I finished watching Squid Game a few weeks ago and still have all these swirling thoughts about the series. Through a few basic survival games, the show brings to light wealth inequality, capitalism, and other aspects of the human condition. Trying to find the loose threads between the show’s deeper meaning and data literacy is a tough exercise. If you are interested in another Excel or Google Sheets tip, this episode ain’t for you. But if you spend time analyzing and optimizing your personal and professional lives, then the idea here might be of interest. Or, I could be over analyzing and simplifying these concepts. Either way, hopefully we’ll learn something about ourselves afterwards.
The most pivotal scene in Squid Game
I can’t not mention my most favorite scene in the whole series. Through this short scene, you learn the premise of the whole show: rules. These scene also sparked the direction I wanted to take with this post. You learn why the games exist, why the players decided to stay in the game (after episode 2), and how a strict adherence to rules is the most important strategy to staying alive in the games.
The scene is the start of episode 6 where the players are being led into a room to play the game with the marbles. As they walk through the dollhouse-like stairs, they see the doctor and some of the guards hanging from the ceiling. Then someone comes on the loudspeaker:
Players, what you witness before you is what remains of those who broke the rules for their own benefit. They tainted the pure and fair ideology everything here has been built upon. Each and every one of you is considered an equal within the walls of this facility. You must be guaranteed the same opportunities without being disadvantaged or facing any kind of discrimination. We truly apologize for allowing such an unacceptable incident to occur.
No subtleties, subtexts, or posturing. I love how black and white the translation is. Mike Hale, TV critic at The New York Times had this to to say about the show’s commentary on socioeconomic classes:
But what probably puts it over the top is the aspect of the series that most makes me dislike it: its pretense of contemporary social relevance, a thin veneer of pertinence meant to justify the unrelenting carnage that is the show’s most conspicuous feature. […] Its goal, a common one at the moment, is to ingratiate itself with its audience by confirming their accepted ideas.Mike Hale, The New York Times
To be fair, Hale is approaching the show from a TV critic’s point of view. I agree with Hale’s opinion that the show isn’t really saying anything new about capitalism and why we need to “take down the rich.” But he misses the effect of the show’s direct approach at calling out the issues of today. Perhaps some of us have simple minds and we need to be told things directly and in layman’s terms. In my opinion, the more direct the approach, the more it makes you question these “accepted ideas” Hale speaks of.
Rules and norms
We’ve established that the Squid Game world is a “fair world,” and everyone gets a fair shot at winning each game. The front man and his underlings make sure of this by hanging the doctor and some of the guards in the scene above.
While each game’s rules are meant to be followed, norms also play a role in how the players behave. You have the woman who drops the marble and the her opponent quickly yells at her to throw the marble again in the spirit of fairness. The old man let’s Gi-Hun win the game with marbles feeling consoled by the fact they were friends (gganbu). In the race to win each game, players are still confronted by these classic norms of what’s right and wrong, fairness, and believing in humanity.
I spoke a bit about societal norms in episode 74 where Sam Harris interviews Michele Gelfand about “tight” and “loose” cultures. “Tight” cultures have strong norms where a community of people feel compelled to abide by the norms. In a “loose” culture (like in the United States), individualism is prioritized over the community.
While most games we play in real life are not life and death, I think there are similar rules and norms we abide by to “win” or “get ahead.” In these real-life games that follow, I think you’ll notice some common patterns:
- You never win
- You come into the game with a pre-existing advantage or disadvantage
- Those who break the rules may get rewarded handsomely (and spur innovation)
On to the games!
1. Data analysis and cleaning up data game
Had to find a way to tie Squid Game back to data analysis and Excel, so here you go. When you think about common Excel or data analysis tasks, your goal is usually to find a number, show trends, or build a tool for others to use. In order to do this, you have a variety of techniques you can use to clean and manipulate the data before it’s presented. These are what I consider the “rules” of the data analysis game. These rules typically boil down to a few functions for cleaning up text and math formulas.
There are some norms, however, around how you do these tasks in a way that don’t piss off your co-workers. I’m sure you’ve come across files that look like this:
You probably won’t get too far as an analyst if your Excel files look like this. There are some norms around how you structure and format your files like using a blue font for all hard-coded values or using one worksheet to store all your inputs.
Every Excel file start the same with blank rows and columns. You can do whatever you want with this canvas, but in the working world, your output will pretty much look the same because of these rules and norms around data visualization and good user interface design. Every once in awhile, you come across rule-breakers like Tatsuo Horiuchi who uses Excel to create these amazing works of art.
2. University game
The university game has changed so much due to the pandemic. With many universities moving to remote or hybrid teaching models over the last year and a half, many students started questioning if their tuition was worth it. Additionally, half of students find that online education is about the same or better than attending classes in person:
Pre-pandemic, the game was pretty simple. Do the minimum amount to get good grades and maintain a good GPA (at least in the U.S.) The tuition goes towards the “education” and the name on the diploma once you graduate. With classes moving online, the calculus is different. Is the tuition actually covering the “skills” you can gain in the classroom? Why can’t I gain the same skills from taking any other MOOC?
What the tuition and housing costs really cover are the friends you make during the process. When you’re in the middle of the semester cramming for a mid-term, you may not realize the whole point of this game is to walk away with a community or network that you carry into your professional life.
3. Negotiating job offer game
Negotiating a job offer is like any other transaction where you are trying to extract as much value as possible. There’s an initial offer, some back and forth, and eventually both sides agree on a “price.” One of my favorite posts on how to negotiate a job offer is from Haseeb Qureshi (I wrote about this in episode 50 as well). The rules for this game imply that once terms are agreed upon, both sides should be happy with the result (otherwise no deal would’ve been made).
The main rule to follow: always negotiate (aka ask for more money, equity, or both). While there are some norms around negotiating a job offer, there are few rules when it comes to how you can increase your value during the negotiation. For instance, having a bunch of exploding offers where the other companies are offering you higher than what Company X is offering is a sure-fire way to get Company X to magically increase their offer.
Another rule for this game is feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse after accepting an offer that you negotiated heavily. Did I ask for enough? Is my value to this company worth more? This becomes especially clear when you hear about the salaries of your colleagues. Guess what changed this rule of the game? Websites like Glassdoor where salary and comp are submitted anonymously. This gives you a better sense of what you should offer or counteroffer during the job negotiation, but the question still remains: what is your true value? It’s a game you will never win, but rather a story you tell yourself over and over agin that you made the right decision.
4. Health and fitness game
When I was at university, an acquaintance of mine saw a picture of an obese woman and said something along the lines of: “I don’t understand how people get so fat. You just eat less food and work out and that’ll solve your problem.” At first, I agreed with her simplistic advice. From a pure biological perspective, eating less and working out more should help you lose weight. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t consider people with disorders, physical disabilities that prevent someone from exercising, and other reasons for not pursuing this stringent lifestyle.
Fast forward several years, I have fully bought into the workout culture. I’ve even tried hitting the “1,000 club” (combined weight on squat + deadlift + benchpress = 1,000 pounds). There are all these rules about how you can lift heavier or jump higher, but the end result is still the same. Disappointment with what you’ve gained and always longing for more.
If you go back to the basics, being healthy does boil down to these two simple rules of eating less and being more active. It’s so frighteningly simple that exercise coaches and gurus need to complicate the rules to sell their next fad diet or class.
The only way I’ve been able to game the system is setting up mental tricks to push me to exercise when my body is telling me to go back to sleep. I still don’t understand how someone gets up at 5AM to go running, but if you put your shoes, gym clothes, and a full water bottle by the door, the activation energy to get yourself out the door is lowered (see episode 78 on the activation energy mental model).
5. Credit card points game
One of my favorite games to play because there are clear rules (usually) for how to gain, maximize, and spend your reward points. Since the U.S. uses credit scores as a way to determine your ability to meet financial obligations and banks are too big to fail, the U.S. is one of few countries I believe that have these elaborate credit card points systems.
Sure there are ways to game the system. But if you just follow the rules for spending a certain amount to receive a signup bonus or remembering to use that grocery store credit by the end of the month, you can reap most of these rewards.
There are countless websites and communities like the awardtravel and churning subreddits to maximize the benefits of your points. How do banks justify giving out these huge sign up bonuses and rewards worth thousands of dollars? For one, I think they hope that you forget about the amount you were supposed to spend by a certain date (thereby forfeiting the signup bonus). Since I like tracking everything, I created this template to stay on top of due dates and spend thresholds.
When you go deeper into the rules of this game, you have to process the cognitive dissonance that comes with who really pays for all these points. This Planet Money TikTok video summarizes it quite well:
If you care to go deeper into the economics of the credit card points game, this reddit post does a fantastic job of laying out all the key players.
Bringing this back to the premise of Squid Game, one could argue that you come into the credit card game with an advantage or disadvantage, thereby ruining the “purity” of the game. Sadly, credit card reward points can be reduced down to another example of poor people paying for the rich people.
6. Work game
Not having worked in large corporations (except one), I’ve been lucky to having avoided office politics. Playing the “corporate game” usually entails politics to be on the “right track” for a promotion or raise. Playing office politics may also be the path to enjoying working with your colleagues.
The work game I’m thinking of is the daily value you bring to your company. In theory, some company is paying you a certain salary to provide more than the skills you’ve listed on your resume. You add to the company culture, you gain new skills and perspectives as you work, and year after year your contributions may 2X while your salary only 1.5Xs.
So if you were to play this game by the rules, wouldn’t you do just enough to not got fired? Perhaps many people already have this mindset and are doing just enough to scrap by. Not you, though. You are looking for your “calling” or your “life’s work.” Your occupation is more than just a job to you. So you put in the extra hours and 1:1s to have this job live up to the the story you’ve told yourself.
And that, is the work game.
7. Raising kids game
This game might be a result of being in an age group where many of my friends are starting to have kids. It may also be a result of the number of apps you can use to track every movement of your newborn. It feels like raising kids is another optimization game where there are rules around when to feed, burp, diaper change, etc. The goal, of course, is to raise a healthy child.
A baby log like this may look familiar to some of you:
Tracking all these activities and metrics is supposed to benefit the parent and the baby. You can find patterns for when and where your baby likes to feed, sleep, and a variety of other bodily activities.
This is just me playing armchair parent, but does following a specific protocol for your baby at 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, etc. supposed to yield some outcome? Or is this mostly for the benefit of the parents? Again, I could easily be the one tracking every single activity down to the second once I have kids of my own, but this seems like a lot of work (as it should be) to raise a kid the “right” way.
I think the result of this game can lead to helicopter parenting. When there are no set rules for how much a parent should “hover” over their kid, is the default to be more conservative and hover more often than not? Let’s assume you follow all the rules and the kid turns out not as you expected, who do we blame? I’m pretty sure the answer to this game is “wait until you have your own.” As of now, I’m still not sure how to play this game.
8. Productivity software game
Now that we’ve completely gone off the deep end, it’s time to bring this back to something in the work realm. Productivity software used to be reserved for the CIO or CTO who got wined and dined by vendors selling multi-million dollar deployments. Once the C-suite buys the software, then the ordinary plebs in the organization have to deal with using some clunky piece of shit.
Not anymore with the consumerization of B2B productivity software! Now anyone can whip out their credit card and start a trial of productivity software and decide if their team should adopt the software. In the biz this is known as product-led growth. Now that the rules for how software is bought has changed, the homepages of this software has changed as well. The design is meant to feel more “human” (whatever that means) and to make you feel like you are a “superhero” and saving hours and hours of your time every day.
Remember when homepages used to look like this?
Oh the humanity! What normal operations manager would want to sign up for a tool that had a homepage that looked like this? Today, productivity software homepages need to look more welcoming to the average employee tired of using Excel for everything on their job. The homepage needs to make using their tool look fun, like playing a game on your phone. The problem is once one company does it, all the rest follow, and the uniqueness of the design is lost.
Look how fun tools like Lattice look:
I have a horse in this race since I work for a productivity software tool. The brand and user experience is obviously important to how people perceive the product. But at the end of the day, the product experience will trump any warm and fuzzy feelings the website conveys.
All productivity software have similar beginnings. A few people who saw the shortcomings of using Microsoft, Oracle, or whatever shitty behemoth wanted to build something better. The software is built from the founding employees’ own work experience and perspectives. How different can each piece of software really be from one another?
The answer is not a lot. Unfortunately, building features is no longer a competitive advantage for these tools. Throw enough engineers, designers, and money at the feature and it will get built. There is one place where productivity software companies can break from the rules of the game: community. The human relationships built with users and between users simply cannot be another goal for the upcoming sprint. When productivity software companies can break through the rules with a thriving community of users, the real innovation begins.
Other Podcasts & Blog Posts
In the 2nd half of the episode, I talk about some episodes and blogs from other people I found interesting:
- SyntaxFM #382: Advice for New Devs