Playing Grand Theft Life

grand theft life in New York City

Let’s say I offer you a chance to peer into a tiny box.

In the box, there’s a card.

On the card, there’s a number.

The number is how many hours you have left to live.

It would take a lot of courage to look at that number. But you’re young and healthy, so you peer inside.

To your relief, you have 526,000 hours – about sixty years – remaining. That comes out to about 352,000 waking hours, which is practically an eternity.

Your entire remaining life will fit into that time – you’ll love and fight, win things and lose them, change, grow, spend time with the love of your life, and learn everything you’ll ever know about the world around you. But that’s just the exciting stuff.

You’ll also do lots of dull, repetitive things like:

  • Eat around 60,000 meals (plus snacks)
  • Get caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella at least fifty times
  • Spend 200,000 minutes in the shower
  • Miss the subway by six seconds a few hundred times
  • Drink 40,000 cups of coffee
  • Go to work 7,200 times and attend more than 10,000 conference calls
  • Tell your partner about your day 20,000 times

Every time a routine thing happens, your brain slides into autopilot. Shower number #3,546 isn’t that interesting, nor is coffee #12,811, so your brain skims them.

Skimming speeds up your perception of time. Days are slow, but weeks go by in a blur. You know you had fun last week, but you can’t remember what you did.

Brain Skim is how life gets away from people. It’s how they wake up at an age they can’t believe in a life they feel they didn’t choose.

They recognize too late that they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours chasing things that don’t matter or don’t exist.

This is what makes Walter White turn to drug dealing in Breaking Bad. It’s what makes Adam Sandler (and the entire audience) sad in the movie Click. It can also be a source of regret when we reach old age.

That’s not to say autopilot is always the enemy. Every day involves things you’ve done a million times before, and you’ll spend part of it in a semi-conscious routine state.

That’s why this post isn’t about meditation or Radical Presence or doing yoga six hours a day.

The key to grand theft life isn't being able to do handstands

Don’t get me wrong – those things are good. But to feel like we squeezed every drop of juice out of our 352,000 hours, we need to think bigger. A life you can feel great about has two primary components:

1) The degree to which you lived a life true to yourself

2) The quality and quantity of your memories

If we play our cards right, we can augment our routines with some advanced strategies to create a life that generates high marks on both criteria. This is (literally) the opportunity of a lifetime.

The 352,000-hour opportunity

If I asked you to close your eyes, you could probably map out your apartment in your head. You know where everything is – the kitchen, that weird creaky floorboard, your couch, the cord you always trip on near the couch, the bed, and every wall.

Our lives are the same way on a larger scale. Over time, we get used to where things are: careers, friends, partners, and routines.

Then there’s the space around the edges. The possibilities you’ve thought about but haven’t explored, things you’d like to do but don’t know if you’ll ever get to, and the things you believe are impossible. These are the boundaries of your life. Unlike the clear, immovable walls of your apartment, these boundaries are fuzzy and low-resolution.

Boundaries can be tested, pushed, and explored. Yet we treat the fuzzy areas like we would our apartment walls. 

If we don’t push these boundaries, we become used to where they are. We accept them, and they harden. The job we took to make some money after college becomes our career. The mediocre relationship becomes hard to leave. Temporary fixes become permanent behaviors.

Ossified boundaries like these have caused many people to become old before their time, leaving thick walls between them and paths not taken.

The obvious but underexplored reality is that our futures are, in nearly every meaningful way, limitless. I don’t mean you-can-switch-up-your-Seamless-order-tonight limitless. I mean you-could-turn-your-life-upside-down-twice-and-still-have-time-for-prestige-television limitless.

Limitless opportunity in Grand Theft Life
I couldn’t say “limitless” that many times without throwing the movie a bone here

To illustrate this concept, Tim Urban of Wait But Why imagines life as a video game that’s a bit like Grand Theft Auto. He calls the game Grand Theft Life.

“If someone gave you a perfect simulation of today’s world to play in and told you that it’s all fake with no actual consequences—with the only rules being that you can’t break the law or harm anyone, and you still have to make sure to support your and your family’s basic needs—what would you do?”

Imagine you’re looking at an avatar of yourself, moving your “character” around with a joystick. You have one object: live the best life possible.

Much like in Grand Theft Auto, nearly the entire world is open to you. What will you do with your 352,000-hour opportunity?

Playing Grand Theft Life

I’m sure you have ideas already about how you’d play GTL.

At first, you’d probably mess around to test out the game. Is it easy to learn new skills or meet people? How hard is it to make money and support yourself?

You might have your character move around, try out a few jobs, and go on some dates in hopes of meeting a life partner. Or you could change your avatar’s look and get really into the underground punk rock scene.

You’d probably screw up a lot at first, too. You’d lose a few bucks on a boneheaded scheme, work a dead-end job, and forget to show up to a date.

But after a few hours of gameplay, I bet your character’s life would be pretty impressive: you’d have skills, friends, and cool stuff like a great job or a partner.

Another bet: the life you would build for your character would be a lot truer to your real desires – and, ultimately, much more successful – than your life outside the game.

Our real lives are much closer to the game world than we think. Success and failure, winning and losing, doing crazy stuff or not – it’s all happening in the only game that matters.

Remember, our first measure of success is living a life true to ourselves. Why is it that we’re better at this in GTL than in real life?

Real life holds us back

As you’re surely thinking by now, real life is nowhere near as simple as a video game. In the game, our only constraints are “don’t hurt people” and “make a living.” In real life, we have many more.

Some of these are structural – we’ll address them later. The ones that are most interesting and insidious, though, are the mental constraints.

If we name them, we have a better chance of circumventing them to do our GTL selves proud.

#1: Desire for consistency

We have a pesky fidelity to the past versions of ourselves. But we don’t just apply this standard to our own behavior.

  • We criticize politicians for being “flip-floppers” because we think changing your mind is a bad thing.
  • We call our friends scattered or flaky for switching their hairstyles, clothing, changing careers, or dating different people.
  • We get mad at celebrities who changed when they became famous or musicians who sold out to make money.

Resistance to change and desire for consistency are wrapped up in a tricky mix of identity and social pressure.

We feel loyalty to our past selves even if those selves are terrible at predicting what we’ll want in the future. That’s how we end up with so many unsatisfied doctors and lawyers, whose 18-year-old selves picked what career they’d be in at thirty.

Social pressure is similarly potent. Switching, say, your political affiliation would be a big shock to those around you and would temporarily upset your categorization in the minds of your friends. It might even require you to change social groups.

In the short run, not changing is the better move. It allows you to keep a clear, consistent identity and doesn’t affect your relationships.

But in the long run, changing to align with your values will almost certainly lead to a happier, more fulfilled life than standing still.

People who grow and change this way might struggle for a while. But those who can withstand the pressure and change anyway should command our respect, not our scorn.

#2: Inability to maintain perspective

The most important feature in GTL is the third-person perspective. It provides us physical and figurative separation from the benefits and consequences of our choices.

This separation is critical for the joystick fiddler – you’re much more risk-averse when you see things through your eyes rather than an external view.

In daily life, we’re locked in that first-person perspective. That bad job interview happened to you. A person turned you down for a date. Your bank account is running low.

We try to maintain mental distance, but life conspires to drag us back. Without the game’s built-in third-person point of view, it’s less likely we’ll do the most fulfilling, scary, and critical things in life.

#3: Fear

In GTL, we have a good sense of what’s dangerous and what isn’t. We know that failure isn’t a big deal and that embarrassment is flimsy and fleeting.

In real life, we’re…less brave. Most of us come wired for a “no false negatives” approach to danger, failure, and embarrassment. Historically, this was a good call. This risk-aversion kept our ancestors from being eaten.

As a result, we avoid many things that aren’t dangerous for fear that one of them might be.

Fear leads us to do some sensible things like wearing seatbelts and avoiding addictive drugs. But fear goes far beyond its usefulness in self-preservation, causing us to do silly things like staying in a job we dislike because we’re afraid the next one might be worse.

Pressure for consistency, lack of perspective, and fear are three pretty intense problems. How can we beat these dastardly forces to create a memorable, fulfilling life with our 352,000 remaining hours?

What to do instead

So far, we’ve made a distinction between the virtual world of Grand Theft Life and real life. But how different are they, really?

I’m not even going to go into the idea that we’re in a simulation right now, although we might be. Still, the game world and regular life are essentially the same in every way that counts. Per Urban:

“Real life and Grand Theft Auto aren’t actually that different. Grand Theft Auto is a fun video game because it’s a fake world where you can do things with no fear. Drive 200 mph on the highway. Break into a building. Run over a prostitute with your car. All good in GTA. Unlike GTA, in real life, the law is a thing and jail is a thing. But that’s about where the differences end.”

In Grand Theft Life, you can take jobs and quit them. You can travel around the game world, exploring, learning, and completing missions.

There are consequences for behaviors that hurt you or other people, but almost all the other constraints are fuzzy boundaries, not immovable walls.

In moments of third-person clarity about your life, doesn’t that sound like the situation you’re in right now?

Things are messier in the real world, but the rules are the same. Any social or self-imposed pressure to live a certain way is misguided; only you know what you want your life to be.

I learned later than I should have that there’s no one way to live, have a career, or date. Everyone’s making it up as they go along, which is why we end up with such a varied set of paths.

Since everyone is writing each chapter of their lives on a blank page, why not make it a story you’d be happy to share with your grandchildren or a biographer when you reach old age?

I don’t mean doing a bunch of stuff for the social media likes or “for the story.”

I mean overcoming fear of things that are bold but not dangerous or unlikely but not impossible.

This is what we’d do in GTL, after all. So, how do we bring some of this video game energy to our daily lives? I can think of three main ways.

Go big with impunity.

If there’s something you want to do, you should try it. So long as you don’t ruin your health, hurt anyone, break any laws, or give short shrift to people who depend on you, you’re free to do whatever you want.

This doesn’t fully sink in for most people. They might say, “OK, cool. I’m free to do whatever I want. Maybe I’ll go to a new bar with my friends this weekend.”

No, dude! You’re free to do whatever you want. You can go to Amsterdam on Friday night, start a business tomorrow afternoon or quit your job next week. All good in Grand Theft Life.

We tend to avoid bold moves like these. Changing some major, visible aspect of your life feels fraught with personal and social danger.

But going big hurts exactly zero people. So long as you’re covered financially, there’s no actual harm in starting that grilled cheese truck (Cheezus just might work!) or moving to a new city sight unseen.

Going big is a reliable way to access an underrated key to success in these endeavors – volatility.

I know volatility is a dirty word. Let me explain.

In investment management, volatility can be a source of returns. If you make consistent high-volatility investments, you can get better than average returns, even if a significant amount of those investments don’t pay off.

This is a risky strategy if you’re a fund manager. It doesn’t always work out. But the people who take on more volatility and are correct win big.

Volatility in your personal life is even more attractive. I don’t mean the conventional kind of volatility – pills consumed, bottles thrown, and friendships ruined – but the good kind that offers exposure to life-altering, memorable opportunities. Volatility provides two key things:

1) The possibility of a life-changing positive asymmetry

2) A deep well of lifelong memories, regardless of what happens in the process.

Bold maneuvers are a source of this volatility. Switching to an unconventional career path, traveling to underexplored places, or building a project of your own could pay off a near-infinite amount. Or it could turn out to be nothing much – not all that interesting, or even outright bad.

Regardless of the outcome, you get a free side of memories and life lessons you’ll carry with you forever, which caps your downside. Memories of disastrous jobs or failed trips get better with age.

That’s not to say every bold decision is a good one. There’s an art to knowing when to be bold and when to play it safe – the subject of another article – but there are almost always steps you can take to mitigate or reverse the damage from a big bet gone awry.

Thoughtful people tend to be cautious. But when the downside of bold action is limited and reversible, we should be erring on the side of seeking more volatility in our lives, not less.

Game your memory.

Some of us have mortgages and car payments and tiny humans who rely on us for food. That might disqualify some of the bold moves we talked about – volatility isn’t something a new parent needs more of, for example – but it doesn’t mean that life can’t be an adventure filled with lovely memories.

You don’t have to go big to make your life feel memorable and fulfilling. All you have to do is game your memory, keeping your brain slightly off-balance and making it just a little bit harder for it to slip into Brain Skim mode. When your brain can’t skim, you’ll increase both the quality and quantity of your memories.

There are a few reliable ways to beat Brain Skim at its own game:

Buy experiences rather than things. I know, I know. Fetishizing experiences is classic yuppie millennial shit. But novel experiences – a trip, play, concert, or even ordering from a new restaurant – really are more likely to create memories than those you’ve grown used to.

The best experiences for fond memory generation are shared with loved ones—bonus points for experiences that are hard to compare with other experiences.

Switch your daily routine. Doing the same things every day won’t generate the memories we desire. Our brains quickly become habituated to experience, so we must occasionally shock them into paying attention by feeding them novelty. 

You might even find something better in the process. As Alyssa Vance writes, “If you want to find a better route to work, you must necessarily explore a different route to work.”

One reversal worth noting is doing something so often that it goes beyond routine and becomes a ritual. Running on the same trail twenty times will cause Brain Skim, but running that trail every morning becomes a daily devotional.

For example, I’ve run by the East River multiple times per week for years. I don’t have strong memories of most individual runs. But after hundreds of hours spent slogging along that path, that ordinary place is one of my favorite places on earth – a place on fire with personal meaning.

This is a barbell strategy of sorts. We must either seek novel things or form rituals, with as little as possible between the extremes.

Spend time in nature without a phone. A few days ago, I took a phone-free walk through a beautiful garden. I stared at the tiny buds on a plant about to bloom and admired the sturdy conifers standing ready for summer to arrive. I left refreshed and happy and stayed that way for the rest of the afternoon. 

This entire experience took 45 minutes. Just looking at some damn trees (or water) is an easy way to trick our brains into absorbing lots of sensory evidence. It’s the opposite of taking a shower or using our phones – our brains move into a heightened state of awareness, which slows down our perception of time.

Memory gamification is a fantastic spice to apply to an already-good life. It works so well that you might want to spam a particularly satisfying move – a great restaurant meal, for example – by turning it into a go-to. 

Sadly, habituation rears its head in a surprisingly short time and ruins the excess enjoyment. We must space out our repetitions and seek new experiences in the interim if we hope to keep accessing the Good Feels we desire.

Steer the ship – even if you don’t know where you’re going.

Earlier, I mentioned everyone’s favorite drug dealer – Walter White from Breaking Bad. In one of his most poignant and heartbreaking lines in the show, he expresses a sentiment that too many of us feel as we cruise through life:

“Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life it just seems I never…had a real say about any of it.”

Walter feels out of control, and dealing drugs – something he turns out to be surprisingly good at – is his way to regain control of his life. The feeling of control Walter craves is critical to our ability to live happy, fulfilling lives. As Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness:

“The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

So feeling in control of your own life – making big and small decisions about your future proactively rather than reactively – is the bedrock on which Grand Theft Life is built. How do we cultivate that feeling of control in our daily lives?

Simply put, we make daily choices, big and small. We grab the wheel of our metaphorical ships and steer. It doesn’t much matter where we’re going. Turning the wheel does plenty to give us the perception of control we need.

That’s why experimentation is so powerful. If you’re constantly tinkering with your own life – adjusting routines and trying new things – you’re teaching yourself that you have control. It doesn’t matter that our locus of control is unimpressive. It doesn’t matter where we end up. The feeling of steering is enough.

This is how we play Grand Theft Life. We ignore the pressure to avoid changing or making big moves. We shamelessly game our memories by injecting novelty into our lives. We make decisions and choose directions, even if they end up not working out because the act of steering makes us happy.

I’m loath to quote Steve Jobs, but he said it best:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

You can try new things, suck at them, and fail fast. You can flout the rules that everyone else plays by – the ones that say the conventional wisdom is best and that you shouldn’t ever color outside the lines.

The danger of ditching these conventions is wildly overstated. You’ll probably screw up a bunch, but who cares?

If you screw up, you’re not a failure. It’s no big deal that your job didn’t work out or that your partner turned out to be wrong for you. You just tried a tactic that didn’t work. You’ll try a new one next time. It’s just a game.

The rules of that game are simple. If you don’t violate them, anything else you want is open to you. The adventures and memories you can create are effectively unlimited.

Remember: you’re playing Grand Theft Life, and this is your 352,000-hour opportunity. What you do with it is up to you. 

Related reading:

The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce – Wait But Why

Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

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