Before you embark on any journey, whether fitness or otherwise, it’s important to understand one thing: Your mindset going into that endeavor is everything. It is the lens through which you will perceive everything that is thrown at you. And one of the keys to having the right mindset is knowing exactly what game you’re playing. You can’t go into chess playing checkers.
Recently, I was reading a book by Simon Sinek called The Infinite Game in which he explained a concept in game theory. He explained that in life, nearly every human pursuit can be relegated to one of two types of games we play: finite games and infinite games. A finite game has known players and opponents, clearly defined rules, and a mutually agreed-upon objective. It also has clear winners and losers. Football, Scrabble, and chess are all finite games.
Infinite games, on the other hand, have known and unknown players and fluidity of rules, and the object of the game is not to win but to keep playing the game.
Many of life’s undertakings are finite, like getting a college degree or running a marathon. They emphasize competition and “beating” the other players. There’s a clearly defined finish line, and you know exactly when you’ve crossed it and where you rank among other opponents.
But many more human endeavors are unending. A marriage, career, a small business you start — these are all infinite games. And while these pursuits may have milestones, there isn’t an end-all-be-all finish line, and they won’t end until you exit the game.
A huge reason people struggle is because they’re playing an infinite game like it’s one they can “win.” Simon Sinek says, “Several areas of life are undermined by a win/lose mindset. We don’t ‘win’ relationships, like marriage, for example, and there’s definitely no such thing as winning business.” Sure, you can land a job, (a finite game). But living out a successful career is a game you will not win per se, but rather one you will build, develop, and hopefully play as long as possible.
The same goes for health and fitness. Let’s say one day, after several years of couch surfing and weight gain, you decide to lose 20 pounds. Over the course of weeks and months, you exercise, diet, and eventually hit your goal. This is a day of victory for you, but you did not win fitness. You just started playing. Only now the game changes from losing weight to maintaining your new healthy lifestyle. You will be introduced to new variables and challenges that you didn’t have before. And as you age, the game perhaps gets more challenging. But if your health is important to you, you keep playing.
Contrast this with how many people approach fitness. They think once they hit a certain weight, they will be happy (win), and they can go back to their normal lives. They compare themselves to others and get discouraged when their efforts, and results, don’t measure up to someone else’s (usually some Instagram influencer). So having felt like they “lost,” they give up, gain the weight back, and stop playing the game.
Someone like this has to apply the infinite mindset and understand that first and foremost, in fitness, you are only competing with yourself. The only person to beat is the man or woman you were yesterday. The most important metric when playing the game is knowing that today you are better than yesterday.
Framing it this way, you can start to ask better questions. Like, what skills can you develop to help you get better results tomorrow? You begin to understand that a weight loss plan that doesn’t look beyond six weeks isn’t going to allow you to keep playing the game. So you focus on better, more sustainable solutions. You start to better understand your triggers, eating habits, and look for a training program that you can do long-term. You can no longer run your body into the ground for short sprints because you understand that you’ll have to keep playing. You’ll begin to optimize for long-term results versus short-term vanity “wins.” You also understand that you have as much time as you need to get it right, and if something doesn’t work as you hoped, you adapt the methods and keep going.
So with that said, stop trying to win, and start playing the long game. spt