On Playing Infinite Games

6 min read

In the book Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse says there are two types of games in life:

“One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

When I first read this, it seemed abstract. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to see examples of both finite and infinite games in everyday life.

Here are a few examples of finite games:

Diets: The point of going on a diet is to lose a specified amount of weight. There is an ending point to the diet. It’s not something you do just for fun.

Sports: There is always a winner or loser in a sporting event. Once the event ends, it is permanently over.

Building a business for an exit: If the goal of your business is to reach a point where you can sell it to someone else for a large sum of money, then there is a clear ending point. You “win” once you sell.

Formal education: Once you receive your desired degree from a university, your formal education comes to an end. When you meet all of the requirements needed to get the degree, you “win” the formal education game.

Financial independence: Once you accumulate 25 times your annual expenses (or whatever your number is), you “win” the personal finance game and no longer have to work for money.

And here are a few examples of infinite games:

Lifelong eating habits: The opposite of going on a diet is cultivating eating habits that you carry with you indefinitely. For example, many people will adopt a paleo lifestyle and choose to eat mostly natural foods. There is no point when you “finish” the paleo lifestyle. You can embrace it until the day you die.

Exercise: When you choose to incorporate exercise into your daily life, there is no ending point. You can’t “win” at exercising. Instead, you adopt the habit for your entire life.

Building a business indefinitely: Instead of building a business solely for the purpose of achieving an exit in X amount of years, you can choose to build a business indefinitely with no end in mind simply because you enjoy the day-to-day work so much.

Lifelong learning: Instead of consuming and memorizing information solely to receive a degree or certificate, it’s possible to develop the habit of constantly learning something new each day for the rest of your life. There is no ending point where you “win” the game of learning if you’re doing it purely because it satisfies your curiosity.

Lifelong wealth accumulation: Instead of striving to reach a point where you can declare yourself to be financially independent and stop working, you can instead decide to slowly accumulate more and more wealth over time with no end goal in mind through consistently doing fulfilling work that generates income.

The Joy of Infinite Games

Infinite games offer three distinct advantages over finite games:

1. You don’t have to wait to be satisfied.

When you play a finite game, like going on a diet, you have to wait until you lose a certain amount of weight to be satisfied.

With infinite games, this is not the case. Because there is no ending point, you can find satisfaction immediately in your daily life. You can enjoy the paleo lifestyle (or whatever eating regimen you choose) and the natural foods that you get to consume each day.

Infinite games example

Finite games reward you one time at the end of your journey. Conversely, infinite games reward you again and again each day.

2. You don’t have to be discouraged by slow progress. 

When you play a finite game, like building a business with the sole purpose of exiting one day, it’s easy to get discouraged if your income isn’t growing as fast as you’d like from one month to the next.

Conversely, when you play an infinite game like deciding to work on an income-producing website for the next several decades with no end in mind, then slow growth over the span of a few weeks or months isn’t as discouraging because you have such a long road ahead of you.

Paradoxically, slow progress can lead to the most progress when you have a long time horizon. When you’re able to get just a little better each day and experience incremental growth, you’re far more likely to stick with an endeavor. And by sticking with a single endeavor, you’ll make much more progress than if you quit easily and jumped around from one venture to the next

As Special Forces operators like to say: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

3. You give compound growth the time it needs to work its magic.

Compound growth is something that takes years, and sometimes decades, to reveal itself.

The obvious example relates to investing. You can invest the same amount each year, but due to the nature of compound growth, your wealth will start to grow faster and faster as time goes on. 

The chart below illustrates this concept. Someone who invests $10k per year and earns 7% annual returns will go accumulate their first $100k in a little under 8 years, but they’ll accumulate their last $100k on the way to $1 million in just over one year.

Compound growth example with $1 million

Compound growth reveals itself in other fields outside of finance too. One example is building a website. You can write the same number of articles each week, but over time your website should get more and more traffic at a faster rate simply because your existing audience of readers will share your articles for you, your social media presence will grow, and the number of people who find your site through search engines will increase.

The only way to experience this growth, though, is to stick with it for long enough. If you’re playing a finite game and attempting to reach a certain level of income in a certain amount of time, it’s likely that you won’t stick with the process for long enough to experience compound growth.

Conversely, someone who has decided to work on a particular website for several decades with no end in mind is virtually guaranteed to experience the benefits of compound growth at some point because they’ll be in the game long enough.

The Necessity of Finite Games

It’s tempting to see the advantages of infinite games and decide that you will only play those types of games in life. But there will be plenty of times (especially when you’re younger) where you will have to play finite games to get to where you want to go.

For example, you might have dreams of being an entrepreneur and running your own business, but more than likely you’ll have to work for someone else when you first start out.

Or you may have to spend a few years playing the formal education game just to get your foot in the door of the field that you’re interested in. 

Or you might have to spend time working at a high-paying job you don’t love just to accumulate some savings so that you can take your next career leap without getting crushed financially. 

We all have to play finite games at some point in our lives, but you should seek to transition towards playing infinite games more and more over time.

How to Fill Your Life with Infinite Games

The secret to living a good life is to fill it with infinite games.

Namely, there are four areas where you can play infinite games:

1. Health: The best way to ensure that you live a long, healthy life is to avoid the strategy of making drastic progress fast, and instead focus on adopting healthy habits that you can practice forever. Namely, adopt an exercise routine and eating habits that are optimal for your long-term health that you can stick with week in and week out.

2. Relationships: There is perhaps nothing more important for your mental health and your overall quality of life than maintaining meaningful relationships. The way to play the long game in this arena is to surround yourself with people who you can see yourself being with forever. Your immediate family is an obvious example, but who you choose as a partner and who you choose as close friends play a massive role in your quality of life.

3. Work: There will be certainly be times where you have to do work purely as a means to an end, but your goal over time should be to cultivate a work situation where the work you’re doing is something that you can see yourself doing virtually forever. For me, I can see myself working on my current portfolio of websites not just for the next few years, but literally for the rest of my life. Occasionally I’ll have months where my income and traffic is flat, but because I have infinite time horizons for my websites, I rarely get too discouraged over slow growth.

4. Finance: The way to play an infinite game with your finances is to never set a specific number that you want to achieve so that you never have to work again. Instead, look at life as one long game where you can slowly increase your wealth more and more over the decades. Of course you’ll reach a point eventually where you don’t have to work for money, but your goal should be to solve the infinite game in the previous field (3. Work) so that you can actually just do work you enjoy forever.

If you can play infinite games in each of these four areas, it’s tough to have any regrets in life.

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