Find New Opportunities by Shifting Your Perspective

Published by Thriving Erin on

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.

 

 

 


7 Comments

Tyler Bishop · March 29, 2019 at 11:19 am

Thanks for the Coles Notes version Erin. I find it interesting that the majority of interactions with new acquaintances start inside the “finite” box. We generally open with “What do you do for a living?”. Wouldn’t the conversation take an interesting turn if we started with “Who are you?”. The infinite box is too scary for most of us. We prefer to deal with the concrete rather than the intangible. Thanks for the reminder that we are after all human “be”ings and not human “do”ings. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years either, but I have a pretty good idea who I want to be.

Dustin Staiger · March 20, 2019 at 12:56 am

Thanks for sharing this Erin!
You did a great job of sharing the crux of this book. I enjoyed the examples you gave of finite and infinite games. It was very interesting to see how this applies to your life experience.

You mentioned “The point was not to get to a specific place, the point was to play/live in a specific way.” Do you have thoughts on how it benefits us to play the infinite game? Is there a benefit to recognizing a finite game vs. infinite game?

I’m also curious about the author. Any idea why he wrote this book? The article jumps straight in and it might help to have some context about the book, it’s broader implications in life, or why you were reading it (as Erica suggested).

It seems like the principles of this book are played out in different religions, but I like the way he frames the concept as an infinite game instead of temporal things vs. eternal things, etc.

Mark Modesti · March 18, 2019 at 10:53 pm

I so appreciate that you pushed through this book even though it wasn’t your cup of tea. I actually started it, then set it down. I found it a somewhat wooden treatment of a very un-wooden topic. Maybe that could be called “professorly”?

I’m curious if you found it helpful for charting out the road ahead. From what I see, you may have decided that direction is more important than specific goals in some facets of life. Is that about right?

You made me wonder if I should slog my way through it too. Thanks for sharing!

    Mark Modesti · March 18, 2019 at 10:54 pm

    Another question: how do you think he could have made it more interesting?

      Thriving Erin · March 20, 2019 at 5:15 am

      As you mentioned above, the wooden treatment makes it very uninteresting. I think using some more specific and practical examples could help bring his concepts to life. The book is very abstract and seems uninteresting because it’s difficult to make his concepts relevant to my everyday life.

    Thriving Erin · March 20, 2019 at 5:13 am

    HI Mark, thanks for the comment. I agree that “professorly” is a very good way to describe it. As a professor, Carse is clearly used to writing for academia and didn’t adapt his writing for a more general audience. It almost felt like he was trying to prove to the reader how smart he is by intentionally making it difficult to read. The topic is quite interesting though. I know Simon Sinek has a book on this topic coming out in a few months so I think I may try and pick that one up to compare the two.

    Moving forward, I think it’s really highlighted how important it is to focus on who I want to be instead of what I want to be doing. Those ‘infinite’ things — values, family, character, integrity — are what really matters. Though I work hard furthering my education and career, it’s not what I want to be the main focus of my life. They are simply ‘finite games’ within the larger ‘infinite game’ of who I am as a person. it’s not that those other things aren’t important, just a slight shift of perspective that may, in the end, make all the difference.

Erica Walter · March 18, 2019 at 1:09 am

What an interesting theory and I love how you brought the concepts to something relatable to your experience in the end. I’ll be honest, I sometimes had a hard time following the replay of “finite” and “infinite” games and I think that’s probably more the nomenclature than your writing style. It makes me understand why you might have had a hard time reading! the open story loops for me as I read this are…
What caused you to pick up the book and read it in the first place?
What made it hard to read?
Why did you slog through and finish it?
Would you recommend another person read it? Or more specifically, who would you recommend to pick up this book and read it in its entirety?
Thanks for sharing!

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