California Rains, Games, and Acceptance

(Alternate Title: Everything Important in Life is Explained by Tetris)

So much rain in California! It’s wonderful for our drought-ridden state, but it’s cramping my style. Here’s the thing about our sunny west coast state. If I plan an outdoor activity – hiking, cycling, golf, pickleball, fill in the blank here – I can pretty much count on being able to do it. The weather is hardly ever bad enough to stop me, whether it’s April, August, November or even January. Pretty awesome, right? But after a very rainy month, the rain has prevented me from playing outside too many times, and I’m working on getting that expectation out of my head. When I keep my expectations in check, I find myself less disappointed.

With all of the rain, the number of games being played in our home is a little out of control right now. Between the dozens of games of Settlers of Catan and Mahjong, Jill has never been happier. I remember explaining Settlers of Catan to my oldest son, Ryan. I explained that players compete by gathering key supplies – lumber, ore, wool, grain, and brick. Ryan asked, “And then they use those to battle?” No, Ryan. They use it to settle. If they get enough supplies they can grow their settlements into cities. Ryan asked, “And then they battle?” No, Ryan. There is no battling. You just settle. I’ll bet that there have been over 60 hours of settling in our house since Christmas.

The last time that Jill spent this much time playing games was way back when Ryan was 15 and Dawson was three. Ryan had his Nintendo 64 gaming console, and he showed us how to play Tetris on it. The epic Tetris battles went on for about three years. For those of you who don’t know Tetris, it’s the classic video game where different shapes drop down from the top of the screen – squares, bars, L-shaped bars, Z-shaped bars – and you try to spin and move them so that they align to make solid blocks with no empty spaces at the bottom of the puzzle. If you make them fit perfectly, you get big points and whole lines disappear from the screen, making it easier to place new pieces, which drop at an ever-increasing speed. Jill was the champion of our household, and held every high score record possible. I think the only reason that Jill quit playing is that somehow, a “glitch” happened, and all of Jill’s records vanished. She still blames me, hence the quotes. It may have been my fault – maybe – but I did give Jill her life back. You’re welcome, Jill!

Tetris came back into my life recently, this time without the competition. I’ve been listening to a podcast called Secular Buddhism. I wanted to learn more after reading the Breakfast with Buddha book that I mentioned a few posts ago. One of the concepts of Buddhism is to let go of all expectations. “It’s the hope that kills you,” is a theme of soccer fans in Ted Lasso. We experience sadness, disappointment, and pain when our expectations do not match with reality, and we would suffer less if we would let go of those expectations. This is where Tetris comes in. Let’s say that you really need a long bar, or a square, to do well in the game you are playing. You hope for the shape you need, then one of the dreaded Z-figures drops down from the top of the screen. If you spend your time lamenting your bad luck, angry at the game for being rigged, or being even moderately disappointed with the round you are playing, you are hurting your chances of success. The moral: don’t expect good or bad outcomes, just see what the game deals you, accept it with as little emotion as possible, and do your best to succeed with what you have. And if that piece messes up your whole game, you put it behind you, forget about it, and move on.

Make no mistake, having no expectations is not the same as settling – take that, Catan! You still try to do great things, but you know that it may work and it may not. Two great people exemplify this attitude. Steven Hawking did so much amazing work for years after his illness was diagnosed early in his life. He said, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” Another example came into my life with Ryan’s maternal great-grandfather, Elmer Geisler, who is one of the finest persons I have ever met. He was relentlessly positive and sought to get the most out of each day, even towards the end of his long and beautiful life. I would ask him how he was doing, and he would answer, “Great! But at my age, I’m not buying any green bananas.” No expectations. Thank you, Elmer. You remain one of my all-time heroes. 

Speaking to our high school seniors (and their parents) who have applied to colleges and have started the wait, I know that it’s a time of great hopes and expectations. I remember it for myself and my sons, and I’ve heard from thousands of students. I know it’s hard to believe that where you end up going to college is just another Tetris piece falling into your life. But that’s exactly what you need to believe.

How hard you’ve worked can’t help but create some level of expectation. So many young people have dedicated their young lives to excellence, hoping their efforts will make all the difference to top-tier universities. To put it in Tetris terms, they’ve put all the pieces in place, and just need the vertical bar to drop down.

But even with all that, the email you will receive from admissions departments may give you a vertical bar or a Z-figure. We don’t control the game. We can only control our efforts. As my son Ryan often says, “Process over results.” But when things go his way, even though he may have been a little lucky, he’s the first to say, “Results over process.” Not a bad attitude, actually.

I wrote about this four years ago: Where you go to college has very little to do with the success you will experience in your life. How hard you have worked and learned matters tremendously, and how much you take advantage of the learning opportunities of the university you attend, at this point we’ll call it the University of Tetris, is what will truly shape your future.

The point is that whether we’re applying to college, looking to advance in our careers, or trying to be the best parents we can be, doing everything as well as we can is all we can do. I know all too well that most challenges we face in life are infinitely more important than a game of Tetris, but the lesson remains the same. We will be happier if we make our best efforts to reach for the sun, while maintaining no expectations that we will actually get there. I’m not there yet, but I like that way of thinking.

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13 thoughts on “California Rains, Games, and Acceptance

  1. Mike, amazing post, thank you! I wake up most days, ready to embrace the exact philosophy you’re so clearly explaining in this post, the Tetris analogy is just brilliant, and I love the groovy artwork you added. I read Breakfast with Buddha (at your suggestion), and felt more at peace during, and after reading it. I have read many books (“Invisible Man” comes to mind first), consumed much culture (Joseph Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers), and I take a destress yoga class every Friday, all of which induce calm, and get me closer to what you’re talking about. I’ll listen to “Secular Buddhism” too. And yet, when my Apple Watch didn’t work perfectly in the middle of a bike ride (yesterday), I lose my shit and throw a tantrum. How the hell do we get these principles to stick?

    1. The first five episodes are spectacular. I actually listened to each one twice. Once to listen and once to take notes. Now I’m starting from the most recent episodes and working backwards. Highly enjoyable.

  2. I love what you said about making our best efforts to reach our goals, while maintaining no expectations actually get there. That is something to live by. Thank you, brother.

  3. I will be sharing this with my sophomore daughter, as she will embark on her university experience in just a couple more years. Thanks, Mike!

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