Find New Opportunities by Shifting Your Perspective
What I learned from “Finite and Infinite Games” by James P. Carse
Everything in life is a game. Not in the sense that it’s unimportant or to be taken lightly, but in the sense that there are players following previously-agreed-upon rules, boundaries, and measurements. There are two types of games, finite games and infinite games. When we hear the word game, most people think of finite games – recreational games like baseball, pool, or chess, or games we play as children like snakes and ladders or capture-the-flag. These games all have clear rules, clear boundaries (whether those are regarding the physical playing space or time restrictions), and clearly communicated requirements for determining the winner. These characteristics can be seen everywhere, in our workplace, in our culture, in the education and legal systems. There are predetermined norms that we follow in all our interactions and if we don’t follow them we can be expelled from the game.
Oftentimes, the difference is not in whether something is innately a finite or infinite game, but is in whether it is being played by a finite or infinite player. For example, a relationship can be played as a finite or an infinite game. For a finite player in a relationship, there is a specific goal, they “play the game” to push for a pre-specified conclusion.
For an infinite player in a relationship, the purpose of “playing” is to play. Being in the relationship is its own purpose, to continue it and see where it goes. Decisions are not made with the intent of winning, they are made with the intent continuing play. We see infinite play when a grandfather throws a baseball with his grandson. There is no purpose other than in continuing the play itself. We see infinite play when children role-play, using their imaginations to include everyone who wants to play, creating scenarios that keep the play going. When the rules start to change to exclude others, it becomes finite play. There are now those in the game, and those outside the game.
We can play a finite game within an infinite game, but there cannot be an infinite game in a finite game. As I read this book (though I will admit it was definitely not the easiest read) I realized that the ultimate infinite game can be life. As I move through my life, am I playing as a finite player or as an infinite player? James P. Carse writes:
Every move an infinite player makes is toward the horizon. Every move made by a finite player is within a boundary. Every moment of an infinite game therefore presents a new vision, a new range of possibilities.
The thing about a horizon is that it isn’t a fixed point, its location is always relative to our view, to where we are looking and what we are focusing on. By opening our view to the things on the horizon we can’t see, we open ourselves to possibility.
It’s about perspective and control. Are you willing to open up your view, to change your perspective and give up control? The reality is that what we’re actually giving up is typically just the illusion of control.
As I finished university my plan looked like this:
- Spend one year attending a gap year program in South Africa
- Come back to Canada and enter a master’s program to get a degree in urban planning
- Stay in my hometown, get married, have kids, live there forever
During my time in South Africa, I started to see other possibilities and began to see how limited and incomplete my vision was. Instead of playing the finite game, pursuing a specific outcome and making decisions in that direction, I started to look at life as an infinite game. The point was not to get to a specific place, the point was to play/live in a specific way. I took advantage of opportunities that I hadn’t seen before and now, eight years later, I’m living in the Middle East, working in a completely different field, married to someone from a different country, and absolutely loving it. I don’t know where I’ll be living or what I’ll be doing in ten years and that’s okay. The reality is, even when I had bounded myself to a specific goal, there was no assurance that would happen either. We often like to think that if we follow the rules, live within the boundaries, and put in the time, we will reach our goals, but life typically doesn’t follow a formula and too many people end up burned, disillusioned, and feeling like failures.
I may not know what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be living in ten years, but I know who I’ll be and how I’ll be living. The opportunity within this perspective is very exciting and I can’t wait to see what some of the details look like as I move towards an ever-moving horizon of possibility.