If Life Was A Mahjong Game

Have you ever groaned about life being unfair after being dealt a poor hand in a mahjong game? Life doesn’t seem to care much about fairness, does it? 

Most self-help books are centred around awakening your potential or maximising your strengths but I never found them particularly useful. They seem to negate the fact that many of our struggles are due to what we call ‘bad luck’ or how others feel more ‘privileged’ than us.   

One Sunday afternoon, while playing mahjong, I realised the game contains many secrets to life’s conundrums. Here’s what I learnt amidst my pongs, peanuts, wins and losses.

1. “Paying your school fees” is a part of life

Illustration by Asher Mak

If you tell experienced mahjong players you are new to the game, they will gladly invite you for a game by saying, “Come pay your school fees.” What they mean is that you will surely lose to them frequently due to your lack of experience, so be prepared to pay up.  

In life, we often screw up and sometimes it will cost us. Don’t beat yourself up! See your mistakes as “paying your school fees” because making mistakes is the best way to learn and take those lessons to heart. 

2. It is not what you start out with that matters

The hardest part in mahjong is to recover from your opening tiles if they are bad. Similarly in life, we have no control over our birth circumstances: the family we are born in, our genes and nationality. It’s not what you start out with but the decisions you make to shape your life that matter. 

3. Don’t get caught up in what others have

Singaporeans have a tendency to compare—who has the bigger house, who is further along in their career and so forth. When playing, all you get to control are the tiles in your hand, not your neighbours’. 

Comparing constantly only leads us to feel miserable about what we have instead of taking control of our own lives. 

4. You are always in control

It’s tempting to believe that because another person did something to us, we are held captive by their decisions. Don’t make yourself a victim, but consider your options, especially if you are in a toxic relationship

In mahjong, every turn allows you to make a choice. You might feel overwhelmed by your bad hand, but always remember this: you have a choice and you are choosing every moment. Even believing that you don’t have a choice, is a choice.

5. You can only take small steps

Wanting to change something in the world is often overshadowed by how insignificant you feel. Well, in mahjong, you only choose 1 tile to keep and discard 1 tile per turn.  

Feel comforted in the fact that everybody in this world can only make small choices at every turn but these choices matter because they affect everybody else. 

6. The prevailing wind will always change

In most parts of the world, the scenery and colours change between summer, fall, winter and spring. 

Similarly, in the world of mahjong, the prevailing wind rotates. Perhaps you have been going through a particularly bad time and you just gotta wait it out. There will always come a turnaround where things seem to be going in your favour again.

7. Everything is a risk

Sometimes, we avoid taking risks because the fear of losing something seems way more scary than the joy of gaining something. But in mahjong, you realise that not taking a risk can leave you stuck with a bad hand, unable to progress.  

Embrace risk-taking as an inevitable part of life instead of feeling crippled by indecision. 

8. Let go and discard what you don’t need

In mahjong, you MUST discard every round. Because of our FOMO or kiasu mentality, we sometimes forget that we have limited bandwidth and hold onto too many things that weigh us down. 

We fear letting go because we think it makes us lose something, but the beauty of mahjong is that it reminds you that you can only hold onto a limited number of tiles. Remember what Marie Kondo said—holding onto things that don’t spark joy ultimately costs us more.

9. Organise your life if you want to win

Photo by Bryan Christopher Yeong

So much of mahjong is based on organisation: putting groups of 3 together and calculating probability. I genuinely wish this simple but all-important life skill called organising was taught in school.

Most of us pick it up after a messy few years (or even decades) because we realise that a life unorganised, is not worth living.  

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10. Sometimes, not losing is winning

Yes, there will be rounds where the odds are stacked up against you so high, you might even feel like giving up. But hey, if you managed to cut your losses by preventing somebody from winning, it’s a win in this case. 

11. Be flexible

We all grow up with certain outcomes we envision for our lives, but it is important to reevaluate those goals from time to time. Similarly in mahjong, based on the tiles being thrown out, you might need to reevaluate and switch strategies. 

You need to be flexible when the spectacular combination that seemed possible just moments ago has now become highly improbable. 

12. Manage your expectations when you feel lucky

Having a stellar opening hand can play to your disadvantage. You start to have illusions of grandeur, wanting to win with elusive and stunning combinations. 

In mahjong, it is better to win small than to lose. When you manage your expectations, you handle risk calmly and are poised in a better position to win, although it might not be the stunning hand you were gunning for. 

13. Money accounts for just a fraction of your life

Some people accumulate money like there is no tomorrow and they forget what their wealth is for. In mahjong, you only touch the cash at the end of the game when you say your goodbyes. 

Money is just a fraction of the experience and you will be extremely miserable if it’s all you are thinking about throughout the game.

14. Manage your finances well 

Money is not all-important but it is crucial to have some to continue playing the game. Similarly, in life, we should learn basic financial management ASAP. It is way better to say no to the Gucci bag you really want now than to have to beg, borrow or steal in your 20s. 

15. Be goal-oriented


At a mahjong table, the players might engage in friendly banter, but only one thing is on their mind: winning. The sort of personal gain mentality might seem extremely selfish, but it isn’t. 

Being focused on your goals allows you to push aside the distractions that don’t matter, while still having fun. 

16. Remember to have fun

If you had a few bad rounds, you might start to feel lousy and discouraged. But that is why you play in a group of 4. The snacks, conversations and drinks are not the priority of the game but enjoying them can help you through the hard times!

Be blessed my friend, because luck will shine on you once more. 

17. You can’t succeed alone

To win, most of us will depend on others to ‘feed’ us tiles. Of course, an ‘empty front door’ (门清) gives you extra points and is a prerequisite for stunning combinations like ‘thirteen wonders’ (十三么). But really, how often can you win that way? 

Even the most successful people among us have gotten a hand from somebody at some point. 

18. Leaving the game early will affect others negatively

The sad part about mahjong is, you can’t leave before others are finished with the game. If you do, there will no longer be 4 players and the rest can’t continue playing. Similarly in life, no matter how tired you get of a situation, a premature departure can sometimes leave others in shambles. 

Life Lessons Learnt From Playing Mahjong

Illustration by Asher Mak

If mahjong is good enough for Crazy Rich Asians, it is good enough for all of us. And who knows, you might have your own revelations after a few rounds and some beer. 

Cover image courtesy of Ong Ming Zhi.
This article was first published by Asher Mak on 22 January 2020 and last updated by Nicole Yong on 14 September 2023.

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