Reframing your life as an infinite game expands well-being in all ways and always: when things are going as planned, when they’re going neutral, and when they’re going “wrong.”
The premise is simple: Finite games are about outcomes–completion, success, winning. Infinite games are about the process–the possibility, experiences, renewal. Winning isn’t the goal for an infinite player because that ends the game and infinite players play for the love and joy of the game.
We learned this gem of a tool from James Carse, NYU professor, philosopher and lifelong learner. He suggests we question the rules, roles and purpose of the game of life we are playing and seek a more infinite approach. Unsurprisingly, his obituary reveals an incredibly infinite life:
“Despite Carse's well-deserved renown, he remained humble, invested in his students and generous with his time and spirit. He had a way of making each person feel included and of listening intently to what someone said.”
“If he was awake, he was creating. Upon waking in the hospital after suffering a minor heart attack earlier this month, he pulled out his laptop, perched himself on the side of the bed, and let the words flow.”
“His home is full of sculptural works in progress, his inbox full of invitations to speak and lecture, his computer filled with drafts of written works, including the follow up to Finite & Infinite Games. Why stop? He seems to ask us. Why be satisfied with what one had already contributed? Why not continue to play the game?”
We have all experienced three types of life situations (going as planned, neutral, “wrong”) and sometimes we experience all three all at once in different ways (going as planned at work, neutral in relationship, “wrong” in health/fitness). Even if we are intentionally seeking infinite player mode, we won’t be perfect at it. Sadly, maladaptive behaviors spawn when our framing is too finite and unfortunately, completion, success and winning (defining aspects of a finite game) tend to be the playbook for the world we all live in. If we believe our value is based on outward success metrics, and that fame, money and accolades are proof we are playing the game right, we easily forget that there is a different way to play.
Let’s delve in to see how the infinite frame could help change your mindset and actions. Find your current situation below.
Things going as planned:
FINITE: Often we get stuck in a maximized, conveyor-belt life where we are executing on all our roles and rules without thinking about the broader options available. This often brings results that feel satisfying, even successful, but because it requires delivering an outcome that often lies outside of your control, there’s little room for resilience when things go wrong. And it might lead to a less fulfilling, bland experience of living (what we call “going neutral” below). INFINITE: The infinite player works hard but knows the roles and rules don’t define them. They recognize the value of asking questions or listening to other approaches. They see uncertainty as a curious and exploratory stage. They check in with themselves asking “Am I enjoying the game I am playing? Is it restoring or depleting my well-being and those who I interact with?” They leave room for surprise and welcome ideas outside the daily routine.
Things going neutral:
FINITE: If life (work, relationships, health) feel bland, dead-end, uninspiring (which in some doses is a normal and recurring part of all human experience) finite players may take it personally, as a sign of failure or threat, and start forcing themselves or others to double down on tasks, programs, structures that promise the “best” outcome. Forcing outcomes can worsen the situation because often it doesn’t help and leads to burn out (what we call “going wrong” below). INFINITE: The infinite player looks for more joy and meaning but with less frenzy for the stunning showstopper outcomes envisioned in social media or movies. With intention and more curiosity they might ask, “How do I spark more enjoyment? Where am I forcing my roles, rules, purpose? Where is my hope falling down?” Leaving room for trying something new, getting going in another direction, or looking for new ways to interact with your team or even the “opposition” can help reboot a distressingly “neutral” phase of life.
Things going wrong:
FINITE: The sense of losing triggers all the alarm bells for finite players. Their sense of self is so fundamentally wrapped up in the outcome, that if they aren’t winning, they believe they are a loser. Often, they blame others in an effort to distance themselves from the loss. Meanwhile, the discovery, learning, and evolutionary process is disregarded entirely. At some level, a finite player experiences wellness only when everything is going right. INFINITE: The infinite player enjoys the gap between where they are and where they want to be. They keep playing even when they aren’t going to be the winner, letting the joy of play fuel their attempts. They might change their strategy, ask other teammates for help, take a pause on the bench or even pull back a bit to not waste effort while reimagining what they will do next time. They do not identify as being a loser. They might ask “How can I authentically keep working towards my purpose in this current game, even if it doesn’t go the way I want?” They feel frustration, sometimes might get angry and sometimes need to grieve a hard loss, but quickly they reimagine how they might prepare or play differently and know that they are better players for having played.
I mention this often but recently I started a biodynamic, bio-intensive garden. I have had epic fails. I thought the flea beetles in June were bad but the blight that ravaged my tomato plants as a result of an extremely cold, humid summer devastated me and left me feeling helpless, unsure of my project, and alone. It sounds dramatic but falling into a finite play mode can be. And that’s what had happened.
I was focused on the outcomes of this summer’s garden, this harvest, these attempts – which is totally human and normal of me to do. Luckily, I remembered the infinite game lens quite quickly into the discovery of rot on my plants full of heavy bunches of huge gorgeous heirloom varieties of tomatoes. I did cry. I let myself feel a bit helpless and sad for about a day. Then I decided that I had learned way more from this than if they had grown perfectly or if the weather had been different. Because now, after a month and many conversations with gardeners later, this was going to happen to me one day.
So now I look at this summer as my crucial debut of learning the importance of not overwatering, thinning plants, and keeping a closer eye on everything. Plus I learned crazy ancient wisdom from a French great grandpa about collecting the top three leaves of stinging nettles and rolling them into a ball and planting them below the plants to help them avoid mildew. Who knew?
Strangely, or not, Carse’s obituary included his own words describing the infinite vision behind his garden project and why he was doing it:
“Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a gardener's existence, but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not die in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.”
The infinite player reframe enables us to start from our current now. Are we enjoying our life? What roles are we playing? Are we identifying our value based on those roles? What do we feel called to? What helps us feel alive?
Join an Unlocking the Upside mini-webinar on the topic of setbacks on August 27th where we will discuss Infinite Game along with other tools to help ourselves navigate the unavoidable setbacks that come with meaningful possibilities.