Infinite Games vs. Finite Games and Giannis’s Failure

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A few weeks back, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks entered as the one seed. The Miami Heat, the team who beat them, entered as the eighth seed.

In the immediate aftermath of their loss, the Buck’s superstar, Giannis Antekokounmpo, was asked by a reporter if the season had been a failure.

Giannis responded: “It’s not a failure; it’s steps to success. There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years and won 6 championships. The other 9 years were a failure? Every year you don’t get promoted at your job, is that a failure?”

(You can watch the full interview here.)

The internet was awash with hot takes following the interview. Many people were praising Giannis for his response, but many people were also pointing out that the Bucks did kind of fail. They were the best team in the league. They lost handedly in the first round of the playoffs. A few days later, the Buck’s coach, Mike Budenholzer, was fired. Meanwhile, Giannis is at home watching basketball while the league’s other two superstars, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, compete for a championship.

Failure or steps to success? What if the answer is both?

In 1986, a New York University professor named James Carse published a small book called Finite and Infinite Games. The premise is simple and profound: there are two kinds of games that we all play. In finite games, there are rules, time horizons, and the goal is to win. In infinite games, there is more ambiguity and the goal is simply to keep playing.

The Bucks failed at the finite game of winning an NBA Championship in the year 2023. But for Giannis, perhaps that failure is merely a part of attaining success in an infinite game—to keep playing basketball and improving for as long as he can. Zoom out even further, and maybe the infinite game is becoming a stronger, kinder, and wiser person (or however Giannis defines it).

This framework can be helpful to all of us. It allows us to do everything we can to succeed at finite games, but when we fail—which, inevitably, we will—it helps us to gain perspective, learn, adjust, and keep going.

Finite game failures still matter, and losing them still hurts. But these failures aren’t the end.

In fact, playing an infinite game well almost certainly includes at least some finite game failures. The only way to never fail is never to put yourself out there. And if you never put yourself out there, you probably aren’t playing to your full potential.

The concept of finite games versus infinite games is the holding space for many of the other ideas we write about.

  • Don’t aim to be the best; aim to be the best at getting better. The former is a flash in time—you either get it or you don’t, and then what? The latter is a path you get to define and it lasts a lifetime.
  • Don’t worry about being consistently great; worry about being great at being consistent. Keep showing up.
  • Practice the 48-hour rule: after big wins or tough losses, give yourself 48 hours (or whatever boundary you set) to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat, but then get back to doing the work itself.

These are, essentially, all tools for playing infinite games well.

None of this is to say finite games don’t matter or that we should loosely dismiss failure. Finite games do matter. You should do what we can not to fail. And yet, all the while, when you do fail, the skillful response is to feel the crappy feelings, learn what you can, and then get back to playing your infinite game, whatever that may be.

If you don’t care about failing you’ll never succeed. But if you can’t let go of failure and move on from it, then you’re bound to burnout and quit.

People don’t like holding two ideas at once, especially when they are as polarized as failure and success. But in this case, the ability to do so is key to becoming a champion in all the games that we play.

Brad

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