You know that game played with kids where a deck of cards is placed face down and you turn one over (elephant!) and then another? If they matched you can keep them, if not you start over? Love that game. It’s a memory game but there’s something specific about the finding and matching that draws me in.


So, I have a visually pretty game of mahjong that must have been loaded onto my computer before our recent years of North Korea-esque control, which has blessedly and inexplicably survived all the waves of purges and restrictions.  I use it sparingly, as an antidote to waiting or when I’m mentally stuck and need a distraction to clear my head. I’m on it maybe 4-6 minutes twice a day, if that.  It’s a bit of a mental puzzle, but also visually interesting. And I don’t have to memorize because the images are all face up (hallelujah for that).

Yet I almost always lose.

Which brought on a realization today that made me see more clearly what my priorities are and how I approach the world and work a little differently.

Mahjong is about strategy, but not so much as chess (which I hate as much as politics and other forms of machination).  I don’t know the official rules, all I know is you match two tiles and they disappear, the ultimate goal being to match and collect all the tiles.

For me mahjong isn’t a challenge about the end, as much as it’s an interesting mind exercise in its middle. I kinda expect to win, hopefully, but what occurred to me today is that I really don’t care if I do.  The game has a point, to me, but it’s not the expected point.  Then again I haven’t asked around to be sure what others consider the point to be, I can only assume, so maybe in the comments you can tell me what you do when you play?

I have a few basic strategies (if you can label them so seriously) at mahjong.

Sometimes I play like childhood “hot lava” and pretend that I must absolutely finish and win before such and such happens, like a patient getting to my door…or I die instantly. Or I’m a super spy who must stop a disaster, and the only way is to complete the game, successfully, in the next 60 seconds…or everyone dies. Dun dun dunnnn. No strategy, just speed.

I rarely survive win.

In the past I’d play from the center of the pyramid and try to collect all the center tiles down to ground level, before working on anything else. It’s never happened.

clearing the middle

Then I switched to playing from the right side of the pile to try to clear tiles moving from right to left…until I’d inevitably run out because I wasn’t playing equally all over the board.

from the rightfrom the left

I’ve always known this wasn’t the way to “win” but what I want is symmetry and art… a method I can value.

Sometimes I try to clear every other row, and leave the rest as full as possible, or I’ve attempted to clear either the center 2 rows first…

clearing a center row

Or the 2nd from the top and 2nd from the bottom entirely before working equally on all rows.

clearing top and lower rows

Generally I either run out of tiles or just give up and start playing randomly all over the board until I win or lose.

I have never, in 5 years here and other games in the past, tried to strategically and specifically choose tiles simply to win.  To me if I really tried to do it the expected way, and lost more often than won, it would be a bit depressing…and who wants that? If I lose, I want it to be at my own game. If I’m not inspired, sometimes I’ll just find two that match, whichever I see first, and click (unless there’s an obviously better match).  And sometimes I win. Snore.

Yes, that says snore, not score. And it struck me today that this is really how I see the world, not just this silly game.

In writing this I feel like it can come across as though I’m very immature and impulsive which, I’ll admit, I can be.  But what I noticed today is that I’m somebody who doesn’t play strictly to win, I truly don’t aim to.

I don’t want to ignore aesthetics or imagination or ideas or fun or experimentation or idealistic efforts, in favor of success.

I genuinely feel more of a sense of accomplishment (if that applies to a game) when I succeed at clearing one or two rows, or most of the board from one side or row, than I do when I “win” the game by randomly or intentionally managing to clear all the tiles.  And if I clear a full row or two I usually quit there, not bothering to try to play to the end.

I like my challenge.  But if you told me to slowly and methodically clear the board in full by deliberate tile choices I’d be bored (and irritated) before I even started. I don’t think that way, least of all in expected or required ways, least of all to “win”.  I can follow expected paths, and will, if I see it as the best or most logical or most interesting way.  But what about all those other tiles options I could have done interesting things with?

Maybe this is why people in the past have been frustrated by not understanding my perspectives or being confused by my lack of drive to win or be first at all costs (especially not at the cost of others). Sometimes when I take actions people look at me like they’re in shock that I pseudo sacrificed myself/”success”/ego/position/reputation, in favor of doing something different (or what I considered the right thing to do).

It’s not at all surprising that most of the people befuddled by me fall into a certain type of person/thinking that I understand clearly but have a difficult time respecting.  I’m always completely spun about by people who simply do things typical ways, without question, and succeed. It seems deeply unfair to me, though I couldn’t explain why. And I feel a little sad for those who don’t want or to whom the idea never occurs to try differently.

Although today I realized a little more clearly how my tendency can severely handicap me in the work world, I still prefer my approach. When it comes to mahjong I don’t really care if I lose, nor do I feel accomplishment when I win. For me that’s not the point.

I approach work the same way. The process is important to me, and if a more interesting (or rational, or logical) process doesn’t lead to major successes… well then I’d prefer to find a job where the most interesting processes are the point, and aren’t required to lead to major successes.

A secondary and contradictory point of this post though is that I work now in an environment where many if not most of the processes, decisions and work ethics do come across as very random and poorly thought through, which drives me CRAZY.  I often wonder if while I play a non-real-world electronic game randomly just to test ideas, some approach their work entirely randomly, without focus or consistency (and often ego driven without neutrality).  At least that’s how it appears.  I want to work with those who can function both ways, like me. There’s a vast difference between unconscious  sacrifice of logic on the job, and the ability to do so strategically. 

In the end, the bills must be paid.  The question is: How do I find or create a successful career where goals are accomplished without sacrificing innovation and change?

Holy endorphin rush, batman.

Holy endorphin rush, batman. (added July 2013)


8 Responses to Mahjong as a Metaphor for My Life

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    You strike me as a very think-outside-the-box type of person, a quality I’m sure many businesses would value. On the other hand, as a healthcare practitioner, that line of thinking can be trickier. There are expected protocols to follow. I can see why you long for something different. I’m sure you’ll find it; it will just require a period of seek and explore, which is just what you’re doing with your life coaching. 🙂

    By the way, I’ve never played mahjong. Or chess. Sad, isn’t it…

    • Andrea says:

      Hi Carrie :). I was raised in the box, mastered it in my early teens and then became disillusioned and frustrated that everything around me seemed to freeze in time there and never moved beyond the box to new ideas. You’re entirely right about healthcare and I don’t make things up possibly to the detriment of my patients, but I do occasional have professional conflicts with people because I consider our modality to be an art more than a rigid process, but we’re strongly encouraged to not go beyond limited boundaries (especially if it steps on the toes/egos of other providers). You should see the mind boggling resistance I get to the idea of helping morale by actually having plants in our work space. You’d think I suggested a free roaming vulture petting zoo in the ICU. lol

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    I’m not sure what the “best strategies” are for Mahjong, either. To me, it’s a relaxing exercise for my brain when I need a break. If I win, I win. If not, it doesn’t matter. But I think the way you play does give you insights into the types of jobs you would be happiest with—and those you wouldn’t.

    • Andrea says:

      You should try the every other row clearing goal, it’ll change your life! hahahaha. After I wrote the post I thought “do I sound mindless making this point?” Or wondered if it would scare off employers because I really do run across tons of people who don’t get me at all! But for me it was an insight and I love insights that change how I see or approach things.

      When are you starting a new mystery??! 🙂

  3. Hmmm it sounds very much like outside the box thinking. And I’ve had many employers who send us to seminars and coaching, and we go through exercises and are told to think outside the box and solve problems outside the box. But then when we do raise an outside the box idea back at the office, outside of the seminar, it’s rarely welcomed and even less rarely, acted upon. I don’t have any good answer or solution. Perhaps keep away from big organizations! Check out the personalities of future people you’ll work with really well. Ask the insightful questions to get them talking and see if they are a good match for you. How do they think? How do they solve problems? As I’ve learned more about what people I work best with over the years, if I ever have to interview for a job again, I’ll definitely be doing that. I believe everyone sitting on all sides of an interview table should be subjected to personality tests — if employers are going to do such a thing — not just the interviewee. Because people don’t work in isolation, they all together react to each other to create their environment.

    • Andrea says:

      Wow, yes! You make a good point, and I haven’t historically probed into WHO I’d be working with and how they handle challenges or -even worse for me here- how they handle the daily grind. Do they passively or willing allow or make it to be as much of a GRIND as possible, or are they creatively fluid. I wish I’d been aware and proactive of this need of mine decades ago… Thanks for commenting! I dropped you a note on your ‘about’ page, did you catch it? 🙂

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