Numbers Game

Lance Excellence, Leadership Leave a Comment

Much as the smiling crew above, our family enjoys playing The Game of Life now and again. (The iPad version’s Pass ‘n’ Play feature is great for long road trips!) Anytime we play, one of the highlights is when each player is faced with the choice of which career to select from two randomly selected cards. Given the intersection of the available career choices and our own interests, things usually shake out like this in our games:LIFE-careercards

This ends up being the case even when the other choice is more lucrative: more than once, my Son has chosen “Race Car Driver” ($60K) over following in his Dad’s footsteps and going with the twice-as-valuable “Lawyer” career.

  • (Worth noting #1: “American Ninja Warrior,” “Horseback Rider/Artist,” and “Prosecutor” are not available career card choices. Hasbro, take note…)
  • (Worth noting #2: Quite a severe case of noble wishcasting from Hasbro here, making “Teacher” a $100K salary career choice, twice as valuable as being an “Athlete.” LOL)
  • (Worth noting #3: “Firefighter” and “Police Officer” remain at the lowest pay scale in the game ($50K), same as “Chef” and “Dancer.” Hasbro: If you’re going to adjust career salaries to reflect a more enlightened social valuing of careers…)


Of course, my kids’ choices to forego the higher salary and pick the career they love is cute and noble and fun. But, within the four corners of the game board and the rules governing it, these are irrational choices. Winning at The Game of Life is defined by a singular metric: having the most net worth at the end of the game. There are no bonus points for liking your career, being passionate about its subject matter, or the inherent nobility of its mission.

There is also no difference in the game-play experience itself. Playing as an “Inventor” ($80K) doesn’t bring any difference in options as being a “Fashion Designer” ($80K). If those are the two cards you get presented with at your time to choose a career, there is literally zero difference between them. Winning the game is the goal of  playing the game (right Herm?), and at the end of the game, it’s green eyeshade time: sell the houses, pay the loans, and tabulate the remaining balances. Biggest pile of cash is King. As Randy Moss says:


Which means, when playing The Game of Life to win, there is one simple career-choice rule: the salary number is all that matters.

I was reminded of this while reading Tim Urban’s brilliant 4-part series of blog posts about Elon Musk (start here with Part 1 — “Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man“). In Part 2, Urban focuses in on Tesla Motors, and it was two quotes that caught my attention (for purposes here, at least).

First, Senior Design Executive Franz von Holzhausen:

A company like GM is a finance-driven company who always has to live up to financial expectations. Here we look at it the other way around—the product is successful when it’s great, and the company becomes great because of that.

Second, Elon Musk himself, boiling that point down to its pure essence:

The moment the person leading a company thinks numbers have value in themselves, the company’s done. The moment the CFO becomes CEO—it’s done. Game over.

Game Over.

Now, he doesn’t mean “game over” as in “you lock the doors, shutter the windows, go bankrupt, and die.” Companies and non-commercial organizations can exist a looooong time operating with a Game of Life mentality in which the numbers themselves are all that matter, and the substance of what they do is just the picture on the card. But Musk’s mission with Tesla isn’t to merely exist … or turn a profit … or take market share … or “maximize shareholder value” (though it certainly is doing that). With Tesla Motors, Musk is out to literally change the world and achieve true greatness.

Whether personally, professionally, or organizationally, these two examples — The Game of Life vs Elon Musk & Tesla Motors — provide two different paradigms for success. The former is simple and tw0-dimensional, easier to understand and execute, but the payoff is defined by and limited to the numbers that take precedence over all; The latter is more complex and three-dimensional, harder to achieve, but the results are deeper than the numbers. But, when done well, you get the number too.

Everybody gets to choose: use the conventional, well-worn strategy of trying to win the Game by aiming for the numbers, or stick out by taking the less conventional approach of trying to win at Life by aiming for more and trusting the numbers will follow. Which line do you think it’s easiest to get to the front of?

choose path


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