A useful book: Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse

So, lately I've been thinking a lot about the pursuit of happiness.

There's a really good episode of This American Life about it, of course, because there's a good espiode of T.A.L. about most things. But I think it's also just one of those big fundamental themes that we encounter and re-encounter repeatedly in life and right now I find I'm in a bit of an "encounter" phase.

Wherever you go...

As of July 2020, one life lesson I've found a bit surprising is just how utterly irrelevant various life milsetones have been to my internal peace of mind. People talk about how "the journey is more important the destination" or whatever, and it's easy to just nod accept that in a general way, but I'm not sure it did anything material to prepare me for finding my own meaning in life—or even to prepare me for that odd sort of empty feeling you get after accomplishing some long sought goal.

I've been thinking about that while talking to people about their different existential dillemnas and trying to help A.L.F. scholarship recipients plan their next steps out of high school. One case I seemed to be almost uniquely distressed by was a friend who recently decided to go to law school.

Know that there are important purely-practical reasons that most people going to law school today should not be going, and that's what I was worried about at first: tuition rates are at all time highs, employment prospects are often rather bleak,[1] and people just generally reach for "law school" as a generic "why not" thing far too often. My friend is a very practical person, however, and was able to settle all of these for his specific case pretty quickly. He then laid out an entirely reasonable seeming plan that would leave him as a well-positioned, experienced attorney in 5-6 years with a solid baseline income and interesting possibilities for future career choices.

And that was good; I was glad he had a thorough and practical plan. But I was also bothered by it, because there was just this vague nagging question whispering in the back of my head.

After 5-6 years, he'll be well established to do all kinds of work that might really interest him... and then what?

Talking with my friend about this plan, it was hard for me not to think of my own life, and my own journey through college (as an undergrad) followed by working for 2 years at a prestigious firm (Google). That path did open a lot of doors but I was also really struck by how utterly unsatisfying it all was in the end, and how most of the things I really did take satisfaction in were the incidental pieces of Life that I had to fight to graft onto this streamlined vehicle of professional respectability.

Wherever you go, there you are, as Jon Kabat-Zinn told us. When I reached whatever new phase of life met me in Manhattan, I had the feeling of someone stepping out of an airport only to realize they had no idea what to do in the city at which they had just arrived.

It wasn't my first time feeling that way, and definitely wasn't the last, but it was a particularly tough case of whatever odd syndrome that feeling of listlessness can produce.

I now take precautions to steel myself against it, and encourage you to do the same.

The useful book in question

To use the terminology of Carse, I'd say it's not uncommon for someone to find themselves excelling in some "finite game"—a game that might take years to fully play out!—only to find themselves caught off-guard by the "infinite game" that awaits them after the close of finite play.

Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Clark Originally published 1986 by Free Press (now Simon & Schuster) ISBN 0-02-905980-1

Finite and Infinite Games is a relatively short (if dense) book that explores the titular dichotomy through 101 theses. The formula here is pretty simple, but I found it immensely satisfying from my very first read. Carse will set up an example of this dichotomy—say, the difference between the theatrical (finite) and the dramatic (infinite)—make a few observations about that particular incarnation of the dichotomy, and then move on.

Some number of online reviewers seem to find this structure frustratingly repetitive, and even shallow, but I think it is a mistake to read this book looking for answers, per se. One of Carse's core ideas is that the world is always changing and so that our thinking should, too; it'd be silly, then, for him to try to outfit you with all the tools you'll need to take on a world he knows he cannot foresee. Instead of tools, Finite and Infinite Games gives the reader a set of techniques with which they can question and think about the world and apply to unknowable future situations. The repetition is important as a way of practicing these techniques while reading along, just like the practice of repeatedly tracing letters as we learn to write.

That Carse thought to structure his text like this at all is rather amazing; it almost doesn't feel like a book in the way that we normally read books. There is no real narrative or natural ordering of concepts like there is in most fiction or non-fiction. Carse just walks you through these thinking exercises—without any instruction about what he's doing!—and the result is something that feels both polished and personal like some precious stone that's easy to carry with you but holds immense value.

In addition to finding the text repetitive, though, I saw other online reviewers who found the book "impractical" for various reasons. The Times review back in 1987 had similar complaints, along with notes that the underyling ideas may not be sufficiently "original" for the reviewer's taste.

I think the Times review is rather illuminating in its self-defeat, however, as many of the "practical" concerns Kane would rather we focus on feel like distinctly 20th century issues to the contemporary reader, and his titular gripe with Carse's framing of "the garden" vs "the machine" feels almost aggressively naive 30 years later. That the framing feels much more concrete in a world where we're fully grappling with the Internet's impact on society, the unceasing danger of global warming, and whatever weird dystopian concerns Silicon Valley people have about future A.I. leaves Carse seeming ahead of his time here.

More broadly, I think the kind of rapid societal change that we've seen in the past thirty years is the kind of change where techniques—not tools—end up being much more useful guides, as we have to rethink many of the assumptions on which our tools often rely.

With all this in mind, I've recently found myself giving people copies of the book for assorted occassions. I do think you have to read it at the "right time" for it to fully click, but it's almost like a fire extinguisher: profoundly useful to have around when you need it.

A few highlights

All of these pulled from my copy of the Kindle edition, pages based on what it tells me.

It feels like I actually have most of the book marked up in some way, so it wouldn't feel fair for me to dump my whole notes file here, but these should help give most of the flavor of the text.

Page: 15

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

Page: 26

The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.

Page: 26

When a person is known only by name, the attention of others is on an open future. We simply cannot know what to expect. Whenever we address each other by name we ignore all scripts, and open the possibility that our relationship will become deeply reciprocal. That I cannot now predict your future is exactly what makes mine unpredictable. Our futures enter into each other. What is your future, and mine, becomes ours. We prepare each other for surprise.

Page: 44

Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.
There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. Any attempt to vary from the past in such a way as to cut the past off, causing it to be forgotten, has little cultural importance. Greater significance attaches to those variations that bring the tradition into view in a new way, allowing the familiar to be seen as unfamiliar, as requiring a new appraisal of all that we have been—and therefore of all that we are.

Page: 56

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously.

Page: 69

If to look is to look at what is contained within its limitations, to see is to see the limitations themselves. Each new school of painting is new not because it now contains subject matter ignored in earlier work, but because it sees the limitations previous artists imposed on their subject matter but could not see themselves. The earlier artists worked within the outlines they imagined; the later reworked their imaginations.

Page: 93

The infinite player in us does not consume time but generates it. Because infinite play is dramatic and has no scripted conclusion, its time is time lived and not time viewed.
As an infinite player one is neither young nor old, for one does not live in the time of another. There is therefore no external measure of an infinite player’s temporality. Time does not pass for an infinite player.
Each moment of time is a beginning. Each moment is not the beginning of a period of time. It is the beginning of an event that gives the time within it its specific quality. For an infinite player there is no such thing as an hour of time. There can be an hour of love, or a day of grieving, or a season of learning, or a period of labor.
An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility.

Page: 111

Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounded way of looking to an horizonal way of seeing.


  1. There's even a Wikipedia page for it! ↩︎

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