Infinite Games And Finding Your Path In Life
How an odd little book and a recent poem can reorient you on your journey.
Life consists of two kinds of games: finite games, with clear rules and clear winners and losers; and infinite games, which have no end, and no clear winners and losers, just players who try to stay in the game as the rules change and evolve.
It’s tempting to suggest life is not so simple. But the longer you read Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse, the more this idea – that life’s traditions, habits, cultures, and ideas about education and career exemplify the two kinds of games – seems to explain.
A career is a finite game that starts with the game of getting into university, through grades, to promotions, and into the race to be CEO. There are few winners, and most players become happy just to assume a place in the final rankings, preferably higher rather than lower. Then the game ends, and everyone cashes out with a larger or smaller pot of gold to take into retirement, another finite game.
The infinite game more closely resembles a calling, or the old idea of a vocation. It’s not anti-corporate – you can play an infinite game within a finite world – but the players see themselves very differently. They may be far more interested in the way the world changes in response to their work, or the value of the discoveries they make, the transformative power of their art, or the human connections they enable.
Finite players look at other players and rank themselves. Infinite players look out at the horizon of possibility and try to imagine what else can be.
Infinite Games and Art
Art belongs in the realm of infinite games. Yet we so often try to make it a finite game, where we rank one artist against another, where there are competitions with winners and losers, where the work is judged on how it fits with the expectations of tradition and against the weight of history.
‘True poets lead no one unawares. It is nothing other than awareness that poets – that is, creators of all sorts – seek. They do not display their art so as to make it appear real; they display the real in a way that reveals it to be art.’
Infinite Games Draw Us Out of Ourselves
We live in deeply introspective times. Self-reflection is good when it helps us be kinder, more ethical, and more vulnerable in our way of being in the world.
But the anxious, frantic search for meaning within ourselves is possibly not working out the way we had hoped. The infinite game draws us out of ourselves. It asks us to consider that the meaning and purpose of our lives is out there – in the living, the searching, the questioning, and the openness to change – rather than within a microscopic inspection of our soul.
‘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 Renaissance, like all genuine cultural phenomena, was not an effort to promote one or another vision. It was an effort to find visions that promised still more vision.’
The poet David Whyte suggests this in his poem ‘Just Beyond Yourself’, from the collection The Bell and The Blackbird. I first heard this poem read, with a fulness and life-affirming energy, by Whyte in an On Being podcast. Whyte introduces the poem by suggesting the journey of life feels scary because life has a way of asking us to be more open and generous as time passes.
This echoes the infinite game, where you keep your eyes not on yourself or on others, but out there, on the horizon, because out there is where your destiny lies, and that makes us feel simultaneously vulnerable and free.
Just Beyond Yourself
Half a step
and the rest
There is a road
When you see
the two sides
at that far horizon
and deep in
of your own
it’s the road
how you know.
It’s just beyond
need to be.