As I sit here preparing for a Very Important Call, I find myself keeping my mind active but distracted from the stress of the moment by playing one of my old favorite distractions, Minesweeper. It’s a game that has come as part of Microsoft Windows since at least the dark days of Win 3.1. Or was it 3.11? You know, it was the version that required you to edit the autoexec.bat file and--well, never mind.
I like playing Minesweeper, is all.
As I play it, I find that it’s an effective metaphor for life, especially in light of the reading I’ve been doing lately. I've gotten into a book titled The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday. I won’t go too much into the book, itself, because frankly I think you need to read it directly instead of getting any sort of shorthand version from me. Still, I’ll say that it’s a great book about how to conquer life's little challenges.
Its main them is also not entirely different from arguments I’ve made in my blog, specifically about success as a writer. My point, generally, is that most overnight successes aren’t. Stephen King, for example, wrote about his path to success in On Writing, and it was anything but overnight. He took years getting to where he is now. Part of that time requirement, of course, was the simple act of building up the chops that have now propelled him to his rightful place among the most-recognized authors of all time, and part was perhaps luck, and part was just--oh, I don’t know, the way of life. Regardless, it sure wasn’t overnight.
Have you played minesweeper? I started way back when, on my first real desk job after I left the Army. That’s why I know it was there prior to Windows 95; this was a couple of years before Windows 95 existed. And while I’m on the subject--remember how Windows 3.1 sucked? It had all sorts of glitches and stuff you couldn’t do, and if you managed to move a window completely off of the screen it was nine quarts of hell trying to get it back on the screen. Then came Windows 95, and it sucked, too. I remember there being a page in my Official Windows Curriculum book that discussed memory tuning, and in the Instructor’s manual a little note on the side said “Note: this doesn’t actually work.” Hilarious stuff, that.
So yeah, each version of Windows has had its problems. Generally Microsoft has made it better, but that’s truly debatable with some versions (don’t get me started on Vista). And yet Bill Gates has been--what? Oh, right, an overnight success; just ask any of the kids who’ve grown up with Windows as their primary operating systems.
Back to minesweeper--I started way back when, and I quickly got tired of the Beginner and Intermediate levels and went on to Expert level. It's a grid of tiles, 16 high by 30 wide, under which 99 mines are hidden. Click on a tile without a mine and you’re good. Click on a tile with a mine, and you’re dead, game over, done.
Simple game, right? And yay, it has hints. Each time you click on a tile without a mine, it turns up a number that identifies how many mines it is adjacent to. Yay! Easy now, right?
The numbers are, at first, quite a mystery. You see a tile with a 1 on it, and you think, “well, that’s not a lot of help. There are eight tiles beside it, and one of those has a mine.” Then you see a tile with a 4, or a 6, on it, and you think that’s even less help.
As you start to play, though, you realize that in combination, the numbers on the tiles really are a great help. Experience teaches you to recognize patterns--ferinstance, when there’s a string of 1s interrupted by a single 2, you know there are two mines, each next to the 1-tiles adjacent to the 2. You mark those, and you move on.
Experience, then, is key to the game. Well, except when it’s not. If experience were the key to the game all the time, by this point I would be winning every single stinkin’ one of them. I don’t, though. Why? Because no matter how quickly I can do the pattern recognition required, there’s always a point where I just really have no idea where the next mine is. I’ll have it narrowed down to one of two squares, or two of four, but I still have only a 50% chance of getting it right.
That’s where the similarity to life smacked me in the face. No matter how much we already know about the patterns of our lives, there are still times when we really have no idea which tile to click on next. We can do what most do--shrug and walk away. Or we can risk it, and click on one.
Then the mine goes boom and we lose. Game over!
But you know what? In minesweeper, as in life, losing isn’t permanent. We start a new game, and though it can be a pain to go through again and clear the field, it’s something that the more we do it, the better we get at it. And then we hit a mine again, and it sets us back, but that just means we start with a fresh field once more.
Sometimes it gets pretty dark, too. I mean, most of the game you’re looking at strings of 1s, 2s, and 3s, knowing there are a few mines peppered among the adjacent squares. Sometimes, though, you get a whole cluster of 4s and 5s, and ohmygodthemines! Funny thing about those spots, though, is that as dark as they seem, they’re usually the easiest to figure out when you look close enough. Then, when you do have it figured out, there's no feeling like busting through that series of high numbers to find open field behind.
Sometimes, too, I take a mental nap. You know what I mean? I'm just clicking along, and suddenly boom! That, or I just plain miss the spot. Then I clench my fists and say "but I knew that one was a mine!" Doesn't matter; I clicked it, game over. Show me someone who hasn't done that in Minesweeper, or, for that matter, in life. I dare you. So what do you do, stop playing and hang your head in shame? Nah, you click the button to start over, right?
Eventually--and rarer than you’d expect for someone who’s been playing the game for twenty years--I win one. Oh, what a moment for rejoicing that is, too. And then I note the time it took to win that one and set off to win another one, only faster.
See? Life is like Minesweeper.
Have a great weekend, and here's hoping that all your tiles have numbers on them!