I love a good analogy, and here is a near perfect one: Life is like a card game. Yeah, it sounds trite, but hear me out.
At the beginning, each player is dealt a random hand of cards that impart advantages or disadvantages in the game. The established rules specify how the game proceeds and what the players can and can’t do. In addition to their hand, each player brings their own skill and mindset to the game.
Let’s examine how the interplay of these three components—hand, rules, mindset—relates to real life.
The Hand We Are Dealt
Every human being starts the game of life in a body, geographic location, period in time, and economic class that was not of their choosing. For example, I was born white, female, and able-bodied in the 1960s. My family was lower middle class, but we lived in one of the richest countries in the world. My father was not in the picture, my mother suffered from health issues and depression, and my extended family was, for the most part, supportive. I was a physical late bloomer with a sharp mind that was prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Each one of these facts was beyond my control, particularly in childhood.
In my tween years, the shortcomings of my hand became more apparent, and I often wallowed in self-pity that my family didn’t have much money, my father had opted out of our lives, and my small size and big hair were a target of endless teasing. As I grew up, I came to understand that many people had been dealt far more challenges than I had. Slowly, I realized that it made little sense to continue wishing I had lucked into a better first hand. I could not alter my origin story.
Layered on top of this truth was the reality that the cards in my hand were better or worse depending on how they related to the rules.
The Rules of the Game
In a card game, the rules typically dictate how many cards each person is dealt, which cards are most or least valuable, and how a winner is crowned. In real life, the rules of our society tell us how much we pay in taxes, how fast we can drive without getting a ticket, which actions are considered crimes, what is required to buy a car or a house, which substances we are allowed to ingest, and so on. Outside of the law, an endless list of customs, tacit agreements, and prejudices also guide our behavior and our perceptions of people.
We tend to think of these rules as institutional, and sometimes they feel like they’re set in stone. But they are not untouchable. The rules that govern our existence are created and enforced by groups of people—elected officials, judges, business leaders, and other powerful individuals working together. Which means that they can be changed by people working together.
Rules rarely transform overnight and not without a struggle. Modifying or overhauling the system usually takes time, hard work, and a keen strategy. Commitment, collaboration, and vision are all vital. And let’s not forget the importance of access to capital.
In my lifetime, I have witnessed a number of revisions to the rules and social conventions that have historically held back women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. These advancements have been impressive but are far from complete.
While people strive to secure rule changes that will allow entire groups of people to participate more fully in the game of life, individuals may want to explore how they can control their own actions in the present.
If you’ve spent any time online, you’ve probably seen inspirational quotes declaring that the only person you can command is you. These maxims don’t commonly mention that different people have differing abilities, resources, and opportunities available to them depending on the hand of cards they were dealt. Not a single one of us has 100 percent control over what we can do, and some have much less.
But each of us has choices. Even little ones. Read a book or scroll on social media? Take a walk or watch TV? Drink a glass of water or a soda? Let that remark go or argue back? Take a deep breath and move forward or stay in our comfort zone? Okay, that last one might be a tad formidable.
The energy and preparation that we bring to the table counts. The card player learns about the game by reading up and practicing. As adult players in life, we are responsible for our ongoing growth and development. We “win” the game when we figure out what we have power over and then exercise our power as often as possible.
For a large chunk of my adult life, I worked at a nonprofit organization focused on reshaping the rules in our nation in favor of equality for all. The work we did was critical to others and meaningful to me.
I am now at a phase in my life when I am more focused on what I can do as an individual to push past my demons and chase my dreams. And to inspire others to do the same.
We need people leading the way down both paths—rule changing and personal responsibility. Some of us are more suited to one path over the other. One day I would like to find a way to combine the two endeavors, but perhaps I’ve found my best path.
Either way, thanks to the card game metaphor, I can see both paths more clearly.