Playing the Infinite Game

How do you lead and inspire people to stay engaged in their work, to bring their best selves and consistently contribute to your team’s purpose with enthusiasm and initiative?  How do you stay fulfilled and constantly improving as you’re doing all of that?  

Author, motivational speaker, and leadership guru Simon Sinek has an answer, and he wrote a book about it called “The Infinite Game.”  If you don’t have time to read it, fear not!  There are plenty of Sinek’s talks swirling around the internet that will help you get the gist of his core ideas.  I like this one, because in it he’s addressing a hospitality crowd and brings to life a few examples that restaurant folks will connect with.  His broader message is easy to understand and has intuitive applications for achieving well-being with work, relationships, and anything else in your life that you hope to derive fulfillment from.  

 

Click here to view on YouTube in full-screen

Don’t have time to watch it right now? Fear not!  Here’s a summary that relies primarily on his own words from this particular talk.  You’ll miss out on some depth in explanation, great stories about Apple, Kodak, and The Four Seasons that illustrate these ideas, as well as some humor in his delivery.  Get to the video for all of that when you have a half-hour, in the meantime here’s his main message:

In life, love, friendships, passions, and work, you’re involved in countless games.

Some games are finite.  They have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Known players. Fixed rules. An agreed upon objective.  When you’re playing a finite game your mindset is focused on winning, getting the most points/power/money/status.  You will compete with your opponent and try to outdo them. Think a baseball game or baking competition.  

Some games are infinite. They have no finish line, no winners, known and unknown players, and changeable rules.  The objective is to perpetuate and stay in the game. When you’re playing an infinite game, your only true competitor is yourself.  Your mindset is focused on being a better version of what you just were. Think running a restaurant, practicing a craft, and being in a relationship. 

 

If you are in an infinite game, you have the power to decide how you’re going to show up and what mindset you’re going to play with.  

If you’re playing to win: you’ll experience a decline in trust, cooperation, and innovation (because your strategy is out of alignment with your objective).  You’ll run out of the will and resources you’re putting into trying to come out on top (because it doesn’t exist) and will eventually drop out of the game (which continues without you).  

If you’re playing to stay in it: you’ll experience an increase in trust, cooperation, and innovation as you and the people you’re in it with work together to keep going.  Your will and resources remain renewable because your goal is to constantly and consistently put them into improving yourself, your team, your product, your services, your systems, etc.

 

Leading in an infinite game with an infinite game mindset will keep you, your team, and your business thriving.  How do you do it? Sinek outlines five practices:

  1. Have a Just Cause: The cause must be so just that people are willing to sacrifice to advance it, and the sacrifice will feel worth it
  2. Have Trusting Teams: Create an environment where people feel safe and will work at their natural best, instead of spending their time hiding, lying, faking it, and burying their mistakes out of fear of what will happen to them.  
  3. Have a Worthy Rival: Find a rival that is worthy of comparison to you and that you do not feel superior to.  Pay attention to what bothers you about them, this will reveal your weaknesses and inspire you to make them strengths.  Put the competitive energy you would have brought to trying to beat them into challenging yourself to rise to your own new level.  
  4. Have Existential Flexibility: This is a willingness to make a profound strategic shift, sometimes at great short-term cost, because you find a better way to advance your cause or because you see that the path you’re on has a limited life span.  
  5. Have the Courage to Lead: Practices 1 through 4 are unbelievably hard. Others, and even yourself sometimes, will try to convince you to give up and go an easier route or play a finite game.  Build relationships that help you stick with these practices, ones where you know someone has your back and you’ll have theirs in times of need. That’s where courage comes from.    

The nugget?  Know the game you’re in and show up accordingly.  You’ll experience less exhaustion and conflict, more success and well-being.  

——-

How do these ideas come alive in your own life?

  • What are the infinite games you’re currently playing?  
  • How does it feel to be in them?  
  • What mindset are you operating in it with, and what is that doing for you?  
  • What would the benefits and drawbacks be if you switched mindsets?  
  • How can you apply these ideas to teams you’re on or are leading?
  • How does this all sound when you think about an important relationship you’re in?

 


 

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