Pandemic is Life: What a Board Game Taught Me About Success

Available at indie gaming stores everywhere. And Amazon, because Amazon has all the things.

Tech Support and I have been playing Pandemic for a couple years now, ever since good friends of ours introduced us to the game. The dreadful diseases we combat include sniffilis, syphilherpetitis, zombiebomb, and gout (don’t ask me, Tech Support named them), and it’s kind of astonishing how much anxiety we feel as the disease cubes spread across the board – almost as if we really are responsible for saving the world.

Who knew the game would save us from ourselves?

We were nearing the end of the game one night, prepped to cure the last disease on the next turn, when it happened. We pulled the last epidemic card, triggering a cascade of outbreaks, and lost. And we realized that we’d been so focused on eradicating diseases by clearing cubes off the board that we’d lost by one action. Not one turn, which includes four actions. But one action.

We’d lost sight of the goal of the game – to cure diseases, not eradicate them. And because of it, the world had succumbed to zombiebomb.

I can see you raising your eyebrows at me. “A painful loss,” you say, “but still just a game.” Except it’s not.

What I realized is that we’d been approaching Pandemic the same way we’d been approaching life. Those cubes on the board? The to-do list. The constantly shifting parade of errands and tasks and busy-work that take up so much of daily life. Just as we’d striven to clear the cubes, we’d been measuring our success in life by our ability to clear the to-do list. But as everyone knows, it’s completely impossible to clear the to-do list – knock one thing off the list and three more pop up, just like a nasty outbreak of sniffilis. If we measure success purely by check list, we will fail. We will lose the game of life every single time.

In the wake of this Pandemic-induced epiphany, Tech Support and I have had a lot of conversations about how we define success and how we’ll know whether we’re winning the game of life (pink plastic children are not an indicator!). And we’ve had a lot more conversations about being aware of how we’re spending our time every day, and whether we’re working towards a win or getting buried under a meaningless to-do list of disease cubes. I won’t share our benchmarks with you, because the most important thing we’ve realized is that success is very personal – what defines it for me won’t necessarily define it for you. And I won’t tell you how to reach success, because your daily choices will be determined by what “winning at life” means for you.

But I will say that, amid life’s distractions and obligations, staying focused on the goal of the game is not easy. It requires vigilance and check-ups and frequent re-assessments. But that diligence pays off in all kinds of unexpected ways – like giving yourself permission not to dust the house today, or recognizing that sometimes, “good enough” is a much better goal than “perfect.”

So go forth, my friends, and save your world. One action at a time.

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