"Stand up stand up!
Here he comes.
Tell me what it takes to be number one!
Tell me what it takes to be number one!"
– Kanye West, "Champion" (2007)
One of the strangest but impactful books I've read recently is James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. The book begins ominously, enigmatically:
"There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." (1)
Throughout the book, Carse points out that life is one grand game, comprised of a series of smaller games. Some of these games are finite: we play them so that we may win or at least rank as highly as possible relative to others when they conclude. When we join a company with the goal of eventually getting promoted, we are playing a finite game, competing with others to achieve a specific title or rank.
But some games in life are infinite: we play them because we enjoy the playing itself, fully understanding that the objective is not to conclude the game with a specific winner, but to merely keep on playing for as long as possible. We can think of our entire career as an infinite game. The objective is to keep doing our work – what we're called to do – for as long as we can, so that we can continue forging new experiences and new relationships with others. There is no winner of our own career.
Both finite and infinite games are necessary and important. But finite games are the ones we tend to be more familiar with.
Every week we watch our city's football team compete for victory against another's. Our annual bonus or raise is calculated based on how we perform compared to our co-workers. We memorialize war heroes, athletes, and revolutionaries for their performance in finite games from decades or centuries ago.
We like to win – prizes, titles, awards, funding, battles, competitions – not only because winning feels good, but because winning increases our social status, and increasing one's social status has always been advantageous in evolutionary terms.
While many games in life are necessarily finite, I think we often make the mistake of assuming too many of life's games are this way – played over a fixed period of time with fixed rules and ultimately designed to crown a winner, while many are actually infinite with no medal ceremony at all.
Consider raising children. Now I'm a long ways away from having any of my own, but I know people don't have them just so they can claim that their kid is the best piano player at Big Creek High or so they can finally experience winning that state championship they never won for themselves. But many parents are extremely competitive about how well their kid performs at life, as if there really is some game to be won for "best parent" or some award for "I raised the kid with the most consecutive honor roll awards at Oakwood Elementary."
Raising children is an infinite game. From what I've learned from the parents I've talked to, you raise kids for the experiences, memories, and of course, relationships that are created and strengthened throughout the journey. You end up starting something you can't possibly finish. You contribute to something bigger than yourself; your kids eventually move out and create their own lives, and they have their own kids, who have their own, and the cycle continues. Ad infinitum.
In a finite game, you don't enjoy the potential for endless play. In fact, finite games are played precisely because they always end. Boxing matches are fought to determine the best fighter. Debates determine the best orator. But once they're over, they're over. Your only reward, really, is the title you get when the game ends. Titles and prizes and so forth are great, but they only last so long, and they hardly solve all of your problems. As Anne Lamott once wrote:
"If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it." (2)
Our best bet is to take a long-term perspective and realize that not all games in our life are played to win, to arrive at a destination, to conclude with a title, prize, or whatever and then that's it. The most intriguing games are the ones that never end, the ones that are interesting, challenging, or surprising every day, week, or year we get to play them.
The relationships we build and evolve, the career we cultivate, the skills we refine. These are all infinite games if we see them that way. We can think of them not as competitions to be won, but as journeys with no defined destination, full of boundless possibility, as long as we keep playing them.
(1) Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse (p. 3)
(2) Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (p. 203)