When I sat down in a quiet place to speak with Sinek, who had granted me an hour over the phone, I had just recently finished reading his latest book, The Infinite Game, which challenges the finite mindsets we tend to apply to the parts of our lives that are actually meant to go on forever, even after we’re gone.
But the thing about forever is that it’s a really, really long time. And when you read 11 chapters about building an infinite mindset, then go into a conversation with the man who wrote them, the notion of time is probably going to be on your mind.
What even is an hour to this guy? Are my questions forward-thinking enough? Will this story have value in five, 10, or 20 years?
Ultimately, Sinek is an optimist. What you talk about with him will come back to particular goals; finding solutions and revealing truths. A trained ethnographer, he’s written five books including two New York Times bestsellers, and his first TED Talk in 2009 became the second most viewed of all-time.
The Infinite Game concedes that there are, of course, finite games that exist. A basketball game, for example, is finite. There are specific rules and you absolutely should be planning to have the most points by the time the fourth quarter ends. Most of life doesn’t actually work that way, however, even though we tend to pretend it does. Too often we tackle aspects of life as if we can escape them with a victory. But to face things like they will never end, to create something worthy of being carried on by someone after us, we can inspire people to follow, join, and support us.
So, the phone rang, and it was Sinek, and I knew there were only two options for me:
There’s the finite approach to an interview with Simon Sinek, and the obligations of that approach can’t be disregarded: I have a story to write for this magazine, and my editor expects to get it at a certain time containing an agreed upon amount of words.
But there’s also an infinite mindset to engaging a resource like Simon Sinek. That mindset requires me searching myself for a bigger why. Not for why I’m writing this story but why I write in general, why I want people to read the words I write. An infinite minded conversation with Sinek might be all over the place, because you’re going to want to figure a lot of stuff out. You never know when it might help you.
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One fact about The Infinite Game is that it was supposed to come out in December of 2018. His publishers put “amazing pressure” on Sinek to get it out in time for all the readers looking to start 2019 with the next book by the best-selling leadership author.
It wasn’t that Sinek had no intention of trying to meet that deadline, but he has a philosophy about deadlines. “There are deadlines that actually matter, and there are arbitrary deadlines,” he says. Most people who have signed a book deal with a major publishing house wouldn’t consider the deadline given to them as “arbitrary.” But that deadline was placed with narrowly focused intentions, and he wasn’t about to meet it at the expense of his own goals, which went well beyond the sales projections for January 2019. “When they were trying to tell me that the book has to be done by that date, they pulled that out of their ass.”
Sinek set about writing the book with his own intentions. He wanted to write a book that could articulate his ideas and was bolstered by unique examples. He wanted to make sure it represented the way he looked at the world. He wanted it to be good, and to sell a lot of copies, and he wanted it to have the kind of success and impact on readers that theoretically could enable him to write another book down the line. Books, by their very nature, are permanent. Once it’s in a reader’s hands it can’t be revised. But that permanence is powerful, too. It might be picked up by someone decades after it’s written, and in that year—in that moment—it can have as much resonance on a reader as anything going in his or her life or in the world around them.
For all of those reasons, Sinek pushed the deadline three times (“Or, in their words, I missed the deadline three times”) until he had written a book he was pleased with. All of those reasons, you might notice, are to the benefit of all parties involved: Sinek, the publishers, and the people who invest money and time reading it. Infinite-minded decisions tend to benefit the most people, and thus tend to be the most productive decisions.
Not everyone has the luxury of disregarding the deadlines placed upon us, even if they are arbitrary. But we often place deadlines on ourselves that risk jeopardizing the bigger picture and it’s healthy to acknowledge the difference between those and the deadlines that actually are immovable. “I have to buy a birthday present by the time of my nephew’s birthday,” Sinek acknowledges. “The point we’re trying to make here is that not all deadlines are created equal. The deadline describes many things even though we only have one word for it.”
It’s not that time exists differently for Sinek or that he is encouraging anyone to be difficult to work with. Long-term motivations can change short term actions, but they don’t disregard them. Infinite-minded motivations require planning, too. The reason that Sinek can get away with telling his publishers that he needs another year is because they know he’s not thinking about what can get accomplished in that extra year. He’s thinking much further than that.
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A conversation with Sinek can manage to be both painfully matter-of-fact and deeply philosophical, sometimes in the same breath. Perhaps that’s because, to him, his points are not discoveries unlocked by intellect but rather somewhat obvious truths that are often shrouded by a lack of transparency. “I just want people to be honest,” he told me more than once with a sense of aggravation in his voice.
See, an infinite mindset is accomplished through a Just Cause according to Sinek, because a Just Cause can go on forever. It may adapt as time and circumstances and environments change, but it serves a mission that is worthy of being served, for you, for me, and for the future. People follow, work for, consume from, or promote a Just Cause because they understand the value in their loyalty to it. A finite-minded leader focuses on results in ways that have nothing to do with a Just Cause. Sinek’s book is full of companies and organizations whose successes were short-lived because reaching the pinnacle was their goal so their time at the top couldn’t be sustained. Growth for growth’s sake isn’t a Just Cause. After a while it starts sounding like profit for profit’s sake, and people can find that mission just about anywhere.
Naturally, without realizing that they are half-heartedly impersonating an infinite mindset, there are no shortage of companies plastering their walls and websites with mission statements that mean nothing and aren’t embodied by the people in their offices. This is an example of why Sinek thinks the infinite mindset, a relatively simple concept, becomes less clear to the average person. “I don’t have a problem with a company being shareholder-driven,” he tells me. “Just don’t pretend to be purpose-driven. Stop lying to us.”
Being shareholder-driven isn’t necessarily an evil or morally corrupt approach; it’s simply a shortsighted one. You don’t play business to win. You participate in business to sustain. This applies to all levels of an organization. We get to choose our mindsets. “I don’t have a problem with people who are playing with a finite mindset in the infinite game of business. You can play with that mindset, but it comes with a liability.”
That’s what Sinek wants to warn us about. History shows that a hyper-focus on the results in front of us leads to a loss of trust, cooperation, and innovation. “All of those things eventually lead to the decline and demise of an organization.”
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There’s a line in The Infinite Game that is particularly striking, and helps distinguish Sinek’s theory from simple forward thinking. Sinek writes, “America’s Just Cause has yet to be realized, and for all practical purposes it never will be. But we will die trying. And that’s the point.”
There’s a word in that sentiment that is anything but vague: never. We’re often taught to think for the future, and the concept we’re told to embrace is “delayed gratification”; the idea that we can resist rewards in the present for greater rewards in the future. But Sinek’s providing a framework that might be difficult for a lot of people to reckon with, that we should always be working to inch closer to something we’ll never achieve. “The point is you’ll never see ideals,” Sinek says to me. “But you should see progress.”
The simplest analogy that Sinek can provide is that people should not be taking on most aspects of life as if they are competing in, say, an athletic competition. Rather, they should be approaching it with the mindset of trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to get in shape. “Even if you achieve your health goals, you have to keep exercising and eating healthy for the rest of your life,” he said. Through this lens, “never” seems less daunting and more obvious.
Sinek has long had an interesting habit of adding a footnote when someone is being described as particularly successful or on top of their respective industry: “For now.” He’s not the type of author who props up the success stories of famous CEOs or entities to bolster the framework of his theories. When I brought up the rise of Amazon it was, I will admit, out of my own personal concern.
I’d assumed that there are two philosophical perspectives on Amazon. There are cynics like myself, who are skeptical of the company’s ethics and are fearful of what their growing power will mean to the future of small businesses. And then there are people who see it as a successful business that offers plenty to its customers.
But Sinek tends to see things from a more detached vantage point. Amazon, according to him, is playing a finite game, and they are doing it better than anyone. He feels their founder, Jeff Bezos, is relatively transparent about this. And of my fear that they will “take over the world”? Sinek isn’t too worried about it. They don’t have the attributes of an entity able to survive an infinite game. They are not known to treat their employees particularly well. They don’t have a Just Cause, so their customers are in no way committed to them. “Nobody loves Amazon,” he told me. “We like Amazon. But no one is going to turn down a cheaper deal or a better service because they love doing business with Amazon.”
That’s not to say he’s predicting any sort of imminent demise of the company. (He generally assumes it will be eventually broken up by antitrust laws or pecked down to size by a combination of competitors.) These outcomes are simply a result of trying to win a race rather than pursuing an ideal that can be chased forever. “It’s successful not because of trust, love, and loyalty,” he says. “It’s successful because of an exaggerated transactional relationship with absolutely everyone, arguably even its employees.”
Most of us tend to think of a “five-year plan” as a responsible way to prepare for the future, but that is by its very definition a finite game. Would you rather shop from (or work for) a company trying to sell the freshest produce or a company trying to make sure that people have access to fresh produce? The latter is playing the infinite game. Its goal will never end. Its strategies will be reflected by that goal and will adapt with the times to meet that goal. It will attract employees who share that goal and reward them as a means to keep them. It will attract customers who also share that goal and are less likely to lose them to competitors.
There’s another striking line in The Infinite Game: “Time is always the great revealer of truth.”
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There was one question I asked Sinek that seemed to baffle him. I didn’t stump him; he legitimately didn’t understand the question, even though I’d assumed it was a relatable notion to just about anyone. I asked, after completing this book, which was a monumental task taking years of his life, whether he was at all burdened by an existential question: What next?
You would have thought I’d asked him if he believes in the Boogey Man. After rephrasing the question a few times he simply responded no. He will just keep going on the same journey that the book was a part of.
“You don’t finish breakfast and think, ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’” he tells me.
None of us knows what the future holds, which for many is a source of anxiety. Sinek is able to mitigate that dread because he knows what he wants out of the world. His understanding that it can’t be fully accomplished only means he will always have a task at hand. He escapes perfectionism by not allowing this book (or the previous one, or the next one) to be the thing that he sees as defining him. “My books exist in a continuum,” he says. “They’re a snapshot of where I am at that time.”
Infinite mindedness isn’t his goal. It’s the means to what he wants for the world. He wants people to wake up inspired, feel safe at work, and be fulfilled when they complete a day. He believes that we’re all entitled to that. But how safe do any of us feel when we’re surrounded by people playing finite games? Their goals might change, and at some point will we unwittingly be standing between them and their finite goal du jour?
I don’t know if Sinek will enjoy this story or not. I don’t know whether it will catch the eye of any other editors at other publications and result in more assignments for me to write. But I know that the reason I write stories is because, if I can just give people something to think about, maybe they’ll have something to talk about with each other, maybe over dinner, maybe over drinks, maybe in the breakroom at work. Maybe that leads to a genuine, thoughtful conversation, and where it goes from there is up to them.
So that’s what I tried to do with this story about Sinek. And that’s what I’ll try to do with the next story I write, regardless of who or what it’s about. As far as I can tell, that’s how you play the infinite game.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Main photo by © Andrew Dolgin