Changing the Rules to Play the Infinite Game

A client in a recent session identified that they were living their life with a “transactional model” where they did things for the outcome they provided. This is how many high achievers were raised e.g. work hard in school to get good grades to get into a good college, work hard to get good grades in college to get a good job, work hard and get good performance reviews to get promoted, etc. The client brought up this model in the context of how it felt like a mismatch for other activities in life like hobbies or self-care.

  • Doing hobbies in this model makes it feel like they have to bring you joy for the hobby to be “worth it” – the outcome is “joy”.
  • Doing self-care can only be justified by future benefits e.g. self-care will pay off by increasing your effectiveness or productivity in the future.
  • To take an extreme example, having children in the transactional model might be seen as a way to get emotional support and somebody to take care of you as you age.

As my client observed, when using the transactional model to prioritize their activities, the immediate benefits of work in terms of revenue and productivity always outweighed the less measurable outcomes of joy and potential future effectiveness, so they were regularly ignoring hobbies and self-care and family in favor of work. So if using the outcomes of such activities isn’t the reason to do them, what model could they use to more equitably balance their prioritization?

This may seem like a silly question to those of you who intuitively choose what activities to do, using a model like “do what makes you feel good in the moment”. But my client’s struggle is real for many folks, especially in Silicon Valley, who lead lives of workaholism because they don’t have a way to measure the benefit of non-work.

I often try to use their own transactional model against such clients. If they say “I don’t have time to work out because I’m too busy”, I ask them whether they get more done on days they exercise, and they often say yes. If that’s the case, I can then say “if you get more done in less time, then you can exercise…and still get the same amount done in the day!” They often begrudgingly agree that this makes sense, but then refuse to execute on it…because they are too busy.

As an aside, this is the well-known phenomenon that humans are not rational in the sense of being logical decision makers, but we are excellent at rationalizing. Our brains have already decided what to do before we are conscious of the decision, and then our consciousness creates a logical-looking set of reasons to justify the decision that has already been made. It all looks very rational, but people often stick to their conclusion even when their reasoning is shown to be faulty. Some people have trained themselves to be more rational (and members of the “rationalist community” pride themselves on it), and in looking for another model by which could prioritize their actions, I felt my client was asking me to help them be more rational.

I felt that was the wrong approach, as I feel that the transactional model is playing a finite game, to use the terminology from James Carse. When we try to be more rational and maximize our outcomes within a system, we are accepting the system as it is, playing the game by the rules we are given (e.g. maximizing money or status, where there’s no win condition – even billionaires are continuing to try to make more money). Carse’s insight is that another possibility is to change the rules – he calls this playing the infinite game with the goal being to continue playing.

So how does that apply to my client? They had noticed that the transactional model way of being was wearing them down, and feeling exhausted and resentful that they had to keep working when they were running on empty. But the transactional model said to keep working, because working offered the most measurable reward. So we changed the rules – we created a second goal for their model to recharge and refill themselves. When they were feeling depleted, they could look at their non-work options of hobbies and family and self-care, and choose something from those options. We eventually named the non-work options the “Fill your soul” list, with the idea being that we wanted to give them a space where they could learn to listen to their soul, or deep inner self, so that they could start to learn how to value their time based on their own experience, rather than by an external scorecard.

I’m sharing this example because it shows how we often create rules for ourselves on how to live our life, and we do not learn the meta-skill of when to change those rules. We stick ourselves in a finite game, and that works very well for us for a while (getting us into good schools and good jobs, and making money). But at a certain point, we exhaust ourselves trying to continue playing by those rules (also called “limiting beliefs” in coach-speak) when they are no longer a good fit for our situations. What I love about coaching is helping people see the limiting beliefs they are holding onto, and helping them transmute those rules to convert their lives from a finite game to an infinite game, so they can keep playing.

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