This realization can change your life - finite vs infinite games
Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries. - James P. Carse
I recently read the book “Happy Sexy Millionaire”, in which multi-millionaire Steven Bartlett explains why money and fame won’t make us happy and what we should seek instead.
Part of his most crucial learnings was understanding the difference between finite and infinite games and recognizing which games he’s actually playing.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. A finite game has rules that are set, a defined end, a winner/loser, and the goal to win the game, such as tennis or golf. An infinite game has rules that can change, no defined end, no winners/losers, and the goal to keep the game going, such as a language or life.
Playing a finite game with a finite mindset against finite players makes the game “stable”. The same goes for playing an infinite game with an infinite mindset against infinite players. Issues arise when people play infinite games with a finite mindset and vice versa.
For instance, a tennis player who wants to change the rules during the game to keep the game going is someone you don’t want to play against. Or, a person who speaks a language as if there was a winner and corrects others’ grammar mistakes all the time is someone you don’t want to talk to.
This finding is pretty much worthless if you already play all your games with the right mindset, but chances are high you don’t.
Like Steven, I used to don’t know this difference and what games I was playing. How should I? But now knowing this difference, I can recognize which games I’m playing and better choose whether and how I will play them.
In today’s blog article, we’ll dive deeper into this topic and learn how we can become happier people by better recognizing and adapting to the various infinite games we have to play in life.
Many people play infinite games as if they were finite
Playing infinite games with a finite mindset has severe consequences, such as frustration, disappointment, waste of time and money, and ultimately unhappiness
The problem is not that we want to become rich or in shape but rather the how and why we want to achieve it
To play infinite games right, your goal should be to enjoy the journey as much as you can do
Always question whether you do the things that you could do infinitely and minimize the things you do just for the sake of a seemingly better thing
A rule to choose the right things to do is to always think long-term
Never play infinite games with a finite mindset
Many people play infinite games as if they were finite. Here are 2 common examples:
1: They portray their career as something that has a set end, either their retirement or their financial freedom. However, our careers are an infinite game. We cannot win at work. And there’s no amount of money that makes us win. With a finite mindset, we do stupid things like working in a job we hate or making money illegally/immorally. And once we made a certain amount of money, we find out that they are still unhappy and unfulfilled - as multi-millionaire Steven Bartlett did.
2: They portray their physique and getting and staying in shape as a finite game. They think they just have to do some dieting and some workouts until they reach their body goal and that’s it. Wrong. This finite mindset doesn’t work and is the major cause why people have more weight after dieting than before. Getting and being in shape is an infinite game. Once we reach our body goals, we have to continue doing sports and eating healthy. It’s a lifestyle.
Playing infinite games with a finite mindset has severe consequences, such as frustration, disappointment, waste of time and money, and ultimately unhappiness.
Just imagine your goal is to have 3 million bucks by the age of 30. So, you go into investment banking right after graduating, earning 100k as a starting salary. You work 100 hours per week, invest all your money into stocks. You get all the promotions, the highest bonuses and your stocks skyrocket. And by 30 you made it.
However, you hated every single day of this journey. Your health levels dropped because of the long working hours, little sleep, and shitty diet. You have no friends because you had no time for other people outside of your career and the people you worked with already left the company. The only person wishing you a happy birthday is your boss and your mom.
Yet, you now got the 3 million bucks. You won.
But, what are you gonna do now?
Do a job, meet people, or start a hobby you actually like? Start to eat healthily and sleep enough? Start getting a happy person? But why didn’t you do that in the first place?
These 3 million bucks won’t make a difference. Sleeping in 5-star hotels won’t make you happy. Eating superior steaks, traveling first-class, buying a luxury apartment, ... neither.
Or do you continue, earning even more money? Getting the 10 million bucks? Or maybe just doing another job with not that bad working hours? With some more time to find some friends?
How to play infinite games right
The problem is not that we want to become rich or in shape but rather the how and why we want to achieve it.
For instance, if you love working hard to earn lots of money and that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life, like Warren Buffet, that’s an infinite mindset. Contrarily, if you hate working hard to earn lots of money and just want to do it to become happy someday, that’s a finite mindset.
Or, if you love eating healthily and doing sports and that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life, as I do, that’s an infinite mindset. Contrarily, if you hate eating healthily and doing sport and just want to do it to get into shape and not for the rest of your life, that’s a finite mindset.
To play infinite games right, your goal should be to enjoy the journey as much as you can do. Always question whether you do the things that you could do infinitely, i.e. for the rest of your life, and minimize the things you do just for the sake of a seemingly better thing.
A rule that greatly helps me to choose the right things to do is to always think long-term. I always imagine how I would feel if I did something for 10 years straight. And if it didn’t feel like a “hell yeah”, I won’t do it.
How to identify infinite games
A key difference between finite and infinite games is that you can play finite games within an infinite game, but you cannot play an infinite game within a finite game. Consequently, many infinite games have a sub-set of finite games.
For instance, tennis as a sport is an infinite game. New players will start playing, others will stop playing. The rules are subject to change from season to season. And the goal of the tennis leagues is to keep the sports going. However, each tennis game is a finite game with fixed rules, a winner and a loser, and a clearly defined end.
The same goes for every other infinite game such as being in shape: Each workout and each meal is a finite game: There are good workouts (win) and bad/no workouts (lose) as well as good meals (win) and bad meals (lose).
So, whenever we’re faced with a series of finite games, we’re probably also playing in an infinite game. Some more examples:
School is a finite game, education is an infinite game
A job promotion is a finite game, working is an infinite game
A date is a finite game, romantic life is an infinite game
An election is a finite game, politics is an infinite game
War is a finite game, diplomacy is an infinite game
A social media post is a finite game, social media is an infinite game
Parenting is a finite game, role-modeling is an infinite game
A pandemic is a finite game, prevention of biohazards is an infinite game