“You can’t win learning” – Simon Sinek

10 June 2019

Simon Sinek on Education as an Infinite Game

Simon Sinek is an optimist. It’s how he identifies, it’s the first line of his online biography. He believes that the way we live now can be better and that hope drives us forward. But in the course of his work trying to inspire better working practices and trust between teams, powerful people, kept telling him that he was naïve, that his optimism was misplaced and the world wouldn’t change.

Simon listened. These were powerful people. He respected their rank and that lent weight to their argument. But his instinct remained that the way we were doing business, education and politics was leading to division and unhappiness in teams. It was when he read James Carse’s 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games, that something clicked. His instinct wasn’t wrong. The way the game was being played was.

Carse’s theory is that there are two types of game: finite and infinite. A game exists if there is more than one player acting in competition. Finite games have fixed rules, known players and an agreed objective – first player past the finish line wins.

Infinite games have no finish lines, they have known and unknown players, there are rules but they might change and the objective is not to win, but to stay in the game and get better at it over time. Business is an infinite game so is marriage, learning, government, health. There’s no such thing as winning learning, but you can know more today than you did yesterday.

Simon says that he wrote The Infinite Game as a rallying cry to show that we can think differently about progress and that when you stop being guided by short-term wins and losses, it creates space for values, trust and courage to thrive.

Big Change’s interest in The Infinite Game is in what it means to take an infinite view of education, and what changes when we do. Our CEO Essie North sat down with Simon to discuss his theory’s relevance to reimagining education.

Sinek starts from the position that many people do take a finite view of education. He used the example of universities advertising themselves on the starting salaries of their graduates. That they are competing, not on the grounds of where has the best record for learning, or the most engaging professors but instead effectively offering a cash prize for completion.

He was quick to add that he did not want to demonise the current system, and that it has many positive qualities and achievements. He is interested in how we can make the system better without losing what already works, stating that an us vs them mentality will never move the cause forward.

The meat of Simon’s work describes the cultures and practices that allow teams and individuals to thrive in infinite games. In a previous blog I’ve outlined how his 5 essential practices of an infinite mindset (Just Cause, Trusting Teams, Worthy Rivals, Existential Flexibility and Courage to Lead) characterise several of the educational pioneers we’ve worked with, but last night he talked about what this mindset might mean for a student’s approach to her own education.

Three practices described in the discussion stood out for me: what counts as a just cause, the role of worthy rivals and the courage to lead.

Simon stated there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to education and that the ‘just cause’ worth fighting for might be different from student to student. But if, for example, we accept that education’s cause or purpose is to promote and nurture curiosity about the world so that over a lifetime one can learn as much as possible – the way we approach learning will change.

The theory of ‘worthy rivals’ is that the success of another can show you ways to improve. Bringing an infinite mindset to your own education means really grappling with the things that other people do well and learning to understand what that means for your own performance.

Sinek interpreted ‘courage to lead’, from a student’s point of view, as the courage to not conform to the pressure to get the A grade when the world is telling you that’s what you need to progress. He understood that it takes courage for a student (and often their parent) to pursue the interests and aptitudes that are not easily measured by exams.

Towards the end of the conversation, Essie pointed out that, for many people, knowing the rules and having defined objectives mean we can measure progress against gives us a sense of orientation, it helps us feel safe. This insight clearly delighted Simon (he claimed he wished his book had not already gone to print), as it crystallised a central theme of his work: in a finite mindset we look to the rules to make us feel safe; in an infinite mindset we have to look to our relationships with others to make us feel safe. Rarely when you see courage, is someone acting alone.

This is one theme I will continue to reflect on. What does a trusting team mean from a student’s perspective? And how can that sense of collective responsibility coalesces in a school environment.

Catch up on the full conversation:

Tom Kenyon is a consultant education and communications specialist with Big Change