There are really only two games in life: finite and infinite.
People who focus on quick wins, short-term gains, and success at all costs play finite games. They swear by start and finish lines and insist on there being winners and losers.
If you want to lay an excellent foundation for your life, finite games won’t cut it. You need to play infinite games instead.
In this episode, Dylan discusses finite and infinite games, the importance of knowing which one we’re playing, and how we can apply the infinite game mindset to different aspects of our lives.
- [03:20] What is a finite game?
- [04:41] The problem with playing finite games
- [06:49] Other examples of finite games
- [12:39] Infinite games defined
- [15:55] Example of playing an infinite game in a relationship
- [19:19] The importance of having a “just cause” when playing infinite games
- [21:56] Money as an infinite game
Links & Resources
🟢 @TheDylanBain on Instagram
🟢 @TheDylanBain on Threads
🟢 @TheDylanBain on YouTube
🟢 Intuitive Finance on Facebook
🟢 Intuitive Finance on Twitter
[00:00:00] Intro: Forget the civilized path. It’s time to break the chains of debt and dependency, take control of our financial lives, and live free. This is the Fiscally Savage Podcast.
[00:00:15] Dylan Bain: Hello and welcome to Fiscally Savage. I’m your host, Dylan Bain. And today, I want to tell you about a time where I was so unbelievably happy. It’s 2012. I’m living in Flagstaff, Arizona. I’m still teaching. I’ve come back from one of my many alternate jobs, and I’ve brought home enough money to get us through to the end of the month, and we’re on the 15th of that month. I am like ecstatic because this means that for the next two weeks, the last back half of the month, I can kind of click back a little bit, not have to work so hard because I’ve won this month. And I get home and I tell my wife and she is less than amused. She’s upset. I’m like, “Honey, didn’t I win the month?” Like, we needed an extra thousand dollars and I was able to bring home an extra thousand dollars. And she’s not happy.
[00:01:15] Now, I bring up this story because it really illustrates the need to understand the game that you are playing. And I talk about this a lot in, you know, as always, my way into these conversations is always through the lens of money. And when you’re thinking about your money, what game are you playing and do you understand the rules of that game? And that question is going to apply in literally every aspect of your life — your relationship with your parents, your relationship with your friends, your office, your career, your retirement. Everything, literally everything comes down to what type of game are you playing, do you know the rules, and do you understand how to play well. And this is super, super important to being successful at any one of those games. And so today, what I want to talk about is the difference between a finite and an infinite game ’cause I talk about them a lot, but I’ve never done an episode on it so that’s what today is.
[00:02:16] And right away at the top of the show, I do want to say that this is not like a thought that I went to the top of Mount Humphreys in Arizona, the highest point in that state, and I sat for 40 days and 40 nights and somehow, like it occurred to me this idea of finite and infinite games. This is actually very well-worn ground. I first heard of this from Alex Hormozi as he was explaining this very concept during an interview, and he was quoting Simon Sinek, who wrote the book “The Infinite Game” talking about the exact same concept, and of course he was riffing off of James Carse, who wrote “Finite and Infinite Games.” So like this is not a new concept, but it is one that I don’t think we talk about nearly enough. And that is the difference between winning and playing. Finite and infinite. Because if we don’t understand the game we’re playing, we don’t understand the rules of that game, there’s no way we could possibly play it well.
[00:03:20] So let’s go ahead and talk about it. What is a finite game? Okay. So this is super important because finite games are the ones that we actually understand. And they’re also the ones that people get really sick of playing. Finite games, the goal, like the defining feature of a finite game is that there is an endpoint. That’s when somebody wins. And so when you think about a finite game, there’s going to be one or more players. There is a set victory condition. Everyone in the game is going to play for that victory condition. There will be a winner and everyone else will be a loser. And there are times in which even though you didn’t technically win, your placement can actually help a greater good for the team and that team will win. Cross country is like this. Wrestling matches are like this. They’re individual competitors who then accumulate to a team score and that’s still again a finite game because somebody is going to win. And our society is completely set up for finite games. We like them. They’re easy to measure. We know at the end of the game who won and who lost. There’s an objective thing that goes on. There’s not squishiness or uncertainty. We love this. And we love it so much that we’ve, in fact, set up our entire society around finite games.
[00:04:41] The problem with finite games is that they incentivize short-term thinking at the expense of all else. And this is where you can win every finite game and still lose the war. It’s the entire idea that the short term doesn’t matter in terms of the long term, and the long term is the thing we actually want at the end of the day if we’re being honest. But we don’t incentivize that in society. Let me give you a couple of examples. I think the best example you can point to are corporations that make terrible decisions for their long-term health and profitability for the sake of having a good quarter right now. I’ve spent the last seven years of my life as an auditor. I’ve audited Fortune 100 companies, startups, you know, companies that are getting ready to become to go public, you know, private equity firms. You name it, I’ve probably worked on it in some capacity at some point, and I work for a Fortune 100 company now. I see this all the time where people are making decisions because it’s going to look really good in the quarterly report. But we know that in like 18 months, this is going to come back to haunt us and the attitude is always, well, we’ll deal with it then. This is a finite game because there’s a winning thing — beat Wall Street expectations. There’s a defined winner — we either beat him or we don’t. There’s a defined loser — well, if we don’t beat him, we’re the loser, right? And of course then we incentivize the CEO, the C-suite, and everybody who gets quarterly bonus and stock options based upon that very metric. This is why we’ve tied so much CEO pay to stock options, which causes them to look at situations where, well, you know, borrowing rates are really low. Let’s take out a massive loan and then we’ll buy back our own stock. Does that improve the profitability of the company? No. Does that create a better workforce or set the company up for longer-term success? Also no. And yet companies have done it repeatedly. Why? Because they’ve incentivized their CEOs to play a finite game. They’re not thinking about what’s going to happen next quarter. They’re thinking about this quarter. And if they can pump the stock price, they’re going to win and everyone else in the company is going to lose.
[00:06:49] But we start this way sooner than we get to our careers because we start this in schools. Our entire school system is built on one finite game after another. We have every day, we have units. The units of the lesson plans are broken down into lessons. We have quizzes along the way. We have grades over the whole thing. We have grade levels. We have class rankings. Literally everything in a school is a finite game. We never incentivize kids in any real way to consider what they’re doing today and how it’s going to affect them in four years. We give homages to this, but we’re never honest about it. And I don’t think that there’s anything evil per se about it. I just think that we’re really we’re so bad as a society in trying to think in an infinite context that we just cannot imagine our way out of the box. And of course high schools have sports. Every sporting competition on the face of the planet is a finite game by definition. And don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing really inherently wrong with this. It’s just something that shouldn’t be applied so universally. I love competitive sports. I did wrestling and football. I did a lot of competitive martial arts in college. I’m currently working on getting myself into shape so I can compete in jiu-jitsu. Like I love this stuff. It’s great. But it’s a really bad way to run a life. Because at the end of the day, you can do things to cut off your nose, to spite your face because it’s going to let you win in the moment.
[00:08:22] There’s always going to be a winner, and critically, there will always be a loser. And sometimes the loser, in the long run, is the person who won today. Let me give you a good example. How many people do you know that have gone into a working environment and their boss says something immature and dumb, and they think to themselves, “Yeah, I got to show that person. I’m going to show them,” and they do something incredibly immature back? They yell at them. They get really snarky. They do resistance, you know — all these little things that they do to resist their boss. And they’re winning. They win every day because it irritates their boss. That’s how they’ve defined winning. Where did they learn that? Well, ’cause they played the same game with their parents. Now, they’re just doing it to their boss. But in the long run, their boss is going to fucking fire them. And so they’ve lost the overall game, even though in their mind with their rule set, they won day after day after day.
[00:09:18] I’ve been a supervisor in a number of different contexts. And it’s always comical to me when I get this person who will sit there and they will like just make my life difficult because they think somehow they’re winning. When I was a teacher, my students played this all the time. In fact, I actually had a student once. She was so disruptive in my class and I tossed her out in the hallway and said, “Hey, I’ll be out there to talk to you in a second.” I get out there, and man, I’m coming out the door, I knew she was ready for this. She knew the moves of this game. She knew the rules of this game. She had her lip out, her arms crossed, and her hip popped to the side, and she was ready for the epic confrontation. She had practiced all her lines. She knew what she was going to say. She had planned for every little shitty remark, and she is so ready to win this game. But unfortunately for her, I was not playing a finite game. I didn’t care whether I won and lost in that. What I was playing was an infinite game over time. So instead of telling her that she was disruptive and I was upset with her, I asked her if she was hungry and if there was something I could do to help her. I was focused on a relationship. She’s focused on winning. And as a result, I won both games — that moment and the long term.
[00:10:37] Finite games are short-term games by definition. Some examples of this is the Vietnam War. The United States went into Vietnam with the goal to win — end the conflict. We went into Iraq and Afghanistan with the goal — end the conflict, establish dominance, shock and awe. The problem is those are finite games. People have health journeys all the time that are finite games. I’m going to lose 20 pounds. Okay, then what? Well, I don’t know. Well, anyone can lose 20 pounds. I mean, hell, I could go on a fast for two weeks and keep rucking at night, and I’m going to lose a lot of weight. But it’s not going to be healthy. And if my goal is to be healthy, that’s an infinite game. Just a target of 20 pounds isn’t enough because I didn’t ask that question about what the overall picture is. I’ve just tried to create a system that’s short-term, where there’s defined wins and defined losses.
[00:11:33] We also do this with our marriages. How many arguments have we had with our significant other where we’ve just become so pissed we just want to create as much damage as humanly possible because goddammit that’s going to show them? Well, yeah, you might win that. You might reduce your partner to tears. You might rip them up and shatter them on a psychological and soul level to the point where they take weeks to recover. And so you’ve won that moment. You’ve protected yourself. It’s great. But you were playing a finite game. So even though you won, it was short term, and that’s the problem. And the same thing is with your finances. My goal is to pay off my credit card debt. And then what? My goal is to increase my savings rate. And then what? Ask yourself that question every time. “And then what?” Well, then, I’ve won savings. You never win savings. You don’t win marriage. You don’t win health. You don’t win on the hearts and minds of a population whose country you’ve just invaded if your goal is just to end the conflict.
[00:12:39] Which brings us to infinite games. Infinite games are completely different. They are almost — they are, they’re not almost — they are a completely different class of game. The goal of an infinite game is to play the game and to keep playing the game. There is no winning and there is no losing. You just keep playing. This is the difference between those people who will like take up bicycling because they’ve set a goal to ride a century by the end of the summer. And they bike and they bike and they bike and they’re super into it. They do the century, and then they never get back on that bike again because they won the finite game, but their infinite game that they thought they were trying to play by doing that was to be healthy, to be in shape, to look good naked or whatever. And for that, you have to just want to keep playing, keep riding the bike. And so I see this all the time where I live in Colorado. I see people who will literally bike up the side of a mountain to a cafe up at the top of the mountain. And they bike up there, they have a latte, and then they just roll down the side of the hill. And they do it every weekend. But these people are playing an infinite game. Their goal is just to keep biking up and having that cup of coffee. It’s what they do. It’s part of their life. They’re not trying to accomplish anything. They’re not trying to win anything. There’s no winners and losers. It’s just keep playing. And it’s comical to look at these people and how happy they are when they get up there and they barely even think about it — this monumental task where they have biked up 3,000 vertical feet. It’s incredible.
[00:14:28] And the secret here is the vast majority of life is an infinite game. It’s not a finite game. Life is finite. But the act of living life is an infinite game. It’s all about the long-term thinking on an infinite game because it is by definition infinite. Some examples of this are quality of life. You will never win quality of life, and quality of life will be constantly evolving. When people come into the financial coaching practice and they’re talking about retirement savings, my whole question is paint me the picture. What does that look like? Well, retirement is going to be $1.5 million. Okay, yes. I can boil retirement down to a number and then you can play a finite game to win. The problem is every other aspect of your life is going to suck on the way to getting to that number because the whole goal of having $1.5 million in retirement savings was so you could live a quality life. So if your life between now and retirement blows, then the whole idea of living a quality life later makes no sense. And this is the difference between a finite and an infinite game. When people come into my practice for financial coaching, I’m always focused on the infinite game. What is the quality of life? Why are we doing this? Where is the nectar in this? Retirement’s not numbers; it’s life. It’s quality of life.
[00:15:55] This is true in relationships, too. I outlined this idea of like, oh, a couple get in a fight, and the one person, they’re just gonna fucking hurt the other person. They’ve been hurt or they perceive they’ve been hurt, and they are after that person. Well, good. They can win the finite game. But on an infinite level, if you want to have a quality relationship, if you want to be that old couple who, you know, almost teeters down the sidewalk hand in hand, and they’re just — we all have seen this, like the adorable old couple who’s in their eighties and they still cuddle. Like, God damn, do I ever want to be that couple. But they didn’t do that by having all these finite victories. They did it because they just kept playing the game of relationship. They never wanted to win. They just wanted to keep playing. Because like those people biking up the side of the mountain, they just have fallen in love with doing it. It’s the whole point — is to play. The same is true in relationships. This is why when people get into arguments and I’m a financial coach, like money is emotional and dear Lord, do I ever have to deal with some really emotional tense situations between married couples. But I always ask them, “If you win here, what have you won? If you win today, what have you won? Do you get a trophy? Does it go in a case? Are you guys going to look back at this and be like, “Yes! Here on June 10th, 2023, Dylan won this argument and he won relationships. Here’s your trophy.” It’s not going to happen. The whole thing is ridiculous because we all inherently know that relationships are these infinite games. How many marriages have dissolved because people in that relationship wanted to win every fight? I imagine it’s a lot more than we want to talk about.
[00:17:55] Another example of long-term thinking is food and meals. Like, good food takes time. It creates dishes and it creates messes. One of my favorite cookbooks by a guy by the name of Josh Weissman. You can find him on YouTube. He does the “But Better” and “But Cheaper” series, where he takes like restaurant meals, like a Subway sandwich, and he makes it but better. And his food is great. His cookbook is amazing and wonderful. But he says right there in the intro, “Good food takes time.” Good food is an experience. He teaches you right off the bat of like, here is how you make really good ketchup. And you’re like, but Josh, ketchup? Really? I can buy it in the store. His whole point is like, no, good food takes time. Good food takes ingredients. And ketchup when it’s used as an ingredient, well, you don’t know what’s in there if it’s store-bought. Take the time to enjoy it. And what happens when you do? You end up with better relationships. You end up with better health outcomes because you’re playing an infinite game. I wish to enjoy and be nourished by food. That is radically different than the like, “I need to get my macros and my calories and check off all my boxes. Food is fuel.” Like that’s a finite game. This is why dieting doesn’t work for most people. They try to play a finite game when really they need to be changing their lifestyle, which is an infinite game. And critically in infinite games, there’s no winners and no losers because the point is to just keep playing.
[00:19:19] And Simon Sinek says in his book “The Infinite Game,” he talks about the, you know, just cause. This is the higher purpose. I always laugh when people come into my practice and I say, “Hey, let’s go through some ideas, some visualization exercises and see where you’re at. How do you feel about money? What hits into you emotionally on a body level?” And they are always like, “I want to help people.” Okay, cool. Why? “‘Cause I want to help people.” Like, no. Like, you don’t have a just cause. You know that’s what you’re supposed to say, but really the problem here is is that you have never experienced enough money to even understand how you could help people. Like, and this is one of the biggest humps when people have issues with money is they’re like, “Well, money makes you evil.” Like, no, money makes you capable. It’s not evil in one way. It’s not good in another. It just makes you capable. It gives you more margins. How much more fully can you show up in every aspect of your life if you knew all the bills were paid forever? Like, that’s the question. So Simon Sinek is saying, once you have that just cause, the just cause is I want to write an epic love story. I want to live a life when I’m 80 that is the envy of everyone younger than me. I want to enjoy and be nourished by every meal I have. I want every calorie to be a celebration of all of the love and effort that went into creating it. That is a just cause.
[00:20:48] And the thing about it is is if you are playing an infinite game, you will outlast anyone playing a finite game. One of the things that I think about in the U. S. economy right now is so many of the publicly traded companies are playing these finite games with their stock buybacks and their dividend payouts and the slavish devotion to creating nothing but shareholder value. And there are some companies out there that are looking more infinite and more broadly and want to keep playing. And I kind of believe that at the end of the day, they stand the best chance of winning. And to use our examples from before, in Vietnam, the Viet Cong were playing an infinite game. Their whole thing was to live and keep fighting, to keep playing the game. The U. S. showed up to win. They showed up to play. And who won? The Viet Cong. Because they just outlasted it. And that has been their strategy against every superpower that has ever come at them. China, France, the United States all came in with a finite objective, and they ground them down every single time.
[00:21:56] Your health is another great example of this. You never win health. You never get this point where we’re like, you know, the council of healthy people shows up at your door and it’s like, “Congratulations! You have won health. Here is your trophy.” You take your picture. You’re on the front page of the newspaper. You get 15 minutes on the evening news, and then you’re done. That doesn’t happen because health is not winnable. The goal is to maintain health, to keep playing health. Same thing with marriages. If you want to play the infinite game, then the marriage always comes first. And you need to be saying when I’m in this argument, you know, I still love this person and I still want to be that 80-year-old couple on a park bench who cuddles, who’s just like tickled pink that every day is first date day. Every morning is the first time you ever woke up next to this person. If you want that, you need to play an infinite game. You have to keep playing. Your wealth and your money are the same thing. I can tell you $1.5 million dollars, but paint me a picture of what that will get you. If possessing $1.5 million dollars means anything, what does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? What is the morning when you have that level of wealth? Budgeting is the same deal. Yeah, we get through the end of the month. I hit my numbers on the end of the month. Yeah, you can turn it into a finite game, but budgets are relationships. They’re conversations. Money is an infinite game. You don’t win budgeting. You don’t win investing. You don’t win wealth or anything else with it. You win by playing. You win by looking at your budget as a statement of values, of shared plans, of a conversation to be had between people. You win investing by looking at it as this is just a long-term value-adding machine. You look at wealth from an infinite standpoint of this unlocks my ability to have that guilt-free croissant at the French bakery down the street every morning. That’s how you play. But you’ll never win.
[00:24:04] Why do you think some of the best investors in the entire world have yet to retire? Warren Buffett comes to mind. That man has more money than just about anyone else in the world. Carl Icahn comes to mind. Charlie Munger comes to mind. They keep playing. Why? Is it because they are trying to constantly win? Or is it because they understood this very concept from the beginning — that the goal was to keep playing? And so even though Warren Buffet’s in his 80s, he just keeps playing. And so I think that that’s something that’s worth knowing. Even just look at the Koch brothers and how long their company has continued to grow. And whether you like them or not, they worked until they were ancient, ancient people. And there might be a psychology thing to say, well, maybe they were addicted to it. Maybe they were. I don’t know. But to me on the outside, it looks like they were playing an infinite game. Success for 99% of us is playing an infinite game, where we indulge in the ability to keep playing by having conversations, by telling our stories and rewriting our stories as our life evolves, and focusing on the relationship we have with ourselves, with our partners, with our money, with our stories, with our life. Play the infinite game, my friends.
[00:25:26] And I know how that feels because one of the things my wife, when I came walking through the door so proud that I had won the budgeting for the month by earning an extra grand, was that she really truly believed that if I won, we lost; that yeah, I was so happy about that, but what had she sacrificed for me to get it? Late nights without me there, the stress of graduate school with a child, and so on and so forth. Yeah, I won the month, and I damaged my relationship. And so I had to refocus on what game am I playing. How am I going to go about continuing to play the infinite game that is the epic love story that I wish to write with this woman? That’s going to require me to let go of the finite wins and get going on plane infinitely.
[00:26:31] Outro: Thanks for listening. If you like what we do here, please hit that subscribe button. Leave us a rating and review. And share the content with somebody who would benefit from the message. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, all @fiscallysavage. And head over to fiscallysavage.com to get our free tools, suggested reading, and everything else you need to take control of your financial life and live free.