In the game of being, competition is a sideshow.
Every day, we face seemingly exclusive choices. What do we value most? How do we prioritize? Shall we focus on excellent teaching or on excellent research? Do we emphasize competence or compassion? Do we invest in excellence or in equity? These choices are between values; the things that are most deeply enshrined in our identities; the enduring compasses we use to lead our lives, our businesses, and our communities. These are false choices. The answer should always be both. Our values are not, and should not be, in competition.
In those rare instances when the choice is between options that are truly in conflict, understanding what is at stake is most important. Simon Sinek uses the lens of finite games and infinite games to untangle these choices. In finite games, rules are set, participants are fixed, and the object is to win based on predefined metrics and timeframes. These are games of performance and power which determine winners and losers. In finite games, we play to win; we make decisions based on our interests and often operate from a place of expertise. We practice these games to learn how to win. Finite games have an undeniable motivating and regulating role in our lives.
Infinite games, on the other hand, are singular. For every identity that we hold (citizen, parent, educator, leader) we are in a single, lifelong infinite game. It is a game of being; we operate from a place of deliberation and reflection. The object of the game is to construct and preserve an identity around espoused values. It is a game of self-preservation; we play for significance and lasting legacy. When values and interests conflict, unquestionably we prioritize values.
Things are not so crisp in our day-to-day decision making because almost every context superimposes the finite onto the infinite. The challenge is to pause and identify these games, determining what is at stake. The challenge comes in balancing between the loud immediacy of the finite games and the quiet indelible impact of the infinite game.
A month ago, while taping a podcast for On Life and Meaning with Mark Peres, I advocated teaching our students cooperation. I expressed my belief that our educational system too often emphasizes and celebrates competition over collaboration. This remark touched a chord and generated a number of lively discussions. Aren’t we wired to compete? Isn’t competition a primary motivation for human learning and performance? Wouldn’t a focus on collaboration graduate students unable to measure up?
This conversation sent me back to reread the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The book is a discovery journey of what gives the people of Tarahumara, indigenous inhabitants of the state Chihuahua in Mexico, their superior long distance running ability. The Taramuhari tradition of running is at the core of their culture and the secret to their resilience. Their cultivated tradition of running together, young and old, men and women, for hundreds of miles at a time enabled them to survive invasion by the Spanish conquistadors, when most indigenous tribes were either decimated fighting or forced into submission.
Their signature culture of running, together, in joy and harmony makes them also a very healthy society free of diseases and social ills. They are athletic and live long healthy lives; their social contracts to each other center on compassion, intergenerational camaraderie, and a sense of common purpose. Through their collaborative running, almost any of their adults can outpace and outlast the most competitive athletes around the world. Their extraordinary abilities led scientists to reexamine the theory of how Homo sapiens actually survived and thrived. The revised hypothesis is that they survived by hunting together and outrunning predators by staying together, combining assets of young and old, male and female. This practice can still be witnessed with African bushman.
Early Homo sapiens, the Tarahumara, and the African bushman, were all in an infinite game of being. They strategized and made collaborative decisions for their collective survival. They also played games and enjoyed competitions that trained them for the only game that mattered.
Employers have been telling us for years that they value competence and teamwork. They want graduates who work for the success of their teams by contributing and by collaborating.
While we acknowledge the value of collaboration, our educational systems are biased toward competition. All of our learning environments are finite (short games) where students train to follow rules, and perform to generate a concrete time-bound outcome.
We must become more deliberate in creating opportunities for all students to practice the infinite game. We must develop our students’ capacity to recognize and play the infinite game of being; we must give them opportunities to learn to balance between the immediate rewards of interest-based decision-making and the existential value of identity cultivation. The successful adults of the future will need to repeatedly re-examine their sense of identity, stretch and deepen it. Shouldn’t education train them in that?
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