BLACKMON: The Flappy Bird Test

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Last year, a little-known game quietly entered the mobile app market. Its premise was relatively simple: Users would try to fly a small bird through gaps in a series of pipes, earning one point for each pipe. Despite its simplicity, the game gradually developed a cult following, and by February of this year, over 50 million smart phone users across the world had latched onto the addicting game to make it the No. 1 app on the market. Both procrastinators and those looking for an excuse to be anti-social rejoiced; Flappy Bird had officially gone viral.

BlackmonTOn the production side, this basic game looked like any developer’s dream. At its peak, Flappy Bird was generating over $50,000 every day from ad sales, raking in more cash by the hour and making creator Dong Nguyen wealthy nearly overnight.

But just when it seemed no other app could match Flappy Bird’s success, Nguyen suddenly decided to pull the game from the market, tweeting out to his followers, “I cannot take this anymore. It is not anything related to legal issues. I just cannot keep it anymore.” Only after stunned gamers demanded answers did Nguyen explain he was concerned about the unintended effects of his app — he was afraid users were becoming addicted.

Nguyen had, in his eyes, created a monster. A monster he had no intention of letting loose on humanity.

Now a month removed from the Flappy Bird saga, we should take time to appreciate Nguyen’s logic and its application to the decisions so many of us are forced to make every spring. In making plans for summer internships, research, or even long-term employment, students often face the same dilemma Nguyen faced with his viral app in balancing finances with social impact when choosing between offers.

These choices only become more difficult every year and eventually build up to the dreaded question we have all learned to avoid: What do you want to do with your life?

Learning to answer that single question lies at the heart of our education here, and no matter what field we enter, most of us will eventually have to deal with some kind of trade-off between wealth and noble purpose. But one way to frame that debate is to ask yourself a simple question: Do your plans pass the Flappy Bird Test? At the end of the day, is your life work going to improve the lives of other people or merely pad your wallet?

Of course, it may very well do both. Noble purpose does not preclude wealth generation. In fact, plenty of successful leaders — from Steve Jobs to the Wright Brothers to Tina Fey — have aligned their financial incentives with the good of society by choosing to devote their lives to work that became both profitable and beneficial to their fellow citizens. And as an unabashed capitalist, I usually believe in the market’s ability to account for the wants and needs of society as a whole by allowing individuals to pursue their own economic self-interest.

But markets also fail. And when we knowingly spend our lives in a career that brings either harm or no benefit to the people around us, we have failed to tap into Nguyen’s wisdom about the nature of work. Nguyen’s genius was in showing that occasionally capitalism fails to accomplish its central goal: to establish a system best able to benefit society. Rather, true success in business comes not just from producing more wealth, but from creating a greater good for society.

Therefore, though it is not shameful to pursue wealth, if that pursuit comes at the expense of pushing society forward, we have a moral obligation to discontinue that pursuit.

And, in fact, this test Nguyen subconsciously developed with Flappy Bird extends much further than business. A reporter who passes over a story on corruption in favor of click-bait journalism has failed the Flappy Bird Test. An engineer who chooses to build missiles rather than bridges has failed the Flappy Bird Test. An attorney who covers up environmental degradation rather than defend the innocent has failed the Flappy Bird Test.

Given the springboard of an elite education, any one of us has the power to cash in our diploma for a six-figure salary that will ensure financial security for both our children and ourselves. But if doing so comes at the expense of our social responsibility to improve the world around us, we are neither successful nor admirable. We have failed.

Ultimately, however, the beauty of Nguyen’s decision is that he came to his conclusion of his own volition. Rewiring the brain to consider your impact when evaluating your goals requires you to ask yourself the same question over and over again: Does this pass the Flappy Bird Test?

Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at tyler.blackmon@yale.edu .

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