11 Life Lessons I Learned From Tetris


Tetris is a wonderfully simplistic game. The rules are simple, yet mastery of them seems nearly impossible. Certain players, without question, are amazing. Most of us never reach that upper-eschelon, but that’s OK. We play because we enjoy it.

I play a couple games of Tetris almost every day. I do some sort of writing almost every day. It occurred to me that there are some similarities here. As you read through this, I ask that you take everything I say and simply relate it to your favorite avenue of creation, be it painting, music, photography, etc.

It’s all about focus.

In sports they call it being “in the zone.” But it happens in all aspects of life, from playing chess to driving in rush hour. Being in the zone is nothing more than achieving a heightened state of focus. Whether you’re playing Tetris or writing a novel, this near-meditative state is not always easy to achieve. Figure out how to get there, then stay as long as you can. When it slips away, take a break. Take 20 or 30 minutes to grab a snack or go for a walk. Let your mind rest, then come back and start again.

Most of the time you don’t get what you want.

The key to Tetris is carefully fitting all the pieces together, then waiting for a straight line, or “stick” piece to finish it off. Well guess what? The stick is just one of the seven different pieces that fall upon you in Tetris, so chances are you won’t get what you want. Not right away, at least. You’ll get something that might work, and you’ll get something that doesn’t fit at all, and you’ll get three or four of the same worthless piece in a row. In real life this translates to settling for a sub-par apartment or ending up in a band whose music is not quite your cup of tea. But ya know what? It’s not the end of the world. Patience is a virtue, and the right piece eventually comes.

Take what you can get, as you work towards what you want.

My mindset used to be “Tetris, or nothing.” I would hold out and hold out, and sometimes I would get a stick at the right time, and get my Tetris. Most of the time, however, I would just stack everything up to the top and that would be the end of my game. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK to get one or two lines, keeping everything manageable, while waiting for my Tetris. You gotta do what ya gotta do to survive until you see your opportunity for a Tetris. I know I’m getting all “Pursuit of Happiness” up in here, but it’s true. Keep your end goals in mind, but don’t feel bad taking chump change along the way.

Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts, even if everyone watching thinks it’s crazy.

You have to have faith.

You know what you want. You want a bunch of easy shapes, then the stick piece at just the right time. Well, take heart and know that there is always a stick piece coming. Good things are out there, but you must be patient. Keep at it, have faith, and eventually the right pieces fall into place.

You can’t rely on faith alone.

The Tetris Gods help those who help themselves. Faith is important, because there is definitely a stick piece coming. Of course, there is no way to predict when you’ll get it. Sure, the left side of the screen keeps tallys of each piece. But just like a display board on a roulette wheel, those numbers keep track of the past; they don’t predict the future. A little forethought can go a long way. Keep your game manageable as you exhibit your patience. Get a line here and there, keep yourself in the game. Before you know it, BAM! Tetris.

Doing something is always better than doing nothing.

The number one killer in the game of Tetris is hesitation. “Should I put it here, or flip it around and put it there?” This might translate into, “Should I audition for this acting part, or that one?” Spend too much time thinking it over, and you miss out on both. Think about what you do, but DO SOMETHING.

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Sometimes an unconventional move is the way to go.

Every now and then I’ll flip a piece around and just put it somewhere. I don’t know why, but just to try it. All of a sudden I get two or three more pieces, and they all fit, and it’s Tetris time! Having a routine or a method is great, but if the mood strikes you to go in a different direction, just go! Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts, even if everyone watching thinks it’s crazy.

The more you do it, the better you get.

I play Tetris every day. It’s not that tough for me to get 300,000 points. Some times a friend comes over and happens to play a game, and they’ll get frustrated when they can barely get a tenth of that. It’s not that they’re terrible or that I’m great. It’s just that I play more. If you’re a writer, write a lot of stories. Little by little, more and more of them will be good. Same with anything. Keep at it, you’ll get better.

The better you get, the tougher the challenges.

The longer you play Tetris, the harder the levels become. The pieces are more random, and they fall faster down the screen. Thank God for this. If Tetris had only one level, why would anyone ever play? You’d be bored out of your mind. Similarly, getting an A on an art assignment in high school is probably a tad easier than landing that job as a graphic designer at some hot-shot company. Good. As you become better, people will give you tougher and tougher assignments. No one is asking you start on the 19th level. But if you’ve already gotten past the first 18, then why not try?

Learn to ignore the music.

When you stack your pieces too high, the music in Tetris speeds up. This might create the illusion that the pieces are moving faster. They aren’t. Take heed and be careful, but don’t freak out. Worrying about the music only draws energy away from your focus. Know your deadlines, but don’t worry about them. Keep your objective in mind, and finish your task.

The best feeling in the world is getting the perfect piece at the perfect time.

The whole reason people play Tetris is because every now and then you get that perfect combination of pieces. Piece-piece-piece-TETRIS! Piece-piece-TETRIS! Sometimes it just flows, and it all fits together perfectly. I love that feeling. It’s the best. No one expects life to work like that all the time, but sometimes it does. Love it, appreciate it, and know that it’s ok to look forward to it.

Top photo courtesy of Mr. Angry Dog. Bottom photo courtesy of State Farm.

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About Billy McCall

Billy has been writing and self-publishing since middle school, and isn’t about to stop now. His main realm of expertise is zines, but he has also written for various magazines and newspapers over the years, published one novel, and even writes the occasional song. Currently he is living in New Mexico with his dog and two type-writers. He considers hand-written letters to be the highest form of flattery.

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