finite, infinite and when the goal is everywhere


“In a finite game, the rules are fixed until there is a winner, but in an infinite game, the rules must change during the course of play.”

James Carse


“If life’s journey be endless, where is its goal? The answer is, it is everywhere.”

Rabindranath Tagore


While this is about finite versus infinite, it is really about winning or success.

  • a commitment to the future versus a commitment to a conclusion in the present.
  • using resources or using ambition.
  • repeating behavior instead of reinterpreting, reimagining, principles for new contexts.


This piece may not be for people who like specific goals and milestones, but for a joker like me who likes the randomness of life and finds pleasure not in linear success, but the spontaneous successful moments that appears in life the whole idea of infinite is far far more appealing to me than the Finite.

“I have no way of knowing whether the events that I am about to narrate are effects or causes.”

Jorge Luis Borges

Let me be clear.

There is absolutely a need for ‘finite’ type activity. Some people prefer working toward specific objectives and finite activity has value in its, well, finiteness. That said. As Goldratt suggested about business: “there is no finish line.” The grander objective of any business is never something finite, it is actually infiniteness – thrive-ability for an unforeseeable length of time. And that thrive-ability is actually grounded in, well, complexity (and the finite tends to thrive on simplicity).

The complexity that everything is connected with everything & the difference between beginning & ends is simply one’s perspective. cause & effect is a linear idea in a non linear world.

The complexity of reinterpretation based on context wherein ambition to meet the needs of a situation trumps simply using resources available.

The complexity in recognizing that progress has no finish line and that successes are just situational (but should still be celebrated).


This entire idea is outline in James Carse’s book “The Infinite and Finite Game.” The book is not a read for the faint of heart. Fascinating, interesting and, at times, unintelligible. Yet, at its core, it explores what is actually at the heart of the challenge facing the business world – must we view things in a finite way to be successful or if we viewed it in a infinite way could we get out of the horrible cycle of shortermerism, profit over people, traditional hierarchy, and the general muck business seems to be mired in.


The most visible concept of finite in business is gamification. That alone should make everyone dislike gamification. It is simply a series of challenging people to work in an endless array of games where there is a winner or loser.

But the finite/infinite relationship comes to life in a variety of other ways.

Abstract versus tangible:

Infinite is abstract. Finite is tangible. Unless you can tether the infinite with some narrative, some vision, some story, some metaphor, running a business with an infinite mindset is going to feel a lot like chaos. And it may actually be (although it may not be in that there are other surrounding principles which permits the organization to act in a coherent way).

Another abstract versus tangible aspect is value. Now. Most businesses do not discuss finite versus infinite in terms of Finite value versus Infinite value. They should.

In business Finite value can most often be found in maximizing a transaction (between purchaser and enterprise) – maximizing present value.

Infinite value can most often be defined in maximizing a life (of a business enterprise) – maximizing future value.



Carse suggests finite versus infinite is about competition versus cooperation.  This is an important distinction because rivalry, or competition, is self-terminating. If business were a 100-yard dash this may be okay (maybe), but its not. The purpose of any business is actually to be infinite where its life has no foreseeable conclusion and progress has no foreseeable stopping point. Once again, in Goldratt’s words: there is no finish line.

I would point out that this is really about decision making. Good decision-making needs good sense making. I imagine I am suggesting sense making demands we remove competition (and its unsavory companion – rivalry) to be successful.  I imagine I am suggesting true, effective, collaboration cannot exist within competition environment. I imagine I am suggesting collective sensemaking is collaboration. I imagine I am suggesting shelving a ‘benefit now, disadvantage later mindset’ tied to tangible finiteness and tapping into infinite value.



While we cannot control the future, we can certainly control the conditions of how the future we want is constructed. This is actually probabilities management, not goals management (kind of the business version of “push versus pull” marketing strategy). That said. Emergent defies most planning (finite management) and embraces ‘smart strategic opportunistic” behavior (potential management). Yes. There has to be an artful balance of finite, self-interest/transactional, and infinite – the larger greater good (self-interest cannot be separated in the long run from the interests of the world” Daniel Schmachtenberger) . Emergent demands a buy in between the individual and the collective wherein the individual ‘self authors’ (autopoietic) with an accepted vision of the larger group so that all decisions & actions remain coherent.

** Note: Autopoietic – self authoring.  Society is emergent in that people self-author their own definitions of success and self-narrative (meaning in the world & society) versus society establishing the definitions with which an individual should judge themselves (and be judged).

** Note: autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-), meaning ‘self’, and ποίησις (poiesis), meaning ‘creation, production’) refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The original definition can be found in Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living (1st edition 1973, 2nd 1980)

I would suggest Emergent could be called deterministic chaos in that Complex systems are both deterministic (when constructed well) and chaotic (when working well). Therefore, success is found in both constraints and in the unconstrained, the finite and the infinite.


Abstract pattern recognition:

Part of infinite is shifting patterns or maybe the ongoing instability of patterns, therefore, finite resides within the pattern itself. Now. Power has always resided in the tangible which inevitably arcs toward simplicity (if not oversimplification). Yet. When external events disrupt the pattern then we, individuals/organizations/society the effectiveness of existing patterns becomes less effective, new aspects into patterns yet to be defined and then new patterns occur. It is important to note that most existing patterns do not function when conditions change.

“Humans reproduce geometrically while resources reproduce arithmetically.”

Malthusian Theory

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out no business can exist without any pattern or pattern identification. Patterns identify structure and all business needs some structure. That said. Finite tends to define patterns in a static way (linear) and infinite tends to define patterns from an abstract perspective (coherence). Both have some value although the former is fragile and the latter is antifragile.


Idealism versus realism:

Idealism versus realism is often a debate between abstract and tangible as well as possibilities and pragmatism. When someone says “I am being practical” 99% of the time they have resolved themselves to a binary world in which the choice making, the decision, is some simplistic fork in the road. The truth is crossroads are more roundabouts rather than some ‘road not taken’ type decision.

That, my friends, is the finite versus infinite mindset.

“La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition d’une vie libre et indépendante”

(“The constancy of the internal environment is the condition for a free and independent life”).

Claude Bernard

Every business demands realism. The issue is when that realism suffocates the idealism.


In the end.

The most basic aspect of finite versus infinite is transactional versus long term value. Present value versus future value. And while both have roles it would be a mistake to solely choose one over the other.

Look. The truth is people, to be at their best, need to have some core consistency (passion, vision, character, whatever), some finiteness, in order to be free enough in the infinite universe to be successful.

Not to get too philosophical but a successful business is always a fragile balancing act between being independent from the external environment and actually of the external environment. In other words, balancing the finite and infinite. Business demands not only recognition of the finite versus infinite aspects of business itself but also the people who make the business work.



“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

Stephen Chbosky


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Written by Bruce