How video games can help you succeed at work

Playing video games can seem like the opposite of working. What do imaginary worlds where you beat levels, complete quests, and slay dragons have to do with the real grind of our day-to-day jobs?

In fact, video games are great strategic training: in requiring us to think about how we can rise to the next level, they offer important lessons in choosing and advancing our careers.

Ladders spoke to Steve Kamb, the founder of Nerd Fitness and the author of Level Up Your Life about how video games can help us get ahead at work.

Ladders: What can video games teach us about success?

Kamb: Success is not just money in your bank account. It means that you’re working on something that you’re excited about and that shows you’re making progress. In a video game, every time you pick up a controller or hop into a game world, you are trying to advance to the next level or you’re fighting a slightly more challenging boss.

You get really addicted to the process of making progress. It’s called the progress principle. The same is true when it comes to your career.

Are you working on something that is challenging to you and that you’re excited about? Can you find a way to create a system that shows that you’re advancing?

Why is the act of leveling up so powerful?

If you don’t have a particular goal that you’re working toward, it’s very easy to become complacent and get stuck.

Far too many people end up looking back years later and saying: “What happened? It seems like just yesterday that I had these ideas to do and try things.”

In any video game, there is always a very specific thing that you’re working toward. It might be to defeat a bad guy, or reach the end of a certain level in a certain amount of time, or save the world from a zombie apocalypse. You know exactly what you need to do to win.

But you don’t just start the game and all of a sudden beat it. There are a series of tiny steps between you and that end goal. You always know what you’re working toward next.

When it comes to your career, your personal finance, your fitness, you have to create those levels for yourself.

If you’re looking for a new job, it might be that every day you have to apply to at least one new job. Or every day you’re going to set aside X amount of dollars to eventually quit your job and start something new.

You have to have a specific goal and put levels in place as mile markers to show that you’re moving in the right direction.

It can be easy to get immersed in video games. How can we find that in our jobs?

In a video game, if it’s something that you enjoy and you are seeing progress, it’s easy to lose track of time. Three hours can fly by in no time.

At work, three hours can sometimes feel like two and a half days.

There’s a concept called “flow,” which is the idea that you can get lost in an activity. Just like in a video game, when you’re at work and you can show that you’re making decisive specific progress on a project, it becomes a lot easier to get immersed in it.

It comes down to the type of projects that you’re picking. It should be something that you are interested in and that you can show you are learning or making improvements.

The more you can identify things in your work life that allow you to get lost in them, the more likely you are to become successful because you are working on things that bring you to life.

How important is a sense of beating an adversary?

I don’t want to equate an evil bad guy with your evil boss.

The bad guy is the part of you that says, “this is good enough,” or the part that makes an excuse as to why you haven’t gotten a promotion or why your work isn’t getting done on time.

Each of us has an internal boss battle that, regardless of how successful we are, we have to face.

It’s also fun to create a dragon to slay. For some people, that might mean slaying a debt dragon. Say they’re $20,000 in credit card debt. Every day at work is no longer just going to their job. It’s about building up artillery (aka money) that they can then use to defeat the debt dragon.

In addition, you could imagine that an organization is working behind the scenes to hold you down. It helps to put a face on negative thoughts.

I use that as an angry motivation. That group, whoever they may be, is trying to keep me down. I’m going to fight against it. I’m going to dig deep and get more resilient and put levels and systems in place so I can systematically prove that bad guy wrong.

So can we justify taking video-game work breaks during the day?

I think so — if you do it right.

When I was at a job that I disliked, and I was out of shape and didn’t like my social life, I used video games as my escape. Other people might binge-watch Netflix shows or escape into a series of books. These are ways to not address the problems in our lives.

These days, my life is in a much better place. I’ve built a company, and I work with coworkers that I’m excited about on projects I’m excited about. Now when I play video games, it’s not because I’m trying to escape my regular life. I use them for entertainment.

Throughout the day, if someone needs to take a quick break and reward themselves with five minutes of playing Candy Crush or scrolling through Instagram after having a really successful, focused 25 minutes or an hour of getting work done, that’s great.

The problems come when you’re spending five minutes every 20 minutes to play Candy Crush or you incessantly check your phone because you’re bored and disengaged at work. That’s a sign to show you that you’re not interested in what you’re doing and should start searching for something new.

When you find a job where you’re engaged and lose track of time, you won’t even have time to play video games.