It was the first week of orientation for my graduate degree at Stanford. There are 60 of us in a room for a team building exercise called “Star Power.” The game was this: three groups of 20 (top, middle and bottom). Every person is assigned a set of colored coins: blue, green, red and gold. Each coin is worth a different amount. Gold is worth the most. The two people with the most gold at the end of the game each win a Stanford mug. Everyone is randomly assigned coins and in a series of trading rounds you try to negotiate better than other people in order to get more gold and move up into the next group above you. That is it. Go.
People must have wanted those mugs because in that first round all pandemonium let loose. People rushed around approaching each other enthusiastically: “I will give you a two reds for a blue.” And so on. And the rounds went by. Just try to predict the outcomes.
What happened to the people in the bottom group? They got angry. One of my class mates channeled the anger of the group. Really she unionized! She said, “We won’t be able to win if we all work separately. But what if we give all of our gold to one person?” They agreed. They gave the gold to one person who went on to win one of the mugs!
What of the top group? The power just went to their heads from the first instant. They seemed to assume they were at the top because they deserved to be (rather than because it was randomly assigned). And as soon as they were given the chance to create laws for the rest of the people in the class they came up with things like, “You just have to give us everything that you have!” and “Now you have to stand on one foot and hop up and down when you are trading!” The former was just legalized theft. The latter was just for the sake of humiliation.
Now what of the middle group? They sat down. By round three or four they just gave up. They weren’t angry enough to care. They just sat around and chatted with their neighbors. All around it felt like a sociological experiment in micro: an exploration of the working, middle and upper classes!
What did I do? Typically I don’t share that this was me but for the sake of accuracy, here it is. In the first trading round I did not trade a thing. Several years of thinking about human systems had taught me to look for the invisible system. I suspected that something had just happened to us and I didn’t want to play the game until I knew what had happened. And this is what I noticed.
First, the entire game was based on the idea that you wanted to win the mug. I did not want to win the mug so that meant I did not have to play the game. Second, I felt liberated. If I was in the classroom but no longer playing the game or playing by the rules then I could play my own game based upon my own principles. I could design something different. So I just traded in the second round by offering to anyone anything they wanted in exchange for anything they wanted to give.
I offered it to one person and they just snatched it out of my hands. It was strange to have something stolen that you were already offering. But then one person asked me what I was doing. He was really surprised. “Why are you doing this?” I told him and he was curious enough that he started following me around. In the next trading round he found me and gave me all of his coins. “I want to play your game!” First there was one. Then there was two. Embedded in that simple experience was a lesson that left me changed. It is the idea that once we can see the system we can change the system. It is an idea that is summed up brilliantly by Steve Jobs when he said the following:
“When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much… Have fun, save a little money.
“That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around that you call life was made by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”