Playing the Wrong Game

In 1626, the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, decided he wanted a new ship. And not just any ship. He wanted the greatest naval ship ever built. He called it the Vasa. The original plan was for the ship to be 108 feet long with 32 cannons. He gave the master shipbuilder an unlimited budget. He cut down 1,000 trees and employed some 400 people to complete it.

Soon after the project began, the king changed his mind. He now wanted it to be 120 feet long. The builders made adjustments and the project continued. The king upgraded again. This time he wanted the ship to be 135 feet long. He also went from 32 cannons in a single row to 36 cannons in two rows. Then he added 12 small cannons, 48 mortars, and 10 mounted guns on board. As the project neared completion, old Gustavus changed his mind yet again—this time demanding 64 large cannons. The costs soared. The stress to the builders reached unsustainable levels—so much so that the head shipbuilder died of a heart attack. In the end, the king added 700 sculptures to go along with the heavy artillery.


Disaster Strikes

On August 10th, 1628 Gustavus threw a banquet to honor his new naval achievement. Diplomats and dignitaries came from all over to marvel at the magnificent ship. The crew didn’t get the chance to finish or test it for the open waters before the Vasa—the most expensive ship in Sweden’s history—slipped away from the Stockholm dock and out to sea.

Within minutes of its maiden voyage, a gust of wind blew the Vasa off balance. As the ship tipped, the gunports filled with water. From there, it took less than an hour for the ship to sink to the bottom of the harbor. Over 50 crew members died in the overbuilt tomb as the partygoers watched from shore less than a mile away.


Play the Game You Can Win
There are many lessons in this story. But for me, the most important lesson is simple. King Gustavus was playing the wrong game—a game of show—a game of status. He was trying to impress others—to display dominance with showmanship. He didn’t care who or what it cost. His desire to impress others clouded his judgment. It became impossible for him to define “enough”. And what he got for it was a disaster—a sunken ship, the death of dozens of people, and a whole lot of embarrassment. He wanted to appear strong and powerful. But instead, he looked weak and foolhardy.

As the saying goes:

“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

With money, we get to choose the game of wealth or status. Building wealth is a game everyone can win. And you don’t need to take others down to do so. Status games are zero-sum games of hierarchy and ranking. Some, like sports and politics, have their place in society. But playing the status game with money is a dangerous one. It exposes your wellbeing to the fickle whims of others’ opinions—a never ending chase that often leads to emptiness and disaster.

Writer and investor Morgan Housel says:

“Wealth is what you don’t see.”

Status is what you want others to see. Seeking approval from others requires you to focus on what’s outside your control. Building wealth only requires long-term thinking with a focus on the controllable—our habits and choices.

Next time you’re faced with a big money decision, think about what game you’re playing. If it’s status, remember the words of Shakespeare (and Ron Swanson):

“That way lies madness.”

Here’s to making money matter!