Which Game Do You Play?

9 minute read

When you are onto something, you see, hear and feel only that specific thing. Right? It’s been happening to me for quite some time now that I see, hear and feel about the concept “ life as a game”. The more I think and talk about it, it seems that there are no disproofs on the reasoning.

One evening the force was strong and got me bumped into Simon Sinek and his freshly published talk by “Talks at Google”. 

He is a guy known for conceptualizing why great minds of all times focus so badly on finding, feeding and communicating their “Why”. This is also my go-to video when I am in front of a new team, getting ready to work on the value discovery.

We live with this intrinsic fallacy of not knowing which game we are into.

We all care about winning, but at which game? What are the rules? Who is the opponent? What is there to be won? Why bother with winning in the first place? And what after you do? Win more?

If you are about to go to work tomorrow, continue building your startup, do your homework or pursue pretty much anything, listen up, this one’s for you.

The Fallacy Of The Winner’s Mindset

My fascination with games started when I was 5 years old. I played chess day in and day out because it was fun and because I got to hang out with my grandpa and his friends. Also, I wanted to beat the opponent so badly and brag about it later (shh).

Of course, it was hard. I didn’t want to give up, but always played as long as it takes to win. Eventually, I became needy and boring (I assume). The guys started pretending that I am winning so I could give them a break (another assumption).

By becoming aware of that childhood habit that I nurtured over the course of years, I figured out that this winner mindset and “winner takes it all” mentality, is my major setback in a game called life.

However, referring to things and events as games can be quite a handy framework to reason from. It got me thinking about different types of games and rules governing them.

The Finite & Infinite Games

My search went on. As per wikipedia:

Game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers… Originally, it addressed zero-sum games, in which one person’s gains result in losses for the other participants. Today, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations…” 

The two types of games are particularly interesting in this narrative:

1. Finite games, have a definite beginning and ending. Finite games also have:

  • Known players
  • Fixed rules
  • An agreed upon objective, they are played with the goal of winning

2. Infinite games, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. Infinite games can be defined by:

  • Known and unknown players
  • The rules are changeable
  • The objective is to keep the game at play

Let’s abbreviate some potential situations of pitting players:

  • A/A. Pitting a finite player vs a finite player and
  • B/B. Pitting an Infinite player vs an infinite player

In both cases, the system is stable.

As Simon Sinek explains in the video:

  • A/A. You have a game of baseball which is a typical example of a finite game. Known players; fixed rules.
  • B/B. You have a cold war as a typical infinite game example. The game is stable by the definition of a typical infinite game because there cannot be a winner and cannot be a loser. So we’re trying to keep the game at play. 

It is worth noting that in an infinite game, it always happens that players drop out of the game because:

  • they run out of the willpower or/and
  • the resources to continue to play.

The Problem (And The Beauty) Is In A/B.

As we said, the situation A/A. and the situation B/B. are both stable. The problems arise when you pit a finite player and an infinite player. That is an A/B. situation in our analogy. 

Why? 

Well, first of all,

  • the finite player is playing to win, and
  • the infinite player is playing to keep playing.

“Invariably, what happens is that finite player will always find themselves in a quagmire.”

Simon continues: “The US fighting in Vietnam. The US was fighting to win, and Vietnamese were fighting to survive. Very different set of standards. The same happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.”

In both cases the finite player found themselves in quagmire until they drop out of the game for two specific reasons (you guessed):

  • the lack of resources or/and
  • willpower to continue. 

Wait, wait….

Wait a second.

Now, what if, that narrative could be taken and applied to other examples, situations, and environments we play in at the very moment? Let’s take for an example, business.

Is business an infinite or finite game?

Let’s reason it from the known facts:

  • In different verticals, there are numerous known and unknown competitors (players).
  • The rules are changeable “we haven’t all agreed on what the rules are”.
  • There is no winning the game of business, it just perpetuates itself “the game of business has existed longer than any single company on the planet today… look at the Dow Jones index, 80% of companies listed, are 35 years old or younger.”

It is clear that business is an infinite game.

Then, the question is:

Why do we have so many finite players, in business, when they are significantly less powerful than infinite players? 

Lack of awareness? Lack of knowledge? 

or 

Is it perhaps because it’s easier to be a finite player? Is it perhaps because it’s easier to fight others than fight oneself?

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Entrepreneurs out there, from this moment on, you are granted the right to say that you are the number one (If you haven’t declared it already).

I mean, seriously, that’s what most of the companies communicate. You don’t want to be misinterpreted that you are bad, do you?

In North America I dare guessing 99% of the well-established companies, SMBs and startups are the best and number #1 at something. They gotta say that in their pitch, it is almost a standard. Well, sure, they are #1! I am not kidding. Of course, only when they themselves define the rules of beating the competition and being #1 at something.

“Is there any agreed upon criteria? Market-share, profits, revenue, #of employees… Based on what agreed upon timeframe? One month? Year? 5 years? Lifetime of a company?

I haven’t agreed upon to anything!…

The companies can arbitrarily declare that they are number one at anything they want, if they set the standards and the time frame… the only reason why we measure businesses on an annualized basis is because we pay taxes annually.”

Using the A/B analogy, pitting finite and infinite players, we can now proclaim that the companies playing the infinite game have the higher probability of succeeding compared to finite players.

Every bankruptcy that occurred or will occur is due to the company running out of resources or/and willpower to play and compete. However, the game (business) will persist and another player will take dropped out companys’ place.

Finite & Infinite Leadership

“The companies that are playing the infinite game will frustrate those finite players.”

Here we are at the point where we understand the infinite player’s wisdom.

Let’s go ahead and apply this reasoning to other rather personal aspects of the game.

I should start coding now because everybody is doing so.

Or how it was two to three decades ago:

I am gonna study economics and go work in a bank and be rich.

That pattern of borrowing other people’s realities and thinking is lead by rush decision making that will make you fail miserably.

You will run out of the willpower, ruin other aspects of your life and contribute to resources running out too.

You will suffer from narrow reasoning. In other words – very finite.

A finite business example would be:

Our competitor is building a new feature – why aren’t we doing it? Team, listen up…

Or

Let’s beat them! Win the biggest market share.

Can you spot the pattern?

The only products of these sharp turns and quick-changing directions will be:

  • Confusion
  • Fear of the Unknown
  • Unhealthy fight against other people’s vision and plans
  • Total waste of 24/7, willpower and other resources

The whole culture, value system and vision, whether personal or of an organization, will suffer from these sharp turns. 

So what is the right thing to do? Why is studying the competition or monitoring your peers so bad all of a sudden?

Well, it’s not. That would have been yet another extreme – sharp turn. The questions bounce back to you and your company’s leadership:

What can you do today to be a better version of yourself compared to yesterday?

What can you do today to make a better product than yesterday?

This should be a primary focus of your reasoning.

Do look after the competition and your peers, but before making a sharp left or right, consult your values’ system and why at the first place you took the initial direction.

Ask yourself…

Am I aware of my values? Do I have the minimum understanding of why I am doing what I am doing?

Or

Do I follow trends and fire-fight from one win to another? One lost battle to another?

Do I feel frustrated that I’m behind some peers of mine?

But, first:

Am I in a long-term or a short-term game?

Should I beat or outlast the competitor?

What game am I in?

Notes To Take Home

finite vs infinite
finite vs infinite

If we say that Why & How represent our mission and values, we can add that both are very intangible and very difficult to measure /vs What we do, that is tangible and fairly easy to measure and compare. These are our interests and our resources. 

As we can see on the sketch, the goal is to run all of our major decisions through our value system and purpose of existence first, and apply them to our resources and interests. Not the other way around.

Great minds and great organizations are making value-based decisions. Only after the values are consulted, the interests come into play.

In a finite game, this get’s ignored.

So, what the infinite player understands is…

Sometimes you eat the bear, the other times, well, the bear eats you!

  • Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t
  • Sometimes you are better and sometimes you aren’t
  • Sometimes you are ahead, whilst sometimes behind

The infinite players don’t compete against their competitors, they compete against themselves

 Even more importantly…

An infinite player understands that on an aggregate level, the values and the mission, are the ones that outlast and drive the impact.

In this game called life, that is all that matters.

Which game do you choose to play?

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