Welcome to a world very much like your own, but far, far away. It is a world run by the Best and Brightest, where nothing is more important than The GameTM.
In this world of billions, the Best and Brightest are the elite of our elite. They are the stewards of our civilization, the Very Successful people we reward with enormous power and wealth, which they use to shape the future for our entire world.
With such high stakes, how we choose the Best and Brightest is a matter of grave concern. This is why we invented The Game.
The Game is our meritocratic filter. It is rigorous, but fair and open to all. Everyone is a Player, and anyone can win.
Each level of The Game poses challenges that only the Best and Brightest can pass. Most Players fail somewhere along the way. But in each generation, there are a select few, a worthy few, who go all the way, proving they deserve to be at the top.
Most Players believe that the only way to win The Game is to deserve it -- to be better and smarter than everyone else. But you have, here in your hands, a secret guide to the truth. It contains Dark Magic that very few know about. Magic that can win it all, if properly used.
But be warned: the Magic described here is very powerful. It creeps into your soul, changing the way you see the world forver. You may never be the same again. If you are willing to take that risk, read on.
The Game is waiting.
The Magic Mirror of the Right Answer
When you start The Game, you are a low-level novice. To gain confidence in your abilities, you must please your tribal elders, the Parents and Teachers. You earn their praise by navigating the Maze of Tests and grabbing the Fleece of Good Grades.
The Maze of Tests is a labyrinth of questions. At each juncture, you choose your path by providing an answer. If you answer enough questions correctly, you will find the Fleece of Good Grades waiting for you at the end.
Most Players believe that there is only one way to beat the Maze, and that is with real effort and real intelligence. They stay up hours analyzing its architecture, studying its patterns, memorizing its flora and fauna. They dedicate their lives to beating the Maze.
You will meet them many times. They are the Honest Sheep -- otherwise talented Players who make one very big mistake. They believe in The Game. They think it is perfect and pure, without any shortcuts.
They are wrong, of course. Because there are shortcuts. Such as the Magic Mirror of the Right Answer.
This Magic comes from understanding that the Maze of Tests is not actually about what is real and true. Rather, it, and the questions in it, are made by other people who want to challenge and trick you.
The Right Answer is simply what They, the designers of the Tests, want you to say.
Because, in the most literal sense, Tests do not directly measure what you know. They do not plunge into your brain and trace your neural networks. Rather, they are a proxy, and a poor one at that. They simply measure how you behave in a contrived environment with artificial pressures, like a ticking clock, a pencil and multiple choice questions. That is not what the real world looks like.
The Magic Mirror reveals the truth. When you peer into its surface, it will show you that the Maze is not reality -- that what you need to do well on Tests is different than what you need to actually understand the world.
The Honest Sheep spend hours learning things that are unlikely to be on the Test. You will not do this. Instead, you will learn how to manage your time, how to get partial credit, and how to see clues in the ways They ask their questions and word the answers.
At first, it will be very easy. They will give you multiple choices, and ask you to pick one. Don't worry which answer is real and true, or why. The Maze is not about that. It is only about the Right Answer. Focus solely on that -- ask yourself only what They want -- and you will see the way.
As you get older, They will scare you with open-ended questions, like essays. They will say there isn't a Right Answer, but remember: there is always a Right Answer. There is always the thing They want to hear.
The Mirror will show you the way. In essays, you want to use ideas you've heard from Them before, even if you don't understand them. You want to use big words, even if you don't understand them. And when in doubt, you want to talk about analogies and metaphors and symbolism. Especially symbolism. It's almost always a winner.
Over time, you will realize that the Maze of Tests is just a game between you and Them. They make their moves by asking questions, and you respond with the answers They want to hear, before time runs out. The Honest Sheep will not understand this. Instead, they will continue to believe the Maze is a real and true measure of their abilities -- and they will crumble under the pressure of their own expectations.
With the Magic Mirror by your side, you quickly collect more and more Fleeces, which earn you more and more praise. You rise in the ranks, becoming ever more confident, feeling ever closer to Success.
But the Magic comes at a cost. Sometimes, late at night, a stange thought crosses your mind. You badly want to believe that you deserve the Grades, the praise and the awards. You want to forget that you used Magic to get them. You want to get lost in the Mirror, let it lull you into the false belief that you really are smarter than everyone else.
Then the thought passes, and you come back to your senses. You remember that you're just like everyone else -- no special and no different -- and you only beat the Maze because you played The Game.
You shake your head and carry on.
The Magic Whispers of the Right Story
You leave the Maze behind and enter the Swamp of College Admissions. The air here is thick with mist and fog, but through the haze, you can make out a castle on the other side.
To get there, you must cross a bridge guarded by the Admissions Trolls. The Trolls are much like the Maze designers from the last level. They only let players pass who They think will become Very Successful. And to be convinced, They want three things.
The first are the Fleeces of Good Grades from the last level. This is common in The Game. New levels require that you pass all the previous ones, and that you keep doing the things that you did before, such as taking Tests. In this way, The Game is highly recursive, building on itself repeatedly, where a failure at any level is a failure on all levels. There are no second chances.
The second requirement from the Admission Trolls is the 3-letter Sacred Test. This is a very special Test, unlike any you saw in the Maze. To make sure you pass it, you will need to hire one of the Test Prep Guides lining the Swamp road. And for this, you will need Gold Coins.
This may be the first time you see Gold Coins, but it will not be the last. They are almost a necessity to playing The Game. Players who are otherwise very good may fail in the Swamp because they cannot afford a Test Prep Guide. It is imperative, however, that you do. The Guides are so good at gaming the Sacred Test that they offer an iron-clad guarantee -- or your Gold Coins back.
You will, of course, ace the Sacred Test. Still, the Fleeces and the Sacred Test are not enough to impress the Admission Trolls. They also want to hear a story.
The Honest Sheep think the Trolls what to hear the story that is real and true. They will tell the Trolls about their average lives, their middling accomplishments, and their hopeful but naive ambitions.
This is not what you want to do. What you want are the Magic Whispers of the Right Story.
Like the Right Answer, the Right Story is not what is real or true. It just has to be what They, the Admissions Trolls, want to hear. And what They want to hear about is Pretend You -- a character you conjure with the Magic Whispers.
Pretend You is you, but better. Where you have a few awards here and there, Pretend You has won Accolades. While you hate playing the piano, Pretend You is an artiste. While you are still figuring life out, Pretend You has Ambitious Life Goals that involve curing cancer -- which he's already been working for a while.
When you reach the bridge, you cast the Magic Whispers, and you feel your tongue go silky smooth. You blow away the Admissions Trolls with a captivating story about the world-changing talent and awe-inspiring potential of Pretend You. They are completely convinced that Pretend You will be Very Successful. In return, they give you a fat envelope. Inside it is a key to the Very Prestigious University on the other side of the bridge.
But as you walk over, you sense the Whispers turning on you. They try to make you forget that you used Magic shortcuts to get this far. They tell you that you are as accomplished as Pretend You, that you are as impressive, and just as likely to be Very Successful. That, more than anything, you deserve the castle before you.
The Whispers are seductive, but you know they are wrong. You know you only made it this far because you saw how The Game really works. You know you were lucky with your advantages. This does not make you fundamentally smarter or sharper or better than anyone...right?
You shake your head and carry on.
The Magic Smoke of the Right Names
A beautiful castle rises in front of you. Golden towers shoot into the sky. Behind it, green rolling hills stretch to the horizon. The gate is open and inviting. As you pass through, you see emblazoned above, in large ornate letters, a Very Prestigious Name.
Everyone inside the castle is happy to see you. You have finally made it, they tell you. You are one of us, they say. You wonder if this is what Success tastes like. You think you finally are one of the Best and Brightest.
That is, until you learn about Job Sabers. Being Very Successful requires a beautiful and very Golden Job Saber, everyone says. Everyone around you is getting one, and you obviously need one too.
To get your own shiny Job Saber, you must impress a Boss at a Big Company. And to do that, you will need a Great Big Resume.
The Great Big Resume is another story you have to tell. But it is much more than the made-up story you told the Admission Trolls about Pretend You. No, the Great Big Resume requires details -- actual things you've done, where you've done them, and with whom.
The Honest Sheep believe they must go do Actual Work to put on their Great Big Resume. Maybe they will work summers back home for an industrial supplies company run by someone their uncle knows. Maybe the company is even quite innovative in what it does, and the work they do is actually quite impressive -- but it won't matter. Unfortunately, no one has ever heard of the company, so no one is impressed when they see it on their Great Big Resume.
Of course, you do not want this tragedy to happen to you. That is why you will use the Magic Smoke of the Right Names.
Everyone knows the Right Names. You've heard them your whole life. The Boogles and the Gasbooks. They are the names that light up people's eyes when you drop them. When you have this Magic, no one asks why the Names are impressive or what Actual Work you did there -- the Smoke clouds their eyes.
To use the Magic Smoke, you need to collect Right Names to put on your Great Big Resume. You may wonder how to go about doing this. Well, fortunately for you, the great thing about Magic Smoke is that it's magnetic. Having some Smoke naturally attracts more. And even more fortunate, you have some Smoke with you already: the Very Prestigious Name of your Very Prestigious University.
With this little bit to get you started, you can easily get more by spending summers on Ball Street and in Silifaux Valley. When you drop the Very Prestigious Name of your Very Prestigious University, they will roll out the red carpet. Don't worry, they will not ask how you got there, or what story you told to the Admission Trolls, or how much you paid the Test Prep Guide to pass the Sacred Test. By this point in The Game, it doesn't matter how you finagled your way in. It just matters that you did.
Of course, you will not do any Actual Work over those summers -- unless you count mastering $8000 espresso machines and typing numbers into little cells. But it's ok. For your purposes, the work doesn't have to be real or true. All that matters are the Right Names you'll gather while doing nothing.
Eventually, you'll have enough Magic Smoke to sprinkle Right Names all over your Great Big Resume. This will impress the Bosses at the Big Companies. They will fall over themselves to offer you Golden Job Sabers. You will get Saber offers from Richman Sacks and McLinsey and lots of other Right Names. Which one you pick, or the Actual Work you will be doing, is far less important than how Golden the Saber is. A word of advice: pick the biggest, shiniest, most Golden Job Saber you can. No one knows why, but it's what everyone does.
Armed with your Job Saber, you leave the ornate gates of the castle, ready to strike it out on your own. You are excited about all the Success sure to come your way. But there are moments, when you're alone, that you find yourself muttering the Right Names over and over. Somehow, they comfort you. They ease this gnawing need you have to convince yourself you are worthy -- that you earned all this on your own, that you are better, that you deserve what you have...
The Magic Rope of The Right Relationships
Your new Job Saber is amazing. When you show it off and wave it around, all the other Players get jealous. This makes you feel great. Perhaps now, you think, you are one of the Best and Brightest.
But then you notice clouds in the sky. They come and go, but often, they let out a Storm right above you. At first it seems random, but soon you realize they are coming from a Mountain not too far away.
You learn there are other people who live on that Mountain, with their own Job Sabers more golden and more powerful than yours. They are the ones who send Storms your way. They are the Higher-Ups.
You realize that if Higher-Ups control your life with their Storms, you can hardly be one of the Best and Brightest. If you really want to be Very Successful, you need to get to the Top of the Mountain.
The only way up the Mountain is by scaling its cliff face. It is very sheer, and you can only climb it if the Higher-Ups help pull you up.
You notice Honest Sheep trying to catch the attention of the Higher-Ups by working very hard on their Job Sabers, polishing and re-polishing them, waving them frantically. They believe if they just try hard enough, they will naturally be recognized for their hard work.
This is a fool's errand. You yearn for Dark Magic that you can use instead.
Fortunately, there is the Magic Rope of the Right Relationships.
This Magic is more powerful than any you've used before. It also involves something you may have never done: manipulation.
To wield this Magic, you must see that people's biggest weaknesses are the things they need. Their deepest hopes, dreams, and desires -- these are crevices where you can hook your Magic Rope. To form the Right Relationships, you must use their vulnerabilities as your opportunities.
Everyone has these deep, dark desires, even the Higher-Ups (especially them). Your job is to find them, and exploit them. Perhaps you realize your particular Higher-Up has deep insecurities because he doesn't have a Very Prestigious University Name. Or he needs you because he cannot actually do the work he promises his own Higher-Ups. Or, even better, he has a predilection for high-priced escorts and expensive white powder. These are all great places to snake Magic Rope.
Once the Rope is hooked into someone, once they can't live without you, they are yours. If you have to, simply threaten to walk away. Then sit back and watch them do all the work of pulling you up themselves -- with the Magic Rope you conveniently planted the whole time.
One Higher-Up after another succumbs to your Magic Rope. You climb the Mountain, quicker and quicker. Along the way, you see many Sheep still waving their Sabers and demanding attention for Actual Work. You blame them for being foolish, for not seeing The Game for what it is. You are proud of the Dark Magic coursing in your veins, bringing you ever closer to the Success that surely awaits you at the Top.
It's All Just a Game
For years, you scale the Mountain. Your Magic grows ever stronger. You get Higher and Higher-Up. The further you get, the closer you feel to being Very Successful. The closer you are to being proclaimed, once and for all, the Best and Brightest.
But no matter how high you climb, the Mountain stretches higher. There are still others Higher-Up than you. You begin to worry. Will you ever reach the Top?
Then one day, you notice a cave going into the heart of the Mountain. You poke your head in, and you see something you never knew existed before.
There are elevators inside the Mountain. One flies by in front of your face. It is shooting to the Top very fast, much faster than the slow climb you've been doing on the outside.
Inside, you see a couple seated at a candlelit dinner table. You've never seen people like them before. They are clinking glasses and eating caviar. He wears a watch much larger than his wrist. She wears pearls around her neck so heavy they make her head droop. And both their eyes are jet-black, like the darkest depths of the coldest night.
As the elevator passes, another man in a corner of the cave winks at you. You ask him what this place is. The Winking Man says this is The Inside Game, the only one that matters.
You are very confused. The Inside Game? You tell him you've been playing The Game your whole life, that you're very close to reaching the Top. He laughs. You will never win that way, he says. You'll never become one of the Best and the Brightest by slowly climbing up on the outside.
He takes you over to a window and points down below. There is a Sheep there that you passed on your way up. You remember this one, because he was unlike the others. It was obvious he was done with The Game. It was clear he didn't want to climb the Mountain anymore. He had retreated to a ledge that led nowhere, trying to find a comfortable place to live out the rest of his life.
But the ledge was far from comfortable. It was buffetted by Storm winds on all sides, and the Sheep was barely hanging on for dear life. With no desire to go further up, he couldn't go back down either. He was stuck.
The Winking Man looks over the scene wistfully. Maybe you believe, like that Sheep does, that you can stop playing The Game. Maybe you think once you've done enough, and earned enough, that you can settle somewhere with a pretty girl and a warm home. That's a nice thought, isn't it?
He turns to you, suddenly stern, as the lone Sheep bleats away in the distance. Once you start playing The Game, you can never stop. Because it will never stop playing you.
However, he says, you are lucky. You made it inside the Mountain, which few Players ever do. In fact, most don't even know about it. Now you have the rare chance to actually make it to the Top, to actually win The Game. But you will need the Ultimate Magic.
He offers to tell you what this Magic is. But, he warns, once you know, there is no turning back. You will be one of us, forever.
Something doesn't feel right. But he has a point. You have been slaving away for years to get to the Top, and you do worry you will never get there. You don't want to end up like that Sheep, struggling to survive while others play The Game and drink the wine and eat the caviar.
Maybe this is the only way.
You take his offer. You enter the elevator. With the press of a button, it shoots to the Top of the Mountain. You step out, expecting sunshine and adoring crowds. After all, you have finally become Very Successful. At long last, you are one of the Best and Brightest.
But that is not what you see.
There is no sunshine and there are no crowds. Instead, there are just a few people scattered here and there.
You see one of them carrying some kind of instrument in his hands. You watch him use it to spin something up, slowly at first and then whirring faster and faster. It is a Storm, just like the Storms that rained on you below.
He gives the Storm power, letting it grow, and then launches it out into the world below. You watch the Storm shape the Maze of Tests, drench the Swamps of College Admissions, protect the Very Prestigious Universities. You realize that all the levels you passed before, the entire Game you have been playing, was made by these Storms.
You turn to the Winking Man. He whispers: what the Best and Brightest know, what separates us from the rest, is the knowledge that there is no Right Thing in the whole Game. No Right Answer, no Right Story, no Right Names, no Right Relationships. All of those Right Things are made up to keep everyone chasing false hopes, while we play The Real Game up here, right under their nose.
The Ultimate Magic is making The Game itself.
He chuckles and pats you on the back. Now that you know, you are finally one of us. He hands you your very own Storm Maker. And now, you only have one thing left to worry about.
"What Game will you make everyone else play?"