What Kind of Deck Should We Build?

In the deck-building card game Dominion, there comes a point where you stop focusing on improving your hand and start playing the hand as it is, the best you can, and begin scoring the points you need to win, come what may. If you don’t, you end up with a great hand and no points, which means you lose. Dominion is a hyper competitive game with a short time frame, with each game only lasting a dozen or two turns per player. The turning point, the shift from building to scoring, usually comes about halfway through the game.

In real life, if we play hyper competitive games (e.g. athletics, writing, investing in the stock market, investing in real estate, running tech startups) and plan on living a relatively short span of years (i.e. fewer than 100), we have to play the same way. There comes a point in our careers where we stop going to school, stop acquiring skill after skill, stop changing industries, stop bouncing to new cities, stop focusing on building our resumes, and stop taking big risks. At this point, we shift into production mode. We are promoted, grow our businesses, buy houses, start families, and save up as much cash as we can for retirement. We create a plan to work until the math says we don’t have to. We realize that we built our deck as good as it’s gonna get, for better or worse, and now it’s time to play our hand the best we can. That’s not a bad strategy, and for most people it’s the best strategy, given the parameters of life as we now live it.

However, if we want to live an extraordinarily long, happy, and fulfilled life—as in, doing nothing but what we love for many centuries or perhaps even millennia—we must play the game differently. We must never stop building our deck. We must never stop adding skills. We must never stop dreaming bigger dreams and going after them. We must never worry about retirement, knowing that eventually we’ll have powerful enough decks to provide all the money we need doing what we love. We must remember that we won’t need to retire at 65 or whatever, because we still have centuries ahead of us. Who wants to sit in rocking chairs and watch the world go by for the next 500 years? That sounds boring! We must plan on being out in the world, creating positive change in whatever way we see fit.

Further, we must remember that if we do decide to play the game that second way, we can’t compare ourselves to others, because they will score “points” (make money, appear successful) long before we do. We’ll eventually get there too, but on our own terms and at our own pace. Sadly, people playing the short game will likely never understand our strategy. They’ll forever shake their heads at all our wasted talent and lack of apparent material success. They’ll ask why we keep exploring and learning instead of settling down into a single job or career. We must stay strong and remember why we’re making the choices we are, sharing our strategies only with people on similar paths or who are open to seeing in new ways.

That said, we can’t only build our hand forever. We must still start playing for points eventually (i.e. shipping projects, saving money, achieving some definition of success) while we continue to build, lest we risk spending eternity acquiring skills and doing nothing with them. Regardless, that point can come decades later we might realize. Think of it this way, if you knew you were going to live for 5000 years, or even just 500 years, would it make sense to end your youthful explorations and formal education after just one or two decades? Or would you invest at least 50 to 100 years in deck-building before shifting into production mode?

These aren’t fanciful fantasies. Rapidly advancing medical technologies and the ever evolving science of healthy living provide overwhelming evidence that humans will become amortal in the 21st century. That is, humans can still die, but mostly from accidents or violence. This means that short of worldwide calamity like nuclear war or the collapse of civilization due to climate change, many if not most humans alive today will live hundreds or even thousands of years. If that’s indeed true, what future are we preparing ourselves for? Are we building our decks to win at a hyper-competitive game that only lasts a few more decades, or are we building our decks to enjoy playing a happily fulfilling game that lasts millennia? What kind of deck do you want to build?

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