We often think about time in terms of scarcity, but it’s easy to forget that as individuals and organizations we can actively cultivate our mindset about time to have more of it.
If I tell you someone is playing a game at work, you might think they’re being manipulative, or that they’re actually playing Candy Crush on their phone. But the kind of game that writer Simon Sinek describes in his new book, The Infinite Game, is not at all about backstabbing or time-wasting. Instead, it’s a form of play that seeks only to continue itself.
This may sound philosophical (it is) but Sinek casts this idea in a practical business context, updating James Carse, the author of the influential and aphoristic Finite and Infinite Games from 1986. Carse’s genius was to transpose game theory from its mechanistic concern with economic motivations to a more philosophical exploration of what it means to be human. Where economists—and most actual game players—make use of finite games with definite rules and time frames, the players of the infinite game play with the rules to extend its duration.
Carse, who died in September at age 87, ended his book ponderously, “There is only one infinite game.” When I asked Sinek earlier that month what he thought Carse meant, he said, “I think he’s probably talking about life.” It’s poignant now that I can’t ask him myself, but I suspected as much.
The game of life
The game of life has two very different associations. One is Milton Bradley’s original board game, circa 1860, an enjoyable but altogether finite game. The other is mathematician John Conway’s computerized cellular automaton from 1970 that spawned the field of artificial life which thrives to this day. Conway’s is an infinite game, but one without a role for players. (it is literally classified as a zero-player game!)
The game of life that interested Carse, and now Sinek, is one where our participation matters—it’s social and collaborative. Adopting what Sinek calls an “infinite mindset” is a matter of individual choice, for people and for organizations, but to be infinitely minded changes the nature of relationships from transactional to appreciative. We no longer look at other people as a means to an end—as a cost on the balance sheet—but as a renewable resource that we want to nurture and develop.
“I don’t have good days and bad days anymore. I have ahead days and behind days.” —Simon Sinek
The biggest impact of seeing your life and work as an infinite game is that it changes your approach to time. Instead of racing against the clock to meet arbitrary projections, you’re more likely to keep your eye on your long term goals. Sinek credits Carse with changing the way he thinks about time: “I don’t have good days and bad days anymore. I have ahead days and behind days. Good days and bad days are final. Ahead days and behind days are temporary. I don’t take my good days for granted and I know my behind days won’t last.”
By definition, the Infinite is boundless, so how can it possibly relate concretely to our finite working lives? One way to resolve the apparent paradox is to consider that in our finite experience we’re always approaching infinity, but never getting there. This poetic-sounding concept actually underlies calculus, the workhorse of modern technology, and Sinek’s infinite mindset neatly transforms into an appreciation of limits.
“This is why partnerships and teams matter,” says Sinek, “because we want to be able to lean on the right skills at the right time. Sometimes we need strategy and sometimes we need tactics. Sometimes we need to command and control and sometimes we need distributed authority, it really is contextual.” The finite-minded leader thinks they can do it all, and places no limits on their demands of others. The crisis of burnout, in Sinek’s worldview, is caused by mindset, not workload. “The good leader knows how to adapt their style, but more importantly, how to build a team where they know who to rely on.”
Mindset in a crisis
The importance of leadership—and mindset adjustment—is especially critical during periods of crisis, like COVID. Sinek uses the example of the Marine Corps to illustrate how an organization with a lot of distributed authority in peacetime quickly shifts to command and control in wartime. “In times of extreme stress and chaos,” he says, “that works better. But it’s not in a vacuum. It’s that so much trust has been built up over time that the Marines know they wouldn’t be ordered to do something that would put their lives at unnecessary risk.”
“Dr. Carse would say that in a finite mindset, all of the thinking has been done in the past,” Sinek continues. “Which is why athletes train and train and train so that there’ll be no surprises, that they’re prepared for everything.” There can be, in sport and warfare, an illusion of infinite preparation. Carse was a very competitive college athlete himself, but became disillusioned. His observation of the contrast between competitive and creative play in his own children led him to write Finite and Infinite Games. As he later explained to Sinek, in the infinite mindset, “thinking begins at the moment of surprise.”
“The infinite game is not the absence of finite games. The Infinite game is the context within which the finite games exist.” —Simon Sinek
If you’ve read about neuroscientist Karl Friston, you know that in his view of the brain, avoidance of surprise is a prime motivator because it conserves energy. It’s important to give finiteness its due because it’s so useful (and often fun). And Sinek stresses that, “the infinite game is not the absence of finite games. The Infinite game is the context within which the finite games exist.” If all living creatures did was minimize surprise they would never get out of bed in the morning and evolution wouldn’t have progressed beyond the primordial soup.
Children are novelty seekers, and in that sense we start life with an infinite perspective. As the child explores their world, their prime motivator is to question why, like the good little researchers they are. Sinek’s infinite and finite mindsets map quite nicely onto cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik’s parental archetypes of the gardener and the carpenter. The good parent to Gopnik is like the Sinek’s good leader, nurturing exploration and play instead of setting predetermined expectations.
During COVID, Sinek has seen this at play with leaders who, “picked up the phone and called their team one by one and asked, ‘Are you okay? How are you doing?’ There was an extreme amount of patience that didn’t exist prior to COVID. We were acting like human beings taking care of human beings, which is what good leadership is.” By getting to know our co-workers, our customers, even our competitors, we make time to play the game of life. This may seem inconsequential in the scope of a global corporation, but the world is not only infinitely large, but also infinitely small.
People who engage in creative pursuits often find that the spark that leads to something new is a very small thing easily missed if you’re not paying attention. And this is where having an infinite mindset recursively circles back to the game of life. Every life form, after all, starts out much smaller than it eventually grows to be. If we could only see trees, we would never plant saplings.
The life of business
To Sinek, business is also in the game of life. “Companies should live like life,” he says. “They’re living, breathing organisms. Cells die, employees come and go, new cells are born. There needs to be an evolution. Companies that exist as static, finite entities will die, they’ll leave the game.” Such companies, to Sinek, misunderstand the game that they’re in. “You can choose how you want to run your business. But there’s no changing the nature of the game of business, which is an infinite game.”
“No one says you have to play the infinite game of business with an infinite mindset,” he continues. “It’s just that there are massive, massive pitfalls to play with a finite mindset in the infinite game—the decline of trust, of cooperation, of innovation.” These deficits, he believes, put companies on a path to shorter lifespans, noting that the average US company now survives only 17 years. Sinek isn’t saying companies should throw the quarterly earnings report out the window, just that finite myopia is best placed in a more farsighted context.
These same mental limitations can shorten an individual’s career as well. “Your career is a journey, not a destination, there’s no end point,“ says Sinek in a LinkedIn-ready sound bite. But for those of us on their third or fourth “career,” these words ring true. To thrive in the 21st century will rarely be to work your whole life in the field you happened to study in college, or to ascend to a more senior version of the first job you fell into.
In fact, being adaptive and open to surprise is the way to slow down the clock and extend the game. If the game is life, we each have to each ask ourselves, how are we contributing to it? “In business we call that value,” says Sinek, “if you’re making my life easier, better, or offering me some sort of improvement to the quality of my life.” Value, like life, is not a zero sum game. This is why, he says, companies should focus on pleasing their customers instead of beating their competitors. “Value is not a calculation,” he concludes, “It’s a feeling.”
The will to optimism
Playing the infinite game is also more a matter of feel than calculation. It’s similar to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and, more generally, to optimism. Sinek points out that “inherent in being an optimist is a recognition that the thing that you want is not necessarily here now.” Many people mistake optimism for Panglossian positivity where “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” The optimist pursues the light at the end of the tunnel, but they don’t deny that they’re in the dark. If you’re an optimist, you’re also empathetic—you feel the burdens of your companions in the tunnel even as you urge them on.
Ultimately, the reason why your work is an infinite game is because there’s no intrinsic limitation on the ways you can improve other people’s lives through your labor and imagination. You are an agent of life, capable of creating value. This doesn’t mean that you don’t face significant, perhaps overwhelming, impediments to your progress. This is why leadership is so critical. Good leaders, infinite minded in Sinek’s parlance, encourage their teams to make the most of their talents, help clear blockers, and reward impact even if they have to move the goal posts. Their finite counterparts, on the other hand, can run their talent into the ground along with the companies they’re charged to steward.
“Will is an infinite resource that can be produced with just good leadership.” —Simon Sinek
If the point of the infinite game is to keep playing, it takes will to continue. “Will is an infinite resource that can be produced with just good leadership,” Sinek says, “but physical resources are finite.” In hard times, it’s will—not money—that saves the day. “The mistake we’ve made in modern business is we think resources are the only thing that matter, or we believe the only reason to keep people inspired is to make more money,” he protests. “I believe the opposite. The reason to make more money is to keep people inspired so you can build a bigger organization. The cause gets bigger, so you can spread it further, and take care of your people.”
Whether as individuals or organizations, Sinek encourages us to decide how we want to play. “We should come to work not to win,” he says, “we should come to work to play the game of business. It’s for the joy of the play.”