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Feeling winless? Maybe you're playing the wrong game...

MarkSteven Reardon


Like “scoreless” in sports, “profitless” in business, “emotionless” in relationships and “directionless” in life.

It’s the feeling, despite planning and goal-setting, that we’re not getting the results we’re looking for, not making progress. It’s the recurring thought, “I’m not accomplishing anything.” Sure, we’re moving through our days. We wake up, drink our coffee, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work, do our job, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Next morning, we wake up, drink our coffee, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work, do our job, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Next morning, we wake up, drink our coffee, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work, do our job, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. We show up to appointments, lead meetings, complete reports, pick up the kids, and run errands.

And yet, what we truly desire to accomplish just isn’t happening. We’re caught up in the short-term, day after day.

You’re not alone. It happens. And it happens when we forget what game we’re playing.

The game—our perspective on things and our corresponding actions—impacts everything in our lives, the decisions we make (or don’t), how we spend our time and energy, our perception of ourselves.

So, what game are you playing?

Game Theory teaches us that there are two types of games, finite and infinite.

Finite Games

In a finite game the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the goal is to win. Sports is a great example. Let’s look at tennis. Game. Set. Match. There are two players, boundary lines and rules. The player with the most points at the end of the match wins. No debates. No do-overs. Everyone goes home.

Infinite Games

In an infinite game, the players are known and unknown, rules are flexible and the goal is to keep the game in play. Most modern video games are infinite games. The players come and go, the rules are more like guidelines and the goal is to keep up-leveling.

Business is an infinite game. Our employees and leaders come and go, many (if not all) of the rules of business allow for interpretation and the goal is to keep the doors open and to create impact. Businesses drop out—close their doors—when they lack the will (it’s just too hard, stakes too high, can’t make a go of it) or lack the resources (capital, profits, supplies) to continue.

Life is an infinite game. The people in our lives are known at the moment and people tomorrow are unknown. The rules can have different interpretations (types of relationships, investment strategies, aspirations) and the goal is to keep living. Some people drop out of living because they lack the will or the resources to continue.

For those of us choosing to live life to its fullest—experience how great our relationships, our work, our physical and mental health can be—we’ve remembered what game we’re playing: the infinite game. We keep our eyes on the larger perspective. We focus on keeping the game in play. It’s this infinite game mindset that keep us from being shackled to the everyday.

You might be thinking, “But what about bills, degrees, career advancement, quarterly goals and profits? Aren’t these important?” Yes, these are real, tangible and important aspects of our lives. They are the benchmarks—like the scores at the end of each game in tennis. They define our progress – but they should not consume us.

And the reality is, from time to time, we elevate the immediate – the finite – to a place that eclipses the infinite. We become obsessed with the tasks and events of the day-to-day. This happens because of the stories we tell ourselves.

Our Stories

A “story” is our internal dialogue, and these stories shape our attitude, words and actions throughout our day. In fact, our internal dialogue is the primary determiner of our results. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” Our actions and the results they bring follow our thoughts and beliefs.

For example, let’s say you’re driving to an event with just the right amount of time to get there. Expectedly, there is more traffic than you anticipated so your arrival window gets tight. From your left, a car darts into the short space between you and the car ahead. What do you do? Smile and gesture with a wave or scowl and make a different gesture? Either action, smile or scowl, was caused by a thought and feeling. It’s an equation:

trigger --> thought + feeling = action

This equation is the story we tell ourselves. When we experience an outside event (called a trigger) like the car entering our lane or when someone gives us a compliment, it begins the story. Let’s look at the compliment. The trigger occurs (the compliment) and we immediately think That person’s very kind and then we feel honor, encouragement or appreciation. This thought and feeling produces an action, Thank you very much!

The story we choose to tell ourselves is evidence of the game we’re playing.

Back to the car example. There are two possible stories: one finite, one infinite. The finite-game story is:

What a jerk! Who do they think they are? Idiot. These thoughts invite feelings of frustration, impatience and resentment. We then make a gesture, or ride their bumper, or speed around and cut in front. Perhaps you’ve lived this story? If you have, you know this story perpetuates the same story every time someone cuts in front of us.

Here’s the infinite game version. This story is written from the ink of a larger perspective.

Wow! Didn’t see that coming. Perhaps they didn’t realize they did. I wonder if they’ve had a bad day, or were deep in thought or have an emergency. You smile, breathe and realize that you’ll only be arriving to the event one car-length behind.

When we choose to tell a finite story, we eventually feel winless. Finite games have winners and losers. There are not two winners or two losers. One wins, the other loses. When we lose our perspective, we lose.

But what if we chose to play a different game? What if we played our life in a way that brought us greater joy, greater fulfillment, greater impact? Where it’s not about winning or losing, but rather it’s about moment.

When playing the infinite game, we realize that sometimes we’re ahead and sometimes we’re not; sometimes we hit the benchmark on time and sometimes it takes a bit longer; sometimes we’re ambitious and inspired and sometimes we’re not. Life ebbs and flows, but there is always momentum.

How do we keep from obsessing on the finite and open to the infinite? Here are two strategies from the MJST vault.

1. The Law of Infusion

The Law of Infusion is a law – not a principle, not a guideline, not negotiable. It’s like gravity. It’s true always, at all times, everywhere, with everyone.

The Law of Infusion states: The degree to which we infuse ourselves is the degree to which we can play the infinite game.

Why? Because we want to perpetuate the game—keep living a life worth living.

How? By intentionally infusing the 5 Dimensions of our lives. Attending to, developing and expanding ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually nurtures the infinite mindset and keeps the finite in perspective. Here are actions you can take in each Dimension:

  • Physical: Move more. Breath deeper.
  • Mental: Learn one new thing each day—a quote, a word, a fact.
  • Emotional: Appreciate something each day.
  • Relational: Tell yourself something positive. Acknowledge someone for being in your life.
  • Spiritual: Stop for 30 seconds and be grateful for the things, the people, the opportunities you have at the moment.

The more enriched each Dimension becomes, the more life feels meaningful and purposeful, and the easier it is to keep ourselves from being enslaved by the finite and open to possibilities.

2. Creative Imagining

Old ways of thinking and acting are challenging to change. Our current ways of thinking are the result of choices we’ve made. If our current way of thinking isn’t producing the results we desire, let’s change our thinking; let’s change our stories. Changing our stories requires the re-wiring of our brain, and that takes a bit of focus.

Our brains are genetically encoded to experience future events in the present. We do this every day. For example, on today’s calendar is an important meeting. As you’re eating breakfast and dressing for the day, you’re thinking about this meeting. Most likely you’re imagining where it is, who will be there, the flow of the meeting and how you feel about it. The meeting hasn’t even happened, and yet you’ve already played it out in your head. This is creative imagining at work. Your brain creates future experiences “live” ahead of the actual event.

Creative Imaging is a way to retrain your brain. Any successful athlete, musician, artist, actor or actress employs this powerful process. It costs nothing other than a few minutes each day. Here’s how:

  • Carve out a few minutes in your morning routine, at a break during your day or as you prepare to sleep.
  • Breathe deeply – 15-20 breathes that fill your belly. Focus on each inhale and exhale. This will calm your mind and release stress.
  • Choose a Dimension—physical, mental, emotional, relational, spiritual—and one positive action you want to take. An action can be something you do, or think, or feel.
  • Think of a time and place tomorrow you can take that action.
  • Now imagine yourself taking that action—thinking the thought, feeling the feeling, doing the doing. To the best of your ability be present in that experience. Rather than being an observer of yourself, be you in the moment. Play this moment over again three times.
  • To complete this activity, appreciate who you are and thank yourself for taking the time to infuse.

These two strategies—Infusion and Creative Imagining—help you place the finite in proper relationship to the infinite. Although you might not be winning consistently at the day-to-day tasks or short-term goals, you are perpetuating the infinite game—the quality of your life.

Want to learn more about Game Theory? Check out The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek and Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse!


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