Lessons from Bananagrams

Think of Bananagrams as a fun version of Scrabble. You fit letters together without a board, you have to use all the pieces, it’s a race. Here’s a common scenario. You have everything arranged neatly, and you are particularly pleased with yourself for spelling the word “stochastic.” Unfortunately, you have one remaining letter, a “Q” more often than not, that just won’t fit anywhere. So what do you do? The difficult truth is that, if you want to proceed, you have to undo your work. It requires a certain mental fortitude to tear down what you’ve built up, to sacrifice the progress you’ve made in the hopes of stumbling upon a better arrangement. But Bananagrams is a game of all or nothing and sometimes you have to make that sacrifice. I’ve seen player after player grow attached to their words, refuse to give them up, and lose as a consequence.

Life is a lot like Bananagrams. From your choice of partner to your choice of career, when you find yourself at a relative maximum, it is tempting to settle. It is difficult to take a step in what you know to be (locally) the wrong direction, even when you do so in pursuit of a better outcome down the road. Are we willing to leave someone, a boyfriend or girlfriend, whom we care about very much and whose company we enjoy, because we want to know what else is out there? Are we willing to trade guaranteed satisfaction for uncertainty? The answer is and should be highly dependent on where you are in life. But it is never easy.

Sometimes the same story shows up in the context of your career. One of my math friends from freshman year seemed destined for a career in banking, probably at Goldman Sachs or some other household name. I was dumbfounded when he told me that he didn’t really like finance but that he didn’t know what else he would be good at. This was freshman year! I run into a lot of people around campus who are very technically competent, who should feel empowered to choose, yet feel constrained by imagined barriers. Academia, tech, and finance. These should be options, not limitations. Don’t tell me that you have to become an investment banker because you have no alternatives.

My friend’s particular skill set was in fact very well-suited for finance. He was brilliant at math, not science. He thought studying cellular processes would be fun but that he wouldn’t be any good in a lab. This is where you have to bite the bullet and take a step backward. Learn some biology. So what if that puts you a couple years behind every pre-med on campus. Find a way to use your math ability in analyzing glucose transport. Play to your strengths, but don’t feel obligated to take the summer position at Morgan Stanley because it’s the best offer you got as measured by prestige. The relevant metric is where the opportunity will lead you later in life.

Starting over is hard. When forced upon us, we may recognize it as an opportunity in disguise, but in the absence of some compelling reason, it is infinitely harder. Why change when we are comfortable with the way things are? It’s one thing to break up with your girlfriend when you find yourself no longer enjoying her company, but what if that never happens? Are we to marry the first person with whom we are more-or-less compatible? What if your career is good but not great? When should we settle? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. There may be good reasons to stick with what you have: your age, your obligations, your particular situation in life. But too often we err on the conservative side. We stick with what we have because it is easy.

In Bananagrams, that’s a losing strategy. Admittedly, life is not Bananagrams. The stakes are higher, and it is not all or nothing. But while there are real reasons for shying away from change and from eventual progress, inertia should not be one of them.