There is a poem by D.H. Groberg called The Race. I posted it in a previous blog entry here. I HIGHLY recommend you read it before reading the rest of the article. But for those who do not have time or simply don’t want to read the poem, here’s the summary:

A little boy starts a race with the hopes of winning. Things are going as planned and he is in the lead until he slips and falls. He thinks about his dad and how disappointed he will be, so he gets up and continues to run, still trying to win. Soon after that, he falls again. Now, no chance of winning he wants to quit altogether, but his dad encourages him to keep going. And while the boy complies, he ends up falling for a 3rd time. Completely dejected, the boy once again is encouraged by his dad to keep going. So he gets up and finishes the race as the crowd cheers him on for having the courage to press on despite his falling.

As you read the poem, you will see a transition in the boy’s perspective. At first, his goal is to win the race. Then, after he trips a couple of times, his goal shifts from winning to simply finishing the race. And everyone in the crowd admires the boy for his willingness to press on despite the disappointment of his falling.

But as the boy finishes the race, thinking his dad will be disappointed like he was, he discovers his dad is actually proud of him. And it had nothing to do with winning or losing, and it didn’t really have anything to do with finishing either. His dad was proud because he didn’t quit. Despite falling over and over, the boy kept going.

The general lesson from The Race is this: When you fall down, get back up and keep going.

That lesson is simple enough. And we would all agree. But there is something more to this poem that I think we might be missing.

Recently I listened to Simon Sinek, an author and speaker who often talks about the concepts of the finite vs. the infinite game. Basically, the finite game is the game we generally play. There are a clear set of rules, a winner and loser, and success is easily measured. We see the finite game a lot in sports, business, and education. In contrast, the infinite game, doesn’t have any winners or losers, success is difficult or impossible to measure, and the rules are vague or do not exist at all. In the infinite game the possibilities, expectations, and standards are what you make them. You set the rules and decide how to play the game.

Often during his talks, Sinek will also refer to the Vietnam war to make a point about the infinite game. He talks about the statistics of the war: how the U.S. absolutely decimated North Vietnam, how the U.S. won all the major battles of the war, and how they lost only 60,000 soldiers compared to North Vietnam’s 1.1 million. And yet in the end, the U.S. lost the war. This doesn’t seem possible based on our way of measuring things. But maybe that’s because we are looking at it wrong.

North Vietnam won the war because they were playing the infinite game, and the U.S. was playing the finite game. When this happens, Sinek says the infinite players end up outlasting the finite players. And even though their goal isn’t to win, they often end up winning anyway. In other words, the ones who play the infinite game can actually end up winning the finite game. But playing the finite game puts you at a disadvantage against those in the infinite game.

Which brings me back to the poem. The Race is a perfect metaphor for the finite and infinite games. And consequently, it can represent the 3 types of races we tend to run in our lives:

  1. The race to WIN.
  2. The race to FINISH.
  3. The race to KEEP GOING.

It follows clearly that each of these three races fit into the category of finite or infinite. The races to ‘win’ and ‘finish’ belong in the finite category. And the race to ‘keep going’ is the infinite race.

So which race should we be running? The answer is that, at some point, you will probably be running in all three types of races. But as these races play out in your life, the priority should always be to run the race to ‘keep going’. At least, that should be the case if you want to maximize your chances for success. Unfortunately, most people don’t do this. They get stuck in the race to win or finish, and they forget that the infinite race even exists. We can avoid this trap by consistently and intentionally making the infinite race the most important race we run in our lives.

A lot of people may have a problem with this viewpoint. They may think life is a great deal about winning. And they might make the argument that finishing something worthwhile is a good thing. And I wouldn’t dare disagree. But is it really what is most important to us?

To analyze this further, consider the coworkers or teammates you have had in the past. Which people do you appreciate more? Is it the people who are seeking to win at all costs? Many times these people will cut corners to win. They will make excuses when they don’t, and may potentially throw you under the bus to make themselves look good. In some cases, these types of people take advantage of those less fortunate in order to get and stay ahead. Winning is most important, and it shows through in the way they act.

Or what about those seeking to simply finish? How do they behave? Often times, these types of people do just enough to get by. They usually have little or no sense of urgency. And I’d say they rarely if ever develop to their full potential. They are simply biding their time until the next break, vacation, or until they can retire. Sure, they may always be there physically, but they are not engaged. And when it comes down to it, you can’t really depend on people like this in the long run.

Now, let’s talk about those who are racing to keep going. These people often seek growth opportunities. They want to bring people along with them because they recognize the importance of relationships. They love to pursue goals for the sake of a greater purpose. And they wouldn’t dare compromise their values. Commitment and dedication are a cornerstone of their character, and they NEVER give up.

So which one sounds better to you? If you’re still not sure, maybe think of each race in terms of how it relates to failure. In the finite race, failure ends the race. After all, if you can’t win or finish, then what’s the point of continuing? But in contrast, failure is actually a catalyst for the infinite race. You can’t run the infinite race without failure. It’s impossible. So we look at failure as a necessity rather than something to avoid. And that is a major shift in perspective that many of us lack, but could greatly benefit from.

Regardless of where you currently are, I challenge each of you to pay attention to your daily life and find the evidence for yourself. If you are honest with your observations, it should be easy to see which race is better, and who is running what race.

Whatever race you decide to run, I hope you keep racing no matter what! And who knows? Maybe you’ll end up winning in the process.