• December 1, 2011
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

My Latest Excuse

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I mentioned last month that I'd finally gotten around to reading Jane McGonigal's awesome book, Reality Is Broken, and I'm here to tell you I'm angry at myself for having put it off as long as I did. The writing is clear, friendly, and insightful; the subject matter is compelling; and the conclusions have done no less than completely restructure my conception of myself.

It turns out I'm not lazy at all—I'm gameful. I don't procrastinate—I voluntarily increase my challenge level by adding unnecessary obstacles. (The former is properly treating the element of play as important in life; the latter is part of the definition of a game.)

While I do plan on using those terms to describe myself more favorably in the future, I'd be wrong to suggest that McGonigal's book (and the other awesome work she's done in support of gamification) is just an excuse manual for slackers. But there's something about it I can't ignore, which should become clear to you as you read on.

Pressure makes me better at almost everything I do; I'm reliable in the clutch. The feeling of working at the edge of one's abilities in a high-pressure situation is what McGonigal refers to as flow, and flow is highly addictive. Flow is what Neo felt in The Matrix when he was being force-fed his training regimen, or when he was so in tune with the simulation that he performed at the level of Morpheus or an Agent. People who cultivate an air of serenity, finishing tasks sooner rather than later but without hurrying, are cheating themselves of the rush you get from being in a rush.

The pressure trick only works well when it's voluntary, though. Some of the most soul- (and health-) destroying jobs are the ones that force workers into stressful situations and place arbitrary roadblocks in front of them. Contact center agents and other customer-facing workers without power to effect change are usually the go-to example of this.

When I'm not in the mood to get stuff done (more often than I care to admit), my game is to find other activities to burn up time until the situation is more urgent. When the clock is ticking, I shine. When it's not, I shirk. I'm doing it right now; ask me how many games of solitaire, or how many hours of Web browsing, it takes to generate this column.

I am this way (and we all are, to some extent) because games make us feel good, tapping into our survival mechanisms and rewarding us with feel-good chemicals even when we lose. These are what McGonigal calls intrinsic rewards, coming from the activity itself. Most of the work we do for a living ignores these in favor of extrinsic rewards, such as money, status, or the means to acquire security. Winning a high-stakes poker game is an event; depositing a fat paycheck is just a consequence of a job.

We become disenchanted with our jobs because extrinsic rewards can't hold our interest for long. But the intrinsic reward of a job well done only comes from challenging and engaging work, and only has value to the individual. You can't feed yourself if you don't want to do the work, and you can't feed yourself on flow alone.

What's the solution? For that matter, what's the problem? Everybody enjoys something, and we gravitate to the things we enjoy. The most successful people are generally the ones who say they'd do their job even if they didn't get paid—this is typically a big fat lie, but the sentiment is real. Enjoyment of the work breeds effort all by itself. People who are just in it for the money, constantly chasing a bigger payday and material goods, are either (A) desperately unhappy inside themselves, (B) making a game of maximizing their income, or (C) genuinely evil. Of course, the world is made up of only two types of people: those who divide the population into overly broad categories and those who do not.

Successful gamers treat games like work while still enjoying the game aspect. Successful workers in any field, but especially customer-facing ones, need to find the fun and games in their work.

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of CRM advisory firm Third Idea Consulting, and is the foremost authority on gamification in his apartment. Contact him at marshall@3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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