Want to Win at Life? Know What Game You’re Playing

The GameIf there’s one general-purpose, always-applicable life lesson I know, it’s this one:

Know what game you’re playing.

This breaks down into two components:

  1. You need to know what “winning” looks like
  2. You need to know the rules of the game

Notice the order here. First, you need to know what it looks like if you “win” the game. That’s actually more important, and often far more difficult, than step two — determining the rules of the game.

Strategy vs. Tactics

Fundamentally, this is the difference between “strategy” and “tactics.” Strategy is the big picture stuff — what do I want my life to look like in ten years? Tactics are the how-to-get-there decisions — take job A, or hold out for job B?

If someone asks me whether they should go to law school, or take a particular job, or whatever, my response is easy:

I ask what they want their life to look like ten or twenty years down the road.

If someone can answer that question, it’s generally pretty easy to figure out what they should do right now. If they can’t, it’s impossible to give useful advice — it’s like flipping a coin. Heads, you take the job. Tails, you don’t.

What Does “Winning” at Work Look Like?

Now, I don’t demand perfect foresight on exactly what job they want to have twenty years from now (that’s improbable for most people, and not necessarily productive). I’m talking about more basic things:

  • What’s the role of work in your life?
  • Where do you find meaning?
  • How much time do you want to work?
  • How much money do you need?
  • Where do you want to live?
  • Who do you want to work with?
  • What do you enjoy doing?

If you can really answer these questions, deciding on your next career move should be relatively easy. (Yes, I know you might think you have to take whatever job presents itself, but I don’t buy that. It’s up to you where you look, and you should look for jobs that will get you closer to your vision of your ideal work. Maybe you don’t get there immediately, but aim to be moving in the right direction.)

What Does “Winning” at Law School Look Like?

This lesson applies equally well to law school.

At any given time, there are multiple games being played, and it’s up to you to decide which one(s) you want to compete in.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Getting good grades
  • Collecting credentials
  • Building a body of work
  • Making personal connections
  • Developing professional connections
  • Acquiring experience
  • Gaining knowledge
  • Your own amusement
  • Leaving a lasting legacy

Some of these probably strike you as really obvious goals, and others as totally absurd. The interesting thing is that your breakdown of the obviously desirable and the obviously not are likely quite different from your classmates’ breakdowns.

Different Law School Paths You Might Take

Think the only point of law school is to get good grades and join Law Review? Try making that argument to the classmate who spends most of her time doing volunteer work and internships with organizations she’s passionate about. Or to the person who spends his study time in the library working on papers he plans to submit for publication. Or even to the person who goes out socializing every night, making lots of new friends and forging connections between people who’d normally never meet.

You can look at anyone who behaves differently than you do and think:

Man, they’re crazy and wrong! This person doesn’t get law school at all.

Or you can recognize that they’re playing a different game, one with its own rewards.

A Personal Story About HOW to Play the Game

For example, I decided I wanted to be a Kent Scholar at least one of my three years of law school. (A Kent Scholar is the highest academic honor Columbia hands out. It goes to the top 5% of the class or so.)

I planned my entire 2L schedule around this goal. I took a clinic that gave mostly As, I tried to find classes that weren’t curved, etc. Was this a wise idea? Maybe. I mean, it looked good on a résumé, but I probably would have been better off taking classes that were more interesting and relevant.

The point isn’t really whether it was a good idea, or a bad idea, as that’s always going to be debatable. The point is that I evaluated the downsides, then decided to make it happen.

To do that, I had to know the rules of the game:

  • What were the requirements?
  • What would be the easiest way to meet the requirements?
  • What determined whether certain classes were curved?
  • How could I ensure I got the classes I wanted?

And so on.

How This Concept Applies to YOU

As a law student, it’s easy to get caught up in all the hype about what you have to do to succeed. It’s not true. Really.

Your version of success will look different from everyone else’s version, and it’s critical to keep that in mind when making all the smaller decisions along the way.

You don’t have to join Law Review, you don’t have to join Moot Court, and you don’t have to get perfect grades. If these things get you closer to your ideal work life, great, try to do them. If not, do something else that does!

And just ignore the naysayers along the way.

Read On:

Know what you want, and just need to figure out how to get it? Check out some more tactical advice below:

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  1. Excellent article. I received multiple offers for the summer at public interest organizations even though my grades are below average. My work experience and extensive pro bono work in law school are what helped me snag the interviews. I’m playing a different game than my classmates who want Big Law, DOJ, etc. The rules for non-profits are decidedly different.

    At the same time though, I am still trying to do things like bring up my GPA, because I don’t want to foreclose any opportunities. I knew what I wanted to do going into undergrad, then changed my mind when I got there. I changed majors and still graduated with a BA in a field I’ve never worked in. You don’t always know where life will take you–plans change! You just have to make the best judgments you can.

    • Sounds like you’re doing exactly what you should be doing! Of course, all things being equal, you’d prefer to have impressive grades. But great grades won’t necessarily get you a public interest job. You’ve got to have the experience, which, ultimately, is going to get you further than having perfect grades.

      (Ironically, one of my law school classmates who’s got a legitimate shot at becoming a law professor didn’t care at all about her grades. For a while, she didn’t even look at them! But her background is so interesting that they don’t matter. So contrary to the received wisdom…)

  2. Hi Alison, I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and wish I had something like this when I was in law school. I read that you practiced biglaw patent lit for a few years and was wondering if I could get your insight on succeeding in this practice area. I’m a junior patent litigator and would love any advice you may have!

    • Sure, and thanks for the support! First and foremost, I guess the goal is to be a “good associate” in a general sense. So, helpful, conscientious, billing a bunch of hours, etc. Beyond that, and more patent-specifically, it’s really helpful if you can talk the language of the people you’re working for. Depending on your background, this might be easier or harder, but if the engineers, or whatever, feel like you understand what they’re saying, and where they’re coming from, that helps a lot.

      So, if you’ve got a technical background, try to get cases in that specific area. If not, maybe do some outside reading (or learn basic programming skills, etc.) so you can better understand the larger world in which you’re operating. Oh, and try to develop your trial and pretrial skills (starting with depositions, perhaps), since these are some of the rare cases that actually go to trial!

      Best of luck.

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