Thanks to Laura for pointing me towards this post by Simone Stolzoff. There’s so much to unpack, which perhaps I’ll do in a separate post. It touches on reputation and credentialing, but also motivation, gamification, and “value self-determination”.
Extracting yourself from the false gods of vanity metrics is hard, but massively liberating. It starts with realising small things like you don’t actually need to keep up a ‘streak’ on Duolingo to learn a language. But there’s a through line from that to coming to the conclusion that you don’t need to win awards for your work, or the status symbol of a fancy car/house.
I interviewed over 100 workers—from kayak guides in Alaska to Wall Street bankers in Manhattan—and met several people who achieved nearly every goal set out for them, only to realize they were winning a game they didn’t enjoy playing.
How do so many of us find ourselves in this position, climbing ladders we don’t truly want to be on? C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher and game design researcher at the University of Utah, has some answers. Nguyen coined the term “value capture,” a phenomenon that I came to see all around me after I learned about it. Here’s how it works.
Most games establish a world with a clear goal and rankable achievements: Pac-Man must eat all the dots; Mario must save the princess. Video games offer what Nguyen calls “a seductive level of value clarity.” Get points, defeat the boss, win. In many ways, video games are the only true meritocratic games people can play. Everyone plays within clearly defined boundaries, with the same set of inputs. The most skilled wins.
Our careers are different. The games we play with our working hours also come with their own values and metrics that matter. Success is measured by how much money you make—for your company and for yourself. Promotions, bonuses, and raises mark the path to success, like dots along the Pac-Man maze.
These metrics are seductive because of their simplicity. “You might have a nuanced personal definition of success,” Nguyen told me, “but once someone presents you with these simple quantified representations of a value—especially ones that are shared across a company—that clarity trumps your subtler values.” In other words, it is easier to adopt the values of the game than to determine your own. That’s value capture.
There are countless examples of value capture in daily life. You get a Fitbit because you want to improve your health but become obsessed with maximizing your steps. You become a professor in order to inspire students but become fixated on how often your research is cited. You join Twitter because you want to connect with others but become preoccupied by the virality of your content. Naturally, maximizing your steps or citations or retweets is good for the platforms on which these status games are played.
Source: Playing a Career Game You Actually Want to Win | Every
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