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The Right Mindset at the Right Time
It's a finite game while you're in it, it's an infinite game once you lose it
In Moment of Zen this week, Antonio and I spoke with Liel Liebovitz about Israel — the internal tensions, the relationship with America, and the Palestinian conflict.
In Upstream this week, I spoke with Benedict Evans about where everything in tech is going — From AI to Crypto to VR/Metaverse.
Something interesting happened in the end of the Miami Heat vs Milwaukee Bucks series. For those unfamiliar, the 8 seed Miami Heat upset the 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA playoffs, which was a shocker to NBA fans around the world as the Bucks were favorites to win the NBA championship, not to get booted unceremoniously in the first round.
So after this interview, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ best player — and perhaps the best player in the world — was asked in the press conference if this season was a failure given they significantly underperformed relative to expectations.
“Do you get a promotion every year? On your job? No, right? So every year you work is a failure--yes or no? Every year you work, you work toward something. Toward a goal, right? Which is to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, to be able to, I don't know, um, provide the house for them or take care of your parents. You work toward a goal. It's not a failure. It's steps to success.”
"You know, and if you've never ... I don't know. I don't want to make it personal. So there are always steps to it. You know?
"Michael Jordan played 15 years. Won six championships. The other nine years was a failure? That's what you're telling me. No, I'm asking a question, yes or no?
"Exactly. So why did you ask me that question? It's a wrong question. There's no failure in sports. You know, there are good days, bad days, some days you are able to be successful. Some days you're not. Some days it's your turn, some days it's not your turn. And that's what sports is about. You don't always win. Some other people [are] going to win. And this year, somebody else is going to win. Simple as that. We're going to come back next year, try to be better, try to build good habits, try to play better. Not have a 10-day stretch with playing bad basketball. You know, and hopefully we can win a championship.
So, 50 years from 1971 to 2021 that we didn't win the championship--it was 50 years of failure? No, it was not. It was steps to it, you know? And we were able to win one. Hopefully, we can win another one."
I’m fascinated by this response for a few reasons. First-off, it’s indicative of a wider cultural trend towards anti-”winning being the only thing that matters”, or participation trophies for all.
Second, it speaks to a broader thing I’ve been thinking about: Perhaps flourishing is less about seeing reality as it really is and more about adopting the right reality distortion field at the right time while not getting caught up in the contradictions along the way. For example, when playing to win, treating it as the only thing that matters seems more conducive to winning. When you're not likely to win, seeing the game as a stepping stone to something greater is a more productive mindset (Finite game vs Infinite game). But if you see the game as a stepping stone when you're trying to win, you might not put it all on the line in the same way. So you have to adopt two contradictory different mindsets at two different times, without doubting yourself along the way. Like Giannis here switches mindsets on a dime once the situation changes. If you had asked him before game 1 if the season would be a failure if he lost, I imagine he'd say something closer to yes—"we must win this year". Now that that option is off the table, a narrative of "you win some years, you lose some years, it's a stepping stone" is a more productive mindset. Emphasize agency when you can influence the situation, emphasize "the journey" when you can't. We do this all the time. While it may sound hypocritical, we couldn't function otherwise. That's why so many proverbs contradict each other. We have to psych ourselves to adopt the right mindset at the right time.
This can be abstracted to a broader principle of “finite games when you’re in the game, infinite games when you lose the game.”
When you’re in the game, you need to think this is the only game that matters. When someone asks you what you’d be doing if you could do anything different, the right answer is “there’s nothing else I could be doing”. When someone asks you what happens if you fail, the right answer is “this is not going to fail”. You want to signal this is your life’s work—you’re all in. Not just signal to others, but to yourself too.
When you lose the game, you want to zoom out and remind yourself that it’s just one game, and there will be many more games to play. Sure, you lost the game that you believed meant everything to you, but now instead of sulking you need to take your learnings from your loss onto the next game.
Critics called Giannis “soft” or engaging in “cope”, but I disagree with them. To me, “cope” or being “soft” would be downplaying accountability, but Giannis isn’t doing that at all. He’s reframing the loss in a way that will inspire him to keep working hard without being too hard on himself.
Both finite and infinite games are correct, it’s really a matter of emphasis. Emphasizing the infinite game after a loss is more agency-inducing to the team. You want to emphasize whatever true narrative gives you the most agency at that particular time.
Paraphrasing Peter Thiel, extreme optimism and extreme pessimism are both equally wrong. If you’re extremely optimistic, then there’s nothing to do other than ushering in our great technological future. If you’re extremely pessimistic, then there’s nothing to do other than wait for our technological dystopia. Either way, they both equate to doing nothing and letting the future happen.
You want to be sufficiently optimistic to believe spending time on something will yield good outcomes, but not so optimistic you think it will just happen without your efforts. You want to be sufficiently pessimistic about the status quo to believe it’s worth improving upon, but not so pessimistic that you lose confidence in your ability to influence outcomes. Patrick Collison calls this being a micro-pessimist, but a macro-optimist.
We’ve all had failures in the past. Should we feel so ashamed about them that we’re debilitated from trying again? Probably not. To manage our own psychology we should prepare with the equanimity that there will be many more opportunities (infinite game), but also with the urgency that there won’t be (finite game).