Finite and Infinite Mindsets
Game theory was one of my favorite classes in college, and the study of finite and infinite games impacted me profoundly. Years later, I found two books that speak to these different game frameworks: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse (1986) and The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek (2019). Recently, one of our founders happened to ask me about these concepts.
Many games we play or watch are finite games. Finite games are played with known players, rules, objectives, time duration and scoring to determine a winner at the end of those games. Rugby, soccer and chess are all examples of finite games. In dichotomy, infinite games have known and unknown players that enter and exit the game at known and unknown times. There are conventions and perhaps laws that govern, but those conventions and laws can and do change. Breaking conventions might be frowned upon, but not prohibited. There are many metrics of success but different players optimize for different metrics over different time horizons. The purpose of infinite games is to keep playing, shape the game to your advantage, and make progress. There are no real winners, but rather just a concept of whether you are ahead or behind, which constantly changes depending on your success metrics. The only losers are those who quit. How each of us chooses to live and find meaning in our lives and human civilization are examples of infinite games.
We can frame business as a finite game or an infinite game. Both Carse and Sinek put forth the contrast as an “or”, but I submit the proper framing is “and” because business is both. There are deadlines to meet. Opportunities to win. Getting to market first. Launching a better product. Many aspects of business are finite games. The objective is to win.
At the same time, the enduring value of a business organization is not measured by those past successes, but by the business’ ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time the current team is executing, but well beyond their tenure. This requires an infinite mindset, an infinite time horizon, and a mentality to put the company first, then the team, then yourself.
At Sequoia, we hold both finite and infinite mindsets in tension. We want to win every finite game we choose to play, but whether we win or lose, we learn from the experience and continue on to our next game with the intention to win. In addition, we come to Sequoia with a desire to leave it in a much better shape than we found it for the next generation.