Almost every week, I talk with entrepreneurs, changemakers and leaders about the infinite mindset.
This concept comes from the 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games, written by Dr. James P. Carse. It’s become better known in recent years, however, thanks to Simon Sinek’s 2019 Book “The Infinite Game.”
The lens through which we view any situation determines how we feel and react. The infinite mindset is a game-changing paradigm that I’ve seen help many people assuage burnout, overwhelm, demoralizing thinking, jealousy, and many other negative experiences.
In this article, I’ll share more about these paradigms, why they matter, and how you can leverage them to make the journey toward your goals more sustainable and fun.
How do you define Finite and Infinite Games?
Carse wrote that “[a] finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
Sinek expanded on this, saying:
Finite games, like football or chess, have known players, fixed rules, and a clear endpoint. The winners and losers are easily identified. In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game, there is only ahead and behind.Simon Sinek
When we feel pressure about being in a Finite Game, such as hitting a revenue goal or getting a big promotion, it’s important to take a step back. What is the Infinite Game that this short-term experience is a part of?
Most of the games that matter to us as adults, after all, are actually Infinite. For instance:
- Building a career we feel proud of
- Creating a business that feels easeful to run
- Raising our children to be good people
- Cultivating great relationships with our colleagues, friends and family
In this zoomed-out reality, we can trust that the ups and downs of any journey are normal and that each situation is not a make-or-break moment. Rather, there is an opportunity to learn.
People struggle when they play an Infinite Game with a Finite mindset… and they often don’t even know this is happening. They take plenty of action toward their goals, but forget to think about the greater context in which they are acting. This latter piece is critically important if you want to maintain equanimity as you pursue higher level goals.
How do I know if I’m stuck in a finite mindset?
We all get stuck in this mindset from time to time. Here’s how to spot it:
- You’re playing to win, rather than playing to grow
- You’re struggling with resilience after a perceived failure
- Your setbacks sting way more than you’d like them to
- You feel like you’re on a rollercoaster of highs and lows
- You’re prioritizing reaching a goal over making this process a repeatable, sustainable endeavor (i.e. “I’ll make this happen even if I work 17 hours a day and then need an entire week to recover!” vs. “I’ll work toward this goal efficiently and with intention. I’ll prioritize sustainable progress and apply lessons learned so I become more and more efficient over time.”
- Deadlines have serious weight: Meet them, or else…
What is it like to have an infinite mindset?
- You play for a purpose that’s bigger than any short-term failure or success
- You stay focused on the big picture as you take steps toward your goals, which tempers highs and lows
- You believe deadlines are meant to motivate and direct you. If you don’t meet a deadline, it’s a good data point.
- You prioritize a sustainable upward trend in revenue/group dynamics/etc… over finishing something exactly when you said you would
- How you get to your goals matters just as much or more than hitting them at exactly the specified time (i.e. “Even if I don’t meet my fitness goal, am I eating and sleeping better? Can I celebrate that and continue to work toward the ultimate aim?”)
So many over-focus on Finite Games, and this can have serious consequences. These include:
- Undermining your zoomed-out goal: If you’re sprinting toward one Finite goal after another, you may not realize your approach undermines the Infinite Game you want to be playing. While working day and night to hit six figures, for instance, you might lose sight of your ultimate aim to have work-life balance. Even worse, this sprinting can become a habit or embed a story in your mind that you need to be overworked to succeed.
- Blocking your day-to-day happiness: If you’re on the Finite Game rollercoaster, you’re likely enduring an unnecessary level of stress and anxiety. You also miss out on the joy and gratitude that comes from celebrating ongoing progress.
- Perpetuating sub-optimal approaches to reaching your goals: Are you willing to extend your deadline by a month so you can try out a new approach to success that fits your Infinite Game? Or to slow down enough to truly integrate lessons learned? If not, you’re at risk of repeating the same sub-optimal approach again. And again. And again.
What are the steps to achieving an infinite mindset?
First of all, keep your Infinite Game top of mind. Write it down every morning. Post a reminder somewhere you’ll see it often (and move it occasionally so it doesn’t start to meld into your surroundings). Share it with your colleagues, friends and family. The more you remind yourself, the more your Infinite Game will become a part of how you make decisions and relate to short-term challenges.
Next, when you notice the symptoms of a Finite Mindset (high levels of stress, overreacting, defensiveness, etc…), pause. Take a few deep breaths and ask yourself how you can reframe the situation as part of the Infinite Game. The more often you practice, the more quickly you’ll be able to notice what’s happening and change your experience.
Finally, celebrate your progress. Playing an infinite game is not a finite game. Put a reminder in your calendar each week to check in on how the Infinite mindset is going.