Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York

49: Know the Game ♟️

Newsletter 🗞 Nov 16, 2021

On some level, everything in life is a game. That doesn't mean all games are trivial. It does mean you should look for ways to level up, ways to collaborate, ways to win, and ways to ensure you can live to play another day. Here's my cherry-picked definition:

A game is an activity involving skill, knowledge, or chance

It's a definition sufficiently broad enough to cover how you build businesses, how you negotiate, how you behave at work, and how you build relationships.

First, it's important to understand the dimensions by which games in life exist. Each dimension of classification contains a new way to think about how you engage.

  • Finite vs infinite games
  • Kind vs wicked learning environments
  • Strong link vs weak link sports
  • Peak vs typical performance scoring

This week we'll tackle game classification, and next week I'll share thoughts from my journal on why Lebron James is an excellent case study for mastering the game in multiple dimensions.

Game classification

Every game you play has a few prerequisites that allow it to be played on a common footing with other players. We'll examine each in detail.

First, you must understand how long you're playing for. The duration may influence whether you wish to play at all. The paradigm I'm stealing from Simon Sinek here is the distinction between finite and infinite games.

Second, you must decide on an arena. The type of environment in which a game is played will significantly impact your ability to play. For the same reason that Rafael Nadal was master of the clay while Roger Federer reigned supreme on grass, you may be better suited for some domains than others. You won't always get to choose where you play. However, by knowing the field in advance, you can adapt. I'm borrowing the Kind vs Wicked learning environment paradigm from David Epstein.



Once you have the time and the place, you come to the question of rules. Malcolm Gladwell makes a great contrast between strong link and weak link sports that will be useful for our discussion.

Finally, you should know how you're scored. Here I'm drawing a line between games scored on peak performance vs games rated by optimal performance.

Finite vs Infinite Games

Simon Sinek raises the idea in his popular talk "The Finite and Infinite Games of Leadership,". He presents two sorts of games in game theory:

Finite Games: Players are known, the rules are set, and the goal is set (e.g. baseball).

Infinite Games: Players may be known and unknown, the rules may be changed at any time, and the goal is to perpetuate the game. You play to keep playing (e.g. the cold war).

There is a clearly defined endpoint with winners and losers in a finite game. In an infinite game, all players strive to keep the game going. There are no winners or losers in this game; There are only survivors and those who are forced to quit due to dwindling motivation or resources.

When both sorts of players are present, Sinek describes the following scenarios:

The system is stable when there is a finite player vs. a finite player. The system is also stable for infinite player vs. infinite player.

The challenges, according to Sinek, come when a finite player competes against an infinite player. One person wants to win, while the other wants to keep playing.

Sinek uses the example of the United States and Vietnam, where the Americans were fighting for victory while the North Vietnamese were battling for survival. Sinek also draws this analogy to business. The rules of the game are always in flux, there is no genuine status of "winning," and, as he points out, the "game of business" itself has outlasted every firm in the world. We are only ever ahead or behind.

Companies that approach the field knowing they are playing an infinite game are the ones that last the longest - they are centred around a fundamentally human mission. By contrast, we've seen plenty of cases where companies have played finite games by defaulting to competitiveness and lost in the long run. Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia and Microsoft have all, at some point, fallen into this trap.

The finite player will always end up in a quandary when coming up against someone with an infinite approach. Something to think about before attempting to engage your work rival in a war of attrition.

It is important to understand where in life you might benefit from having a finite vs infinite mindset. Sometimes situations are winner take all. At other times, the best thing you can do is plan to survive the winter.

Kind vs Wicked Environments

Chess is a complex game. You start with two identical, perfectly mirrored sides, but once each player has made their first move, there are 400 possible board setups. Make another move each, and you're now in one of 197,742 possible games. After three moves each, you're playing one of 121 million. Players push each other into an increasingly divergent trajectory with each move, and each game grows into a sequence that has likely never been played before.

But as far as learning environments go, chess is incredibly kind.

There are noticeable and repeatable patterns in "kind" learning environments. Feedback is exceedingly accurate and generally quite fast. In games like chess or golf, you can move a piece within well-established rules and limitations, and see an immediate result. Comparable problems occur frequently, and you can train to avoid them.

When you drive a golf ball, it slices, hooks, or flies straight. With a poor swing, the ball either goes too far or not far enough. The player watches what happens, tries to fix the mistake, tries again, and so on for years. That is the notion of deliberate practice, which is linked to both the ten-thousand-hours rule and the push to early specialisation in technical education. Because a student improves merely by participating in the activity and attempting to do better, the learning environment can be considered 'kind'.

By contrast, the rules of the game are frequently vague or incomplete in wicked domains. Recurring patterns may or may not exist and may or may not be visible. Feedback is frequently delayed, erroneous, or both. Experience will reinforce the exact incorrect lessons in the most devilishly wicked learning environments - you don't get to make binary adjustments.

Unfortunately, the world isn't golf, and it isn't even tennis for the most part. Much of the world is "Martian tennis," as Robin Hogarth described it. The participants are on a court with balls and rackets, but the rules have not been given. It is up to you to figure out how to get them, and they are subject to change at any time.

There are fields other than chess where a lot of focused practise leads to grandmaster-like insight. Surgeons, like golfers and chess masters, improve by repeating the same process and recognising patterns. Accountants, bridge players, and poker players all gain correct intuition via practice. Those domains have "robust statistical regularities" in certain fields, according to Kahneman. When the rules are slightly changed, however, it appears that specialists have exchanged flexibility for restricted expertise.

Experts had a harder time adjusting to new rules than non-experts in a study of the game of bridge when the order of play was changed. When experienced accountants were asked to apply a new tax legislation to replace a prior one for deductions, they performed worse than novices. This tendency is referred to as "cognitive entrenchment" by Erik Dane, a Rice University professor who researches organisational behaviour. His ideas for avoiding run directly against the stringent form of the 'ten-thousand hours' school of thought: significantly diversify tasks within an area, and insist on "having one foot outside your world"

Team building is a game of resource allocation in many modern sports. Managers are allocated a certain amount of money to spend on players, or a certain number of player contracts to trade against the team's salary cap. As a result, team formation eventually becomes a tradeoff exercise. Every chip you stake for one player is a chip you can't use again. You may find discounted gems under some circumstances, but choices will always filter through the lens of prioritisation.

Quality vs. depth is one dimension of prioritisation. How much of a team's focus should be on the superstars in its lineup vs. making sure it has enough depth? Should a team's strengths be emphasised or its flaws be minimised?

Authors Chris Anderson and David Sally took a deep dive into soccer analytics in their book The Numbers Game. They characterised a strong link sport as one in which the team with the top player wins most of the time. A weak link sport, on the other hand, is one in which the team with the poorest player frequently wins.

Basketball is a strong link sport. If you hand the ball to LeBron James at any point in the game, there's a good chance he'll create a scoring opportunity since he has so much influence over the outcome. His success is less reliant on the team's other links. In the NBA, you can construct a franchise around a great player.

It's easier to see why football (soccer) is seen as a weak link sport. Because this is a low-scoring game, errors can be costly. Furthermore, each player has possession for only a portion of the game. When Lionel Messi has the ball, he can accomplish extraordinary things, but he can't touch it until his teammates have completed a series of successful passes. Messi might barely see the ball for an entire game due to a single weak link elsewhere on the field.

You are only as good as your weakest link in football. If your worst player is 40% as good as your greatest player and makes a terrible pass, it cancels out the 10 prior flawless passes. The strength of the team is contingent on the talent of the entire group, regardless of how many brilliant players you have. That's why Liverpool FC are often able to dominate better equipped European teams despite having a weaker man-for-man lineup.

Football is a game of mistakes. You can minimise the team's number of errors by simply replacing your worst player with a better one.

The weak link/strong link dichotomy is incredibly useful in understanding certain types of problems. To use Malcolm Gladwell's example, let's say I handed you $50 billion to spend in a way that improves the efficiency of air travel in the United States. The last thing you'd want to do is go to Denver, which already has a large, beautiful new airport, and make it even larger and more beautiful. No, you'd go to the country's worst and busiest airports - LaGuardia, Newark, and Kennedy — and improve them. Because delays at Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy airports reverberate across the country, causing planes to be delayed everywhere else. You'd blow the entire $50 billion in New York. You would need to approach air travel in the United States as a weak link problem.

Gladwell also talks about Hank Rowan, an engineer who gave a hundred million dollars to Glassboro State University, a tiny institution in need, out of the kindness of his heart. Many others soon followed Rowan's lead, although they only gave to affluent elite institutions who were hardly short of funds. Why didn't any of those people join Rowan in his quest? Because here, Hank Rowan is a weak link, and he wanted his donation to make a difference. Rowan wants to make the world a better place by supporting the weakest player instead of superstars like Harvard.

This classification is also context-dependent. In the early days of a startup, the sales function is a strong link sport. You'll only have a limited amount of chances to secure key clients. All you need is one rockstar salesperson that can make each swing a home run.

In a multinational firm, on the other hand, you're upselling and recruiting new clients many times a year. To keep the lights on, you simply need to maintain about the same number of clients each year and show slow but consistent growth. If the rest of your sales staff is bad, paying top dollar for a single superstar will have little influence.

Peak vs Typical Performance

In organizational psychology, a contrast is drawn between typical and maximum performance as an approach to categorise work performance. Typical performance refers to how you perform on a regular basis, whereas maximum performance refers to how you perform when putting in the most effort. It's the difference between what you will do, and what you can do.

When workers are being monitored, they normally perform at their best. Job interviews, management assessments, and knowledge exams are all settings that encourage and score based on maximum performance. However, there's little guarantee that results in these contexts will be reflected in an employee's typical, day-to-day, performance. You're only optimising for those that test well.

If the job you're testing for is in the kind of strong link sport that requires frequent exhibition of peak prowess, that's not a problem. You hire a magician because she has some tricks that could blow your socks off in under 45 minutes. After that, she can hang up her hat. If what you really need is consistent reliable output, you should look elsewhere. You don't need a data entry guy who can type 200 words per minute for a total of five minutes and then needs to rest for an hour.

The researchers who first distinguished typical and maximum performance in 1988 proposed that for maximum performance to occur, several conditions must be present: a. the individual must be aware that they are being observed; b. the individual must be instructed to maximise their effort; and c. the measure of performance must occur over a short period of time so that the individual can remain focused on the appropriate goal.

On the other hand, typical performance usually occurs when an individual is unaware that they are being evaluated, is not deliberately pursuing their best performance, and is observed over time.

Sackett expanded on the idea of maximum performance more recently, noting that it may be thought of as the level of performance that an employee can "deliver on-demand" if they apply maximum effort for a short time.

A professional runner prepares for a specific competition and is pushed to perform at their best. Their success is measured in the same way that a stand-up comedian is. You want their very best, at the moment it matters, for a short amount of time.

A teacher, on the other hand, is judged by how well they perform on a daily basis. The stage is the classroom. Their success is determined by how engaged pupils are and how much they have learnt over the course of an entire year.


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If you have any thoughts on games in life I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

I’d also love any thoughts on what I should write about next.

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York
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