Do you have ‘soul in the game’?

I recently met Nassim Taleb, the author of the best seller ‘Black Swan’ at a conference and next morning in the airport lounge. He shared a fascinating concept that is very useful to assess how much purpose and meaning you find in your current job. And although it is very simple, his categorization turns out very insightful. Nassim Taleb suggests that you can operate ‘without skin in the game’, you can have ‘skin in the game’ or you can have ‘soul in the game’. Let’s have a closer look at all three categories.

When you do not have ‘skin in the game’, then talk is cheap. Think of corporate mercenaries promising wonderland, coming up with elaborated business plans following a hockey stick; but when the going gets tough, they are off for a new opportunity. Bureaucrats don’t have ‘skin in the game’ when they enforce rules without further consideration of a specific situation. Think of some bankers offering outstanding returns, however, they benefit of the transaction no matter how the asset value evolves. And yes, there are consultants who do not take responsibility for the advice given. Here are some characteristics that come with relationships without ‘skin in the game': focus on talking rather than doing, short term rather than long term oriented, transactional rather than focused on the health of a company.

With the growing adherence to the shareholder value concept it became popular to design compensation schemes that allowed for ‘skin in the game’. The main idea has been to have managers participate in the upside potential of a company to assure that shareholders’ and top management’s incentives for growth and profitability were aligned. Real ‘skin in the game’, however, means that you also participate in the down side risk. Entrepreneurs have ‘skin in the game’ as they balance upside potential and down side risk, as they manage trade offs between short term and long term to build a healthy company. People with ‘skin in the game’ put the focus on actions, striving for impact rather than talk. As citizens we all have skin in the game as we bear the consequences of poor governments; unfortunately many citizens leave the political space to cheap talkers instead of taking responsible action themselves. In Switzerland’s basic democratic scheme you can still experience how citizens take responsibility and defend their ‘skin in the game’.

Now, think of people that have ‘soul in the game’. They have a purpose, they are on a mission. Their talk is very expensive, in a sense that they often bear hardship to pursue their mission. Think of prophets that brought their faith and often uncomfortable news to the world. For a soldier defending his country his commitment can have fatal consequences. Or an innovator, developing an idea against all odds and resistance in an established world that is not awaiting his new idea. ‘Soul in the game’ is usually linked to service of others; you are doing something for the sake of others. ‘Soul in the game’ is another word for having a purpose in life. And when you meet people with ‘soul in the game’, you will hardly hear them talk about work-life-balance because work and life have become one the same as they are pursuing their purpose in life. Living a purposeful life can be tremendously liberating, the priorities become very clear, and so does your own identity. However, it does not come easy: you will have to give up options, you might face resistance, even hardship and you might even fail. But then, the good news is that your are pursuing your game, not anybody else’s game.

How would you categorize your current job? Do you have ‘skin in the game’? Do you have ‘soul in the game’? Can you describe your purpose in life? Can you describe your company’s purpose? Who are you serving with your work? How present is this target group in your daily work? How meaningful is it for you to serve?

In case you are not fully satisfied with your answers to the above questions, what are you going to do about it?

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