by Ryan Hart
Updated on September 7, 2018
There is a famous proverb that says “If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”
This quote, in my opinion, holds the key to understanding the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people. Let me explain.
Before I jump into the details, I want to tell you about a simple tool I created called the Success Habits Worksheet. It was created after studying the habits of successful people over several years and distilling everything I learned into one simple system. You can download your copy here.
If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time. —Chinese Proverb
Achieving success is a game just like anything else in life. If you want to reach your goals, you need to decide the rules of the game before you start playing.
But what is success really?
The dictionary definition says success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. In contrast, society’s definition usually involves a combination of wealth, fame, power, and happiness.
Due to the constantly changing definition of success in our society, it is no wonder people have such a difficult time achieving success.
That’s why I believe one of the main factors that separates successful people from others is that they set their own rules before they start playing the game.
For example, my definition of success is to help others reach their goals, build lasting relationships I’m proud of, do work I love every day while getting paid for it and use the profits to invest in my family’s future. These are the rules of success I’ve set for myself. By following these rules, it is easy for me to decide what action to take when an opportunity comes across my desk.
All of a sudden, the success game becomes easy because I know the rules!
This means I’m not going to take on a project that I hate just because it will make me a ton of money. That clearly violates one of my rules of success: do work I love every day while getting paid for it.
In contrast, it is not uncommon to find so called “unsuccessful people” changing their definition of success on a regular basis, which guarantees they never hit their goals.
Constantly changing your definition of success is also a great way to lower your confidence and feel awful every morning you wake up.
For example, if you start a small service business in your town, say dog walking, but your definition of success is to make $1 million dollars per year - you will never feel successful. And, I would say that is an unrealistic goal. There are likely not enough dogs in your town for you to earn $1 million in a single year.
On the other hand, if your definition of success is to do what you love everyday (playing with dogs), have the ability to set your own schedule and get paid for it, then you could be considered the most successful person in your town.
No matter what type of game you are playing, there are always stakes up for grabs. Stakes are simply something you can win or lose in a game.
When you play a round of poker with your friends, the money in the middle of the table - the pot - is considered the stakes. The bigger the pot, the more you might want to win, or more likely, not lose your money.
So, what are you playing for? More money, more time, more happiness? Why are you playing in the first place?
The stakes I’m playing for is more time. It’s the scarcest resource we have and I put a lot of value into the time I have on this earth. I’m not playing for a billion dollars.
That means I am going to pass on opportunities that require me to sacrifice the quality time I get to spend with my wife and family. Even if that means I might be giving up the opportunity to build a billion dollar business.
What are you playing for? It should be a clear and measurable prize.
That could be earning the freedom to leave work at 3pm each day. What if you could feel great about what you accomplished each day so you can spend every evening focused on your wife or kids without being distracted by work? That sounds like success to me!
Or are playing for a $10 million dollar payout when you sell your company in 10 years? I know lots people that are playing for these stakes.
It doesn’t matter what the stakes are, the most important part is that you define the stakes before you start playing.
I encourage you to avoid the success = happiness trap. I have studied many successful people that worked hard to reach a certain level in their career only to find out that they were playing for the wrong prize. They did not set the correct stakes.
For example, if your definition of success is to feel happy and fulfilled when you wake up each morning, then earning $1 million is not the correct stakes. The million dollars will not directly lead to your feeling happy and fulfilled. It just won’t, I promise.
It has been proven time and time again that earning more money does not produce more happiness.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous … so they can see that it's not the answer.” ― Jim Carrey
After you decide the rules of the game and the stakes, you need to pick a quitting time. More specifically, how will you know that the game is finished?
No, I’m not talking about when you plan to retire - that’s not the end of the game. The end of the game is when you can finally look yourself in the mirror and say “I have achieved success as I define it.”
My hope is that you can do that today - finally feel successful according to your own definition.
However, the truth is that we will have to play many games throughout our lifetime. One game will end and another will begin.
When you are a student, success might be graduating and getting a great job right out of college.
Then, you’ll have to play the next game. Maybe that’s getting married, starting a family or buying a house.
But these don’t have to be the stakes of your game just because these are what others define as the stakes in their game. You get to design the game before you start playing.
The thing to remember is that you must decide the rules and the stakes before you start playing the next game. You cannot change the rules or modify the stakes in the middle of the game.
Finally, remember to take some to time celebrate your latest win before you start playing the next game.
My hope is that after reading this article you take the time to define the rules of the game, the stakes and the quitting time before you start playing the game of success.
Sadly, most people never take the time to define the rules, which is why playing the game is so difficult.
Have you ever played a new card game but lost because you didn’t know all of the rules? The same applies to success. You need to define the rules as you see fit before you start.
Next, you need to define what stakes you are playing for. Is it more time, money or freedom? Whatever you decide it should be clear and measurable. It should not be an ever moving target.
Remember, you can change the stakes and the rules in the next game before it starts, but you need to finish your current game first.
If you want some help with this, I highly encourage you to download my new tool called the Success Habits Worksheet. It is designed to help you build habits that will help you become successful as you define. Click here to get your copy.