Playing the Infinite Game

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” – James P. Carse

Years ago, I read the book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. The impact it’s had on how I view the world is both subtle and profound. I saw the impermanence of judgement and the fluidity of success and failure.

The nature of win/loss, good/bad, right/wrong is transient.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
– Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet

Prior to reading the book, Rumi’s Field was something I’ve had difficulty grasping. I had interpreted the poem as it is bad to judge others. When we judge, it is much harder to emphasize, to be open to new ideas, to have compassion. While I thought I understood the poem intellectually, I couldn’t internalize it and rarely thought about it.

After reading the book, I realized that judgement needs an absolute frame of reference. To decide if an action/decision/event was good or bad, I need a point in space-time where I can look back and evaluate all the consequences. This point represents the instance when all subsequent consequences from an action have happened; nothing in the future will have been influenced by the action being judged in any way.

There’s no special point where we know for sure that the future is cut off from the past. 

To put this another way, to pass final judgement, I need criteria that are:

  • Specific: the meaning of event A is B
  • Persistent: the meaning of event A is always B over time
  • General: the meaning of event A is always B regardless of context

I don’t have those criteria.

The ripples of actions/decisions/events flow through time. It’s like the Taoist story of the Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. (Google “Maybe so maybe not story” if you are curious.) We don’t know what’s coming next and cannot always predict the secondary or tertiary effects of any particular event.

This appreciation has helped me reduce my reactive judgements of people, actions, and events. When colleagues said they’d prepare the presentation one way but did something different. When kids said they’d clean the house before guests arrived but did not. When a divorce happens. These things used to give me a lot of anxiety and a sense of impending doom. Today, I realize that the “game” is not over. 

If I am playing the game to keep playing, there’s always more to come. I can find possibilities to turn things around. I can surrender to reality and let the past go. By shifting out of negativity, I am better able to focus on what’s really happening right now and where to go from here. As I go through each doorway, some doors close and new doors open.

In addition, this mindset has allowed me to have more compassion for myself. In the past, when I screwed up, such as running the wrong report at work or making a mistake during public speaking, I felt ashamed and stupid. I worried that these failures would come to define who I am and how others see me. Over time, shame and fear held me back from taking on new projects and speaking up for what I believe. 

This fear is insidious because I would rationalize to myself that I was being prudent or too busy. However, every time I hold myself back, I create more negative stories for myself about why I cannot do something. Today, I am not so quick to judge my own actions as failures or mistakes with no redeeming quality.

Don’t get me wrong—when I failed at something or performed below my expectations, I still beat myself up. However, I also take these opportunities to learn, not just from my mistakes but also about myself: 

What did these mistakes really cost me? 

What values and needs lie underneath these costs I perceive? 

Is it true that these values and needs can no longer be met? 

In what ways can I still satisfy those values and needs? 

I am much more likely to take risks and try something different when I take a broader view of whether my actions succeeded or failed. 

It is the same when I succeed at something. While I may take pride in my actions and celebrate, there is no ultimate “success” that allows me to rest on my laurels. In this way, I am constantly learning and developing. I am an evolving being and not a fixed endpoint

By viewing life as an infinite game, I get to celebrate the highs and grow through the challenges. By not having an ultimate “win” point, there’s always more to learn and excitement on the way. Without an ultimate “loss”, we can relax, experiment and have fun with life.

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