Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and welcome to the Dare to Lead podcast. This is a fun conversation for me today because I’m talking with my friend Simon Sinek, and I think Simon is a visionary thinker. He is an amazing speaker, he is the author of multiple best-selling books, and we’re going to talk about his new book, The Infinite Game.
BB: And you know how when you have these experiences in life, and the first thing you do is you make up that you’re the only one, because they’re so weird and just unnameable, but they’re patterns and they don’t happen just once, and then all of a sudden someone gives you language which provides you with a handle for an experience and now you understand it, and you can file things into it, and you can recognize when you’re in it, and you can recognize when you want to be in it and you’re not in it? That’s how I feel about The Infinite Game.
BB: We’re really going to talk about the difference between an infinite mindset and a finite mindset, and for me, this has been so helpful because I’m an infinite girl living in a finite world sometimes. Actually, the world’s not finite, but when I get scared and overwhelmed and I feel my vulnerability is breaching the levee, I get really finite. I want to know, What are the rules? What’s the game? How do I win? How do I make sure someone else loses? I move away from my values. And so this is a conversation about the infinite versus the finite mindset and five essential and super actionable practices of infinite thinkers and infinite leaders. So love this conversation with Simon.
BB: So Simon Sinek is an unshakable optimist. He believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. He’s devoted his professional life to help advance a vision of the world that doesn’t exist yet, a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired. They feel safe wherever they are, and they end their day fulfilled by the work that they do. I want to say, just on a personal note, he is a teammate and I didn’t really think about it that way. I think I knew it, but I didn’t think about him as—we’re going to talk about this in the podcast, in the conversation, an invisible teammate.
BB: And there’s a really specific story that I tell in the podcast about how my dad’s wife was very, very ill. Her time was very short, and I had to leave to go to Romania to an event that I was really excited about doing. But I also knew I couldn’t leave because I knew that my family needed me. I needed to get to San Antonio. I need to be with my dad and his wife. And so I made the difficult decision to stay back with my family. And the first person I called was Simon to see if he could maybe sub in for me at the event, and when I called him, it was like 4 o’clock in the morning, because he was actually already in, I think it was nighttime here, but it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and he was in Europe and he answered the phone.
BB: He was, like, kind of groggy and he said, “Hey, what’s up? Are you OK?” And I said—you know, we talk, we text every now and then, but we talk maybe once a year, and we’ve seen each other in person maybe once at an event in California, and I said, “Yeah, everything’s actually not great. It’s hard. I’ve got a family member really sick. I’m supposed to be in Romania in three days. Is there any way you could sub in for me for this event?” And he said, “Yeah, just—I’m already in Europe. I just need information, flights. We can do this. I can help out.” And the event host ended up bringing in another speaker, who was wonderful, but just the fact that he’s like groggy and saying, “Yeah, I don’t really even remember what country I’m in right now, but I’m in Europe, so I think I can get there and I’m here to help”—just those people that we don’t see every day but who have our backs.
BB: So in addition to the formal bio and the fact that he has amazing books, including Start With Why, which really helps frame how we lead here, and Leaders Eat Last, Together Is Better, and this new book, The Infinite Game, in addition to all of those credits, he’s also just one of my invisible teammates. Let’s talk to Simon Sinek.
BB: It is nice to see your face, Simon Sinek.
Simon Sinek It’s nice to see you, too. It’s been too long.
BB: It has been a long time. I know we randomly text each other out of the blue all the time, but I haven’t seen you. I haven’t seen you in person in probably three years, is that right?
SS: Well, I like to think of it as two years because 2020 is sort of the lost year—
BB: Oh, yeah, then two years.
SS: I keep referring to last year as, like, 2019.
BB: It really was the last year we were in motion kind of, isn’t it?
SS: Yeah, exactly.
BB: You know what, I have to say that for a long time, probably for 15 years, I’ve always had this term “move a body friend,” like a friend where you say, “I need help moving a body,” and they’re like, no questions asked, they just move a body. I’m going to have to have a new expression called “go to Romania for you friend,” so I have to tell everyone listening that we had a really sudden and hard death in my family, and I called Simon and said, “I have a speaking event. I’m not going to be able to make it. There’s been a death in my family,” and he says, “I’m actually in Europe. Where do you need me? And when do you need me? Take care of yourself and your family.” That was you.
SS: I don’t remember.
SS: You don’t?
SS: You did.
BB: I mean, if you needed something, I would have said yes, so wonderful. This is what we do for each other. We help each other out. I’m a great believer that people who—I think this is more than friendship, because you and I know each other and we respect each other’s work, but we’ve not spent a lot of time together. We’ve had some great phone calls, for sure, but I’m a believer that when you meet someone who shares the same cause, who you’re united in values, and you’re trying to advance the greater good together, even if you have no history, there’s sort of this unspoken deal that you help each other out—
SS: Because we’re trying to advance the greater good and we’re on the same team—
SS: And you help out your teammates, and that’s just how it works—
SS: And so I adore you. I adore your work. I talk about you all the time. I quote you a lot. And so when you called me, it’s not a question of friendship or help a friend bury a dead body. It’s like, “Oh, my teammate needs me. That’s what you do.” It was my pleasure to help advance the cause for you.
BB: I feel the same way, and it’s interesting, because I had not thought about it until just the second when you were describing it, but we have kind of solitary weird lives, sometimes. Both of us, we write alone, we travel alone, we speak alone, and I do feel like part of a team of like-spirited people on the same kind of just and worthy cause mission, you do feel like a team. Thank you for pointing that out. Do you not agree, sometimes the work can get lonely?
SS: For sure the work can get lonely. I just had this amazing conversation with a wonderful, inspired human being by the name of Quilen Blackwell, who runs an organization called Eco House in Chicago. And in our discussion we came up with my new favorite definition of faith, which is “faith is knowing that you’re on a team, even if you don’t know the players, if you don’t know who the players are.” Isn’t that great?
SS: Life is not a solo sport. You’re on a team, but you don’t necessarily know who all the players are.
BB: Yeah, that gave me goose bumps. Yeah. That’s a beautiful definition.
SS: And I think that’s one of the things that—because I remember when we met, we knew each other’s work, we had plenty of friends in common, and we hugged immediately as if we were old friends. And it’s—again, you realize, I just met a teammate that has always been there, I just didn’t know she was there. But I love that definition, and it’s really given me a calm. It’s not lonely. You’re just alone.
BB: There’s a difference, right?
SS: There’s a difference. We travel alone, we work alone, we’re alone, but it’s not lonely if you remember some of the teammates you’ve met and then you have faith that there are others out there who you don’t know.
BB: God, I really love that. Do we meet the first time in California, doing work with the Imagineers for Disney?
SS: That’s exactly right.
BB: Yeah, I remember.
SS: I heard you were on the docket, and I made a beeline for you.
BB: OK, I got so many questions. Let’s talk about The Infinite Game. You got me jacked up, Simon. You really have me troubled. I’m not kidding you.
SS: Go on.
BB: You have to understand, y’all. I will text—if I went back in my texts right now with Simon, you’ll see five texts over three years and—well, you’ll see many more texts than that, but you’ll see five repeated ones—like, OK, I’m stuck in my why because my what is getting the way of my how. And he’ll like, he’ll say something back to me. It’s just—so The Infinite Game. OK, let’s start with a couple of things. First, I want to read—I just had this very long conversation with Jim Collins—and I want to read something to you from Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, because I just feel like this paragraph—I read it over and over again. I’ve almost got it memorized. When I think about The Infinite Game, I’d keep thinking about this.
BB: So Jim quotes historian Edward T O’Donnell by saying: “History is the study of surprises,” which I love. And then Jim goes on to write: “We’re living history, surprise after surprise, after surprise. And just when we think we’ve had all the big surprises for a while, along comes another one. If the first two decades of the 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty is chronic, instability is permanent, disruption is common, and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal’; there will only be a continuous series of ‘not- normal’ episodes that defy prediction and are unforeseen by most of us until they happen.”
SS: If you have a finite mindset that thought scares you, and if you have an infinite mindset, you smile and think, “Ooh, that’s fun.” This is one of the things I learned from James Carse. He was the first to define these two terms of finite and infinite games. We should define them for people who are listening who don’t know the definitions. So Dr. James Carse—a philosopher, theologian, bless his soul, just died last year—in the mid-1980s theorized that these two types of games, finite games and infinite games. The finite game is defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective: football, baseball. There’s always a beginning, middle, and end, and if there’s a winner, then there has to be a loser.
SS: Then there are infinite games. Infinite games are defined as known and unknown players, which means new players can join whenever they want. The rules are changeable, which means you can play however you want, and the objective is to perpetuate the game, to stay in the game as long as possible. It turns out we’re players in infinite games every day of our lives. There’s no such thing as winning global politics. No one’s ever declared the winner of careers. Nobody wins health care or education. You can come in first for the finite time you’re in high school or college, but you don’t win education, and there’s definitely no such thing as winning business.
SS: But if we listen to the leaders of so many of our organizations, it becomes abundantly clear that they don’t know the game they’re playing in. They talk about being number one, being the best, or beating their competition. Based on what? Based on what agreed-upon objectives, time frames, or metrics? And the problem is, is when we play in an infinite game with a finite mindset, when we play to win in a game that has no finish line, there are some predictable and consistent outcomes. The big ones include the decline of trust, the decline of cooperation, and the decline of innovation.
SS: And so when I had the opportunity to sit down with Jim Carse, one of the things he taught me that I didn’t write about was that people with an excessive amount of finite mindset, they look to exert control. They do not like surprises.
SS: And this is why you see in business time frames getting shorter and shorter and shorter, because you can control metrics for a quarter, maybe even for a year; five or 10 years, no can do. So short time frames are favored by the finite-minded. And like I said, they don’t like surprises. They try and mitigate surprise. And so this is why athletes practice, practice, practice, practice, or soldiers train and train and train and train, because they don’t want to be surprised and they want to be prepared for every eventuality. That’s what they’re trying to do.
SS: And you hear it in their language: “I didn’t have to think, I just relied on the muscle memory,” or “I didn’t have to think, I just fell back on my training. It was automatic.” They talk about it. In other words, all the thinking is done in the past. The infinite-minded are the opposite. They embrace surprise and find opportunity in surprise, and where for finite-minded, all of the thinking is done in the past, which is why surprise scares them, for the infinite-minded, the thinking begins at the moment of surprise. And we saw this happen when COVID struck. You could tell immediately who had the more finite mindset and who had trained themselves to learn the infinite mindset, because when COVID struck, the finite-minded panicked: “Oh my God, we’re not prepared for this. What are we going to do?” They went into self-preservation mode: Make more money. How are we going to survive, right?
SS: The infinite-minded went, “OK, how are we going to adapt? This is exciting.” And I’m talking about in their businesses. Obviously, the loss of life notwithstanding was awful for us to watch around us. But in terms of adjusting a business or pivoting, you saw instantly how they reacted, and I’ve become so obsessed with Dr. Carse’s work that I end up writing a whole book to help build upon it, but it’s really helped me and changed the way I see the world.
BB: So let’s unpack. Tell me how—I’m assuming Carse’s book, which I’ve heard from people who have read is an intense book to read—
SS: It’s kooky.
BB: It’s a tough book.
SS: It’s a kooky little book.
BB: It’s a kooky little book. I have already ordered it. I can’t wait to read it.
SS: Yeah, it’s a kooky little book.
BB: Tell me how Carse used these constructs. He did not talk about them as they applied to leading or culture or organizations. Was it through a theological or philosophical lens that could be applied anywhere, or how did he talk about it?
SS: He was a philosopher, and he started out with a basic definition, and then he went down the rabbit hole. And so his little treatise goes deep down the rabbit hole, and it’s fascinating and kooky and makes your head hurt. But the question that I was struck with after I was introduced to his work was, So what do I do with this?
BB: Right. You made it very tactical. You made it very actionable.
SS: That was my goal, because he definitely influenced me. And I read the book years before I ever decided to—I never thought I would build upon it. I never thought I would use it as the basis for my own work, but I found it influencing my perspective and my work. That’s what happened.
BB: OK, so is it fair to think about, before we get into kind of how we do this and how you’ve turned everything upside down for me again—
SS: I want to hear about that.
BB: Yeah, no, I’m pissed a little bit, and y’all see that he’s really concerned. Is it appropriate, does it fit with your data to talk about this infinite versus finite as a mindset or a practice? How would you talk about it?
SS: Yeah, so I write about it as a mindset. When I was writing the book, I originally used it as an adjective, like an infinite leader or a finite leader. But that was unfair, because I don’t think either of those definitions are absolute. You can have both. And The Infinite Game is not the absence of finite games, it’s the context within which they exist.
SS: So for example, you want to be healthy, you can still have finite goals—I want to lose X amount of weight by X date—but the difference is is that those goals serve a higher purpose. That’s the context. That’s the infinite component. They’re not absolute. And one can learn or adjust to the other one, so I think it is fair to call it a mindset.
BB: For me to weigh in, in case you’re interested, it feels like a mindset with very actionable practices that support it.
SS: I hope so.
BB: Yeah. Not unlike Carol Dweck’s work, maybe.
SS: Yeah, I think when people have actionable steps without the mindset, it’s blind or it’s kind of like you’re following somebody else’s formula. You know, it’s like going into a company and saying, “You have such great morale. How do you do it?” You’re like, “Well, we have Ping-Pong tables in every conference room.” And I go back and put Ping-Pong tables in all my conference room and morale doesn’t change at all. It’s like following a list of best practices without understanding the reason behind them and what’s underlying those choices and decisions. I think the mindset really matters, because then I think when you have the right mindset, yes, you can look to others and what they did, but you can actually be more creative and handpick and choose the things that you think apply to you, that are useful to you. So I think mindset is definitely a foundation, for sure.
BB: OK, so I’m going to take it one step further and then I’m going to start—
SS: Beating me up.
BB: Unloading on you. Yeah, I am, totally. I wish y’all can see him, because I can see him on Zoom and he’s got a laugh where one eyebrow goes up and it says, I’m curious, but it also says—one eyebrow says, I’m curious. The other eyebrow says, Bring it. That’s the look I’m getting from Simon right now. OK, so fair to call it a mindset, which is a theoretical foundation, the defining principles of the mindset, but then it’s got practices that have to be acted upon in order—you can’t just have the mindset. You have to do the practices too, right?
SS: Of course. It’s like I have the mindset of being healthy. I still got to work out and eat celery.
BB: Right. I refuse to believe that there’s—that’s all there is to it. I can eat something really good, but I’m going to have to work out, which I like, I guess.
SS: Yeah, exactly.
BB: All right. I am an infinite girl living in a finite world.
SS: Unpack that for me. You mean the finite world of academia?
BB: Well, finite—
SS: Because the world is infinite.
BB: Maybe. Let me think about another way to say it. The world is infinite. You’re so right that it’s not—you’re not either a finite leader or an infinite leader, because when I am my best self, I am an infinite thinker, an infinite leader, an infinite parent, and when I am in fear and scarcity and the vulnerability is breaching the levees, I turn toward finite thinking and I’m rewarded for it in the short term.
SS: That sounds accurate for all human beings. I think that’s an extremely good insight. Finite is easier. The rewards are immediate. We react to the thing in front of us. Infinite is more difficult. We have to consider effects that we cannot imagine. We have to recognize that we’re contributing to something that we may never see realized. And we simply count steps towards, where finite is about a series of win, win, win, win, win and about making yourself feel good in the moment. An infinite mindset is recognizing that you’re a part of a continuum, and the decisions you make have an impact on that continuum.
SS: There’s a Chinese story. It’s told many different ways. The way I know it is a young man is born with a remarkable ability for horse riding. And everyone in the village says, “You’re so lucky.” And the monk says, “We’ll see.” And he falls off his horse and breaks his leg and his career is destroyed. And everyone in the village says, “You’re so unlucky.” And the monk says, “We’ll see.” And then war breaks out and all the men are sent to battle and he can’t go because of his busted leg. And everyone in the village says, “You’re so lucky.” And the monk says, “We’ll see.” And that’s one of the big impacts that this work has had on me, which is good news, bad news, who knows what? And all of us will say, if we look back at our own lives and careers and we look at the trials and tribulations that we faced, that we don’t want to go through them again, but we’re all kinda a little secretly glad they happened.
SS: Somebody asked me a question the other day, which is, What would you do differently? And the answer is, I can’t answer that question because I am who I am today, I am where I am today, because of everything that happened. And if I did anything differently, then I don’t know where I would be. This wouldn’t be it. It’s a continuum.
BB: And you couldn’t even reflect back on the question.
SS: Can’t even reflect back on the question. It’s actually an impossible question, because my greatest lessons came from the biggest times of pain and tragedy. Some lessons I missed, and unfortunately was forced to learn them again. [Chuckle]
BB: Again and again, yep.
SS: And the goal is to pass it on. That’s the infinite component, which is that it’s responsible for all of us to teach it, whether it’s to our friends, to our children, whatever it is. We have to pass on the lessons and learn the lessons that get passed on to us. And this idea of continuum as well has changed my view of even myself, which is, I don’t think of myself as in terms of strengths and weaknesses anymore. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? “Oh, I’m a perfectionist. That’s my biggest weakness.” I think it’s nonsense, because it’s all context. It all requires context. So for example, I am chronically disorganized. I mean, it’s embarrassing, right? And for years, I’d say it’s a weakness and I would struggle with it, and I’d try all these methodologies to keep me organized, and they’d last for like a week and then they’d fall off. I’ve downloaded every app—and I would just call it a weakness.
SS: The more I started to embrace this concept of finite and infinite—I look back at my own life, and I remembered a specific time when my career was just getting going, and there was no book, no Ted Talk or anything like that, but I had this little idea called the Golden Circle and the concept of why. And I was at a networking event, and a guy said, “Simon, this is—you’re onto something. I want to hire you. You have to come and help my business.” Gave me his business card, and I promptly lost it. And any organized young entrepreneur would have been texting him from the taxi, emailing him the next day, but yahoo over here had lost the card, so there was nothing I could do.
SS: Two weeks later, I found the business card at the bottom of a bag covered in dust bunnies and called the guy and went, “Hey, do you remember we met two weeks ago?” And he wanted to work with me even more, because he thought I was busy.
BB: [Chuckle] Yeah.
SS: So was it a weakness? If I was organized then I might have come across as too eager. So now, if somebody asks me to do something and I forget to do it and I let them down, then in that context, that’s a weakness. In the other context, it’s a strength. So there’s no such thing as strength and weakness. It’s all contextual. And so the opportunity we have is to be aware of the characteristics that we have, to know how we show up and, to try as best we can to put ourselves in the context where that thing is a strength, or mitigate it in the times where it might be a weakness. But it’s not a good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just us.
BB: Yeah, and I find, when you talk about continuums, I find my greatest strengths and what I think of as my liabilities or weaknesses or opportunities for growth—whatever bullshit euphemism you want to use—I think of those on the exact same continuum. I can be controlling and I can be micromanaging if I’m not careful, if I’m in fear. But on the same continuum, I am incredibly dependable. You can trust me 100%. And if you throw the whole thing away, you throw away the best of me, too. And so I think about it more often for myself as on a slider of kind of infinite possibilities of how it’s going to show up based on the context of how I am in the world.
SS: But even that, I still hear an element of beating yourself up a little bit, of like, I can be controlling and I can be a micromanager.
BB: I can.
SS: But in some contexts, that’s actually very valuable.
BB: It is. It’s when it shows up at the right time and the right place in the right way—
BB: But it can also be detrimental. So this is a great example. My need for control can lead me to my best infinite leading and thinking, because when I get really clenched down, I can think, “Open up. Let it go. Let it go. You don’t know the players. You don’t know the rules. Just let it go.” And it can also be the worst of me in my finite thinking. I do think everything’s context. What am I serving?
SS: It’s all context, exactly.
BB: Talk to me about—let’s get really specific. I want to ask a question. When we talk about examples of infinite leadership, the first thing that came to my mind was Blockbuster and Netflix.
SS: [Chuckle] Yeah.
BB: Why are you laughing?
SS: I think it’s a funny example.
BB: Tell me what you use as an example. What do you think about?
SS: So the example you use—so way back when, when there were videotapes and DVDs, Blockbuster was the 800-pound gorilla. It was the only significant national video rental chain in the whole country.
BB: It owned us.
SS: It owned us, yeah. And there was this little company called Netflix that showed up that actually approached Blockbuster and asked them if they wanted to buy them and Blockbuster scoffed. They could see that the internet was happening, and streaming wasn’t quite there yet. The technology wasn’t good enough, but they saw—everybody saw that it was coming. And Netflix started to experiment with a new business model called subscription. And if you remember, you would subscribe and they would send you the DVDs in the mail. You could keep them for however long you wanted to—
BB: The red envelopes, yes.
SS: Yeah, you could keep them as long as you wanted and you wouldn’t pay more or less. You just pay your monthly subscription, that was it. And the CEO of Blockbuster saw that this was interesting and saw that he was onto something, saw that Netflix was onto something. And went to the board and said, I think we need to experiment with the subscription model. And the board would not allow him to change the business model because the company made 12% of its money from late fees. In their myopic finite-mindedness, they couldn’t let go of that short-term jab in the arm for the long-term good of the organization and to take advantage of a new technology. And Blockbuster no longer exists, and Netflix is now redirecting the way in which we view television. So that’s a very good definition of where finite-mindedness puts you out of business.
BB: Is short-sightedness a part of finite thinking?
SS: For sure, for sure. Because finite thinking is only the short-sightedness of only caring about the quarter, only caring about the year, and I’ll deal with next year when it happens.
BB: OK, then I’m just going to have to say for the record—and you and I both are inside of companies all the time; I’m just going to go on the record for—I think one of the worst manifestations of finite thinking is forced rank or forced performance evaluations. The Welchian kind of—like, oh, my God. What do you think you’re going to get great performance out of competing people for one quarter? At what cost?
SS: Yeah, yeah. And Jack Welch was a sign of the times. Our country has been on a steady drumbeat for a couple few decades now, of more and more and more finite-mindedness in our politics, in our business, in our education system. And we’ve overindexed. We’ve overindexed on rugged individualism. We’re overindexed on finite thinking, and now we’re picking up the pieces of it, quite frankly. And Jack Welch embodied what finite thinking looked like in business, and he was revered as a hero. I think he did—he and his cronies and his followers—did more damage to American business than probably anyone else. Because he pioneered a lot of this forced ranking. If you’re at the top 10% of the performers this year, you get promoted. If you’re at the bottom 10%, you get fired. He pioneered and really popularized shareholder supremacy, the use of mass layoffs on an annualized basis to balance the books. All of these things really came out of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, and Jack Welch played a large role in all of that.
BB: I still feel the residue of that fear in organizations I go into all the time.
SS: Yeah. We’re definitely in a place of transition. We know that because you and I have careers. It’s embarrassing that we have careers. We talk about trust and cooperation; there should be no demand for our work. But the fact that companies are interested in our work means that there’s hope, means organizations and leaders are now questioning the things that they learned in the past and are asking, Is there a better way?
BB: I was thinking that if we had forced ranking, and I called you and said, “There’s been a death in my family. Can you help me and cover an event? I don’t want to let these people down,” you would say no. Because at the end of our forced ranking speaking, one of us would be cut and one of—like there’s no team, there’s no trust. I just—I see it because I still work in companies that have it.
SS: Yeah. And it pits people against each other. This idea of internal competition where you pit your—I mean, can you imagine that? Can you imagine a soccer team or a baseball team where you tell the players,” We have a forced ranking structure in the soccer team, that if one of you gets a goal, you’ll get a million dollars, and if you don’t get a goal, you’re going to get cut from the team”? Their teammates will be fighting each other.
BB: Well, I can imagine it, because I work with a lot of teams, and it’s not as deliberate and intentional as what you’ve said, but it still—it exists there deep in. And you see it changing, because now we’re getting to the point where the ROI on infinite thinking, in coaching—that’s one of the things that kept really—because I’m a big sports person. I kept thinking about the implications for this book for coaches, for educators, for faith leaders, for politicians.
SS: Well, there’s an irony to it, which is, if you look at the greatest coaches of history, folks like John Wooden, they were not obsessed with winning. That’s the irony. They had the winning-most teams and the winning-most records, but they were not, per se, obsessed with winning. They were obsessed with taking care of their teams and teaching teamwork, and that is what led to all the wins. And I find that really ironic. It was their infinite-mindedness in coaching that actually made them more successful in the finite game.
BB: You say that when we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems. The most common issues we see: decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Do you have a real example or working example of leading with a finite mindset in an infinite game?
SS: You just did it, which is business is an infinite game. Nobody wins the game of business. But when you play for the quarter or for the year, and you pit your people against each other only to make a bonus at the end of the year, what you end up doing is creating internal competition and ultimately hurting all kinds of things that make a company survive for the long term. The average lifespan of a company in the 1950s was something like 60 or 70 years. The average lifespan of a company today is 17 years. There’s been this precipitous decline in the lifespan of an organization, because we’re not building organizations that are built to last. They’re built to demonstrate performance in a short term during the tenure of whoever is running the company, and as soon as that person leaves the company, they don’t really care what happens to the company, because that’s how they’ve been running it. I’m curious, if I may turn it around.
BB: You may or you may not. I’m not sure yet.
SS: Well, we’ll find out in a moment. You said you’re a finite-minded player, an infinite-minded player in the finite game, and that frustrated you. We didn’t really unpack that, and I wanted to know what else frustrated you or sent you for a loop. What else made you mad at me? [Chuckle]
BB: OK, let’s start with—I actually think I’m pretty infinite-minded. I think I’m probably a teacher and a creative before I’m anything else. And so I think teaching and creativity demand infinite thinking. I think I’m also, in terms of—we’ll talk about advancing a just cause. I think that I am very just-cause-driven, just as a person, as an organization. But sometimes I feel like—I’m just going to say it and you’ll school me. Sometimes I feel like, “Oh, I see you. I get your rules. I understand the uniforms. I understand the ref calls. You want to do this? Let’s do this. You want to play by your rules? Let’s play by your rules. I’ll win the game, but let’s play.”
BB: Sometimes it’s very frustrating in a world that seems to only recognize some of the finite wins to stay infinite. And sometimes the resistance is really, really great. And it can wear you down. It can wear me down, just to be honest with you.
SS: Yeah, I think that’s true. First of all, I concur. I think you are infinite-minded. And when you talk about being creative and being a teacher, Carse would say infinite-mindedness is loving the play, enjoying the playing.
SS: And I asked him where he came up with the idea. And he said he was involved in all of these salons in the 1970s where they were all debating game theory. Game theory was all the rage in the 1970s, and he was a part of it. And things like the prisoner’s dilemma came out of one of these salons. And in these salons, he’d meet with mathematicians and philosophers and theologians and engineers and all these folks, and all they were talking about was winning and losing, winning and losing. Zero-sum. And Carse raised the question, “What about playing?”
SS: And this idea stuck in his head. And he had three kids, and this idea was stuck in his head. He would go home and he would notice that when his kids would play Ping-Pong, for example—he had a Ping-Pong table at his house—there was always screaming and shouting, and there were always accusations of cheating. But when the kids were doing something creative, like drawing or Lego or something like that, it was quiet, and it would go on for hours and hours and hours. And people could join the game and leave the game, come in and leave, and it was much more fluid. And that’s when he realized the infinite-mindedness of creativity, which is, it’s fluid and people come and go, and it’s cooperative. And we too often apply the analogies of sports, for example, to situations that don’t have agreed-upon objectives, time frames or metrics, like work.
SS: There’s no winning work. There’s no winning career. There’s no winning business. It just doesn’t exist. And so when we come at it with a finite mindset, what we create is frustration and all the things you’re talking about. And it is really hard to maintain an infinite mindset when everybody else is really trying to beat you and win, take you down, not to take the bait. We all take the bait because we’re all human.
BB: God, we take the bait. Great way to put it. Seductive.
SS: Yeah. And let’s be honest, the finite game is seductive. It’s exciting, too. It’s way more exciting. David Marquet makes this joke. They don’t make movies about good leaders. They only make movies about bad leaders, like Master and Commander and things like this. Because nothing’s going well, and some big personality comes in and barks orders and saves the day. That’s called bad leadership. They don’t make movies about Marshall or Bradley. Because if you just show up in their organizations, everybody’s getting along. Everything’s sort of going fine. You say, “Hey, where’s the boss?” You’re like, “Ah, I actually don’t know if he came in today.” Everything just goes—it’s not very exciting for a movie. There’s not a lot of drama. And my point is is finite is more exciting. [Chuckle]
BB: The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
SS: All of that stuff. And we just have the wrong analogies—too many war analogies and sports analogies for things that are ongoing. And I think you’re right, which is if you’re practicing and you’re trying hard to practice an infinite mindset, and there are people who are trying to take you down, beat you, get ahead of you, and then you sometimes take the bait. You’re like, “You want to play that game? Fine. I’ll play by your rules and let’s see who’s going to win.” And even if you win, whatever that means—I don’t even know what that means—the game is not over.
BB: It’s so empty.
SS: And Richard Branson talks about this. He talks about how he’s tried hard in his career to have no animosity to anybody he’s ever known or worked with, and wishes everybody well. Because it’s a distraction to have that kind of mental baggage where you’re preoccupied with somebody else’s win or loss, and all you’re doing is taking time away from focusing on your own work. That happens in companies, and it happens as individuals. I get a kick out of the fact that companies are obsessed with their competition. They’re trying to beat their competitors. So when Circuit City went bankrupt, did Best Buy win? No. Just one of the players dropped out of the game. You didn’t win anything. But you now still have to keep working hard. Or that two companies can sell the exact same product and both of them can be really successful. Like there’s no such thing as winnings, and yet they’re all obsessed with beating their competition based on their own arbitrary metrics. And I just think that’s hilarious.
BB: But you know what I think? I think people in order to win make up metrics, and I think your question about growth—I mean, when I go into companies, I’m like, “Tell me about the goals. Tell me who you want to be,” and they’re like, “Growth, growth, growth.” I have the same response that you have. Like, Why?
SS: Yeah. Growth for what purpose?
BB: Yeah. Is it serving something? But no, it’s just, in an infinite landscape, it’s something they can hold on to. I have to say that this is where a lot of your work really affected me and changed the course of our business. Probably three or four years ago, I had someone come to me—we had a bunch of investors come, and you may have experienced this, and saying, “Let’s build a business.”
SS: [Chuckle] Nobody comes to me and asks me to invest in my business.
BB: So we had a couple people come, and finally someone came that had extraordinary resources. Like, there’s no such thing as limitless resources, but it’s close to anyone I’ve ever known that had these enormous resources. And said, “We want to help you grow. We want you to go further, faster.” And I went home and I slipped into the finite mindset—now that I know, I have language for it. I didn’t have language for it back then. I just thought, I was like, shiny object, but it’s bigger than just a shiny object problem. It’s a finite mindset. And so I was like, “OK, further faster. Further faster.”
BB: And I wrote down everything. Steve and I do this on occasion, my husband, where we write down our joy list. So everything that we’re doing when we’re at our most joyful as a couple, as a family and as individuals. And I looked at my joy list and I looked at the words further and faster. And I called the next day and said, “You know, I’m so grateful. I really appreciate it. I’m a slower closer kind of person.” And they were so bewildered and their response was, “We just saw a lot of ambition in you.” And to juxtapose that, right? And I was like, I am super ambitious, but I’m ambitious for something that’s slower and closer. I’m ambitious about the number of field hockey games I make for my daughter and the number of water polo games and dinners, and so I can say that the infinite mindset is tough when you’re sitting at a board playing with people with a finite mindset. You really cannot lose sight of yourself.
SS: And again, this is this overindexing that we have in this country of rugged individualism and this idea of “hyper-growth.” You and I meet entrepreneurs all the time, and you say, “So what business are you in?” And the first thing they say is, “I’m a hyper-growth company.” And my standard response is—
BB: The gazelle.
SS: Yeah, I’m a gazelle. “Is that a good thing? Can you show me one study, one, not 12, not eight, one study that shows companies that are obsessed with hyper-growth are better, longer-lasting, and more successful over the long term than any other company on the planet?” And the answer is, there isn’t one. There is nothing that says that high-speed growth is good. It’s just something that I think the investment community likes and egos like.
BB: But isn’t it coin of the realm in the finite-mindset world?
SS: Yes. It’s one of those metrics. Yeah, and I just think it’s funny, and you go down this abstract path, So what’s the purpose of your company? Growth. What are your ambitions? Growth. Growth to what end? What are you trying to serve? What’s the higher cause? Shareholder. OK, but where is the contribution? Like, what’s the impact? I’m not saying you have to run a charity, but what vision are you trying to advance, and if you notice, all of these concepts of growth and all of this stuff, they are visionless, because a vision is something you can imagine clearly in your mind’s eye. I have a dream that one day little Black children will hold hands on the playground with little white children.
SS: I can see that in my mind’s eye as a vision of the future we do not yet live in, and yet we will set ourselves on a course to advance towards that vision, knowing full well that we will never actually get there, because it’s an ideal, but we will die trying. That’s what vision does. It gives our life and our work meaning. Growth is visionless. It is literally like saying, “I’m driving on a highway as fast as I can, trying to cover as many miles as possible.” Where are you going on the highway? “No, I told you, I’m trying to drive as fast as I can, cover as many miles as possible.” I get that. Where are you going? “I told you, I’m driving as fast as—” And what ends up happening is you spend a career careening down this highway, and at some point you look out the window when you’re probably near the later stages of your life and you realize, I don’t know where I’m going. What was this all for? I’ve got more money, more power than I ever imagined. But for what?
SS: And I see this more in senior people than in junior people, that they start to look back and say, What’s my life’s purpose? And this is why you see older people become obsessed with their legacy. Like, first-term presidents only care about their reelection. Second-term presidents are obsessed with their legacies because they see the end is nigh and they start to wonder what was it all for. Why do you have to wait to be 70 to worry about your legacy? Why not 21? Why can’t you start to imagine what the vision is when you’re young and then you spend your life contributing to that, working toward your own obituary kind of thing? How do you want to be remembered? I think that’s something.
BB: It is something. And I will tell you that as you were talking about the car careening down the highway, what came to my mind is the Race to Nowhere.
BB: Yeah, it’s exactly it.
SS: That documentary on education and how we—are we teaching a finite mindset starting in middle school and high school with, “You better take this number of AP courses,” and “ou better be able to get out of this many hours”? And I have a 15-year-old freshman and I have a senior in college, and I will tell you, if you’re listening, the race is actually to nowhere. It’s like—when Ellen started college, I said, “Here’s the deal. If you already know what you want to be, I’m not paying for it. Really, I’m not paying for it.” And she’s like, “That’s so cringy, Mom, because all my friends already know what they’re going to be.” I’m like, “You graduated from high school two weeks ago. I’m sad and sorry for them. But if you know what you’re going to be—you’re the only one I’m responsible for. If you know what you’re going to be, I can’t pay for that. If you want to go and get curious and take a bunch of different classes, then we’ll do that.” But I have to tell you that I think we start training the finite mindset really early.
SS: Well, it’s easier. We talked about this. It’s easier, right? It’s very easy to teach math, and then if you can do the formula and get the right answer, I can give you a grade, right? And again, it goes back to Dr. Carse, which is, I can play the zero-sum finite stuff because it’s just easier to measure, easier to see, easier to teach. But how do I teach creativity? How do I teach empathy? How do I teach listening? All of these things are teachable.
BB: For sure, they’re teachable.
SS: You do it. All of these things are teachable. But one of the reasons that finite-minded folks don’t like The Infinite Game is, I cannot tell you how long it takes. They want all of these results to be demonstrated in predictable packets of time—a quarter, a month, a year, a semester, whatever it is—but the problem is is that’s not how it works. Like how long does it take to fall in love? I don’t know. How long does it take to get in shape? I don’t know. I can tell you the things you need to do, but for some people it’s quicker. For some people it’s slower. I don’t know, and nor does any doctor know, by the way, and that’s the issue. That’s the problem, which is, it’s not confined by time.
SS: And so we can teach creativity, but I’m not sure I can teach everyone to be creative in a semester. Some, but not all.
BB: That’s right.
SS: And so we choose the easier thing, and there’s nothing wrong with grades. We have to be able to demonstrate that you can study and achieve a certain level of mastery of a subject. There’s nothing wrong. The problem again is it’s out of balance. It’s out of whack. It’s overindexed.
BB: I think that’s a really fair, smart way to think about it, so that we don’t go too far the other way—we are overindexed. All right, let’s talk about the practices. I don’t want to get off before we talk about those, because I have—this is where you jacked me up again. You have identified five essential practices for any leader who wants to adopt this infinite mindset. Let’s go through them. Number one.
SS: Advance a just cause.
BB: Advance a just cause. So a just cause has to be—I’m quoting you here—“for something—affirmative and optimistic; inclusive—open to everyone who wants to contribute; service-oriented—in the service or benefit of others; resilient—able to endure political, technological, and culture change; and idealistic—big, bold, and ultimately unachievable.” Which I love.
BB: Tell me the difference. This is where you really have to help me because we live and die by some of your work here.
SS: I’m so flattered. That’s the nicest thing you’ve said. It’s such a wonderful thought to know that somebody I admire and whose work respect so much finds value in my work. It’s so nice. Thank you.
BB: Oh, my God, we don’t do performance evaluations. We do something where it’s more connection. Like we do a connection thing—it’s called Goals—and it’s all based on—maybe 30% of it is just straight your work from your book, like attributed. So I need some help with this. What’s the difference between our why and our just cause?
SS: So a why comes from the past.
BB: Give me an example.
SS: A why is fundamentally an origin story. It’s where you come from. Like you and I are sum totals of how we were raised, the experiences we had when we were kids, the lessons we learned from our parents, our friends or teachers, whoever, made us who we are. A why is objective and you have only one for your entire life. I can sit down and take you through a process, and I can just help you to find the words to discover your why.
BB: Is it synonymous with my purpose?
SS: Sure. The reason I hedge is because there’s so many words out there that lack standardized definition. Vision, mission, purpose—they don’t have standardized definition, so to different people they mean different things, which is why I’ve always tried to use my own words because then I can define it and now we can all agree on what the definition is. So for some people, yes, why and purpose are the same thing. So for example, my why is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them, so together each of us can change our world for the better. It is the foundation upon which I exist. It is the thing that it lights me up. It inspires me. It’s where I come from.
BB: It’s your zhuzh. It’s your thing.
SS: It’s my zhuzh, and it is objective. It is objective, and there is only one.
BB: OK, stop there. Wait a minute. What’s your organization’s why?
SS: Same thing, because I’m the founder. So the organization was founded in my image.
BB: OK, got it.
SS: So if you’re the founder, the organization is one of the things you’ve done in your life to bring your why to life, so it’s going to have the same why. The whats will be different, but the why will be the same.
BB: Wait. Ask me what my title is.
SS: What’s your title?
BB: Founder and CVO.
SS: Yeah, baby.
BB: I’ve been Simon Sinek-ed.
SS: It’s so good. So good.
BB: OK, so we’ve got your why. So say your why slow again one more time.
SS: To inspire people to do the things that inspire them, so that each of us can change our world for the better. Together, each of us can change our world for the better. So my just cause, a just cause, is about the future. A just cause is subjective. It can be about whatever you want, because it’s about where you’re going. You can technically have one for your family, for your work, for your church. They can all be the same and there probably going to be a lot of overlap, and though you could change it a lot, you probably don’t want to change it a lot, but it’s about where you’re going. So if you ask me my just cause, you’ll hear me use very different terms.
SS: I say, I imagine a world—so now I’m talking about the future, talking about vision. I imagine a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired, feel safe wherever they are, and end the day fulfilled by the work that they do. And I’ve committed my professional life to do everything I need to do to help advance towards that world. So that’s my just cause. It’s about the future.
BB: So the relationship between the—I’m going to get so finite on your infinite thinking here. So the relationship between your why or your organization’s why and your just cause is objective to subjective and also temporal.
SS: Yeah, so think of it like first you build a foundation of a house, not necessarily pretty. Whys are aren’t necessarily elegant, right, but you’ve got to have one. It grounds everything, and it lets you know who you are and the shape the house is going to be. Your vision is the house you imagine when you start building, and halfway through, you’re like, “You know what, I want blue shutters instead of green shutters,” and it can change. And if you decide to smash the house down and start again, the foundations still remain the same. So you can have multiple businesses, but they’re all going to have the same frame.
BB: OK, so number one is—this is for all of us who want an infinite mindset. I have to tell you, I think number one is so big, so getting the just cause right is really important.
SS: So many organizations have no clue how to write a vision statement. It usually sounds like “to be the best, to be the most respected, to…” Some nonsense about offering value. And that’s why I put those five check marks that a just cause, also known as a vision—but again, vision lacks standard definition—has to be something very specific and forward-facing, and it has to meet a few criteria for it to work, for it to inspire, for it to be long-lasting, for it to survive you. And that’s what those five things are that you read.
BB: For something inclusive, service-oriented, resilient, and idealistic. OK, so first practice, just cause. We understand—we understand how that fits with our why. OK, am I the first person to ask about how this fits with a why?
SS: It’s a legitimate question.
BB: Thank you. Building trusting teams, you and I are like—we’re very simpatico when it comes to the trusting teams. Say more.
SS: Well, if you want to advance something that can survive you, or if you get hit by a school bus that it’ll keep going, you have to make sure that the people around you not only believe in the cause but would be willing to take care of each other. Again, I think it goes back to the conversation we had some moments ago about the team. And the team is more important than any individual on the team, but the individuals in the team are members of the team, so the responsibility of leadership is not to obsess about the results. The responsibility of the leadership is to obsess about creating great teams that take care of each other and will use all their ingenuity and creativity to find new ways to advance the cause. So it’s—the responsibility is to build trusting teams, whether that means your family, your friends, or if you work for a company or have the opportunity to lead one, or lead anyone on a team, is to take care of the team.
BB: God, there’s nothing that refuels me and just—when I get to work with teams, high-trust teams that really love and trust each other and see each other, it’s just—it restores my faith in humanity. Do you feel that way?
SS: Yeah, and there’s no such thing as a perfect team.
SS: And even the best-functioning teams, no matter how good it gets, there’s always issues.
BB: Yeah, like a family.
SS: And it’s a family. And this is what I appreciate about The Infinite Game too, which is you recognize that a family, a team, a company is always a work in progress. It’s always a work in progress. And it’s always imperfect. And that’s part of the fun. It’s just constant, constant, constant, constant work. The choice to be a leader and the choice to be a parent are the same, which is like, OK, I always love this. The question—Do you want to have kids?—is a flawed question, because that takes about 10 minutes, right? The question is, Do you want to raise children? Do you want to raise a child for 18-plus years? Because that’s the real conversation you should be having when you’re quote-unquote deciding to have kids.
BB: Oh, God, it is really.
SS: Because it’s finite—beginning, middle, and end to a nine-month term that started with 10 minutes of fun, and nine months later, you’re like, “Oh, my God, we’re parents,” right? That’s finite. Do you want to have a child is finite. Do you want to raise is infinite, and that’s way harder work.
BB: It is infinite, and it is the biggest exercise in vulnerability.
SS: It’s a lifestyle decision. It’s not a choice. It’s not, Do you like kids? It’s, Do you want this lifestyle?
BB: Do you want to raise them? Yeah. OK, I love this. A worthy rival.
SS: Yeah. So in the finite game, you have competitors. Competitors are there to be beaten.
BB: Yeah, win, lose, zero-sum.
SS: Win, lose, you’re going down. In the infinite game, the other players—there are other players in the game, and some of those players are better at some or more things than you are at certain things.
SS: And that very often produces insecurity. And insecurity sometimes manifests as competitive spirit—going to take you down, because it makes me feel better. Right? But in the infinite game, if you want to embrace the infinite mindset, you stop seeing the other players in the game as competitors and you start seeing them as rivals. And some of those rivals are worthy of comparison, which means their strengths reveal to you your weaknesses, because the only true competitor in the infinite game is yourself, a game of constant growth and constant improvement, whether you’re an individual or an organization.
SS: And we don’t see our blind spots and we don’t know where we’re weak and all we do to celebrate our own wins. And so the easiest way to find out where you can grow and where you can improve is by looking at others who are better at you in some or many things. And you don’t have to like them—you don’t have to agree with them—but you do have to respect them, and then you focus all your energy on yourself, on making the constant improvement. So the business analogy was—back in the day, Microsoft was obsessed with making a better iPod than Apple. They called it their Zoom, and making it better, and they were obsessed with making a better iPod. They just wanted to beat Apple.
SS: Apple didn’t care about Microsoft at all. They were just trying to out-do themselves, and so finally, when Microsoft had bested Apple and come up with a better MP3 player, Apple introduced the iPhone.
BB: The iPhone. Yeah, I know that story.
SS: On to the next. On to the next. So it wasn’t this game of backwards and forwards. It wasn’t a cat-and-mouse game. One was playing with a finite mindset and was left high and dry, and the other one was playing the infinite game and was looking to constantly, constantly, constantly improve the way they were doing their own work. And so this one is the easiest of all the practices to embrace, because you can immediately look out inside your own organization or out to other organizations and say, Who does things better than we do, right? And you and I absolutely have worthy rivalry to each other. There are things that you do that I look at you like, “Darn, she’s so good,” right?
BB: Insane, yeah.
SS: Instead of making me angry or insecure, one of two things happens. I’m like, “We have to be better at that.” Like, “Let’s up our game, guys.” Or I call you up and be like, “Hey, you want to partner, because we’re better as a team than we are as individuals?”
BB: Yeah, that’s right.
SS: And so I love the concept. It’s made me—it’s helped relax me. I used to be very, very competitive against others. Now I’m very competitive against myself. It’s really helped me get rid of a lot of noise since I learned and embraced this concept of infinite mindset.
BB: I have an interesting—I want to check it out with you. I have an interesting way of checking myself on that, because I am a competitive person by nature. I am a competitive tennis player. I’m a competitive pickle ball player. I’m a competitive swimmer, growing up—
SS: All finite games and have a field day, play to win. Play to win. Play to win.
BB: You’re exactly right. When I take that stuff off the court, I always know that I—I delight in worthy rivals. I have to tell you, Simon, I delight in them, because they make me better, but I also love celebrating their successes.
SS: Yeah, for sure.
BB: I think of you as a worthy rival, but I love the idea of—I love the idea of telling everyone that listens to the Dare to Lead podcast, “You need to read this book. This book will blow your mind. It’s a changer.” And I remember when you were doing something that we thought was interesting—I can’t even remember what it was—and my chief strategy officer, you said, “Oh, God, you should talk to my team,” and you just opened up everything and told us how you were doing everything that we were thinking about doing. There’s something about worthy—you know who does this well too? Richard Branson. I’ve been able to spend some time with him, and he loves a good rivalry, but it’s with such full-hearted spirit.
SS: Yes to all those things. When your Netflix special came up, I remember telling everybody to see it. I remember sitting down and watching it myself and I was like beaming with pride. Like, I know her. And I love when members of my team are reading your books. I’m like, “Ooh, good.” I love worthy rivalry. It takes a minute to adjust. I’m not going to say it happens overnight. But when you can see someone that you can learn from—and again, sometimes worthy rivalries are with people that you completely disagree with and you have sometimes even different values. But it’s OK. You can still respect the fact that they do some things better, to learn where you can improve, yeah.
BB: Definitely. Those are harder for me, I’ll admit. All right, tell me about Disney. Give me the Disney example of existential flexibility. I’ve only had one of these in my career. I’m senior in my career, and it was—I freaked people out when I made this sharp turn.
SS: So existential flexibility is the ability to make a profound 180-degree shift in order to advance your cause. Most leaders will never go through it.
SS: Yeah. Some once, maybe, but you have a responsibility if you never go through it to prepare the next leader to be able to do it. And a capacity for existential flexibility requires two things. One, a just cause, because you have to know what you’re advancing, so you have to know that you’re making this profound strategic shift not ’cause it’s a shiny object, but because you have no “choice.” It’s existential. And two, you need to have trusting teams, because you will put the organization through short-term stress. And if the people don’t know what the cause is, they’ll think you’re crazy. And if they don’t trust each other and take care of each other, they’ll panic and they will leave and the whole thing will fail.
SS: And so the capacity requires the clarity of purpose and the team, the trusting teams. But the quintessential example of existential flexibility, not to harp on Apple again, but goes back to 1979. Steve Jobs and a bunch of his senior executives went and visited Xerox Park. Jobs was already a famous CEO. Apple was already a big company. They already had success in the Apple I and the Apple II. And you have to remember, Jobs had a just cause, which is to empower individuals to stand up to Big Brother. And he saw the personal computer as the perfect tool to give an individual the ability to stand up to incumbent power.
BB: And to even compete with big companies, right?
SS: Right. Well, Steve Wozniak would talk about it. He imagined that one day an individual would be able to compete with a company, a large company, a large corporation, simply because of the computer. How prophetic. So that was their cause: individual power. They went to visit Xerox Park, and Xerox showed them a new technology that they had invented called the graphic user interface that allowed people to use a computer by clicking on a mouse and moving a cursor over a desktop and using icons and folders to control the computer. Job sees this new advancement, and as they leave Xerox, he says to his colleagues, we have to invest in this graphic user interface thing. And one of his colleagues, let’s call him the voice of reason, says, “Steve, we can’t. We can’t. We’ve already invested millions of dollars and countless man hours in a completely different strategic direction. If we invest in the graphic user interface thing and walk away from our investment, we’re going to blow up our own company.”
SS: Which Jobs actually said, “Better we should blow it up than someone else.” That decision led to the Macintosh, a computer operating system so profound that the entire software of Windows is designed to act like a Macintosh. And the reason we all have a computer as a household appliance is because of that decision, that Jobs was willing to walk away from money invested and time spent because he found a better way to advance his cause. Had he not been willing to bet the company on this existential flex, Apple probably wouldn’t be the company they became and wouldn’t be the company they are today, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s very, very hard to do, and it has to be done for the right reasons.
SS: This is not some entrepreneur who just went to a conference and decides to shift the business. That’s just shiny object syndrome. That just drives people nuts. People have to go, “This is going to suck. But, yep. It’s the right thing to do. Let’s do it.” That should be the reaction from the people. Like, “Yep, we understand. Yep, it’s the right thing to do. This is going to suck.” And yet they buckle down and they do it. And morale very often goes up.
BB: I had this existential flexibility crisis a couple of years ago. It took us three months to make the decision and nine months of—I bet I cried every day, just because I knew it was going to be hard. I knew we were going to lose people. But we got to this point where we had started businesses to scale the work. And I walked in one day and my first meeting was, “How many full stack developers do we want to hire?” And I was like, “I don’t want to talk about this.” And people are like, “We’ve got to talk about it. We’re going to be investing hundreds of thousands of dollars.” And I was like, “I can’t—I can’t do this anymore.” This is not my why. My why is to connect the seemingly unconnectable with words to make things accessible so that people know themselves and each other better. That’s my why.
BB: If y’all can see Simon, he’s cheering. His hands are up in the air. And I’m like, “I can’t have meetings all day about full stack developers.” And so all of a sudden, this flex for me was, I’m a creator. I’m not building businesses, and I will create world-class content and moving forward partner with people who can scale them, who that’s what they do well. But it took us a year to turn that tanker. And it was so scary for the people here and we lost some—some people didn’t have jobs. But it’s the best thing I ever did, for me and the work.
SS: And you’re touching on something I think folks like you and me, if we go the entrepreneurial venture, it’s particularly hard because sometimes those flexes come at the sacrifice, not only of our—of things that are happening internally, but it might come to the sacrifice of somebody who works for us. And I learned this from Dave Ramsey, and it was—he and I were on a panel together, and he said something that I’m sitting there like, “It was so good.” I’m just sitting on the panel, taking it all in. And he said as an entrepreneur, you have to get used to the idea that the people you start the business with are not necessarily the people you grow the business with. And the people who you come up and you keep saying things like, “We’re family,” and you say all these things. And I’ve realized, I’ve made this mistake. Companies are not families, they’re teams.
BB: No. That’s a dangerous—they’re teams. That’s dangerous.
SS: Companies are not families, they’re teams. In a family, you’re loyal to every individual person in the family. You have to be. But a team, you have to be loyal to the team before any team member, because you have to protect the team. And this is why we get rid of toxicity, even though there may be high performers, because the team says, “What took you so long? We needed—the team needed that.” That’s one of the examples. And those two things are very uncomfortable for me to accept, that my company is not a family, it’s a team. And I may have to make decisions either because I made wrong decisions in the past—that’s shitty—or the company is going through a flex, and this is the right thing to do to advance the vision. It should keep you up at night. I’d be worried if it didn’t keep you up at night.
BB: Oh, God. Amen.
SS: But I think that that’s one of the things that makes leadership hard, which is to make the decisions that have to be made that other people are too afraid to make.
BB: Which is the perfect segue to the last one, which is the courage to lead.
SS: The courage to lead is very much what we’ve been talking about the whole time, which is, this thing called infinite mindset is really, really hard. [Chuckle] And finite-mindedness is just easier. It’s just easier to just care only about short-term goals, rather than advancing long-term cause and vision. It’s much easier to just hire and fire people and who cares? Whatever. They’re underperformers. Get rid of them, blah, blah, blah. Rather than doing the hard work of building a trusting team, which is a 24/7 job.
BB: Investing, coaching, time.
SS: And existential flexibility is something that you hopefully will never be faced with, but if you are, are you going to do it? Because it’s the difference between keeping your organization in the game to advance your cause. Because if you’re out of the game, you can’t advance the cause. It’s your Teddy Roosevelt quote. If you’re not playing, then you’re not advancing, and it’s about staying in the game. And worthy rivalry is the hard work of having to look at yourself and think, “Oh, my God. We suck at this. What are we going to do about it?” versus, “Just beat them and it’ll make us feel better.” All of these things are excruciatingly hard.
BB: Yeah, let me just add here, with worthy rivalry, built into that construct is the idea that you have to identify things in yourself that you want to make better. With just beat them, you don’t actually have to make yourself better just to beat somebody.
SS: No, that’s correct.
BB: And so I just want to say for everyone listening, this is not a book or a mindset for anyone who prioritizes ego over service to the work.
BB: This is not a fragile-ego book.
SS: I had that thought about where worthy rivalry is different when I was watching the Olympics. I can’t remember which year it was. The Winter Olympics, and I was watching the ice skating. It’s funny how we all love ice skating every four years, but I’ve never watched it in between.
BB: Not a second.
SS: Not a second, but I love it in the Olympics. Anyway, I was watching the Olympics, and the person who won gold fell in her routine. You got gold and you fell in your routine. But here’s the thing, the people who got silver and bronze? They fell twice. So you don’t have to be the best ice skater. You just have to be a better ice skater than the other people who competed that day. That’s it. That’s all it takes to win in the finite game. You don’t have to better yourself. You just have to be better in that one game, in that one moment, than the other person playing in that moment.
BB: That’s right.
SS: And so there’s no drive for constant improvement other than to just be better than the other people.
BB: And to add to that, if in that one minute you’re better than everybody else, your skills don’t grow. Your ego grows, which makes you even more locked in to infinite.
SS: Right. Which is where I think the infinite game is so much more interesting, which is it’s, How am I going to be a better ice skater, regardless of who else is—
BB: Oh, my God. You’re in—Sarah Lewis and I just talked about this on the podcast: mastery versus success, short-term success.
SS: And there’s nothing wrong with competition. I want to stress, competition tests us, it fuels us. If you lose the game, then figure out why you lost and come back and play. All of that’s fine. Metrics are really important. It’s not good enough to say, “I want to be healthy.” You want to ride your Peloton and you want to beat the other people that you’re competing against. You want to measure your weight every day and see that you’re losing weight, because it makes you feel—metrics help us feel like we’re making progress. You want your clothing size to go down one. It’s a metric so you can see that you’re making progress. Like metrics matter, all of that finite stuff matters, but it has to be to serve something greater. It cannot just be for some short-term something or other. Because then it doesn’t survive, then it doesn’t last, because there’s no reason to keep doing it. Because if you hit your weight goal or if you’re the number-one rider on your Peloton ride today, well, guess what? You’re going to ride again the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day for the rest of your life. And that’s the problem.
BB: That is the problem.
SS: Yeah, that is actually the problem. [Chuckle]
BB: It is, it is. And so what ends up happening is you end up hating the Peloton or you stop riding while you’re going out on top. And then what are you really serving if health is the reason why you got it in the first place? All right, are you ready for some rapid-fire questions?
SS: Go. I like rapid-fire questions. The answer is seven. Oh, I have to—sorry, I have to wait for the question.
BB: Yeah. No, yeah. Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is—
SS: Vulnerability is—I’m going to defer to not my work. I’m going to defer to my favorite definition of love. So vulnerability is giving someone the power to destroy you and trusting they won’t use it.
BB: Oh, God. What’s something that people often get wrong about you?
SS: They think I’m taller. [Chuckle]
BB: What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so remarkable you need to share it with us or so shitty that you need to warn us?
SS: You don’t have to know the answer to every question, or you don’t have to pretend you do. That was a hard-learned lesson. And the shitty one—the shitty advice that I was given countless times was, What’s your plan? You have to have a plan. It turns out, just need to have a vision. Yeah, no plan. No plan.
BB: What is one stereotype or myth of leadership that we need to let go of?
SS: That it’s about being in control. It’s actually the opposite.
BB: Yeah, it’s having the courage to let go a little bit. Yeah. What would you say to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a leader?
SS: Every single one of us has the capacity to be the leader we wish we had. And the first criterion to be a leader is you have to want to be one. So if you want to be one, you are one. Now go practice, now go learn. I’ve never met anyone who’s a great leader, quote-unquote, who’s an expert at leadership. We’re all students. Some more advanced, some less advanced. And you don’t have to be in a position of leadership to be a leader. Leadership is simply taking responsibility for the success of those around us. And so it has nothing to do with rank or seniority.
BB: Beautiful. What’s your best leadership quality?
SS: Hard to answer that one, right, because it’s all context, strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes one of my best leadership qualities is I can be very laissez-faire. Let people go do their thing, let them sink or swim. If they need me, I’m sitting there on the side, but I love letting people try, and sometimes that works great.
BB: OK, I can’t wait for the answer to this one. What’s the hard leadership lesson that you have to keep learning and unlearning and relearning that the universe just keeps putting this in front of you?
SS: My answer comes from a 360 evaluation that came back at me.
BB: Wow, yeah. Tough.
SS: Which I didn’t want to hear, because it goes to the core of my being. We love that Simon’s an optimist, but sometimes he’s too optimistic. And my default is to give people the benefit of the doubt. My default is to see the silver lining in every cloud, and sometimes I just need to let people rumble a little bit and I don’t need to bring my sunny disposition to the situation. And sometimes there’s a point at which giving people the benefit of the doubt has to run out, because then you start getting taken advantage of. And I have learned that lesson, unfortunately, too many times.
BB: Thank you for sharing that with us. Relatable. What’s one thing you’re excited about right now?
SS: I’m generally excited about the world, believe it or not. I think the trauma that America has gone and is going through is ultimately good. And I think that we’re being forced to have conversations we weren’t having before, and I include Black Lives Matter and the storming of the Capitol, all of—COVID, all of it. I think we’re being forced to have conversations that we could get away with not having. I think we’re being forced to look in the mirror and see things that we could get away with not looking at. There could be more accountability, but I think there’s accountability happening where it was easily avoided in the past. And I think we realize that the stakes are high and it’s worth it. So again, this goes back to what we said before where we learn our lessons. What would you change? I don’t want to go through any of this again. But I think at the end of it, and it might be 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll be glad it happened. “Glad,” I say that in air quotes. I think, ultimately, good will come of it. Maybe that’s my optimism again. [Chuckle]
BB: I can use that today. That’s a helpful perspective. And maybe in 20 years, we’ll understand why it needed to happen.
SS: There are things that are happening that were unthinkable a year ago. And I mean that in the affirmative. Like there are good things happening that were unthinkable.
BB: Yeah, right. Do you have any thoughts on the leadership that we’ve experienced here in the U.S. over the last four years with the Trump administration?
SS: I think we get the leaders we deserve. I don’t think Trump was a cause. I think he was a symptom. And I think there has been a steady drumbeat of excessive finite-mindedness for multiple presidencies, Clinton, Bush, Obama. You really started to see the finite-mindedness really, really begin in the late 1970s, and sort of Reagan coming in. But all the presidents since have been marching down that direction. And if you want to be a wonk about it, it was really the Clinton-Gingrich fight in Contract for America and the two of them, that’s where the division—you can start to see the seeds of division really being sowed in America. Because Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were friends that used to be like, “Hey, you want to be a little nicer to me in public tomorrow?” And they would. And you started to see the real division back then.
SS: And I think we’ve just been marching on the steady beat of win, win, win, finite, finite, finite, shorter and shorter term, where it used to be a time where both parties could—I’ve talked to congressmen about, old-timey congressmen, and they explained to me that back in the day, you would debate 80% of the substance of a bill behind closed doors and the last 20% was for the cameras. And now it’s 100% for the cameras. And they said there used to be a time where we would come up with a compromise—which is now a dirty word, embarrassingly—we’d come up with a compromise where we could both go back to our constituents and say to our constituents, “We got what we want.” In other words, infinite-mindedness. We can both win.
BB: Not zero-sum.
SS: Right, exactly. That both parties can actually get what they want. You can actually both win in this. It’s called good negotiation. That’s what good negotiation looks like when both parties feel that they got what they wanted. And now we got to the point where it’s not sufficient for one party to go back and say we won. Now they also have to say, “And the other party lost.”
BB: And they’ve been decimated.
SS: And in a game of infinite-mindedness, in an infinite game of governance, a finite mindset of win and lose, the people who lose are us.
BB: Democracy, yeah.
SS: Democracy and the population. So I think everything was predictable because we’ve been on this path for a while. And if you pull back the lens and you take a look, you can see there’s a steady stream of logic that got us to where we are now. Which, shame on us. Shame on us. And I think if you’re appalled by our politicians, our politicians are a reflection of us. If you think that our politicians are divided and they don’t listen, and they’re argumentative and judgmental, well, take a look next door. Take a look at yourself. We’re judgmental and we don’t listen. We’re quick to argue and we’re divisive. And I think the hard work starts at home, quite frankly.
BB: What is one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?
SS: COVID has given me an unexpected gift to spend an inordinate amount of time with my family and get to watch my niece and nephew grow up in a way that I would never have dreamed about. They were kids that I saw every couple of weeks, for a day on a weekend, and I’ve had the chance to have dinner with them almost every night for the past 10 months.
BB: God. Beautiful.
SS: And I love that.
BB: All right, this is really interesting. You gave us—we asked for five songs, a mini-mixtape. “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine, “Wolf” by First Aid Kit, “Two Step” by Dave Matthews, “Kala” sung by Yann Tiersen, “Mountain Top” by Toshi Reagon. What is this playlist in one sentence, what does this playlist say about you?
SS: I’m eclectic.
BB: [Chuckle] No, not good enough.
SS: What does it say about me? I like the minor key?
SS: I think what it says about me is that I find inspiration in odd places. And maybe one of those artists is a household name. I like to go in popular places and unpopular places, and I like to look under rocks to find things that I like. I’m a curious sort that loves to dig down a rabbit hole and see where it takes me, and sometimes I find some pretty things.
BB: I cannot wait to listen to this playlist. I’ve got it teed up on—I do. I have it teed up on my Spotify app right now. I cannot wait. We put it together today, and I got a notice from the person who does that for us. And he’s like, “It’s ready.” And I’m like, “I can—” I’m going to wait until after I talk to Simon, but I’m listening.
SS: Oh, I want to hear. Will you please tell me what you thought?
BB: Oh, I will totally. I’ll text you.
SS: There’s some really cool songs in there.
BB: I’ll text you tonight. Simon Sinek, thank you so much. The book is The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek. It will grab you by the shoulders, shake you a little bit. And it gave me language. People tell me a lot that my work gives them language. This gave me language that I didn’t have and in a helpful way. Because when I’m in my finite mindset, I don’t like how it feels. And I think, for me, putting your language with my language, which I think people all over the world do these days, I think finite mindset is armor for me. It’s an act of self-protection for me. And it moves me away from my why, and I don’t like it.
SS: Wow, that’s nice. I like that. The feeling’s mutual, Brené. You help me explain things that I struggle to explain in simple, elegant terms that other people can understand. For that, I am immensely grateful.
BB: Thank you, Simon.
BB: I love that definition of faith. Faith is knowing that you’re on a team even when you don’t know the players. Yeah, I think that’s true for all of us in life. And maybe what I’ll take on as a task is to really think about the players I do know but don’t recognize, and reach out with some gratitude. Simon Sinek is @simonsinek on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. He’s also @simonsaysinspire on Instagram, and his website is simonsinek.com.
BB: Just some reminders that the Dare to Lead podcast has an episode page on brenebrown.com. They’re really easy to find, all the notes, transcripts, resources, downloads, everything you need. You can also, while you’re on brenebrown.com, sign up for our newsletter. You’ve heard me say this a million times in a million different ways, time is the great unrenewable resource. I think time and energy, actually. And we’re very mindful. We don’t hit you with a lot of information. But we do send interesting things, including books I’m reading, things I’m watching on streaming platforms or the movies, and kind of key learnings from some of the podcasts that we are recording. So you can sign up for the newsletter on brenebrown.com. And a reminder that the Dare to Lead podcast is available exclusively on Spotify and it’s free.
BB: And I will tell you this, this is kind of fun. We’re putting together a special hub on Spotify with everything that’s kind of my work. It’s going to have the podcast, it’s going to have music, it’s going to have the mini-mixtapes from the guests, and it’s going to be kind of one-stop shopping for all things Unlocking Us, Dare to Lead, and actually just me. So check that out on Spotify as well. I appreciate your time. I appreciate the community. Let’s stay awkward, brave, and kind. I’ll see you next week and always grateful for y’all.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music that you hear is by the Suffers. The song is called “Take Me to the Good Times.”
© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.