When a Finite Game Becomes Infinite

When a Finite Game Becomes Infinite
Photo by Matthew McBrayer / Unsplash

On May 23, 2021, at 50 years, 11 months, and 7 days old, “Lefty” golfer Phil Mickelson set a record as the oldest person ever to win a major in golf.

Since turning 50, Mickelson has been seen bouncing between the senior and regular tours. In my eyes, he looked more like he was preparing for retirement than preparing to win another major.

Why is it then, playing against guys 20 to 30 years his junior, that 50-year-old Mickelson was the one to take home the PGA Championship trophy? I’ll argue it’s because he’s been playing a different game.

Is second first?

Let’s compare Mickelson to another great golfer of our time, Tiger Woods. Their names alone say it all. Tiger–a fierce animal, the hunter in the jungle, an assassin. Phil–my next-door neighbor who likes to grill hot dogs and burgers on the weekends. Appearing every so often in an arthritis drug commercial and sporting the logo of a Big 4 accounting firm, Mickelson’s demeanor reminds me more of a laid-back uncle than a fierce competitor.

I mean no disrespect in drawing that comparison (I like my neighbors), but wanted to point out an undeniable difference between the world’s previous #1 and #2 golfers.

While watching the 2021 PGA Championship, I heard the commenters compare similar downfalls between current and previous golfers. When they got to Tiger Woods, the commenter started, “and Tiger’s weakness… just kidding, he didn’t have one.” The other chuckled, “haha yeah–you almost got me there! I was curious to hear what you were going to come up with.”

Such a comment highlights just how unstoppable Tiger was in his prime, playing as close to perfect as anyone had ever seen. The man revolutionized the sport competitively as well as commercially, becoming the first athlete to earn $1 billion.

If we look at the metrics everyone normally looks at, Tiger was the best.

If we look at another metric though, active years on the golf course, Mickelson wins. Phil was never number one, but he’s still in the game.

Tiger was a virtually perfect player, but perfection came at the cost of an on-and-off career filled with scandals, accidents, and other catastrophes.

One was perfect, but one is still going.

So who won in the end? It depends on which game you think they’re playing.

When the finite meets the infinite

In life, there are finite games and infinite games. Author Simon Sinek describes finite games as having known players, fixed rules, and a clear endpoint. The goal is to follow the rules and win the game. By contrast, infinite games have no defined endpoint. The goal is to play to keep playing.

By definition, sports are finite games with clear winners and losers. However, athletes like Phil Mickelson show us that one can dance with both the finite and the infinite.

Within the game of golf, players want to most efficiently get through a course within the boundaries of rules (finite game). Stepping back though, someone like Mickelson is playing on another level. He’s playing to keep playing (infinite game).

Compared to Tiger, Mickelson lost the finite game, but at a higher level, maybe he actually came out on top. If the love of the game is the driver, then shouldn’t longevity be the goal? Wouldn’t you want to play as long as possible?

Not the only one

Professional athletes have notoriously short careers compared to the rest of the working world. For many, their time is cut short by injuries, age-related drops in performance, or plain old irrelevance.

Oddly though, when we look at modern sports legends, we see athletes who are at or near the top of the game at an age previously considered too old to be taken seriously.

  • At 43 years old, Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their first Super bowl in almost two decades.
  • Pushing 40 and now a mother, Serena Williams (39) is still ranked in the top 10 female tennis players in the world.
  • At 36, LeBron James has mentioned wanting to stay in the game long enough to play with his son once he turns 18.

James has said, “If I’m on the same court as my son in the NBA. That would be No. 1 in my lifetime as an NBA player.”

Let’s read that again: to stay in the game long enough to play with his son “would be No. 1 in my lifetime as an NBA player.

Sure, he’s playing for another championship, but I doubt another trophy would really give him any more fulfillment. He started out playing finite games, but now he’s playing for the infinite.

Perhaps these athletes are so successful even in their “older” age because they’re not just playing to win finite games anymore. They’re also playing to keep going.

Rooting for the overdog

When the Superbowl rolls around each year, I often hear people say they’re rooting for whatever team Tom Brady’s NOT on because they’re tired of seeing him win. Most people like to root for the underdog.

Personally, I don’t feel strong allegiances to any team, so when the Superbowl rolls around, I like to root for the team Tom Brady IS on–not because I’m his biggest fan, but because I like to see the “old” guys still killing it.

Sustaining a successful multi-decade career in a field as brutal as professional sports demands a higher level of strategic thinking that those playing on the finite level don’t plan for. Playing an infinite game requires a different kind of preparation and sacrifice. That’s what I admire.

Zooming Out

There aren’t many people who choose to seek the infinite. Many stay in zero-sum games of status, ladders, and hierarchies.

Luckily, athletes like Mickelson show us that even if we start in a finite game, we can still zoom out and level up.

If we can see our lives as infinite games where the goal is to keep playing, maybe it’ll change the way we prepare, the way we think, and the way we live.


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