THE FINITE & INFINITE MINDSET PARADOX
THE FINITE & INFINITE MINDSET PARADOX
Using an infinite mindset in the context of an athletic life will allow you to realize your true potential in races, adventures, training and life itself.
Let’s dive in.
Back in the late 1970s, philosopher Dr James Carse developed the theory that life can be broken down in two ways, finite and infinite games.
Finite games feature known players, fixed rules with agreed upon objectives and winners and losers. These games have a defined beginning, middle and end with known winners and losers, like a soccer match or a trail race.
Infinite games have known and unknown players. New players can join at any time and the rules are always changeable. Everyone can play however they want and the objective is to perpetuate and stay in the game as long as possible. Examples include, a partnership, global politics, education or even your training. No one technically wins these games, and outcomes are far murkier than in finite games. For example, there is no #1 or I’m best at training, or “Best Geopolitical Negotiation”. The only true competitor in an infinite game is yourself.
An athletic life is an infinite game underscored by habitual processes, goals, data points and other metrics. These are all finite games. As athletes, we thrive on predictability and the importance of constant self-evaluation, evaluation by others and the habitual nature of everything we do from sleep, to nutrition to self-care and the consistency of our training. The paradox here is that if we lean into these things a little too much we become overly reliant on predictability, data and metrics, and race results to the detriment of our longevity.
Many athletes become consumed by the small finite games along the way, and lose track of the infinite game that really matters. This makes sense! Our brains are good at chunking up big things (like infinite games) into their smaller component parts. The key is to not mistake those components for the whole.
As athletes, we often get drawn into the false understanding that what we’re doing is about beating others, being the best, being number one. It’s about fast results and tangible growth now, not in a year, or 10. The problem is that finite games, like an ultra, exist in an infinite world. Our brains like the manageable size and tangible nature of finite games. The stakes and parameters are clear, the winners and losers are obvious (This explains why it’s more entertaining to watch ESPN than C-Span.)
Our brains tend to overemphasize finite games to the detriment of our pursuits. In these situations we start operating under a false understanding of what helps us achieve success. The cycle continues and we become so reliant on constant positive feedback and the fulfillment of expectations based completely on “winning” our training and goals that we become less able to respond to changes in our environment. This ends up making us less effective athletes, especially come race day.
An athlete that continues to check their strava data, highlighting output levels on strides or intervals workout after workout is a prime example of this. Early on in a training block when an athlete is fresher, output levels tend to be through the roof. The athlete highlights these outputs and builds themselves up based on those data points. When those output levels steadily decrease as fatigue builds over the course of the training block, the athlete, totally focused on pace, uses these false reference points to judge themselves and make assumptions about their fitness. Frustration builds and sometimes the athlete has to take time off training or even drops out of the upcoming race.
An athlete executing training with an infinite mindset knows to think about his or her workouts through the context of effort, not specific data points and output levels. When they feel fresh at the beginning of the build they don’t put any more or less emphasis on the numbers. They let them go and default to what they feel. When they feel tired toward the end of a build they do the same, zooming out to understand that fatigue at certain stages of the process is normal and progress is being made behind the scenes, even if they can’t see it in the numbers. They embrace their taper period and go on to race on fresh legs, pushing their athletic potential.
When we play infinite games with a finite mindset, playing only to win, being overly reliant on continual progress, metrics and data, even in the context of racing, there are very predictable and consistent outcomes and pitfalls that affect athletes and their longevity. And, vice versa, when we play finite games without an infinite mindset, growth and longevity are difficult to achieve.
Pitfalls and signs of over reliance on finite mindset:
-Decline in trust of the process
-Decline in cooperation & communication
-Decline in innovation and willingness to learn
-Stagnation or decline in performance
-Pushing in training or racing at all cost, even to point of injury
-Athlete quitting when life or training get challenging
In a race setting:
-Athlete challenged or derailed by environmental factors (course conditions, weather)
-Athlete challenged or derailed by nutrition issues
-Athlete challenged or derailed by getting lost on course
-Athlete challenged or derailed by performance goals not being met as race elapses
THE INFINITE MINDSET
Athletes that approach all games with an infinite mindset will feel more fulfilled, and succeed more in the long term. This means prioritizing long term goals over short term goals. It also means staying flexible, rather than being rigid and myopic. Adaptability and comfort in uncertainty is key. Lean into challenging moments while avoiding false reference points and over reliance on goals and data. For example, an athlete using an infinite mindset uses goals as waypoints to help them understand their progress, where they are today in relation to where they’ve been and where they want to go. Avoid overemphasizing any one goal or waypoint.
With an infinite mindset, each goal should be treated as another training day, without expectation and with openness to all possible outcomes. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it at your next race, it just means whatever the outcome, that race adds another brick to your training foundation upon which you can continue to level up day after day, month after month and year after year. (Use a mastery approach to cultivate your running practice.)
I like to remind my athletes that joy isn’t found at the finish line, but in the process that brought you there.
Invest in yourself daily through the purposeful use of finite games knowing that those habitual processes help keep you engaged in a deliberate practice that only has the end you define for yourself.
Common Finite Tools & Benefits
-Habits & Routine
-Goals as waypoints to keep athletes on track
-Goals as measurement of non-judgmental progress
Common Infinite Mindset Tools & Benefits
-Adaptability & Flexibility
-Problem solving in tough situations
-Mindfulness and Awareness
-Reliance on Process Oriented Goals to pave way to Performance Goals
THE POINT OF THE GAME IS FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE PROCESS
Goals and metrics aren’t the point of the game. Winning is not the point of the game. No one wins a lifetime training and small investments that add up to big gains over time. The point of the game is falling in love with the process and those small investments. Use routine and habit to keep yourself on track, but don’t let a myopic approach to training limit your ability to deal with uncertainty, to stay flexible during challenging moments in races, or lose sight of the bigger picture. After all, this is all about FUN and self discovery.
Own your training. Trust the process.
-TJ & The Microcosm Coaching Team