3 rules to approach life like a real-time strategy game

Kiley Dorton - August 10, 2013

Imagine this scenario: you are looking at a map. You see your construction vehicle. You unpack it, build a power plant and a resource gatherer, and assign him to gather [insert resource here]. As soon as you have enough resources to build a military unit or two, you build a barracks and start to pump out gunners to protect you, or perhaps to launch an early-game attack on an unsuspecting enemy.

Sound familiar?

My strategy whenever I played real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer or Age of Empires or Starcraft was nearly always the same: (1) expand early, rapidly, and never stop; (2) protect myself minimally and expect to lose a few battles if it means winning the war; and (3) become an economic powerhouse that was essentially ‘too big to fail.’

I would spend twice as many resources building more resource-gathering units and silos than I would building military or defense units. If I lost a base due to lack of protection, I would almost always have built two more satellite bases for resource gathering while the enemy was attacking. I was like a hydra who was really, really hungry.

Now, when I played against gamers who were actually good, they would typically win with speed and perfectly-timed, highly-targeted early-game attacks. I almost never won against someone who was a real player. So, hat’s off to you guys and gals.

But I almost never lost against most other people. Normal players. People like you and me. Players typically couldn’t understand how I grew so big so fast, and by then it was far too late for most of them.

And yet…

In my real life, I am playing like a total idiot. Like I barely know the units or the rules or even the most novice strategy to win.

If you think of your job like it’s the resource around your base, and your paycheck each month like the resource-gatherer bringing in the load it collected, then we’re all pretty much sitting ducks. We only have one little resource-gatherer, and we’re hardly bringing in the resource closest to us let alone all the other resources out there.

So how would we play if we thought of life like it was a real-time strategy game?

Rule #1: Expand

Well, first thing’s first: we need to expand. We need to create a second base, and a third, and a fourth. We need to use our resources to build more resource-gathers, and fast. The enemy scouts are likely approaching already.

How might we do that? Well, there are only so many ways to make money in this world. We already have a day-job, which will act kind of like our home base, so now we need to expand to other types of revenue-producing activities that will serve as our satellite bases. These types of activities need to be relatively hands-off. They need to be placed strategically, as close to the resource as possible. And they need to be low-cost for us, because they are likely to be discovered and destroyed by the enemy at any time.

The first and easiest resource is probably app stores. We need to build several apps in different categories to start bringing in revenue from those areas. Maybe we’ll build an app for kids that has flashcards for each letter, and a picture of a fruit or animal or something on the back of it. Charge $0.99 for it (no in-app purchases, that’s not cool in kids’ apps), write a great discription and take good screenshots, then walk away. Then maybe we’ll build an app for business people that let’s them track their commute each morning. Kind of like RunKeeper or something. It will collect data about their morning and evening drive and start to show them metrics about it. Again, write a great discription and take good screenshots, then walk away.

We’ll create 3 or 4 apps like that, and then move on to a different kind of resource. Don’t spend too much time making them, and don’t spend too much time protecting them. They are there to supplement your larger strategy, which is to build a diversified, revenue-generating engine that spreads across many different types of resources. It’s your own, personal economy.

Don’t know how to build apps? Draw every screen of the app on a piece of paper, write a description of what the user is supposed to do on each screen, and bring it to your nerdiest friend. Tell him you will split the first-year profits with him if he’ll build the app. If you’re paranoid, ask him to sign an NDA and a simple contract. He’ll figure it out. Done.

Now let’s expand to another resource. Maybe it’s in the real world, like helping our buddy start his dream food truck and putting in a little of our cash in exchange for 5% equity. Or maybe it’s renting an apartment with one extra room, furnishing it really well, and renting it out on AirBnB. Or maybe we’ll find a local farm and agree to build a box of their monthly produce and sell it to our neighborhood for them, taking a small cut of each box sold. Whatever it is, expand, expand, expand.

Rule #2: Expect to lose a few battles

At the rate we are expanding, we don’t have the time or money to build even basic defenses at each new base. Our apps will get eaten by other app developers. Our food truck friend will abandon us, drive to LA, and screw us out of our share. The local farm we made a deal with will stop making tasty veggies because they discovered natural gas on their land. Things will happen and we will lose some bases, but as long as we continue to expand then we won’t sweat losing a few here and there. Just remember: for every one revenue-generating base we lose, we will build two others in its place.

Rule #3: Become an economic powerhouse

If we want to win using this strategy, then we’re playing the long game. It means we need to amass enough resources (money), and satellite bases (diverse revenue streams) that our assets are producing more than we could ever hope to spend on day-to-day needs. That will allow us to use the excess resources to build a gigantic army and squash the competition.

Except, in real life, there is no enemy. The enemy is time. And time will defeat us, whether we own the entire map or not. Therefore, we have to use our resources to beat time at its own game.

Secret: Time is the enemy, but it has a weakness

In life, most of us physically age at the same rate. Some people mentally age slower than others. Some people emotionally age faster than others (read: middle school). Eventually, we all get old.

People tend to focus on building up enough of a nest egg during their younger years that when they get old, they’ll be able to maintain a minimally acceptable standard of living until they eventually pass away. That’s great. But that’s also for n00bs. It’s the equivalent of building a sizeable army of mediocre units and betting everything on the fact that a handful of them will be left standing after we launch our one, hail-mary attack on the enemy. When I put it like that, doesn’t it sound like the strategy of a first-time player?

You see, time is working against that strategy. And it will win, because even if our nest egg is big enough to last us until the bitter end, we will be stuck limiting our spending to make sure it lasts just one more year… But we can use time against itself. How?

Cheat code: Compound interest

Not quite sure why the banks decided to give us this cheat code. Not sure why everyone doesn’t use it. But it’s about as good as ‘klapaucius;!;!;!;!;!;!’ was in The Sims.

We take the resources that, in the RTS war game, we would have used to build up a massive army and squash our enemy. Rather than buy things, we will build up an army in the form of compounding wealth. There are plenty of investment vehicles one can use to do this, and none of them are your savings account.

I prefer to use a three-legged stool strategy. The first leg is a ROTH IRA. That’s the adult version of a porcelain piggy bank that can’t be opened unless it’s smashed with a hammer. The second leg are Tax-Advantage Bonds. The last leg is a Universal Life Insurance Policy that guarantees me a certain return and allows me to build cash value for any amount I add above the premium. In that way, I have diversified my investments across mutual funds, government securities, and my own life insurance.

You are smart. You can make your own strategy. You probably see flaws in mine. Just make sure the money you put in there will grow exponentially. That’s the cheat code. Funnel all the resources your satellite bases produce into your investment vehicle(s). Funnel them early, and don’t mess with them once you’ve started. Just let the value grow until it starts to compound in a significant way.

Winning the Game

We aren’t playing against our neighbors. We aren’t playing against our father or our high school teacher. We are playing against time. And our family, our friends, and our business partners are all allies in the fight.

To win, you simply have to spend more time doing the things you want to do with the people you love than the time you spend earning the resources that enable you to do those things. You have to tip the ratio in your favor. That’s how you win.

So to beat time, we need a more sophisticated strategy than the one we grew up learning. Getting a single job, earning a single paycheck, and putting 3-months pay in a savings account for a ‘rainy day fund’ is not going to work. It may get us through the game, but we’re certainly not going to win.

But expanding rapidly, allowing certain revenue-streams to fall apart in order to maintain our expansion, and building a wealth-generating engine through smart investment vehicles is the strategy we would play if we treated our lives like a real-time strategy game. So, what are we waiting for?