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Archive for October 7th, 2019

There are books that inspire. There are also people who inspire. This review is about a book that inspired a person who inspires. It also inspired that person to write a book to inspire people.

I’ve been following Simon Sinek for a bit now. For the past few years he’s been speaking about a way of looking at things that differs from the common view. He’s also written a book (releasing in October 2019) about it titled, “The Infinite Game.” This review isn’t about Simon, his videos, or upcoming book. It’s about the book that inspired him.

That book, by James Carse, is Finite and Infinite Games.

Unlike many of my recent reads, this one was a bit on the compact side, coming in at under 150 pages. The interesting thing to me approaching the book was how such a short volume had inspired Sinek to take its concept on the road.

In typical university professor process, Carse opens by describing the endpoints of a spectrum, games of a finite and infinite nature. He asserts these to be just that, endpoints. We are left to conclude that there are other games within the spectrum, but none are explored. Although this would have allowed for a larger volume, there really isn’t much point. If you’re the kind of person who buys this book and doesn’t appreciate that it’s been written by a philosophical / political / historical viewpoint, the additional material wouldn’t have enabled you to get any more out of it. On the other hand, if you do, you’ll have little difficultly extrapolating the spectrum and its related historical and political examples.

Once the groundwork is laid, the author spends a chapter exploring a seemingly obvious point. “No one can play a game alone.” This appeals to our sense of self. We exist in relationship to the not-self. We cluster our selves into communities in relationship to other communities and nation-states likewise.

From here, the book explores our traditional view of games. Winners and losers. We see how this binary / hierarchical viewpoint demands the existence of a time-bound context (world). For Whovians this represents a fixed point in time. Examples would be the 1962 United States World Series (baseball) champion or the victors of a battle. The interesting element of which is that of any fixed point in time, it never changes. It is never different. It also never improves. Implicit in this view is the requirement of losers as well as accepted, well-defined rules.

In the broader world we see analogs to zero sum games. We see companies constantly defining themselves in terms of being the number one firm in something contextualized by a specific time period. These tend toward ever increasingly pointless hair splitting. The question becomes, “to what end?”

An interesting point, which I’d not previously considered, was that finite games require an audience. That is witnesses. These serve to validate the victor and their victory. They also are responsible for carrying the memory of the event, anchoring it in time.

It is only now, two thirds of the way into the book, that the other end of the spectrum is examined. To do so, the author has us look to nature (well actually anything not contrived by human beings).

As one might have come to conclude, the world (and by extension universe) got along just fine without us and will probably to do again. Carse points out that in and of itself, the world has no narrative structure, it simply is. In the same way an infinite games is the complete opposite of a finite game. It has no fixed rules, no audience, no winners, no losers and is not time bounded.

So what is the point of an infinite game?

To keep playing.

Players come and go. Objectives change. But, at the end of the day, playing is its own motivation. In this view of the world, there are no enemies to be defeated, there are rivals to out do. Without rivals (other players) you aren’t playing a game. There is no attempt to reach a pinnacle, but rather to be pushed to exceed ones own success.

In a finite game you declare victory. Once at the top of the heap, it’s all down hill. Finite games are by their very nature self-limiting. There is no incentive to excel once you’ve attained supremacy. We have seen time-and-again companies creating new and innovative technologies only to hold them back because they were already number one. These same companies lost that position to others not held back by past glories.

I have seem many times how in the software world, companies have milked the “completed” product cow while at the same time refusing to invest in keeping that same cow current in terms of technology. It is only after decades of neglect that they realize that they can no longer add features and that a generation or two of graduates have passed by since anyone was taught how to work with the technologies used in said cash cow. And then the cow dies.

T.S. Elliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; …” Pablo Picasso said, When there’s anything to steal, I steal” Steve Jobs spoke likewise. These are views of those constantly improving their craft. Learning from and incorporating the best we see in others vs. simply attempting to exploit the weaknesses we see is a hallmark of the infinite game player. The other players of their infinite games are not opponents but rather rivals. Opponents seek our defeat. Rivals seek our respect. Opponents want their fixed point in time. Rivals desire that every day we push them to be their best.

Not long ago, someone said to me, “unicorns want to be around other unicorns.” According to Guy Kawasaki, Steve Jobs said, “A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” I prefer Eric Dietrich’s thought, “A Players Don’t Hire A Players — They Partner with A Players.”  We can look to the rise and fall of stack ranking in the technology world to see the negative impact of the finite game in a world where the goal is to create the future.

Upon finishing the book I was left with a sense of affirmation and sadness. I recommend this book to anyone who intends to undertake any endeavor over the long term.

 

 

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