My companion for this month’s car rides and walks in the woods has been Simon Sinek with his book The Infinite Game. Sinek has presented the idea of ”Infinite Game” at several successful conferences and his appearances can be found on Youtube, including his recent appearance at the Nordic Business Forum in Sweden. Therefore, I will not retell his thoughts, because he presents them much more powerfully. I will rather share how his ideas helped me to unfold a recent experience. If Sinek’s thoughts fascinate you, I recommend finding 7 hours in your life to read or listen to his book – it contains a handful of seemingly simple yet profound ideas. Sinek introduces them through many emotionally engaging examples that literally help you to feel the magic of playing the infinite game or the pain of not playing it.
Sinek says that we often run our business (and live our lives in the broader sense) by the rules of finite game, without realizing that we are actually participating in an infinite game. A finite game is a game with known players, agreed rules and a definite end. The goal is to play the game in accordance with these rules. But we live in a world with an unknown end date, without knowing when our lives end, and whether the end is actually the end. So, the game called Life goes on forever and in the big picture it doesn’t matter who wins the game. It is important to stay in the game for as long as possible, or to achieve an effect that is wider and lasts longer than your mortal existence.
I can see, how I adopted the “finite game” mindset form early on through the upbringing and socializing. I always tried to understand the rules of the game and to be successful according to them. By school rules, the “winners” got only the best grades and I was striving for that. I got pretty close to the top as I graduated the high school with only one “B” – Russian Language, which wasn’t popular in Estonia at the time and so it was kind of a protest not to study it well.
Applying for the university was the first moment, where I understood that the success in one game does not mean anything in the context of a new game. I liked math and was successful in my school context where I only got top grades. But when I saw the university qualification exam tasks, couldn’t grasp them at all. I ended up getting only 3 points out of the maximum of 10 and my self-esteem about my math-skills dropped with a rumble. And it struck me by surprise!
At the same time, some kind of inner wisdom has always kept me also in the infinite game – a game that does not involve competing with anyone or anything but is driven by an inner desire to contribute to something bigger than myself, to make the world better. The bigger goal I want to serve has taken many forms throughout my life. It has occasionally been clearer or blurrier, but I have always felt that it exists. This bigger goal has been the “something” that has given me power, courage and creativity to take action at critical moments. Therefore, despite the poor university qualification exam results, I did not give up and found a way to pursue my dream. As the chosen specialty fascinated me, I immediately achieved excellent results, but this time not because of grades but because I had a deep interest in what I learned – it was a part of my infinite game.
The mindsets of the finite and infinite game compete within me to this day. I realize how dominant it is to play the finite game in our society… and how engaging it is! Sports competitions, professional rankings, social media likes and all other ratings and comparisons fuel the mindset of the final game.
The Finite and Infinite Game: A Real Life Experience
I recently had an opportunity to work with the leadership team of a company. We offered a leadership development program of several modules together with a colleague, facilitating the modules alternately. At the request of the client, the participants gave us – coaches – feedback in the end of each training module by filling in anonymous numerical evaluation forms, with the opportunity to comment on the grades. My colleague received the highest scores from the participants (one participant rated him as high as 7 on a 6-point scale!). I agree that he is excellent beyond any grading scales. Most participants gave me fives and sixes on the 6-point scale as well, but there were some, who rated me with 3. I was aware that I still had space for improvement, especially compared to my colleague, but I had chosen to take on this job because I felt that it was consistent with the “something” that I wanted to contribute to. I aimed to give it my best and saw it as an opportunity to grow personally. But the 3-point rating shook me! I didn’t rate myself that low. Although the average of all participants was close to five, my mind was stuck with those threes. I felt I was not good enough and I felt ashamed. I also felt responsible to my team and the client: I had accepted the challenge knowing that I was not “perfect” for the job.
I thoroughly analyzed what had caused the dissatisfaction and prepared for the next training day with ultimate care – better than ever! In my mind I understood that, overall, I got positive feedback and I was thankful for the comments that showed me, where I need to focus in my development. I also believed that I had an awareness about my sense of shame and I had overcame it internally. A week later I met with the second training group within the same training program, to deliver them the same module. As the day began, I realized within the first ten minutes that I was frozen: my mind was blocked and I was not able to express myself clearly. It happened quite unexpectedly because I was perfectly prepared! My unconscious feelings bursted out like an avalanche at the moment when I stepped in front of the group, and they literally paralyzed me. I continued for a little while and saw that everything was only going downhill. Then I pulled the brake and suggested to take an early coffee break. The break gave me a chance to analyze what was going on with me and I realized that the only way out was to share my inner experience with the group. The fear was great, but sharing my experience put me in touch with my feelings and the deep desire to support participants’ personal development, regardless of how I was evaluated in the short term perspective. As a result, I rearranged the structure of the training day on spot, to align it with my inner feeling of what was most valuable to the participants, and we set out together.
At the moment when I was vulnerable with the group – when I admitted that I was not perfect – the situation shifted. The participants joined me in my vulnerability and shared their own tough experiences as leaders and we ended up learning deeply about the vulnerability in leadership role through personal stories. My freezing in the morning became a live-example of what could happen to each of us on a critical moment and how to come out of it.
In hindsight, I realized that the “scores” triggered the old pattern in me and I automatically switched to the finite game mindset, aiming to achieve a “better score”.
Being vulnerable was the most important lesson from this incident for me, and it is an important development area for in a long run. I want to share my imperfectness with you because I know that I am not alone with this fear. Showing vulnerability in the leadership position is one of the most frightening things for many leaders and paradoxically this is the only way to build true trust. This is also what Sinek says in his book, referring to Brené Brown, who has studied this topic in depth.
Features of the Finite and Infinite Game Based on Sinek:
Finite Game VS Infinite Game
- you know who is participating in the game
- there are set rules
- the end of the game is clearly defined
- winners and losers are easily identified
- players come and go
- rules are constantly changing
- the end of game is not clearly defined
- winners and losers are not (easily) identifiable
The Basis of Success in the Indefinite Game, according to Sinek:
- Just cause – this is an inner passion, hunger or desire to serve an idea or a dream that is greater than you. It’s what makes you get up in the morning and do what you do. This is something that helps you to last longer than your rivals and gives you strength when you are in trouble and ready to give up.
- Courageous leadership – Playing the infinite game requires the leader to set his or her “just cause” above everything else. This can mean opposing the current rules of the game, including opposing his leaders, the economic and political influences, or popular beliefs, to stay true to the cause.
- Trusting team – means that a leader invests his or her time and energy into creating a culture in their team, organization and partner-network where people feel so secure that they can be themselves – they can be vulnerable and say that they do not know, or that they have made a mistake, without fear of resentment or turning backs. If a team member does not feel secure in the team, it is the responsibility of the leader and not the team member.
- Worthy adversary – rivals are respected and the success is not measured against them. Ultimately, we compete with ourselves, and our success or failure can only be measured by the justification of our just cause. In the business context, rivals force us to improve our products, services, marketing, etc., but in the infinite game, our challenge is to grow into the best possible version of ourselves in order to contribute as much as possible to our just cause.
- Open Playbook – Too many organizations are trying to reach a changing goal with a fixed strategy. Open rules of the game mean being ready to change strategy and plans based on the just cause. Open rules also mean transparency, so that all the team members have always the same information. Many leaders fear transparency because they fear losing control. They fear that people may misuse the information. But the lack of transparency does not allow the team members to make the best decisions because they do not see the whole picture.
Looking back at my story through the prism of Sinek’s book, I “froze” because I was hooked to the finite game: I unconsciously took the goal of getting a “better grade” than I did last time and lacked the confidence to “win.” The moment I was able to switch to the infinite game and found the “something” that attracted me to the role of the coach at the first place, the training day shifted entirely. My “just cause” gave me the courage to share my weakness with the group, which created trust, and led to the decision to change the rules of the game and to adjust the training day in a way that enabled me to give the participants most value on the topic of the day. In addition, I can retrospectively think of my colleague as my “worthy rival” who, as a role model, makes me notice my development areas and makes me want to become a better version of myself.
Questions for contemplating:
- Think about one important goal in your work or personal life – do you play by the rules of the finite or the infinite game while striving for it?
- What is one thing you can change in your thinking or behavior today, so that you could contribute even more into the “something” that pulls you out of bed in the morning and gets you going?