Back in the day when I worked full-time at an environmental nonprofit, I had a boss named Shelley.
Shelley had blond hair that she wore pulled back in a ponytail; a permanently cheerful disposition; a special fondness for wine; and an English accent hailing from "the Black Country" that I found so utterly charming that I would at times unconsciously mimic it back to her, without realizing until later how annoying this must have been.
I adored Shelley for more reasons than just her delightful accent, including her belief that anything was possible; that we needed to think bigger if we were going to become the organization the CEO envisioned; and that an individual should only do exactly as she wants to do -- because therein lies the key to her genius.
Once, I observed to her that a certain process I was in charge of seemed redundant and unnecessary and made me want to stick forks in my eyes.
Shelley grinned and advised me not to do it.
"But people will get mad," I said.
"Let them get mad," she said, as though this would have precisely zero consequences.
After six months of working under her wing, the team was called into the conference room and informed that Shelley would be making a lateral shift out of our department to become the "Director of Innovation," a position that until now had not existed -- and that I had helped her strategize over after-hours glasses of pinot noir.
Although the promotion meant more room to play for Shelley, I left the meeting trying and failing to hold back tears, imagining the Type A neuroses and condescending tone of voice belonging to the horrible new boss I was sure to inherit in her stead.
Others, however, rankled for different reasons; namely the fact that Shelley hadn't raised much money at all in the year she was Head of Development -- and now she was getting promoted?
And, by the way, what does a "Director of Innovation" do -- exactly?
While some gossiped resentfully about unfairness and favoritism;
I saw Shelley's move as proof of how malleable "reality" truly is -- and the extent to which our outcome depends on whether and how we give ourselves permission to re-imagine and shape the kind of world we live in.
A few months before we both left the organization, Shelley gave me a present: a book called "Finite and Infinite Games, which has since given me a whole new lens for looking at this kind of question.
Here is the central distinction the book makes:
A finite game is played to win. It depends on boundaries, "others," competition, and a set of rules that does not change during the course of play.
Finite games rely on an implicit script and the performance of roles. They are inherently "serious" because everyone tacitly agrees to take them seriously in the effort to win.
War is the consummate finite game, with clear winners and losers. Less obvious are the smaller ones we play every day, especially in the workplace, where we are expected to perform roles according to set expectations -- or risk offending others with the truth of our human fluidity, as Shelley did.
To take another example, a woman asked me recently to help her develop a pitch statement for a career fair she was attending that night. Implicit in her request was the assumption of a finite game: I need to develop a script that will help me better perform my role as a job-seeker and therefore help me win (i.e. get a job).
Finite games are everywhere, if you know what to look for.
An infinite game, by contrast, is played for the purpose of continuing the play. For these, the rules change as the game is being played.
Culture, to take a broad view, is an infinite game; one that has no fixed boundaries, in which anyone can participate, and for which "the rules" are in constant flux.
In the career fair example, the infinite player is the one who shows up without a script or an agenda, who attends as a whole human being instead of a "job seeker," just to see what there is to see and meet who there is to meet -- without getting psyched out by the implicit power play and the perceived gravity of "what's at stake" if she doesn't "win."
And therein lies an important distinction: if the finite play for life is serious, then the infinite play of life is joyous.
"Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter; not a laughter at others who have come to an unexpected end, but laughter with others, with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened." (25)
And who gets to play the infinite games?
Why, artists, of course. People like Shelley, who play with the rules just to see how it changes and advances the play.
"Poets -- inventors, makers, artists, storytellers, mythologists -- are not makers of actualities, but makers of possibilities... They do not "fit" into society, not because a place is denied them, but because they do not take their "places" seriously. They openly see its roles as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises performed..." (56)
"We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising certain techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it... We do not watch artists to see what they will do; but watch what persons do, and discover the artistry in it." (56)
This week, if you find yourself struggling to perform a role according to the script of a finite game; I invite you to remember Shelley, and look for the infinite player within.
Trust me; she's in there. Just imagine what your life would be like, if everywhere you went, you played an infinite game instead.