Like everyone, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home than usual during the pandemic. In my house, one of everyone’s favorite ways to pass the time has become Tetris 99. If you’ve never heard of it, Tetris 99 is just the classic Tetris game, except you play against 98 other people. As you drop blocks into spaces and clear lines, you send “garbage” blocks to another player amongst the 98 competitors, even as one of them is sending garbage to you.
A typical moment from the game. Your board is in the middle, and the other 98 players boards are shown in real time on the sides. Your points send garbage blocks to someone (the green hexagon) and someone else’s points send garbage blocks to you (the yellow square). The sending of extra blocks is what creates all the frenetic beams of light.
When your lines fill up to the top of the screen you’re KOed and the person who knocked you out gets a power up. Over the course of a few minutes the pace speeds up and the pressure builds until there’s only one Tetris player standing, the champion who walks away with 1st place.
Tetris by itself is a great game, but when you add the 99 player competitive element it becomes even more compelling. And as I’ve played round after round during lockdown, I’ve realized that Tetris has a lot to teach us about life.
I present to you, the Tao Te Tetris!
Lesson 1: Pursuit of perfection only leads to failure.
When I play Tetris, I try to never leave a gap in the shapes. My brain thinks gaps are bad, they mean you can’t clear lines and score points, right? But when you play like this, you make poor decisions. You start stacking up tall towers because you don’t want to mar your perfect gap free constructions. Eventually you can’t keep up and your blocks push to the top and you’re out.
You can see here my unwillingness to create temporary gaps is causing a tall tower to form in the middle. This will ultimately be my undoing!
My wife is extremely good at Tetris 99, and comes in the top 5 nearly every game. When she plays, she doesn’t stress about creating small gaps. She knows that a small imperfection now can be addressed later, and that the real goal is to keep making progress, clearing blocks, and scoring points.
This emphasis on progress over perfection is exactly what we tell our trainees who are working towards better health and fitness. If you’ve had 10 good days in a row, eating well and exercising daily, then on Day 11 you miss your workout and eat poorly, there’s no need to get bent out of shape because you’ve ruined your “perfect streak.” It’s just a small gap that’s been created, which can easily be patched over going forwards. The worst thing you could do is let one small error compound into bigger and bigger mistakes because you didn’t live up to your ideal of perfection. Gaps happen, but if you’re consistently making good choices (in Tetris or in life) you’re going to be able to clean those gaps soon enough!
Lesson 2: If your plan hinges on the perfect piece at the perfect time, you’re going to have a lot of trouble.
If you’ve ever played Tetris, you’ve probably found yourself in this position. You have a nice stack of blocks ready to be cleared, but to do it you need that rarest of pieces, the straight line. If things are really bad, you might find yourself needing multiple straight lines.
This is a bad spot to be in. I need no less than 3 straight lines to get out of trouble, and there’s not a straight line in sight. Building poorly (largely due to perfectionism) then hoping for a miracle never works!
Life works the same way. You can get in a hole where it seems like if only the right thing would happen at the right time, all your problems would be over. You might find yourself saying, “If only I had a little more money, if only I this person liked me, if only my job was x instead of y, then everything would be fine.”
Waiting for the line piece, you get into the gambler’s fallacy, thinking, “I’ve held out this long, surely the line must be around the corner.” Every once in a while this might work out, and you escape the situation by the skin of your teeth. These close calls are actually even worse for you, because your brain strongly remembers those rare moments while forgetting the much more common outcomes that ended poorly for you. I think of this as the “miracle commute” illusion. That one day a few years ago every light was green, the close parking spot was available, and the elevator doors were open for you, meaning you could get to work in a miraculous 15 minutes. Your brain locks onto “15 minutes” as the time it takes you to get to work, when in reality a usual day takes 25 minutes. But you leave your house hoping for that miracle commute and are subsequently late most of the time.
Maybe a few years ago all your long-shot plans went just right, you got three line pieces in a row and reached a new high score. If you expect that to happen every time you’re going to have a bad time.
The worst part of waiting for the line piece is that you get tunnel vision. Lots of perfectly good blocks are coming at you, blocks you could use to do a lot of useful things. But you’re blind to the opportunities of other blocks. You only have eyes for line pieces. You go from being a nimble, problem solving player to a passive, victimized player who never got the line they deserved.
Lesson 3: Expect garbage.
As other players score points, they send you gray garbage blocks which go under your pieces and make your life harder. When you get hit by a lot of garbage, it feels really unfair. You were just minding your own business, doing your best to stack things neatly, and you got saddled with a bunch of blocks which you couldn’t control!
Ugh, look at all the gray garbage blocks taking up half the screen! I was having a good game, what did I do to deserve this? So unfair!
No matter how unfair it is, you’ve got to deal with that garbage and clear it up, or your game is going to be totally derailed. Once the garbage is on your screen, roll with it, change plans, and forget about how perfectly everything was going.
Just like in Tetris, life is going to heap some serious garbage on you. It could be a colleague who takes the credit and shifts the blame. It could be a family member in crisis. It might be a financial setback, a car accident, or a medical diagnosis. You didn’t do anything to deserve it, but here it is. Every moment you spend fretting over the injustice of the garbage is a moment you’re not spending solving the problems it creates.
In Tetris, garbage looks bad but sometimes works to your advantage. When you clear up the gray blocks you can get a lot of points. The same is true for the garbage in your life. The things you learn clearing it up often pay off in ways you can’t imagine. You gain new strategies and confidence that no matter what comes you can take care of the problems and grow as a person.
And finally, it’s good to realize that even as you’re dealing with garbage that comes from others, you’re exporting your own set of garbage blocks to another player. We’re all in this together, no one’s board is free from garbage, and we often make trouble for others without realizing it.
Lesson 4: The biggest breakthroughs come after rough patches.
As you play Tetris 99, between your own gaps and the garbage sent to your screen, you’ll often see large empty pockets develop beneath the blocks you’re working on. If you go out of your way to try and open up a path to these pockets you end up making bad choices and getting in your own way.
But if you keep a level head and do your best to make stable lines where you are, you’ll find that slowly but surely you work your way down to the pocket, and suddenly it’s opened up to you. A few choice blocks later and you’ve made tremendous progress and are back in charge of your board.
You can see here that the orange “L block” is going to clear two lines, and a big opportunity will open up for the line piece coming behind it.
This same dynamic applies to our life journey. There are weeks, months, and even years where you might feel like you’re just juggling blocks and barely hanging in. But beneath those workaday blocks lie pockets of opportunity. If you keep working on your stack a pocket will open, and you’ll make progress quickly. But if you try to force those pockets to open they stay frustratingly far away. It comes back to doing your best with the blocks you have, and trusting that after a hard patch is when you often see the greatest amount of positive change.
Lesson 5: Everyone’s doing their best with the blocks they have.
Sometimes when my wife plays Tetris 99 I watch how the other players are doing on the 98 tiny screens that surround the main board. You can observe some people having a good session, stacking well and knocking out lines. Others are having a rougher time, you can see where they misplaced a piece or how some garbage is threatening to push them over the edge. But most of all, there’s the sense that everyone is hanging on for dear life and barely managing to keep it together.
Some people are doing well this round, others are nearly KOed. But everyone is frantically dealing with the blocks that won’t stop falling faster and faster.
As you make your way through life you only have one mind you can occupy — your own. It’s easy to imagine that you’re the only one who’s struggling, making it up as you go along, doubting your abilities, and barely making it through some days. In my experience, even those who have a cool confident exterior are frantically flipping and stacking blocks internally. You’re not the only one who finds this game challenging! Keep doing your best to deal with the block you have!
Take these lessons with you this week. Whether you finish 99th or 1st, enjoy the process — the pleasure of laying things out right, the satisfaction of getting out of a sticky situation, the thrill of making a comeback, and the joy of seeing others do well even when you’re not having your best game. No matter how it turns out, you get to dust yourself off and hit the restart button each new day.
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder