Your Creative Work Is An Infinite Game

Last week I recorded a self-tape for a role in a film – and I hated every moment leading up to it. Until I started playing a different game, and everything changed.

It was the difference between playing for a ‘finite’ outcome that can only be given to you by others versus playing the game for the joy of playing it, for the process, for the ability to play in the way that only you can play, an effortless way that can surprise you and open you up to new ways of creating.

I write and make work, but acting has a much smaller role in my life right now. I’ve had a lot more pleasure in teaching and coaching performers in recent years than actually being in front of the lens. So I stepped away from performing to focus on what was giving me the most energy.

But last week I was asked to audition by someone I respect. Despite a few misgivings, I thought I’d step back in and see how I feel about acting now, after an eighteen-month break.

It didn’t start well.

I enjoyed preparing the scenes, but when it came to record the audition, I was awash with waves of negative feelings and self talk.

What was happening?

As I sat with my experience, I saw the part of the audition game that I disliked so much. My mind flashed forward to the work being judged, to me being judged on my performance, my voice, my look, my height, you name it. 

This aspect of acting, The Rules Of The Game, has always been a struggle for me. The hustle. The focus on type, on appearance, on being a certain way to get approval of people who cast things.

When I spent more time behind the camera I saw how many different things can influence whether or not an actor gets the role – height, hair colour, the schedule changes so they need someone who’s available on different dates, the order they watch the audition tapes, and more besides. 

All this gloom was happily tapdancing through my awareness as I drove to record the scenes.

Well, I thought, I said I’d do it, so I’ll give it a try. I’m not losing much, other than a couple of hours.

Hardly world-beating self talk. But I want to be clear about what was happening so I can be clear about what happened next.

I had gently roped someone in to read and record the scenes (thanks, Ruth!), and when we started recording, something interesting happened.

We ditched the rules. And despite my best intentions, recording the scenes turned out to be a lot of fun.

We played with the scenes. That’s all we did. And when we did, we found ourselves playing a very different game. 

We were playing moments just to see where they’d lead. Played with giving each other different prompts, different impulses, different variations. 

We stuck very closely to what we were giving each other in the moment, with the text and what Miranda Harcourt calls the white space -, the world that you create around the black text. It’s everything you’d prepped, everything you bring personally, and everything you discover in the moment, there and then, as you play it with no other focus or intent than just to do it, there and then.

One scene was an undercover cop at a traffic stop. And rather than the usual green/gray screen script read, we thought, well, why don’t we do it like a traffic stop? 

I’d been watching some video of traffic stops to understand the framework that police use for approaching a car they’ve pulled over. So we went out into the street and shot the whole thing from my car like it was an episode of COPS, with Ruth shooting the whole thing in her POV from the driver’s seat.

Will the viewers – the casting director/producers – like that? No idea. But I would, if I were them. 

Was it the best performance I did that day? Absolutely no doubt about it. 

And it’s the way I want to put myself forward. I don’t think about this work like other people. So why pretend? From now on, if I do this work at all, I’m going to do it in a way that shows you how I think and how I approach the scene and the character.

Why? Because it was the way I was itching to do it. Even though it felt like it was outside the normal world of the studio-based screentest, it felt like the scene needed to be opened up to connect to the reality and the comedy of it. Which is another way of saying that I felt I needed to open up to connect to the comedy of it.

It was very much in the circumstances of the scene. It was the best process we could possibly have used to do the best take for ourselves and the performances.

(Ourselves? Yes, because the reader is just as important as the person in front of the camera. Being a great reader is an art all to itself. Train yourself to be a good reader and you can make a huge positive difference to a lot of people – and be in demand!)

And because it was fun. 

How had I gone from dreading this recording to loving it? I also considered the relaxation and enjoyment I had when I was prepping the scenes on my own. All the heaviness about auditioning disappeared. No rules in my head. Just the fun of doing it. 

There’s a good coaching question you can use to investigate these moments when the unexpected happens. 

You could ask, how did that happen? 

I’ve found that’s not the best question, though. It implies a magic wand, that something good came out of nowhere and you didn’t have much control over what you did and how you managed it.

I’ve found I get better responses from myself and my clients when I ask questions like

How did you do that?

There’s agency there. After all, you did do it. You may not be aware of how, but looking at that question can uncover a lot about your process and what’s important to you.

So, okay then, how did I do that? The answer – I played a different game.

James Carse wrote a great book, Finite and Infinite Games, about the kinds of games we play in life.

Carse believes we can play two kinds of games: finite games and infinite games. 

Finite games have limits. There are definite rules. Those rules are probably not set by you, the player. If you’re outside the rules, you’re outside the game.

Finite games have winners and losers. You’re chosen for your ability to play this game, according to their rules.

I began this prep in a finite mindset. There’s be a bunch of rules about the game. I know some of the rules (Send in a self-test, stand in front of a screen, get your eyelines right, send it in on time etc.) and many that I won’t (who they’re really looking for, what they’ll think of you, how they’ll judge you). There were winners and losers. One person will be cast, the others won’t.

For Carse, that means that you can’t bring your whole self to the game. Only that part of your that fits within the rules can be used to win the game and whatever prize comes with it – the prize, the title, the salary. You have to separate your self from the self you’re presenting to play the game.

If I had a dollar for every actor and creative I’ve worked with who comes with this exact problem… people who started their creative life bringing everything and all parts of them to their work, but through experiences in their education and industry have been pushed to leave big parts of themselves at the door.

If you’re one of them, I want to say what I say to all my clients; that’s not your fault. At some level, we all make these compromises. They’re not all bad compromises either. But there are also times when we cut off too much of ourselves for the approval of the school, the teacher, the audition. And we feel it afterwards. For me, it feels like an emptiness.

Playing the finite game is fine and necessary at times. But if you only play the finite game, you lose a lot of yourself. Keeping big parts of yourself out of the game leads to a lot of second guessing. You have to look externally to the rules and the rulemakers to try and understand how to win.

It also means that if you want to play the finite game, you’ll have to train yourself to sit within the system. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Training can help and broaden your skills. And there are systems in life and there are times when it’s important to play in them. No point playing basketball if someone starts kicking the ball at the hoop.

But. And.

In the infinite game, players win simply by continuing to play. 

Infinite players play by being themselves, bring their own experience to the game and, most importantly, be willing to let the game and their lives unfold rather than push for a particular result. 

Players in finite games try to prepare exhaustively to control all outcomes. They train, research, try to plan for every possible outcome. 

Finite games make you focus on control. 

You have to control as much as you can within the rules to increase your chance of winning.

This is also the world of the perfectionist, the procrastinator, the person who tries to anticipate every possible criticism from every possible angle.

In our creative worlds, this is the over-preparer, the overthinker, the person who will berate themselves if they don’t hit every possible mark they set for the scene and their performance (again, I’m talking about me – maybe you? Who knows…)

There are many schools and teachers whose approach is tailored to the finite game. As I say, that’s not a bad thing necessarily. It’s helpful to know the system, to know the game, to understand what the rules are when you want to play in that world.

But that’s not the only way you can play. That’s not the only kind of artist you can be.

Infinite players might also prepare and research – it’s probably a good idea to do those things if you want to play a game and take on a project. 

But infinite players know there’s no way they can be prepared for every possible action in the future. That way anxiety and madness lies. 

The Infinite Game allows you to bring your whole self. You can be the whole artist playing the long game according to that vision you had long ago, right at the beginning, when you were enchanted with the creative life.

When those early experiences in your creative world brought something alive in you that you didn’t see anywhere else, and you wanted to live in that world and keep experiencing everything that world gave you.

Infinite players play a game that’s bigger than themselves.

They don’t allow the rules to limit who they are or how they are playing in the wider, broader sense.

Finite players set goals and rules so they can avoid being surprised. This is the world of wanting to be comfortable in the take, in the prep, in the performance, the career.

Infinite players might also prepare and research – it’s probably a good idea to do those things if you want to play a game, read for a part, take on a project. 

But Infinite players know there’s no way they can be prepared for every possible action in the future. That way anxiety and madness lies. 

Infinite players are happy to be surprised, to expect the unexpected and have fun when it pops up on the radar. 

This might also change the rules by which the infinite player plays. 

The Infinite Game plays in the present. There’s no room for anticipating ‘outcomes’ because that implies there’s an end to the game. Whatever you’re doing now is part of the long term game where the ones who thrive are the ones who embrace the game, the process. 

Infinite players play by being themselves, bring their own experience to the game and, most importantly, be willing to let the game and their lives unfold rather than push for a particular result.

When I worked on this audition, I felt dread and sick-to-the-stomach when I thought about the finite game – the win/lose, the rules, the need to control my work so that I play within the control game of how I think the rules are for these particular people.

When I prepared the scenes and played with the scenes in the read – we played. We were interested in bringing all the possibility to the scenes. 

We were less interested in doing The Take That Gets Noticed than doing the take that made us both laugh, playing with variations and seeing how it would unfold rather than second-guessing ourselves for an outcome that we absolutely, definitely, can’t predict. 

So, how to play the infinite game?

Because the Infinite game goes on indefinitely, there is no winner or loser. That’s not the point of playing. The point of playing the infinite game is simply to make sure you can keep playing. 

This also changes who you are in relation to the game. The player of the infinite game sees that the finite game will end, so the most important qualities we can have include:

  • Flexibility
  • The ability to work with uncertainty and that uncertainty can be exciting and open up new ways for us to play
  • Our education and ability to keep learning and playing to see what works
  • Letting go of the need to compete and embracing an understanding that playing this game is about infinite growth

Focus on what you love to do and how you love to do it.

Note when you’re trying to be the best, or even more so, be the best in your field. This is a flag that you’re letting your success be defined by the finite game of whether you’ll win (be the best, whatever that means) or lose (literally any other outcome). 

Be the only one who can do what you can do, the way that only you can do it. This takes you out of the field of competition and puts your focus back on you, what you can do, and how you can go further with it.

Take time to reconnect with that person in you back in the day, the moment, when you fell in love with what you do now for your creative work. What did that version of you love? What did you do? How did you do it?

That person is still there, waiting for you to stop and notice them. The inspired voice, the voice of purpose and intuition, talks quietly and might prefer to show you how it’s feeling. 

You’ll come to connect better when you slow down, become very present and pay attention to what’s happening for you right now.

That’s why I work with meditation and mindfulness practices to help clients pay attention to themselves. This one practice alone can make the world of difference, if you pay attention to what’s coming through with a kind attention and a willingness to genuinely listen.

If you’re curious about how to get back to your own inspiration and play your own infinite game, and if you’d like to know more about what it might be like to work together, get in touch and let’s have a conversation.