In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera tells the story of a Czech doctor who was “canceled” by the Communist regime and found himself working as a window cleaner and, later, farmer.
Tomáš, the book’s main character, lived in the 1960s, but his story offers invaluable insights for anyone looking to make a life and a living in the 2020s. And it’s not his career that we can learn from; it’s his love life.
Finite and Infinite Lust
Tomáš is a womanizer. The book was written 45 years ago and tends to objectify women. But that’s not what we’re here to discuss. What’s interesting about Tomáš’s love life is its scope.
As Kundera explains, “men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.” Men from the first category are looking for the perfect woman. They have an ideal in mind, and they go from woman to woman in order to find it. But “since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again.” Kundera calls such men “lyrical” lovers. They are womanizers, but at some point, they get tired of disappointment and give up.
Tomáš belongs to the second category. Men from this group do not have a specific idea of a perfect woman in mind. Instead, they are interested in finding whatever is unique in each and every woman. And since everything interests them, nothing can ever disappoint them. Men like Tomáš belong to what Kundera calls the “epic” category because their journey never ends.
Despite Kundera’s focus on male “players,” the same categories may apply to all people. Lyrical lovers are pursuing an ideal. Epic lovers are pursuing knowledge. These two groups are not just seeking different prizes; they are playing a completely different game.
Play to Play
Two years after Kundera published The Unbearable Lightness of Being, James P. Carse published Finite and Infinite Games. Carse was a religious scholar, but his book is widely read in the technology and scientific communities. Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, said Finite and Infinite changed his “thinking about life, the universe, and everything.”
As Carse explains, “a finite game is played for the purpose of winning.” An “infinite game,” on the other hand, is played for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games have clear goals, clear rules, and clear winners and losers. There are many types of finite games. Some people compete for medals, others for government office, and others for a place on the Forbes Billionaires List. Finite games are about power and status.
There is only one infinite game. Since it has no boundaries and no set goals or rules, it can encompass other finite games. A player who is not trying to obtain power and status might still win a medal or become a billionaire, but he does not define himself by these prizes and does not constrain himself to the rules of a single game.
Carse’s ideas are elusive and impossible to summarize, and I recommend reading the whole book. For our purpose, I would like to focus on two specific distinctions he makes regarding identity and education.
Finite players have a clear idea of who they are. Their goal is to get what they already know they want. Says Carse:
“A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past.”
If this sounds abstract, consider Michael Jordan, a master of the finite game of basketball. Jordan had a clear, unchanging idea of himself (best basketball player on earth). He knew exactly what he wanted (another championship). He knew that any future loss affected his past legacy. His goal was to impose his will on the finite game of basketball, and he did that better than anyone who ever lived.
Now, consider Tomáš. He did not have a clear, unchanging goal or desire. He did not know what he wanted; he wanted to know. This touches on a distinction that Carse makes about the finite and infinite approach to education:
“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”
Finite players seek training in order to minimize the impact of surprise on their existing plan. Infinite players are looking to be surprised because this is how they grow.
“Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one's unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one's ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.
This sounds fuzzy and warm, but it also sounds like New Age BS. It might be fun to have no idea what you want, but wouldn’t that prevent you from achieving anything meaningful? After all, Tomáš was just a womanizer (and doctor, and window cleaner, and farmer), and Michael Jordan was a superstar in one of the most popular games on earth.
That’s where an important distinction comes in. Playing an infinite game doesn’t mean not playing basketball. It means not thinking the rules of basketball define who you are and what you can achieve in life. More specifically, playing an infinite game means not getting hung up on conventional measures of success and not competing with anyone for conventional prizes.
This brings us back to 2021.
The internet has not been kind to people who play finite games. If you’re chasing conventional prizes, it will pit you against an infinite number of competitors and quickly take the fun out of whatever you manage to achieve.
Did you marry the most beautiful girl you ever met? The internet will show you hundreds of others who are even more beautiful. Got a big house? The internet will show you thousands of bigger ones. Did you win an NBA championship? The internet will show you hundreds of amateurs that get more likes than you and have more passionate fans. Did you make a billion dollars? The internet will show you thousands of people who made even more money and spent it on shinier objects.
But there’s hope. As Tyler Cowen points out in The Complacent Class:
"The internet puts a stiff implicit tax or penalty on competitive status seeking, [but] it rewards those who are content with something niche and unusual."
The internet undermines the value of conventional prizes and opinions. And it enhances the value of anything “niche and unusual.” This process is tied to the infinite nature of the internet itself.
Conventional ideas are only valuable within clear geographic boundaries. Proof of this can be found in the word itself: “Conventional” stems from the old Latin word for “to meet or assemble”, which itself stems from the words for coming together (con-venire).
Within a limited geographical area, it’s possible to be the richest woman or the most beautiful man or to own the biggest house or car. The boundaries of the town or the city are the boundaries of the game. On the internet, there are no boundaries, so all these conventional prizes become relative. More accurately, there are no conventions because there are no boundaries.
But the internet doesn’t only take things away. It also gives something in return.
Playing the Right Game
As Cowen points out, some people are embracing this matching machine, while others are fighting against it. Those who embrace it “are not trying to come out ahead of everyone else”; instead, “they seek to have some of their niche preferences fulfilled for the sake of their own internally directed happiness.”
In contrast, those who are fighting the matching machine are trying to cling to the old, conventional game: “There is a finite amount of whatever they are striving for at a given moment, everyone knows more or less what it is, and lots of other people want it." Finite players are still competing for the same conventional prizes, but now they are facing an infinite number of competitors.
This brings us back to Tomáš, the epic womanizer. Tomáš was an infinite player. He focused on the “niche and unusual,” he pursued knowledge rather than conventional prizes, and he understood that every surprise is an opportunity to redefine yourself, rather than a threat to be resisted.
The only problem was that Tomáš spent too much energy chasing women. To fix this, his wife forced him to move from Prague to a small village where there were barely any people. She forced him to become more conventional by limiting his geographical reach.
If you’re a womanizer, the same solution might work for you. But if you’re not, you can stay online and apply Tomáš’s approach to a variety of other pursuits. It’s an epic opportunity.