Winning, Losing and Why Life Isn’t a Game

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By Michelle Vo

“Michelle, either you’re a winner or a loser. Life is a game and you have to play smart to win.”

I’m sure everybody has had someone tell them this at some point in their lives. Winners take on challenges, losers look at a challenge and give up. Winners do this, losers do that.

This particular gem of advice was given to me from my dad when I was talking to my parents about my career plans. According to them, I needed to have the next five years of my life planned out so that way I could strategize the best way to go about finding internships, taking the GRE and eventually applying to some sort of health-related graduate school. Because that’s what winners do.

Makes sense, right?

The things is, life isn’t a game. Your life is an experience that has so much more to offer than a six-figure salary or a doctorate degree.


When you begin categorizing the events in your life as winning and losing moments, you lose focus of the more gratifying aspects of life- knowledge learned and relationships made. Are you a winner because you earned Dean’s Honor List last quarter? Or are you a loser because you lost your job? Events such as those are not be defining moments of your life.

I understand why my dad wanted to tell me what he did. In certain careers and communities, competition and strategy lead to higher positions and higher salaries. When you call and consider life a game, the next step is so much more simple and realistic.

I need to get at least a 3.5 next quarter so I am more competitive when I apply for medical school. I need to apply to all of these internships so my resume looks better when I apply for a job after graduation.

Of course those goals make sense!

But therein lies the problem. If we focus on numbers and certain signs of success,  we forget about what originally excited us and made us happy. For example, if you study material for the sake of earning a good grade on an exam, well that’s great. But then the class is less “fun” and more “work”. Rather than reading the textbook or doing practice problems because they’re interesting and challenging, studying becomes a chore and something to abhor. Grades become a means to an end, and the joy in learning diminishes.


Life as a Game of Survival

But there’s a reason why so many people consider life to be a game and constantly advise us to “play smart”. It’s a survival strategy. My parents are immigrants from Vietnam. My dad left when he was 17, the same age I was when I graduated from high school and my biggest worry was getting a job at Jamba Juice. He was stranded on a fishing boat with minimal water and food in the China Sea for a week until a cargo ship saved the lives of everybody on the boat. From there, he lived in a refugee camp for two years in Malaysia until he was able to settle in Long Beach at 19 years of age. He didn’t speak English or have a penny to his name.

My dad had to survive.

He once told me a story where he had to “fix” his English grade on his transcript in order to graduate from CSU Long Beach with a degree in mechanical engineering. My dad supported himself through school with jobs ranging from popcorn popper to valet to a car mechanic. Every single job was short-lived, every single job he had to hustle and try his hardest to play the game.

Eventually my dad succeeded in starting his own small business and was able to support my family and propel us into a secure middle-class suburb. All of this was possible because he was, in his words, a winner.

I am grateful for everything my parents have done and sacrificed in order to give my sister and I a comfortable life. I appreciate and love them more than I can say, and although it might not be the most popular or healthy statement, all I truly want is to make them happy and make them proud of me.


My dad with my little sister and I. Don’t worry, I have teeth now.

You Damage Relationships by Playing a Game

So after having told my dad’s story and the reasoning behind his beliefs, I have to state a very harsh, very unpopular and very humbling fact:

I don’t have to survive to live. I don’t want to survive to live.

Because living your life as a game removes the basic facets of humanity and joy. When academics and careers become milestones and defining moments of your life, you leave no room for the relationships with the people you love, or the projects and activities that make you feel alive.

What a Stranger Taught Me About Life

I recently interviewed a stranger for my literary journalism class about what she believed to be the milestones in her life. After I reviewed the interview, I noticed a common trait between the events my subject chose to disclose. None of these events had to do with getting an A in a certain class. None of these milestones were related to scoring an internship or a job promotion. Every single one of her defining moments had to do with someone or something that she loved.

This stranger to me chose to highlight the moments when she bought her first nice guitar, when she met the love of her life, her tragic miscarriage and the birth of her son. She shared the diagnosis of her parents’ Alzheimer’s and her 20 year struggle to take care of them. The one and only event pertaining to her professional career was when this woman created an organization for the sake of a church which she loves and had devoted a large portion of her life to. This woman was easily one of the warmest and happiest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet in my entire life.

Living life as a game impacts your relationships with the people around you. If you begin to divide the world into winners and losers, you will eventually have to place you and your loved ones in a category.

Are you a winner because you graduated from university with honors? So does that mean that your mother is a loser because she never finished her associates degree? You’re a winner because you have a full-time job with an engineering firm but your best friend is a loser because he only has an internship at a pharmacy.

Why It Isn’t Healthy to Think This Way

We’ve all seen the consequences of this mindset. Parents brag and compete with their siblings about who has the smartest, best looking and most successful children. But then their relationships with each other turn sour because a niece is “winning” and their children are “losing”. Or someone’s son gets a higher paying job than another. Eventually the parents become bitter and the children resent each other for serving as each other’s competitors their entire lives. This is family! What good does a competitive nature do if these relationships are deteriorated?

The beautiful thing about human beings is that we are social animals. We create relationships with other humans and naturally crave emotional intimacy with our loved ones. But by categorizing others and yourself, you create mental boundaries and prevent these relationships from happening. These ideals then limit your own personal growth and the possibility of making friends outside of your own norm.

Life is not a game. It has never been a game.

Life is an experience to be shared with others, not competing with them for the sake of “winning”. In the end, there are the small joys that make life worth living. The love for a family, whether it the one you were born in or the one that you found for yourself. The joy in forging meaningful relationships with other people, whether it be with only one person or with one hundred people. There is happiness in the acts of kindness you share with others through volunteering or acts of service. When you reflect back on your life, will you think about your salary or a life-long friend that you’ve made?

Every person wishes different things from life. Financial comfort, family, travel, humanitarian work, personal health and academia are all noble desires in their own right. And each can be fulfilled without sacrificing relationships for the sake of “winning”. One experience does not define your worth as a person. You define yourself. We cannot wish to be winners or to not be losers. But we can wish to live our lives to the fullest extent and learn from every experience that comes our way.


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Images courtesy of, my mom’s photo albums


2 thoughts on “Winning, Losing and Why Life Isn’t a Game

  1. Michelle,

    Wow this article is such a great read! I’m happy that you aren’t living to the expectations of other people. I’m a 3rd year student at UCLA right now and I probably felt the way you did too. For me, it was…I gotta make a certain GPA for jobs, do internship during summer, and participate in such and such activities to boost my resume so I can look more attractive to future employers.

    In a way, school limited my growth in a sense. I didn’t like what I was doing, especially my major, and I was too focused and doing these things that I became a bit one-dimensional. I’ve learned to let go of these things though because living a full life is better than living a life full of quantitative measurements and expectations.

    I’m so glad that you wrote this because I am so with you on this. I hope you will be able to find what you love to do and that you’re able to live a purposeful life. Stay blessed.

    – Alex Tran


    • Hi Alex!

      Thank you so much for your response and I’m so happy that you can relate. I like how you mentioned how school can limit growth, because I’ve definitely felt like that sometimes. But I agree, living a full life is much better than living one defined by expectations and measurements. I wish you the best in your endeavors and hope that you find fulfillment in what you do!



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