Game of life

Vistage Worldwide recently hosted Simon Sinek on a webinar for members that focused on his recent book, The Infinite Game. Whilst I have been a fan of Sinek since my earlier days exploring leadership, I have grown ‘distant’ from his approach to starting with ‘why’, as I realised that the most successful and accomplished people put far more focus on the ‘how’.

Whilst your purpose, or raison d’etre, are key to determining your reason to get out of bed in the morning and work hard towards achieving your goals, this should be a starting point, and only revisited when you are going through significant change. I’m not diluting the importance of purpose, far from it; but the pragmatist in me focuses more on the how. How do I run my business and live my life well? How can I make a difference? How can I continuously better myself and be of service to my team and my customers?

Simon dismisses the ‘what you do’ as simply an outcome of getting your purpose right. I look at the ‘what’ from a different perspective. I ask about the ‘what’ – as in, what is it that you are aiming to achieve – which often leads to a messy conversation at best.

Another bugbear of mine is the setting of vague ambitious goals that are the petri-dish of excuse generation. “One day I’ll be a millionaire; quit my job and start my own business; make enough money to retire at 40; set up my own foundation; start a family…” And then life gets in the way and we procrastinate, change our mind or simply give up.

Through failure (the best teacher!) I have learnt to focus my efforts on being rather than achieving; being better at what I do; working smarter to get better paid; working on my relationships to create stability; making time to learn and grow on a daily basis; getting out of my comfort zone to explore my potential; choosing the path less travelled to enjoy the journey of life.

So, back to Simon.

Whilst I focus on ‘how’ I want to live my life and run my business; I do subscribe to his idea that we have got the ‘game of business’ very wrong. COVID, if anything, has shown us how true this is. As kids, we are told that life is like a game. I often talk about the analogies between sports and business in my motivational talks. Winning, outsmarting the competition, the pain of losing, and one-upmanship are drummed into us throughout life. Winning is good; losing is bad. So, we lead our teams with the sports coach mentality of winning in the game of business. Score more goals (sales) and defend your goal (market share), and you are winning. Then the year ends, you measure against some arbitrary target or budget, and celebrate or commiserate. Then you start all over again in January – Sisyphean economics.

In his webinar, Simon explained that the game of business is infinite. It has no end time, no set rules, no defined players that can continuously change, and no defined playground. If you think about it, by defining a year-end budget, we are creating an illusion of an end game which isn’t real. Your team doesn’t have a ’trading season’ and may leave at any time, and markets are pretty much out of your control. You may have had the best preparation, top players and know-how than anyone, then a pandemic comes along wipes out your revenue stream in weeks. COVID also showed us how absurd this idea of an end game is in business. For example: I suspect many readers had a significant lift in morale this January, hopeful for a better year. Yet the virus, it seems, doesn’t subscribe to the Gregorian calendar… we are still waiting.

But waiting for what? For the game to re-start?

If the game is infinite, what’s the purpose of playing the game? Who would sign up for a marathon with no finish line? Or a tennis match that went on to infinity? To answer ‘nobody’ may be rash. I suspect that a few would. Those people that enjoy playing the game, or the running in and of itself; were winning is not that important.

So, when I talk about the ‘how’ in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I am talking about how we play the game. Instead of simply aiming to win, by making an effort to make the game enjoyable, interesting, challenging, satisfying in and of itself, we make the journey worthwhile. Running a business that continues to make a difference to its employees, customers and community, not compromising on any of these in order to beat a competitor.

Indeed, it promotes collaboration with other teams instead of one-upmanship. If together the game is more interesting; more fulfilling, then let’s do that! If the enjoyment of the game, with all its ups and downs, is seen as a series of challenges to learn and grow, then work is no longer toil.

It’s a paradigm shift in the way we look at work and is not easy to get our head around. How can we motivate people if there is no finish line, no view from the mountain top, no final target? Well, these are useful motivators that have a place in the short term, to feel that our effort is leading to some sort of progress, but the goal should focus on ‘being’ rather than achieving. It’s not facetious; being ’the best that you can be’ vs ‘better than your competition’ is a good example of this shift, because it’s setting an infinite goal.

Life, unfortunately, does have an end game. But business doesn’t. It can outlive us, and we can leave a legacy beyond our finite time. What is your legacy? What is your infinite game?

Nathan has recently released ‘A Million Steps’: Lessons from the limit of physical and mental endurance. How to light the fire every day in business and life. It can be purchased from local bookstores as well as on Amazon and Kindle.


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