There are two types of games in this life: Finite and Infinite games. Finite games are things you do once and then they’re over. Infinite games are more like life itself—it goes on and on and everything is interrelated and independent.
People who approach a finite game think about winning. People who approach infinite games have to think a lot more about context, about relationships, about reputation, about trust. The former is zero-sum, the latter is non-zero sum.
When we had Tobias Lutke, the founder of Shopify, on the Daily Stoic podcast, he talked about living life as an infinite game, which is to say playing for the long term. He also mentioned how tricky it is with kids, because we often send them the opposite message.
We talk to our children about education as an infinite game, he said. It’s about the love of learning, it’s a lifelong pursuit, it’s about developing into the best person you can be. We mean this sincerely of course, he mentioned trying not to be misunderstood, but then we send them off with strong expectations of winning the finite game of first grade.
And it only gets worse from there. We compare our kids’ grades to other kids, even to their own siblings. We talk about what grade level they’re reading or doing math at, and what percentile they’re in statewide. We obsess over GPA and standardized test scores as if they are keys to the kingdom…of what exactly? We grill our college kids about whether they found their major yet, about whether the major they picked is going to snag them a high-paying job or not. We say education is an infinite game…and then we act as if it’s very finite.
You want kids who are in this for life. You want kids who don’t think in zero-sum terms. You want kids who understand that things are interrelated and that winning one encounter at the expense of a relationship, or of trustworthiness, or of the ability to do well in future encounters, is a real crappy strategy.
Teach them to play the infinite game. Teach them by playing it yourself.