Here is the full transcript and summary of Genevieve Gregorich’s talk titled “Life is a Game of Bullshit. This is How You Win” at TEDxColumbiaUniversity conference.
In this TEDx talk, social scientist Genevieve Gregorich discusses her experiences with gossip and lies in high school and her approach to playing the game of deception. She argues that life can look like a game of deception, but winning requires an active and creative search for experiences, knowledge, and personal growth. The speaker suggests calling bullshitting early and often, and emphasizes the importance of preparation in improving outcomes in the game.
Listen to the audio version here:
So there was this girl on my high school basketball team, Sadie, who bred half-moon betta fish in her garage. And we’ll come back to this later, but for now I just need us to agree on something. This is a very strange thing for a high school girl to do. And I was the only one on the basketball team who knew about it.
Sadie and I were on the varsity team at my high school, and I’d prepared my whole life to make that team. Starting around age four, I practiced pretty much every chance I got. I even remember when I was little, falling asleep in my sneakers under the covers to mental replays of NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal slam dunking. That was the energy I wanted to bring to every game.
And it all paid off. I made the varsity team as a freshman, but as the youngest player on a team dominated by seniors, that quickly became more of a nightmare. They wanted nothing to do with me, and I felt like an outcast from day one.
One day on the bus to an away game, I heard two of my teammates making fun of Sadie, who was fast asleep at the back of the bus, and I immediately saw my opportunity. You know, she breeds half-moon betta fish in her garage, like, yeah, like mates them with one another.
And they thought it was hilarious. They thought I was hilarious. At high school, it got way easier that day, because I began trading the currency of gossip to preserve my newfound smidgen of status.
The gossip’s a shortcut to popularity, and I found other shortcuts, like doing math homework in the back of history class, reading Spark Notes instead of the books assigned in my English class. I was always a step ahead, because I was good at bullshitting my way through life.
I was also good at bullshit, the card game. Some of you may be familiar, also called BS, it’s a very simple game, a game of deception. And today, I’m going to teach you how to play.
A full deck of 52 cards is dealt evenly between players. The goal of this game is to get rid of all of your cards first, and the player with the ace of spades starts. They do so by taking that ace, along with any other aces they have in their hand, placing it face down in the middle of the table, proclaiming the number of aces they’re laying down.
The player to the left, then, must play twos. They do so by taking any twos from their hand, placing them face down in the middle of the table. In this case, she would say two twos. Now let’s rewind.
If she didn’t have twos, she’d have to bluff. She would do so by taking any one to four cards from her hand, placing them face down in the middle of the table, pretending that they’re twos. Now if someone thinks she’s lying, they call BS. If she was indeed lying, she has to take all the cards piled up in the middle of the table and add them to her hand.
But if she was telling the truth, the accuser has to take all of those cards. So in case you spaced out because I just explained a game during a talk, I will summarize. As a player in this game, I want to get rid of all my cards, but I risk picking up extra cards every time I call BS and I’m wrong, or every time I lie and I’m caught.
On the surface, my success in this game hinges on how well I lie and how well I detect lies. But it pays to look a little closer. While BS is universally regarded as a game of deception, I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve come to view it more as a search for treasure. While other people are trying to be good at lying, my only goal is to search for and find the cards I need for future turns in order to avoid lying altogether.
But standing in consistent and penetrable honesty requires preparation. So let me show you what that looks like. I’m on the left of the table here. The player with the ace of spades starts, they place that ace face down, and I say BS.
Now why would anyone lie on the first turn? Well they wouldn’t, they’d be easily exposed to it by the player with the real ace of spades. They’re starting because they have the ace of spades, like that is the ace of spades. And when I call BS, I know I’ll have to add it to my hand, but that’s why I do it.
See that ace is a treasure, especially if I don’t already have an ace in my hand, because that ace is going to help me later. Why? Almost every game of BS extends long enough for every player to have to play each card, ace through king, at least once. So if I don’t play aces on this first turn, I’ll have to play them later and now I’m prepared for that time.
I can do the same thing on these twos, call BS and add them to my hand. But I want to note, I’m not just calling BS recklessly on every turn, I do so much less later in the game and definitely not when there’s a large pile of cards. I don’t want clutter in my hand. I’m searching for treasure.
And while I can’t control the hand I’m dealt, I can greatly improve upon my outcomes by seeing and seizing more opportunities to fill the holes in my hand, setting me up to tell the truth more.
I’ve been playing and winning the game of Bullshit for many years just like this, by not BSing, by telling the truth more. Meanwhile, my strategy for living life was total bullshit. I made fun of that girl Sadie on my basketball team just to gain clout, and I turned to papers hoping my teachers didn’t realize I didn’t read the material.
But honestly, I saw life as a game of deception, a game won through cheap hacks and shallow attempts to create the right appearance. And I’ll tell you why I saw it that way, too.
I started in high school when the one thing that mattered most to me in the entire world, playing time on the basketball court, was taken away. At first, I was told my defense wasn’t good enough. But I later found out that the head coach had problems with the way I looked, with my weight, not my speed, which was well above average. And he had made misguided assumptions about my sexuality, which he communicated to my teammates in slurs behind my back.
And he wouldn’t play me despite my skill set, honed by a decade of hard work. It felt like complete bullshit, it felt unfair, unjust, it felt like I was banging my head against a solid brick wall, losing faith that hard work ever pays off, and losing trust in people. I stopped practicing free throws in the morning before school, because what was the point?
Instead, I tried to start figuring out what people liked and how I could be that. And it kind of felt like winning, to get away with bullshit, to sneak something back from this messed up system. But just like my opponents and BS, when all they see is a game of deception, I was losing at the game of life. I was insecure and anxious.
But fast forward, fast forward, fast forward, fast forward, to the day I saw DJ Diesel perform live right here in New York City, and something just clicked. DJ Diesel, better known as Shaquille O’Neal, Shaq, one of the greatest NBA players of all time, the guy I used to channel in my head as a kid when I stepped on a basketball court.
Well, after the NBA, Shaq took his greatness to other endeavors. He became a sports analyst, an actor, a sheriff, even earned his doctoral degree. And then, after falling in love with electronic music festivals because of their Game 7 energy, a reference to the electric atmosphere of an NBA championship, he began creating that same energy on a new stage, dropping heavy-hitting bass music as DJ Diesel.
And when I saw him perform, it felt like he was speaking directly to me, asking me, Why? Why would you leave your greatness trapped in one little card game? Immersed in that energy, I had an epiphany. If you’ve been dominating at something, you’ve been preparing for everything.
It always seemed so inconsequential that I dominated at the card game Bullshit. But it turns out, in that process, I was preparing for the biggest game of all, life. See, life can look a lot like a game of deception. We can get pretty far pretty fast by skating through, looking how others want us to, saying what they want to hear, short-cutting, bullshitting.
I’m not going to stand there and say it’s not a useful skill, but it generally leads back to square one. Then, even when you win, you haven’t learned anything of substance that can benefit you in the future. It’s like you’re playing the same game over and over and over on repeat. But just like in the card game, there is a better strategy.
Winning in life requires an active, creative search for those treasures that improve your hand, enrich your life, empower you, and allow you to operate more authentically. In the game , you need the right cards. But in life, you tell me. You need to say something, make something, support someone, hone your craft, study something, break a cycle, conquer a fear, take a risk, leave someone, commit to someone.
What opportunity does this moment offer you? And then put the real effort in to capture that value that’s right there on the table in front of you. And watch those intentional efforts quickly, almost magically, create a more powerful, more authentic you. Remember, it starts on the first play.
Remember that ace of spades I picked up and added to my hand? My opponents don’t. They weren’t even paying attention. So when it comes to my turn to play aces, I place that same ace face down in the middle of the table and say one ace.
And now, they’re getting nervous. I’m running low on cards. Someone even calls BS to try to stop me. But that is a real ace. And they’re stuck with a large pile of cards, back to square one.
Similarly, the search in life starts right from the beginning, as in right now, in the moment where nobody’s watching you, in the moment where you’re not talking, rather listening. And especially in those moments when you’re listening to those most different from yourself, because they’re the ones that can most fill the holes in your hand, your perspective, and your vision.
You cannot control the hand you’re dealt, but you can greatly improve upon your outcomes by seeing and seizing more opportunities to add substance and richness to your life. The more you do, the more successful you’ll be in your defining moments, in the moments where you’re in the spotlight or faced with a difficult challenge.
If your experience is anything like mine, you might notice that on this road to success, you’ll experience several beautiful side effects. First, you might stop caring what people think. When I called BS on the first play of the game, people think I’m dumb. Obviously that’s an ace of spades.
But I don’t usually enjoy being thought of as dumb. I much preferred the time in college where I became known as Econ God, after getting the highest score on a notoriously hard economics exam. I mean, that’s pretty high praise. It felt like winning. Especially when my classmates started buying me lunch to get a look at my class notes.
But let me tell you, there is no such thing as free lunch. Every second I hid behind that facade of Econ God, it cost me treasure, because I stopped asking questions in class, fearing it would expose me as a mere mortal.
I missed many learning opportunities, keeping me at square one. And the second I shifted to taking stock of the knowledge and skill set I needed to prepare for the future, asking more questions and putting my ideas out there for honest feedback, my work improved. Quickly. And it was that work itself, not the facade, that landed me the job I took after graduation.
And I notice I don’t care what people think when I ask foolish questions, if I focus on how the answers are going to fill the holes in my hand. Next, you might create a more just world. Playing this way necessitates calling BS early and often, and in doing so sets the tone of the game. My experience is contagious.
Do you know how I know that my basketball coach was making fun of me behind my back in high school? Well, because one of my teammates eventually called bullshit on him. And if she hadn’t, I’d be somewhere else, insecure, confused, demoralized, still thinking maybe my defense just wasn’t good enough. But because she did, because I got to know that that was bullshit, I got to reform my beliefs.
And now I have a constant reminder in my head saying, don’t let anyone ever tell you, ever make you doubt your passion, your vision, or your worth like that coach did ever again. And I started calling bullshit more in my life because I’ve seen its power. In a game where more truth is brought to the surface, people like my coach actually fall behind and people like that teammate are prepared to step in and lead.
You also might get rich. Remember, you’re not just searching, you’re searching for your treasure. The aim is not to collect all cards, it’s to see the value in specific cards. For me, that meant moving away from my hopeless effort to learn more random facts and impress people on trivia night. Instead, I spend my time learning alternative theories about the mysterious workings of the human mind and universe.
Not because that’s better, because it lights me up. When you do what lights you up, that’s treasure. You’re rich. You also, though, might make some real money. See, while I was making fun of that girl Sadie on my basketball team, she was running with her innate curiosity for biology and genetics, building a complex system of fish tanks in her garage, and selling generations of unique and beautiful betta fish for hundreds of dollars each.
Last, you might find that you enjoy the adventure along the way. See, searching for treasure might take you on a detour from the quickest route to your next achievement. One time, an intuitive feeling told me to put work on pause for a music festival. A music festival where I saw DJ Diesel, and his loud, intense bass pulsated a critical negative truth to me.
If you’ve been dominating at something, you’ve been preparing for everything. And that was treasure, a breakthrough, and a clue towards way, way more. One of many clues on any search for treasure. And I guarantee on your pursuit, you’ll find clues towards new interests, new friends, new passions, maybe even your life’s purpose.
So life’s a lot like the card game BS, for sure. There’s important difference. In BS, there’s only one winner. But life is not a zero-sum game. When we’re all searching for treasure in life, we are all better off. There’s a world in which we skate through, trying to conform to some copy and pasted version of some image we think most people will value. That’s a show poodle.
But a simple shift towards seeing and seizing more opportunities to learn, practice, connect, and create right now frees us all from a preoccupation with the judgments of others, gives us natural courage, generates abundance, and points us each towards our purpose in life.
And every search looks different. For me, it involves deep breathing through the panic paralysis of my deathly fear of dogs, that I could live life more freely, maybe spend the better part of it loving them. It also involves reading my mom’s favorite book, The Prince of Tides, and coming to understand why it was her favorite.
Same with my dad and my friend’s favorite books. And it involves starting my PhD, gifting myself five to six years to just learn. But like I said, every search looks different, which means each of our lives is enhanced in a customized, personalized way. And as we go down these separate paths, we become more unique and therefore irreplaceable.
And that’s how the search for treasure sets us each up to win simultaneously, while promoting understanding, innovation, and excellence from which all of society benefits. I hope you go play BS, the card game. Bet some money on yourself, win a few games. But don’t leave your greatness on the table.
Let this inspire you to jump into the adventure of life to embrace your curiosity and potential. And remember, the treasure’s everywhere. It’s right here, right now. Finding it just requires that you choose the cards you want and add it to your hand.
SUMMARY OF THIS TALK:
Genevieve Gregorich’s talk, “Life is a Game of Bullshit. This is How You Win,” weaves together her experiences with the card game Bullshit and life lessons. Here’s a summary of the key points:
- High School Experiences and Perception of Success: Gregorich shares her high school experience, highlighting her journey in the varsity basketball team and the peer pressure that led her to engage in gossip. This introduced the idea that success and acceptance could be achieved through shortcuts and deception.
- The Card Game Bullshit as a Metaphor: She uses the card game Bullshit (BS) as a metaphor for life. In BS, players aim to get rid of all their cards through deception or truth. Gregorich argues that while deception is a common strategy, the game can also be played by seeking opportunities to play honestly, thereby reducing the need to lie.
- Strategy of Honesty in BS and Life: Her unique approach in BS was to call out “BS” strategically to gain necessary cards for future turns, thus preparing herself to play truthfully. She likens this to life, suggesting that preparation and honesty can be more effective than deception.
- Life as a Game of Deception: Gregorich reflects on how she saw life as a game of deception, influenced by her high school experiences, including unfair treatment based on appearance and assumptions about her sexuality. This view led her to adopt a facade, seeking to fit in and achieve success through superficial means.
- Epiphany and Change in Perspective: She describes an epiphany during a DJ Diesel (Shaquille O’Neal) concert, realizing that skills and strategies developed in one area (like the BS game) are transferable to broader life contexts. This shifted her focus from deception to seeking genuine opportunities for growth and authenticity.
- The Search for “Treasure” in Life: Gregorich emphasizes actively searching for “treasure” in life – opportunities that enrich one’s experiences and enable authentic living. This involves embracing challenges, learning, and seizing opportunities that align with one’s values and interests.
- Life Lessons from Playing BS: She draws parallels between playing BS and living life. In both, the key to success lies in preparation, seizing opportunities, and being authentic. She underscores the importance of questioning, learning, and calling out injustices.
- Impact of Authentic Living: Gregorich notes that living authentically leads to a richer life, where one cares less about others’ opinions and focuses more on personal growth and contribution to a just society.
- Personal Growth and Finding One’s Purpose: She shares how her journey led her to embrace new experiences and challenges, such as overcoming fears and pursuing a PhD, ultimately leading to personal growth and a better understanding of her purpose.
- Conclusion – Life as a Non-Zero-Sum Game: Finally, Gregorich concludes that unlike the card game BS, where there’s only one winner, life is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win by pursuing their unique paths, contributing to society’s overall growth and excellence.
The talk encourages embracing life’s challenges and opportunities with authenticity, preparation, and a focus on personal growth, leading to a more fulfilling and successful life.
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