Finite and Infinite Coaching

There are at least two kinds of coaching. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

Coaching is a metaphor that comes from sports. Sports are finite games, according to James Carse, author of the book Finite and Infinite Games. As a result, most coaches, without realizing it, are finite coaches.

What does it mean to be an infinite coach? While finite coaches are excellent at helping their clients achieve goals, infinite coaches go beyond goals to ask:

  • What is the infinite game that is served by the achievement of a finite goal?
  • Because the achievement of a goal is just a stop along the way, how can the entire journey become as important as the goal?
  • What goals are really worth having in the first place?

Are you a finite or an infinite coach?

View Video Transcript
Finite and Infinite Coaching
Steve Bearman
April 10, 2012

Today I am excited to share with you a powerful idea from this little gem of a book, Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It is a must read for coaches and also a really great read for non-coaches because it has some beautiful things to say about the nature of life and the games that we play within it. The two different kinds of games the book refers to, finite and infinite, are different. Mostly what we think of as games are finite games. A finite game has a clear beginning and an end, occurs on a bounded playing field with a limited number of players and a predefined set of rules. The goal of a finite game is to end it because the goal is to win the game and the game ends when someone has won the game and not everybody can win. Finite games are things like baseball or board games, but are also things like politics and business and government and war, if you are winning a job title or you are winning a degree that allows you to participate in a particular trade, you are participating typically in a finite game and playing the roles that go along with the game, you are trying to achieve a certain success condition, you are trying win. Infinite games are different, an infinite game has no beginning or end, it never ends, it can be played anywhere, the more players the better and the rules change as you go and one of the reasons the rules change is that the goal of an infinite game is to keep it from ending, the goal is to continue the play. And so you have to change the rules sometimes to ensure that nobody wins and nobody loses so that more people can be brought in and the play can go on. Life can be played as an infinite game. Finite games are important because achieving goals is important and achieving a goal typically means that you are goal-oriented and you are trying to go through the proper sequence of steps to get to that goal, there are rules that have to be followed to get them. But achieving those only gets you so far, you can achieve goals and still not know why you are here or what life is for. And so responding to life as an infinite game means that instead of being so serious you become more playful, you start to play at life. Life becomes a playful kind of a game. Coaches tend to be finite coaches and the reason for this is that long before there was life coaching or business coaching, there was baseball coaching and basketball and track coaching. Coaching comes from sports and so the metaphor of coaching as a sport has infused life coaching and business coaching, it means that if you are a finite coach you will think of life as a kind of a game that has a set of rules that you can help your clients to master and by doing so they can achieve desired success conditions, they can win at the goals that they decide that they want to achieve, and this is an important thing to do, everyone needs to learn how to achieve their goals. But finite coaches tend not to go deep, they tend not to be holistic and they tend not to engage in these deeper kinds of spiritual questions about the nature of life and why we are here and everybody needs to engage with them in order not to be dissatisfied by the rather limited achievement of their goals. Let me give you a couple of differences between finite and infinite coaching. A finite coach might help somebody to succeed in their business and then once they have succeeded they will have some money, they will be able to compete in the field in which their business operates; they may have some pride on what they have done. But an infinite coach knows that nothing ends at that point, that that success is really just part of an infinite game within which the finite game of succeeding at business takes places and so the question really is “why is—why does that business exist, what is it for?” What is it that you want to contribute to the world, what difference do you want to make? Because figuring how to contribute to your community and to the world is an infinite game and achieving success in a business is only one way to achieve that, it's just one strategy, figuring out what the contribution is allows you to play the infinite game and not be limited by the finite game and by success that may be achieved by you at the expense of other people not succeeding. If those other people could also be recruited as players in the contribution you want to make that’s an infinite game and an infinite coach will help somebody to do that. Let's say a coach, who is a finite coach wants to help somebody find a life partner. Well that’s a great goal and so they will help somebody learn what you do at a date and how to attract the kind of partner you want and they will help someone secure a relationship. But an infinite coach knows that nothing ends once they achieve the relationship, that people think that their goal is to just get a partner, get married or have a baby and that’s not just, that’s just a moment in time that occurs in an endless sequence. Infinite coaches know that life goes on and on and on well past those parts and so the process of relationship rather than the goal of relationship becomes more important. How over the infinite span of your life do you learn how to be related and be in a relationship in a way that’s satisfying and fulfilling and where we’re all in it together? A finite coach might help somebody to lose weight, to lose a certain number of pounds, to achieve their goal weight and that can be a helpful thing to help someone do. An infinite coach however, knows that it may not be really the right goal to help somebody lose weight. In fact they know that most people gain weight back once they lose it because the system of their lives doesn’t change in which they are able to maintain their body in a different way, it's not like you are done, you have to keep eating and you have to keep exercising forever and ever and ever. So achieving a goal weight is kind of the wrong way to think about it. An infinite coach will look at what the real goal is. Perhaps the real goal is for a person to be able to accept their body as it is and maybe that doesn’t require them to change their weight or perhaps the real goal is for them to just become healthy and eat well and be in good aerobic shape and that might or might not result in weight change. So an infinite coach will pay attention to what goals are really worth of achieving, not just take at face value the goals that people come to them with. And this is important because in the world of coaching and in other kind of human-potential movement technologies like neuro-linguistic programming or the work of Landmark Education, people have learned how to achieve any goal that they set for themselves, but they don’t learn what goals are worth achieving. And so an infinite coach helps somebody to determine what goals are worth achieving. There are a lot of finite coaches in the world; there are not that many infinite coaches. If you become an infinite coach it means that rather than stopping at goals, you help people learn how to explore and discover ways of being in life, what it means to be a person and why we are here and how we can all be a part of this project together rather than just achieve individual goals. It becomes about a bigger project where we are trying to figure out how to be people and how to create the world that we want to create. So I encourage you, read the book and become an infinite coach, we need a lot more of you.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.