Knowing the Race Your Running

We can prevent great errors by paying attention to what race we’re running, not how fast we’re going.

Here’s the thing about sled dogs: They never know how far they’re going to run.

That quote above is form a recent article in the New York Times — a ‘must read’ in my opinion — by sled-dog racer Blair Braverman. It illustrates the challenge of our times by drawing a comparison with managing her dogs effectively for a long-haul journey across the Arctic.

The article brilliantly parallels the challenge that she has a racer with the pandemic (although this could also stand-in for economic depression, climate change, health issue or any other large-scale challenge where we can’t perceive an ‘finish line’). She adds:

Asking sled dogs to pace themselves, to slow it down, is like asking a retriever to only fetch one ball out of three: It goes against their every instinct. That’s how I feel now, midpandemic: that we humans are falling into uncertainty, stretching ourselves thin, and we have no idea how far it is to the finish line.

Many of us are struggling to find the right pace for living, working, and restoring ourselves these days, particularly when it feels that much is out of our control. Yet, there’s a lesson in perspective-taking here that can provide some respite. It’s useful for today and for promoting resilience for the days to come.

What Game Are You Playing?

Simon Sinek’s recent book asks the big question: what game are you playing? His question is inspired by James P. Carse’s earlier scholarship on finite and infinite games. The question gets at the heart of what we do and what we seek to achieve through doing it by ensuring that our goals are aligned with the ‘game’ we are in.

A finite game is one that has an end — much like a sporting event, chess match, or dance competition. There are winners and losers and measurable outcomes to judge that by.

An infinite game is one where the goal is to simply stay in the game. For example, no one ‘wins’ at business – a company’s goal is to stay alive and aim to thrive in different times, markets, and circumstances.

Playing either of these games is shaped by a mindset in how we approach things. If you approach an infinite game — which is what most of us engage in with our lives and livelihoods — with a mindset designed for a finite game, you’ll be less likely to make the decisions that allow you to last beyond whatever the current ‘win’ situation might be.

Blair Braverman’s article is an interesting one because she is speaking about an infinite mindset to a situation where there is an actual ‘win’ — a sled-dog race. For her, it’s about managing her dogs and herself and the metaphor for life is one that we need right now.

Races Run in Parallel

We often run races in parallel. Our attempt to gain a new contract or grant, get a promotion, or land a new job is a finite game played within an infinite game. The job is finite, your career is infinite. That contract is finite, your business is infinite. We need both mindsets and to know which of the races we are running.

Even long-distance runners know that they may have to sprint to the finish line if their fellow competitors are right on their heels or just ahead of them. What we are facing in 2020 – and will be for the foreseeable future due the wickedness and scope of the challenges we face — are staggered races within finite and infinite games.

Success — the ability to win the finite games and survive in the infinite ones — will depend much on what Blair Braverman advocates for in caring for her dogs.

One of the most surprising things about distance mushing is the need to front-load rest.

Regimenting and structuring rest, care, and regular re-charges is essential, even if it goes against how we feel right now. This means also caring for each other in our organizations. This fits with the large body of research that shows going faster and farther is actually tied to learning less, not more over the long haul. The same is true for productivity. Breaks matter.

Know what race you are running so you don’t try and sprint through an ultramarathon. This means give yourself and your organization time to reflect and ask this question.

Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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