at 5am everyday, drinking bullet proof coffee, chugging down shakes and hitting the gym everyday, you will not be successful. If you are not obsessed with crushing it, your life has no meaning.
Life is vast, there are many ways to approach it and many ideas to explore. The trap of the self-help game is to have you think that someone else has all the answers so you can switch your brain off and mindlessly follow.
We see the same problem in most religions. Inspired living ideas quickly turn into mindless dogma. People become dependent on others telling them what to think and do.
Sure, there are universal principles that we must learn, but we are all unique individuals with specific contexts, and we still have to do the work of crafting our unique solutions.
We can spend all the time reading but only our true reflection on what we read and practice actually changes anything.
And if you do the self-help thing well…at some point you should ‘graduate’ from it. At some point, you should actually be helped, you should be a better person and be better equipped to get what you want.
It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t need a reminder, a refresher from time to time. But you should have absorbed the lessons.
And that’s my third point – the point I am at now.
Taking action is what actually works
For all the content I consumed, they gave me ideas, they gave me tools, but they did not give me results.
I look around at my life, and there are many things I want to achieve and attain. The only thing that is going to make those things real in my life…is the work. Not another book, not another video, just the actual work of putting to practice what I learned and getting my hands dirty in the nitty gritty of making things happen in my life.
At this point, the content is more of a distraction.
Because it is very easy to conflate the knowledge of being able to do something with actually doing it.
That is how we become insight junkies, craving the dopamine hit of a new epiphany, a new idea, a silver bullet that would magically solve all your problems. That is how we become the perpetual student enslaved to the opinions and ideas of all the gurus just waiting to take your money and charge you to help you.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for all that. They do help, and people do have massively transformative experiences. But more often than not, after all the hurrah, most people are back the next year in the exact same place, with not much to show for it.
The only thing that works is the work.
The grimy work of change, of perpetual practice, of dust biting failure and the slow grind.
That is presently fascinating to me.
Because the people who we follow did not get successful by following. They got successful by doing.
Another book on business isn’t going to make my studio successful. What is going to make me successful is how well I apply the principles I learned to my specific situation. Not how well I followed this other author’s ideas to the T. But how I made it my own, how I absorbed it to my core and to my bones.
And you only absorb by taking a step back. By doing inner reflection. By putting it into practice.
It is the work that works.
At some point you have to put the books down and walk into the exam, and then into the workplace.
And of course, it is not like I will never read another book again. I am still buying books and noting down certain things. In fact I bought another one last night. But I am way more intentional about it, I am not looking for a silver bullet. I am looking for specific ideas to add to my portfolio of tools. Something I can take action on immediately.
Plus, I know myself.
Like I said…I am a man of extremes. I will be back to reading ferociously at some stage anyway, and that will be awesome.
In the mean time, I’m focused on the work.
In the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor’s journey is one of an identity that is systematically stripped back, broken and reforged through tragedy, through times of transition. Over the course of 7 movies in the Infinity Saga, he goes from an arrogant prince eager to ascend to the throne of Asgard to abandoning it completely for a life as a self-accepting simple adventurer banding up with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Time will tell if he continues on this path as we move into phase 4, but watching this video breakdown of his cinematic story got me thinking about the tension that exists between our perception of our identity and its reality. A tension we must navigate to reach fulfilment.
Life’s journey sees us transform over time, adopting and abandoning identities. At each point in life, who we are is partly self-generated and partly shaped by our environment, specific context and the expectations of implied roles.
As small children competing with siblings for attention, we might play the bully, or the funny joker, or the needy vulnerable one to get an edge. In school with our peers, we navigate identities to figure out who we are and where we fit in the larger community. We undergo the same process, in every new stage and level of life. Identities evolve and change as we do.
It is in the transition between phases of life that we usually have to grapple the most with identity. Who we were isn’t enough for where we are going. We have to change. So, we experiment with different roles to find ourselves, sometimes playing the same roles multiple times until we finally understand just who we truly are and who we are not.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I face personal transitions and I think the process of navigating identity in these times has something with three things – ‘the person you think you are supposed to be’, ‘the person you actually are’, and ‘the person you can be’.
The person you think you are supposed to be
No one exists in a vacuum. Our society, our upbringing, our culture, our family, our social circles, our roots, the cities we settle in, all provide a context in which our lives are immersed and in which we must create meaning. As we grow, we fall into roles that are laid out for us, implicitly or explicitly. There are also hopes and dreams thrust upon us, the expectations of the people we should become, and the kind of things we should do. Often, we internalise these expectations and make them our own.
We want to do our folks proud. We want to earn the approval of others and maintain the status quo of our communities. This can work out fine if there is enough overlap between our true identities and these expectations placed on us, or it can cause a lot of friction if there is dissonance between the two.
I expressed a bit of this idea in my piece exploring the lessons gleaned from Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse. Miles tries to be like the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. In his mind, Peter is the example of the kind of person he is supposed to be.
But it is unwieldy, it is false, and it is not until he has his personal catharsis and he relaxes into the person he actually is (Miles), that he is able to be effective as the new Spider-Man.
We all want to be something and become someone. Our hopes and dreams for our lives pull us to higher places. When we transition from one phase of life to the next, we have preconceived notions of what we are supposed to look like on the other side.
But we must examine these desires and perceptions to know if they are truly our own, or if we are chasing things thrust upon us and missing our true selves. Because if not, disaster ensues.
The person you actually are
It can be a terrifying thing – being yourself. Many of us spend our lives running away from our true selves. Unwilling to bring our essence to light, unabashedly, unashamedly. Unwilling to live our truth. Because truth can be painful, and uncomfortable. Truth challenges us, and often, breaks the tidy lil boxes and moulds that we have created for ourselves.
But the person you actually are is always there with you. Always lurking just below the surface, coming up in those moments when we think it is safe, when we are alone, or lost in a crowd.
The person we are, the impulses, drives, desires and attitudes that arise from deep within are to be wrestled with and navigated. Sometimes, there are things here that make us feel complete, alive but we judge as bad – a sensual proclivity or orientation, a restless desire for adventure, or a yearning for a quiet unassuming life.
Between the demands of culture and the world around us and these truths that arise from deep within , the friction easily arises. Do we stand our ground and assert our identity, our truths, consequences be damned? or do we capitulate and maintain the status quo.
There are no easy answers.
Sometimes we must assert ourselves and choose our fulfilment and happiness no matter the discomfort or stress involved. At other times, we have to fulfil our duty to the greater good and the collective.
But you cannot escape yourself, if this tension is not adequately navigated, it will rear its head in some way. Either in the incident that blows up, or a low level simmering sense of resentment that eats you up on the inside.
The person you can be
Maybe there is a middle ground, I think it lies in the person you can be. This person is your true potential. A place of balance. A place of truth. A place of growth and real acceptance. Where your nature can blossom and your real gifts can be given.
I think a successful resolution of the tension between ‘who you think you are supposed to be’ vs ‘who you truly are’ gives birth to this third ideal state – ‘who you can be’.
The person you can be is rooted in who you truly are. It is a place of authenticity. But it also understands that who you are now is just raw material for what comes next. Even in that state of being, you must evolve and grow and integrate. You must be refined into the best version of yourself.
It honours your aspirations, your dreams and vision. It takes into account the expectations, and the needs of those around you, and then bridges the gap between two and allows you to evolve to your best self.
We do not use who we are as an excuse to rage against the machine or waste away. But we harness that potential, that energy to create something beautiful and meaningful.
In this way you integrate the person you truly are against your expectations and duties to become the person that you can be, someone who is authentically alive, fulfilled and connected to the larger tapestry of life.
For the past decade I took great pride in my status as a non-gamer. Untouched by the digital fever, I would sneer at my friends as they spend hours lost in a game like Skyrim while real life happened around them.I didn’t understand why you would spend so much time doing something that had little bearing on day-to-day reality.
I wasn’t always like this though. I grew up into games like any kid, playing whichever ones I could get my hands on (often a generation or two behind). I played enough then to satisfy the surface curiosity I had, but not enough to blossom into a full-on passion.
Then there was the game that turned me off from gaming completely…Devil May Cry 3. It was my kind of game, acrobatic slasher with bright colours. But one afternoon after battling some monster over and over again without success, I rage quit. Well it wasn’t in an explosive rage, screaming and throwing my controller at the screen. No, it was calm and collected. I just switched off the console and never played again. It was near the end of the holidays and I was going back to school anyway. I had more pressing matters to deal with than the monsters on the other side of the screen.
After that fateful day, I played games now and again, but never enough to really get into it.
For some reason though, over the past year the inexplicable urge to start playing again was born and kept growing until I succumbed and bought a PS4. And over the past 2 months, I have lost multiple hours at a time barreling down the digital rabbit hole. Playing deep into the night, going on quests with my son to scatter my dead wife’s ashes at the highest peak in the realms, fighting off baddies and mowing down innocent doctors to save my teenage ward from an operation that will kill her, a procedure designed to save humanity. I have discovered rich worlds, morally ambiguous layered narratives and engrossing gameplay.
I have also picked up a few lessons. And just like my last piece on Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse, I am going to stretch some of these lessons we learn from video games onto real life.
First, we start with one you have probably heard before
When you encounter enemies, you are going the right way
Ah, the one that validates the existence of haters. You know them, the people who don’t want you to succeed. The ones that carried your picture to their village witch doctor to make sure you will never progress. The back biters at work, the frenemy, that rude security guard, or the police officer hating on your ability to drive inebriated.
We encounter haters and enemies all the way. No more so than in video games. Completely unprovoked, they will come at you, with weapons, energy blasts, sharp teeth, anything they can use to take you the hero down. They are a staple of the medium.
They are the antagonist to your protagonist.
Want to know if you are going the right way and progressing in the game? You probably are if you keep coming across new enemies to defeat.
Perhaps so in life too. When we take on a new quest or endeavour, we will invariably come up against challenges. Things will go wrong, we will make mistakes, people might even attack and work against us.
Maybe that wave of resistance from the world is a sign that you are on the right track and that you should press on, regardless what the naysayers say.
Or maybe it is a sign that you are just an asshole and no one likes you.
When you find a boon, you are about to enter some shit (also the universe provides)
Another staple of gameplay are the pick ups. Things like health packs, weapons, ammo, equipment, orbs, random junk you can craft tools with. They are usually littered across the environment, allowing you to stand a chance against the perpetual onslaught of haters and enemies.
Most times they are scattered in sparse quantities. A health pack here, a box of ammo there. It gives you just enough to deal with the enemies you encounter providing the right amount of tension as you play.
But every now again, you come into a clearing or a room just chuck full of stuff. Enough health to heal yourself and stock up for later. Copious amounts of ammo to take on your journey. Or if it’s that kind of game, the merchants/blacksmiths magically pop up ready to ply you their wares. (looking at you Brok)
It is tempting to get excited and self satisfied at this point. Don’t. It’s a trap. In the video game world, a boon like this doesn’t come without a cost. There is a boss around the corner. And you are in for the fight of your life.
So…when things are going your way in life and humming along, beware of the possible boss fight headed your way. Stay ready.
Or perhaps look at it this way, whatever challenge you face in life, the universe will provide you the tools to deal with it.
You will fail repeatedly, but you will eventually figure it out
Ah failure. The gamer’s ever present friend. If you playing a game, especially for the first time, you can be sure you will fail a couple of times. It might not be right at the beginning, but it is coming. There’s that first hard wave of enemies coming, or the timed puzzle or challenge that is just gonna have your undies up in a bunch.
The first few times you fail, it will still be a fun. After all, it is you are new to this and you are still learning, figuring out the enemy’s patterns and the environment. You might catch a break and grab a win after a few tries and move on, your heart thumping from the adrenaline. Or you might still find yourself struggling with this level for a while, your frustration bar filling up and clouding all the fun you were having before you got here.
This is the point where you have a crucial decision to make. Will you tough it out or will you quit, or worse…will you decrease the difficulty setting like a witless noob?
The temptation is strong. You have tried everything and been massacred, sent to the ‘Game Over’ screen again and again. You learned the patterns, you kind figured out the moves but it is still not enough. Maybe you even got that bosses’ life bar down to the very end…and they still keep killing you.
But if you keep on long enough and it happens. Finally you hit a break-through and win.
And in the words of Mark Cuban talking about entrepreneurship and getting rich – it doesn’t matter how many times you fail, you only have to be right once.
Now sometimes, this breakthrough never comes. If trying again and again doesn’t work, then take a break. Sleep on it, take a walk, do something else and when you return, you might just be fresh enough to eke out a win.
There are cases though, where repeated tries and breaks won’t work. This is where you have to bring out the big guns. Literally. You have to…
Always be levelling up.
Sometimes what you need isn’t to keep trying, sometimes what you really need is to get better.
I remember the first time I encountered a valkyrie in the new God of War. Oh my, she beat my ass five ways to Sunday for like 3 days straight. And like a masochist, I kept going in for more. It was so frustrating because every time, I was so close. Oh so close. I would get her life bar down to just a smidgen. But invariably, she would parry my frantic final attacks and kill me every single time.
I persevered, I tried again and again and again. No luck.
I slept on it. Took my protein shakes, chugged a flask of coffee, stretched my fingers and got back to it. She still owned me.
So I did the only thing I could do. I consulted the internet.
Turns out it was almost suicide attacking this valkyrie at the power level I was at.
So I left her alone and went to level up.
I played other quests, collected more items, improved my weapons and attacks and returned for battle. it was still a struggle, but after a couple of tries, I emerged victorious, her severed helmet in my hand.
So is life innit?
There is a saying, don’t wish things were easier, wish you were better.
In life, you have to keep levelling up – getting stronger, learning new skills, building alliances, amassing resources and everything you need to win against the big baddies and progress. Always be levelling up.
A game is at its most fun when it is at the right level of challenging. If it is too difficult, it is no fun, and games that are too easy become boring. There is no thrill, if you are able to just mow down enemy after enemy. Eventually you feel like you are just going through the motions.
Good games grow in difficulty as you progress and get better. Sure you have better weapons and health packs stockpiled. but your enemies grow stronger still, keeping you on your toes.
Like they say – new levels, new devils.
Same with life. It is the struggles and challenges we face that make things exciting. They give us things to overcome and that satisfaction after a hard won battle is second to none. All the blood, sweat and blistered thumbs become worth it.
Until the next level, the next skirmish, the next boss.
We might win today, but we will have something to face tomorrow. The game continues.
So in the same way, embrace the struggle of life and relish the challenges. They keep things fun. Face your fears, build your alliances, battle the enemies and celebrate every win as you journey through the great game of life.
See you at the credits…or the DLC.