Running A Business Isn’t A Game (Neither Is Life)

I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch since late 2016.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the Activity Rings. The rings represent how much you’ve moved, exercised, and stood in a day. When I got the Watch, I was objectively inactive. That January, I started to prioritize moving a little bit every day. Sometimes it was on the treadmill. Other times it was a quick walk outside. By the end of the month, I’d decided to give running a try. By April, I was feeling like a new person. I started bouldering that summer, weight lifting in the fall, and ran several races. My Watch was super helpful for tracking my progress and providing those little dopamine hits when I accomplished new mileage or paces.

My Watch was very proud of me. Throughout the years, it kept raising my Activity goals. Up, up, up. My daily Move goal increased weekly, and I closed all my rings much more often than not. I ran my first half marathon, powered through 2 climbing competitions, and put more and more weight on the barbell. By the end of 2019, I was not only in the best shape of my life, but I was stronger and fitter than the vast majority of women my age.

I was motivated by two things: performance and pleasure. I’m a competitive, anxious overachiever—so I was undoubtedly driven by winning medals and hitting new PRs. But I also really enjoyed the time I spent running, lifting, or climbing. The physical exertion wasn’t something I put up with to win or get fitter. I actually enjoyed it.

When gyms closed their doors in March 2020, I didn’t worry about losing fitness; I worried about losing an activity I structured my life around. Of course, I worked out at home. And I learned to really enjoy it—but I missed having performance indicators to work toward. Working toward 100 push-ups just isn’t the same as working toward benching 100lbs. Running a virtual race just isn’t the same as running a race with hundreds of people. The only performance indicator I had was my Watch.

Thanks to the marathon I was training for, I was already earning a ton of points on my Watch. Hitting 1200 or more Move points became my new baseline—up from 600ish a year before. After running a solo virtual half marathon in June 2020 (because who runs a virtual full marathon?!), I didn’t want to let my Watch down. So I kept finding ways to hit the same numbers—July, August, September… it’s no wonder that by October, my body was breaking down.

I’d gone from being motivated by performance and pleasure to being hijacked by metrics.

Metrics can be helpful. Metrics give us a simple way to measure progress or results. But metrics also have a way of hijacking our motivation. We focus more on the metric and its clarity rather than results with richer, more complex value. We fixate on likes, shares, page views, email subscribers, and sales without evaluating more complex measures of success. We try to game the algorithm instead of really communicating something of value.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

Recently, I learned of the work of C. Thi Nguyen. Nguyen is a philosopher of games. He thinks both about games proper and the gamification of things that are, in fact, not games. At the heart of his thinking about games is an analysis of value, incentives, motivation, and agency. And in that analysis, I find his thinking to be an essential addition to this exploration of money and time.

I will lead you through some aspects of Nguyen’s thinking as they apply to challenges you might be experiencing in your work. And by “might be,” I mean that I’d be surprised if you didn’t have these challenges. I’ll also offer some questions for thinking about how your motivation might have been hijacked by metrics, too. And I’ll share how this same process is at work on a far larger scale.

So let’s start by better understanding what a metric actually is.

A metric is a measurement—but a measure of what? Nguyen explains that a metric is a simple way to represent a diverse and nuanced data set. He uses the example of grade point averages. A student’s performance in a class is hard to express, especially in a class where performance is hard to reduce to a number (e.g., literature, philosophy, or sociology). But instructors take a nuanced quantitative impression of a student’s performance and turn it into a grade. That grade is turned into a number. “A” becomes 4.0; “B” becomes 3.0, etc. The numbers for each class are averaged together for a student’s entire college experience. The result is the GPA—grade point average. Nguyen notes that a metric like this—reductive as it may be—is handy for its portability and potential for determining trends or rankings.

Similarly, my Watch takes the vast amount of data that it collects about me every minute and simplifies it into the 3 metrics that display visually: the Activity Rings. The Move ring, for example, simplifies my steps, mileage, heart rate, and exercise into a single calorie count. So not only is the metric itself a reduction of a complex set of variables, the Watch spits out a number that is itself a reduction of a particular view of health and fitness—one with a certain moral weight attached to it.

In marketing, we get metrics such as likes, conversion, and engagement stats. In reports, we see a single number—35 likes, 3% conversion rate, 201 engagements. But what’s really represented is something much more complex, and what’s left out of those metrics is equally complicated and often even more relevant to our actual goals. For instance, if my goal is only to work with clients passionate about podcasts, then the conversion rate on our services page tells me very little. I frankly don’t give a damn if our conversion rate is less than 1% if it means that our time is devoted to clients who are passionate about their shows. But evaluating that results takes time and attention to detail. The conversion rate is a simple equation: views divided leads or sales.

Time and money are metrics that often stand in for more complex data sets, too.

I can tell you that I try to spend about an hour outside walking or running every morning. My Watch would export that data as 60 exercise minutes. But that loses the richness of that hour. I listen to podcasts while I’m out walking—and often, those podcasts provide the inspiration or research I need to do my work. I can come home with several new notes or a fresh understanding of an idea. There’s no way that “60 minutes of exercise” can represent the actual value of that time for me.

Money operates similarly as a metric. In a business, revenue or profit are often the end-all-be-all metrics. But what does revenue represent? It might represent customers or clients served, a shift in the market, a new level of skill, stories of transformation, or even failure to reach goals. It’s not that revenue as a metric isn’t necessary—it’s that it’s not the whole story.

Simplified data leads to less effective activity.

Earlier, I mentioned that I could feel my body breaking down in October 2020. I pushed myself to achieve higher and higher performance metrics all year—all from a baseline of training for a marathon. If I dared to take a break, my Watch would nag me. Even if I’d worked out for an hour and taken a 4-mile speed walk, it would tap my wrist and say, “you’re not moving as much as you normally do.” The monthly challenges it issued would get more and more extreme: average 180 minutes of exercise per day this month, go for 300 miles this month, burn 36,000 active calories this month.

I started to notice that I was increasingly motivated by what my Watch told me to do—or its passive-aggressive comments if I didn’t. And I was less motivated by any intrinsic desire to move more or increase my performance. I was still finding pleasure in movement—but I was also becoming neurotic about it. Nguyen calls this process “value capture.” Value capture happens when simplified value measures (i.e., metrics) subvert our intrinsic motivation and become the driving force of our actions. He put it this way on The Ezra Klein Show:

“Value capture cases are cases in which you have kind of rich, subtle, maybe inchoate values or you’re in the process of making them. And then the world offers you a simple, pre-established already standardized metric, incorporated into a technology, a simple version of that value system.”

I experienced value capture when I became fixated on my Watch telling me I was doing good rather than being motivated by health, fitness, performance, or pleasure. And I’ve also experienced this with sales metrics, invitations to speak, and podcast downloads. Nguyen wrote a whole academic paper on Twitter and the role value capture plays in how we experience that platform. In “How Twitter Gamifies Communication,” he wrote:

“I don’t think that gamification merely increases our motivation to perform an activity while preserving all the original goods of that activity. Gamification increases our motivation by changing the nature of the activity. Often, the goals of ordinary activity are rich and subtle. When we gamify these activities, we change those goals to make them artificially clear.”

I’ve experienced this with social media myself—and I’m betting that you have too. I’ll use Instagram as my example. I first got on Instagram for fun. I didn’t post anything work-related for years. When I started creating work-related content for Instagram, I started paying attention to what was “working” for others and experimented with those strategies. The only metric I had to know whether a plan was working for someone else was whether they acquired more likes, comments, and followers. So the action I took was filtered through those metrics.

I didn’t know if those strategies produced quality connections that led to new relationships or customers. And so that goal quickly faded into the background. There was an implicit assumption that I’d increase quality connections if I increased likes, comments, and followers. That assumption was unfounded. Likes, comments, and follower counts weren’t designed to help me reach business goals or qualitatively measure the effectiveness of my efforts. They measure something much more straightforward. Likes measure whether the post creates an immediate, strong positive reaction. Comments often measure whether something immediately produces the emotions that generate a response (i.e., most often outrage). And follower counts measure whether someone wants to see more of your stuff—primarily based on how you did on those first two measures.

While I might measure value according to thoughtfulness, deep inspiration, and changed minds, there’s no transparency into those results. I can’t assess those qualities unless someone tells me they experienced that kind of value from what I share. In the absence of a way to measure that more durable value, I’m left with measuring the simplified, ephemeral value of likes, comments, and follower count. Now, that’s okay as long as I leave those measures in context. They measure what they measure and nothing more. But many of us prefer tracking the simplicity and clarity of metrics to the more challenging-to-measure results. As we work with those metrics more and more, we start to take them on as the source of our motivation. And every technology we use today is facilitating that process. I can look on my Instagram Insights page at any time to find out how many people are following me that weren’t last week or what my most liked post of all time was.

Because metrics like follows or likes are so easily accessible, they become the motivation for action. We create content to rack up the points. I’m guessing that you feel like your values have been captured in this way, too. Consider what happened when Instagram announced that its main focus was now on video—specifically Reels. I saw lots of reactions about “needing” to figure out Reels or being “forced” to create video content when they didn’t want to. That’s what it’s like to be a value-captured user. You don’t just use the system; you play its game by its rules, no matter what is actually meaningful to you.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

So that brings us back to Nguyen’s philosophy of games.

Nguyen describes games as temporary environments with rules, goals, and point systems of their own. Nguyen offers Bernard Suits’ definition of a game as his starting point. Suits says, “To play a game is to voluntarily take on unnecessary obstacles for the sake of making possible the activity of overcoming them.” Further, Suits focuses on the obstacles and their relation to the end goal. Nguyen explains:

“Like if you’re running a marathon, you’re trying to get to a particular point in space. But we don’t actually care about being at that point in space in and of itself, or we would take the easy way. We would take a lift, take an Uber, take a shortcut. What’s interesting about games for [Suits] is that you have this thing— the finish line—but it doesn’t count unless you did it under specified constraints.”

Within the marathon’s temporary environment, my goal is to follow a 26.2-mile course with some combination of running, walking, and maybe crawling in an allotted time. Time, in this case, is also the point system. I care both about crossing the finish line and about how long it takes me to do that—relative to my own goal or relative to others. I don’t carry those constraints or goals into the rest of my life, though. I don’t care about my pace as I’m just going about my day. The marathon environment doesn’t shape my action on a daily basis. But for those 4 or 5 hours while I’m running the marathon, that environment is everything. Every choice I make is based on the obstacles, goal, and point system I’ve voluntarily taken on for the pleasure of running the marathon.

This, Nguyen reasons, is why games are so great. They reduce the variables we’re dealing with for a while. They allow us to take on new, clear goals—defeating the boss at the end of the level, conquering the world, or solving the murder. And they provide us with obstacles that we happily contend with for the sake of play. Contrast that with real life:

“I think one of the ways that life makes us suffer the most is that what we’re trying to do is often very unclear, right? Values are unclear. Their application is often unclear. And, there’s like a thousand values. So how the hell do we build a society in games? There’s one goal. It’s quantified. You know exactly where you stand. You know that everyone else is pursuing the same goal by the same means. That makes sense. So I think life has kind of this existential torture, and games give us a little bit of an oasis from that. It makes sense for a little bit. You know exactly what the point is.”

Marketing isn’t a game by Nguyen or Suits’s definition.

But much of the technology we use for marketing try to gamify the process in one way or another. Your core objective—something that can’t be quantified—turns into a sort of points system. We end up with points for costs per lead, open rates, or search traffic. Those numbers are helpful indicators, no doubt. But they’re not a substitute for your more significant, harder-to-express objectives. Marketing metrics are not ends. They tell us something about the means we’re using to a more meaningful end. 

Marketing a business is a rich, complex task that isn’t easily reduced to one or two measures. We bear that cognitive burden as marketers and business owners. But then along comes a system like Instagram, Facebook ads, or search engine optimization, and—phew—everything seems more straightforward. You need to make stuff that gets likes or clicks or keywords. Business marketed. But it’s not that simple. We think the simplicity of these metrics will make the task more manageable because we have a sort of psychological clarity about what we need to do to win the game. Instead, we end up spending time and money racking up points instead of actually investing in what matters.

The same thing happened with my Watch. Instead of training smart, which involves plenty of rest to recover from strenuous activity, I ended up pushing myself day after day after day. Knowing when to rest, listening to my body, planning out my training… those are complex tasks. But my Watch simplified everything. It gave me a point system and told me what to care about. When I didn’t do as well as I did the day or week before, it would tap my wrist and give me a little passive-aggressive notification. I started to notice not only the strain on my body—but the strain on my psyche, too. I’d even tell my husband, “My Watch is yelling at me again!” Being active was no longer a pleasure. It was a compulsion.

“I think the most important thing about games is the way they manipulate our agency—the way we enter into this alternate self,” says Nguyen. Getting wrapped up in the points system or rules of a game is fun, and it’s kind of the point. But getting wrapped up in the gamification of life or work can have dire consequences.

“And that’s, I think, where you can see the greatest power of games and their greatest danger. The greatest power of games is that you can explore this landscape of different agencies. The greatest danger of games is that you can get sucked into this experience of just craving and wanting to be in a clear, crisp, and gentle universe where you know exactly what to do and exactly how well it’s measured.”

About six months ago, I turned off the activity notifications on my Watch. It doesn’t tell me to stand anymore. It doesn’t tell me when I’m not moving as much as I usually would be. It doesn’t “yell” at me for not getting a workout in. I still use my Watch to track my activity and movement—the metrics are all right there for me to dig into. But they don’t tap me on the wrist anymore and tell me I’m not doing enough.

Same thing with Instagram and other social media. Today, I try to keep the likes, shares, and follows in context—although I’m still prone to falling back into old motivations. I try to use the metrics available to me as indications of the specific things they signify rather than whether I’m effective overall. I’m also aware that when I’m using Instagram, there is a certain amount of playing by their rules that I have to do—or it’s just a waste of time. So I can use those metrics to discern the rules of the game and decide how much I want to follow them or not. That awareness is critical! It’s what keeps my own personal values and agency mostly intact. If I just take on Instagram’s rules without that awareness, I also take on its goals and value system—which was absolutely not designed with my success in mind.

Nguyen calls this value independence. I establish my aim, my methods, and what I care about. I then use metrics associated with aspects of those choices to track progress—without allowing them to measure my overall effectiveness or the sole source of my motivation. I’ve become a value-independent user of my Watch. I’m a value-independent Instagram user. I’m working to become a value-independent writer.

Before I wrap this up with a look at the larger systems that capture our value, I want to share some questions you might use if you’d like to spend more time as a value-independent business owner.

First, what do you really care about? 

There are probably at least two things you really care about: how you help people and how the business helps you live a better life. Consider the specifics of those two goals for your business. What do they look like? What do they feel like?

Second, what are the tangible results that indicate you’re accomplishing those things?

It might be your client results, comments in your community, emails overflowing with thanks. It might be taking an extended vacation, making more money, spending less time working. How could you actively track those results? My conversation with Rita Barry would be helpful for these first two questions.

Third, what are the actions that lead to those tangible results? 

Not the actions you assume lead to those results or the behaviors that are supposed to lead to those results. But the activities you know generate the results you really care about. My conversation with Mara Glatzel could be some great inspiration on this one.

Finally, how much of your time and money is spent on those actions? 

And how much of your time and money is spent on value-captured actions? My conversation with Elisabeth Jackson would be beneficial for thinking this through.

Remaining value-independent in our economy, culture, and technological environment takes work and vigilance. But it’s work with far more durable results than likes or follows.

What other point systems influence our lives and work?

Okay, so far, we’ve looked at limited, built environments: my Watch, Instagram, marathons, marketing. But I want to zoom out and look for these same dynamics in larger systems. Political systems and economies are, in essence, point systems. In a political system, the points are calculated in terms of power. And in economies, the point system is financial. In a political system, the people or institutions with the most power points get to make the rules and impose goals on the rest of the system. In economies, complex financial calculations are reduced to simplified value capture metrics—like GDP, the unemployment rate, or the interest rate on the 10-year T-Note. Those metrics teach us what to care about.

These systems aren’t games, though.

They’re not temporary. We haven’t chosen them. We don’t voluntarily take on the obstacles that are inherent to them. Yet, these systems simplify our goals and guide our actions.

In the US, the prevailing political system is neoliberalism—characterized by deregulation, free-market solutions to social problems, individualism, and personal responsibility. Neoliberalism isn’t just the system favored by the Right. It’s become the assumed baseline for both parties. Neoliberalism sets the stage for lean-in feminism, corporate diversity initiatives, and means-testing for government support. It’s the widely accepted social order.

Yet, what neoliberalism teaches us to care about actually runs counter to many of our personal values. And not just bleeding-heart lefties like me! We can see this clearly in surveys about progressive policy positions. A CNBC survey in 2019 found that 84% of those surveyed supported mandatory paid maternity leave. 75% favor increasing the amount the federal government spends on child care. 60% support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. 57% favor tuition-free public universities and colleges. And 54% support Medicare for All. What’s more, over 60% support taxing the wealthy to pay for these programs. My guess is that those numbers have grown in the last 3 years.

I see this in my own family, too. If we’re talking politics, we support different parties and people. If we’re talking policy, though, it’s ridiculously easy to find common ground.

So we find ourselves in this pervasive political system that tells us to care about things different from what we actually care about.

All the incentives are arranged to regularly manipulate us into action that supports the system’s aims. At the same time, our own personal values are either subverted completely or hang out in the background, creating confusion. Our businesses operate in this same system—with incentives that work in one value set, while the value set we want to act on is hamstrung. We’ve internalized the risks and rewards of the system while subduing the risks and rewards we find truly meaningful.

And it’s out of this confusion that we go hunting for answers, for better ways forward. Adrian Daub put it this way in What Tech Calls Thinking:  

“Self-help is frequently about asserting our autonomy, not by rejecting societal norms or our historical situation but by understanding them better than other individuals in society, and thereby coming out ahead of others in our situation.” 

You can easily sub out “business support” for self-help. Sure, we want to understand the system to get ahead, not so we can dismantle it.

Nguyen notes that giving in to the system and its incentives can feel good. It relieves all that existential angst, right? Exercise every day, get in those 10,000 steps, stand up every hour—rings closed, award won. Post a pretty photo, write a snappy caption, share it at the right time—likes and comments optimized. Get into college, graduate, get a job, get promoted, get married, have a kid, buy a house—life accomplished.

Nguyen says that applying this kind of logic to the greater project of life and society can feel good. Like really good. Sometimes, that good feeling signals that we’ve figured out an important truth. He argues that suspicion is warranted when presented with any belief system that seems to simplify everything and gives you specific answers to existential kinds of questions. Think conspiracy theories, miracle cures, QAnon, MAGA, cults. Or, as Nguyen put it, “If someone hands you a belief system and you’re like, ‘oh, this feels so good.’ Then you have to pause and be like, ‘wait, is this designed just to make me feel good?'” Game design and psychological manipulation have a lot in common. But even in systems that are less overtly manipulative, like neoliberalism, following the yellow brick road to success feels easier than trying to figure out what you really want. Accepting the vapid self-help suggestions or meaningless business “advice” can be a relief from the “existential torture” of actually figuring out what works for you.

That’s value capture at work at a societal or existential level rather than a platform or game level. 

We can see value capture throughout our culture: in the media, in conspiracy theories, in the wellness industry, even in our electoral system. But seeing it is the upside. When I can’t see the value capture at work, I end up confused, on edge, and driven by values that aren’t my own—even if I enjoy the clarity of purpose.

When I can see value capture at work, I can choose how to engage with the system more deliberately. I can’t change Instagram, but I can use the metrics available to me more carefully on the path to my real goals. I can’t change my Watch, but I can use the metrics available to me with wisdom about my own body. I can’t change neoliberalism or capitalism on my own, but I can engage with those systems with greater care and look for ways to make things better—not just for myself but for others, too.

And most importantly, as I act more deliberately within these systems, I can accept—even celebrate—the rich textures of value and meaning at play.

Nguyen says that games are the art of agency. They create a space where the choices we make, the goals we pursue, and the methods we use are temporarily clarified. We use the obstacles and constraints of the game as instruments for pleasure.

I’ve long said that one of my own goals is to help you realize your own agency. To recognize the power you have to make choices, pursue goals, and use methods that align with your own values even if those actions bump up against the larger system. As entrepreneurs, time and money are the instruments of that agency. We can use them to feed the system, hijacking our own values. Or, we can use our time and money to deliberately take action that considers the constraints of the system while fulfilling our own values and goals.

This article is also available as Episode 388 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.

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