Finite vs infinite games and how they affect your happiness

James Carse published the book Finite and Infinite Games in 2006. It begins:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Life is an infinite game. It might seem that death would make it finite. However any individual's death is just another event in the continuum of the infinite game of life. As Anne Lamott observed: “A hundred years from now? All new people.”

50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in tribes with the same set of people for their entire lives. Of course new people were born and grew up, and older ones died, and there was the occasional inter-tribe swap for marriage and genetic diversity. But overall, you lived side by side with the same people year after year.

We now have a society where it's more possible than to have finite relationships. Went out on some dates but don't want to see them again? Ghost 'em. Get in a fight with a friend? Fine, I'll invest in these other friendships. Not getting along with your family? Withdraw, and see them once or twice a year at holidays, if at all.

Freedom to choose seems powerful on the surface but it's insidious—it allows us to avoid feeling difficult feelings and working out disagreements with others. In tribal times, there wasn't really another option. You had to work things out, get to forgiveness and move on. I suppose there are cases where one person was killed, or banished, or the tribe split.

Our society makes it easier than ever to avoid difficult conversations. And it's no surprise many people are choosing the easy way out. But that is making us less resilient than ever, and it is a root cause of our mental health and well being crisis.

All of our emotions exist because evolution selected for them. They help keep the group together. The help manage and repair conflicts. That doesn't mean it's and easy or pleasant process. But it's how we are coded to work.

The meta meta-narrative: I need to be a certain way to be worthy of love and belonging

In my coaching course, we've learned the value of narratives (or archetypes) in helping people see things from a fresh perspective. And we learned about 3 common “meta-narratives” in our culture: performativity, the inner critic, and the island where it all works out. Looking more deeply at the commonalities, there is a theme behind these three—the meta meta-narrative if you will.

At the root of all of these is the fear that I won't be worthy of love and belonging. We all need positive, healthy relationships to thrive, and we are hard-coded to want to be a part of a tribe, so much so that we will do whatever we believe we have to in order to "earn our place” in the tribe.

But this ultimately is a fallacy. Any healthy tribe loves, appreciates and welcomes you fundamentally. Unless you are a complete sociopath (and thankfully those are actually quite rare) you are already worthy of love and belonging exactly as you are.

Of course some of us grow up in "tribes" where this worthiness is not communicated clearly, if at all. That's ok. That's just not your tribe. You can—and will!—find another. You just need to be vulnerable and trust that it is possible. Once you find a healthy, compassionate person that you can connect with and open up to, you are on your way.

So if you feel like you need to do some activity, or achieve some goal or perform some role just to be worthy of human connection, let me assure you that is not the case. Be who you are. And the healthy people will love a celebrate you for it.

Mindfulness is ultimately all about emotional intelligence

Everyone experiences emotions. However some of us cope with and manage our emotions better than others. This is not an innate ability. All humans have the capacity to self-regulate their emotions. But like any other skill, it takes practice and requires experienced teachers who can model and instruct on the way to do this.

Meditation and mindfulness is at its core emotional regulation. It's recognizing and allowing all emotions that come up, and then making conscious choices about what action to take—if any—based on the information that emotion is conveying.

Buddhist monks are masters at this. It might appear that they do not experience the same strong emotions as others, but they do. In fact there's a lot of evidence that they experience their emotions more intensely and fully than most of us. The key difference is they have a mastery of all the skills necessary to manage those emotions, process them, and let them go.

A key concept in all of this: we are all each responsible for managing our own emotions. No one else can do it for us. And similarly, we cannot do it for anyone else but ourselves.

So as you practice mindfulness, keep in the back of your mind that it is part of the process for you to become more comfortable with the emotions that come up for you and how you respond to them.

Can you be truly honest with yourself?

I've previously mentioned the book Elephant in the Brain (e.g. here). It was eye-opening for me and I encourage everyone to read it. It lays out a strong case that the human superpower is our ability to deceive—both others but also ourselves.

There is a developmental journey we humans take wherein we are born into this world and process it through the actual input of our senses. Then as we grow up, we start to flex our deception muscle and we learn that we can deceive others. And for many of us, that's where things end. We are sometimes truthful, and sometimes deceptive. And we have various ways of dealing with the situation when we are caught at our deceptions.

But the path does go on further. It is where we recognize that—while we have the ability to deceive—it is not in our or the world's best interest to do so. This is actually a huge step to take. It requires being truly honest with yourself. And if you aren't around people who can model this behavior in a vulnerable and compassionate way, it's practically impossible to get there.

So if you find yourself struggling in life, and you have a lot of opinions and judgements about what's wrong, and who's to blame, and how things (i.e. you) would be better if only X were the case, I invite you to ask yourself, am I truly being honest with myself?

It's a tough step to take, but it's a necessary one to make progress. Your serenity depends on it.

Keep turning the crystal

One of my favorite parables is The Blind Men and the Elephant. It illustrates how any particular perspective can be accurate but incomplete. A real-world example of this is X-ray crystallography.

To figure out what a particular crystalline molecule looks like, researchers bombard it with X-rays and observe the pattern of how the rays scatter when interacting with the molecule. However this is only one view of the molecule—a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object.

In order to construct a complete picture, they rotate the crystal to a different angle, bombard, and get a new scatter pattern. They keep doing this from many different angles until they have enough overlapping data from which they can deduce the correct molecular configuration.

This is a great analog for many situations in life. At first you are looking at a one-dimensional of a large and complex concept. To truly understand it, you need to keep “turning the crystal” to see what it looks like from many different perspectives. 

Keep turning the crystal. More will be revealed.

Life is like a board game; I make a move, others make their move, repeat

I am resonating with the idea that life is like a board game. I have full agency to make my move, then others in their turn can make their own moves. One can judge, cajole, manipulate or otherwise try to influence others in their choices, but ultimately each choice is fully ours to make. And we also bear the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of our actions.

The emotion equations; a unifying theory of the importance of emotions

I'm an engineer. I like the elegance and simplicity of the math underlying the physics of our universe (like Maxwell's Equations and Euler’s formula). So, in that spirit, I present the emotion equations:

ℰ ⊂ ∫𝒰
ℰ ≠ ±
ℰ = ⓘ
𝒰(☺,☮) ⇒ {ℰ} + 𝑓(ℰ)
𝑓(ℰ) > 1
And here's what they mean:
  • Emotions exist
  • Emotions are an integral part of you
  • Emotions are neither good nor bad (so don’t judge them)
  • Emotions convey information (how you relate to the world around you)
  • Serenity requires embracing and processing all of your emotions
  • You cannot do this alone

ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) all have one thing in common: relationships

ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) are a good indicator of childhood trauma. I personally experienced 4 ACEs during my childhood. Looking down the list, they all have one thing in common: relationships.

They are either an example of unhealthy relationship behaviors (physical, emotional or sexual abuse), or they represent the loss of an important relationship (prison, death, divorce). Even drug and alcohol abuse is based in unhealthy emotional regulation and the inability to consistently and compassionately connect with oneself and others.

As George Vaillant—director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development*—said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” I expand this to say:

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships: with other people, but also and especially with yourself.”


*For more info on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, check out this amazing TED talk by the current director of the study, Robert Waldinger.

A world without judgement

In coaching, one of the primary ways I support my clients is by offering a distinction, which is essentially just a reframing and alternate interpretation of a particular situation.

One common distinction is shifting to a perspective of curiosity without judgement. This is a concept in Buddhism known as tathātā (roughly translated as suchness or thusness or even is-ness).

For example, take asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs; was that good or bad? Compelling arguments can be made on both sides. On one hand, it caused a massive amount of suffering, death, and loss of biodiversity. But on the other, it created the space necessary for mammals to become the dominant species on the planet: a necessary step on the way to the evolution of humans.

A judgement-free perspective simply notes that this event did happen, and it did cause this chain of subsequent events. It is neither good nor bad. It just is.

Heather Lanier makes the point that good and bad are simple and incomplete stories that we tell ourselves in her TED talk, using the parable of the farmer who lost his horse.

See if you can shift your perspective next time from a place of good and bad to it just is.

(This goes hand-in-hand with the antimatter rule.)

Postel’s robustness principle applies to human interactions too (perhaps even more so)

There are a lot of similarities between computer networking and interpersonal communications.

I was reflecting on Postel’s robustness principle—Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send—and realized that the principle holds up equally well regarding interpersonal interactions.

In conversations with others (even just through body language), as long as one person can absorb negative input without returning it in kind (also known as noncomplementary behavior), that will prevent the conversation from going into a downward spiral. Of course if both can do it, all the better!