Playing The Game Of Life

During a long career as a financial planner, I have had the privilege of looking through a window into the intimate lives of hundreds of individuals. Many of these have played the game of life with consummate skill and have achieved considerable success in their chosen endeavors, both financial and non-financial. However, it is also clear that others have worked just as hard, acquired all the requisite knowledge, networked with the right people, and yet have still failed to achieve their expected level of success.

This discrepancy is not one that is widely understood or easily explained, but it was brought to mind the other day because I spent most of last week with someone who is definitely an excellent player in the game of life. I had invited a friend of mine (let’s call him WM) to accompany me on a six day backpacking trip to the five high sierra camps in Yosemite. We carried all our own food and slept in our own tents at each of the camps. This classic backpacking loop is strenuous to say the least.

While WM had no real backpacking experience I knew he was fit from his cross country cycling activities and so would not be overwhelmed by the physical demands of the trip. Financially independent from a successful career in portfolio management, WM is interested in collecting experiences rather than things. ‘Things’ he explained to me, only have value because of the meaning we impart to them. Remove the ‘meaning’ from things and all you are left with is a pile of junk, as can be attested by anyone who has had to inventory the estate of a loved one who has passed away.

During the many hours of conversation on the trail he shared his life story. The impression I got was of a professional surfer, who had skillfully and successfully ridden the crest of numerous waves, making sure to get off just before each wave crashed into the surf. On reflection, this ability had little to do with how hard he worked, what knowledge he possessed, or who he knew. The ability I am referring to is a form of tacit knowledge that cannot easily be articulated, just as a master pianist cannot play brilliantly while at the same time concentrating on where his fingers should be placed. Similarly, a great chef might write down all his recipes with meticulous accuracy but these recipes are not what makes him or her a great chef. WM had somehow acquired the tacit knowledge to be a successful player in the game of life.  Unfortunately, this is also not the kind of knowledge that can easily be taught. A great chef cannot teach anyone how to be a great chef, although if you work with one for long enough, it’s certainly possible that you might become one.

How was WM on the backpacking trip? He put me to shame on the fitness front. I arrived exhausted and breathless at our various destinations, only to find that he had arrived there hours beforehand, in time to take a swim in a mountain lake, do some washing and read his book. He had an uncanny knack of keeping his clothes clean and wrinkle-free in the wilderness. Furthermore, he shaved regularly (very unusual on a backpacking trip) and refused to let anything (well, almost anything) disturb his calm and unflappable demeanor.  As with everything else in his life, WM played the game, and he played it well.


 “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (aka William Shakespeare)
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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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8 Comments on “Playing The Game Of Life”

  1. thoughtsontheatre Says:

    Love this antidote – sounds like quite the inspiring guy to travel with. And of course, wonderfully matched quote.


  2. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Sounds like WM played the game but he didn’t buy into the game…. He stayed true to himself all the way, held his energy in check and balanced and didn’t allow outside circumstances to throw him off the board or out of his own rhythm with life. Everyone walks to a different beat, things get messy if we try to walk to someone else beat… Great post, calling out reflections (as you can tell) 🙂


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