Your Best, The Infinite Game, and Showing Up

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For years, my wife and I hosted an annual Christmas party. We would invite friends and family into our home for an evening of celebration. For many of those who participated, this event was the only time during the year that we were able to see each other. Though it was a lot of work to pull it together, we looked forward to it each year as it gave us the chance to share time with those in our lives.

Over the years, I noticed that there was a certain core group who always showed up. Obviously, lots of life is happening for everyone so conflicts will emerge. But there were certain people who were there every year. I began to notice that some of these same people also appeared at other happenings in our lives throughout the year. We expect family to be present at important, and not-so-important, events but we also grow to anticipate others being present in various ways.

I realized that my assumptions on who would show up were not always correct and patterns began to emerge. Some people just showed up more than others – a condition that reflected the nature of the personality and relationship. Looking at my own behavior of “showing up,” or not, also revealed much and I became very grateful for the people who consistently showed up in my life in one way or another. For me, showing up became a very big deal.

Doing Your “Best”

Showing up became part of my personal mantra and a value for our company. But what does it really mean? I realized that being present is critical but it is only the first step in showing up. How we show up also matters.

My oldest daughter was a really good basketball player. I coached her through her early years, then found myself continuing to coach her from the bleachers through high school and college. Forgive me, Madison, I tried. She had a great career and was always a leading contributor offensively and defensively. Though she eventually grew to about 5’8″, she was still a small guard in mass and almost always undersized relative to her competition. I remember talking to her one night after a tough loss in which I felt like she did not do her best. She actually had a good game but it seemed like she was holding back. I asked her if she did her best and her response struck me: “Doing my best is exhausting.”

She was right. As her coach and dad, I had watched her carry her team on more than one occasion. Of course, I wanted to see that every time. Those feats were awesome but they demanded a sacrifice…and they took their toll. I realized that she had a special gift to be able to push herself past her sustainable limits. Her “best” was a peak that had to be climbed again and again; sometimes at great cost.

What is your “best”? The expression has become a platitude. Actually, even worse, it has become the opposite of its words. We say it now as permission to pull up short. “That’s ok, you did your best.” It’s ok not meet the objective, hit the goal, or win. After all, you “did your best,” right?

But did I? The truth is that operating at our “best” is a peak effort and unsustainable for extended periods of time. Doing our best may require more than we’re willing to give in a particular moment. Our best may carry a higher price than we’re willing to pay. Our best may also be more than is needed.  Not every situation demands our true best and trying to operate at that peak in every moment is neither realistic nor healthy.

The Infinite Game

I came across a post the other day referencing the “infinite game.” I first heard the concept from Seth Godin who applied it to his own notion of showing up relative to one’s job or art. He made the point that the object of the “game” is not to win but to earn the right to keep playing. The infinite game goes on and we need to show up every day in a way that enables us to keep playing. His message is one of great self-compassion as it puts our performance in the context of something more than the moment; something beyond the win or loss we experience in life’s play-by-play. For Godin, the joy is in the opportunity to keep doing what we do; to keep sharing our “art” with the world.

Though I like the general notion and message of the infinite game concept, I believe it is incomplete amid the reality of how we progress, or don’t progress, through our lives. In some ways, it points to the cliche of “do your best” – a place where we really just do what we feel like doing or we do just enough to get by. Our effort might be passable to keep playing but it doesn’t really move us forward. Knowing that we cannot sustain true peak effort indefinitely, “just enough” is sometimes necessary as we cycle through the ebbs and flows of investing time or energy, then recovering.

Perhaps “just enough” fits for repetitive tasks but it will rarely move us forward. There will be times when the situation demands our peak effort physically, creatively, spiritually, or professionally. Leaps forward frequently demand exertion beyond “just enough” and there will be times when we face win or lose circumstances. The threat of loss creates a tension that takes us to the edge, and tells us much about ourself. At that edge we find the other side of the game we call life: that joyful experience of pressing ourself up against the world to discover our limits. The chance to win or become more in the effort to win. Here, we might move forward.

Godin is right, we need to show up every day in a way that enables us to keep playing. However, there is joy in running at the edge of our limits, even if unsustainable. We find our own vitality in the struggle and need that tension in order to grow. We become more in the finite bursts of effort applied prudently over the course of time.

Showing Up is Something Different

Ultimately, when it comes to “doing your best” or sustaining effort for the infinite game, “showing up” is both/and. The presence of showing up is important and how you show up matters. Are you prepared? Are you fueled? Are you willing? There are moments when we need to operate at our peak effort but showing up demands more than pure effort. It is nuanced. It responds to the moment. It is sustained, and sustainable. It is dependable. We cannot sustain our best. We can’t run at the redline perpetually. We can’t train every day like we’re going to the Olympics or run every day like we’re in them.

Showing up is being there when it counts. Showing up is giving what is needed when it is needed. Showing up is smart and measured. It is consistent. Showing up might be peak performance in a burst of creativity, effort, or will. Showing up might be calm and measured in touch, word, or facial expression. Showing up could be the need for an aggressive response or the gentle compassion of an understanding presence. Showing up is for you, for those you love, and for those who need you.

For me, showing up really isn’t about an “infinite game,” it’s about the “long game.” Each of us has a window of time to make our contribution. We only get so many shots on goal, chances to climb the mountain, or sunsets to say “I love you.” There is only so much time for us to accomplish our mission. Sure, part of that mission is showing up and just living your day. But how we live that day matters. A lot.

The long game is working for a life of purpose, sprinting when needed, walking to some of our destinations, and resting at the right times to renew ourselves. Playing the long game is recognizing that some moments matter more than others and that life is not just an endless fight with adversity but a meaningful quest to be more, give more, and live more. Showing up is both/and; max effort and sustainability in the right places, at the right times.

This week, think about where and how you are, and aren’t, showing up. What does that say about you and your priorities? Begin by putting yourself in a place, and a frame of mind, where you can show up every day and do what is needed: walk, sprint, or rest. A place where you can do your best, or just what is needed, every day. Then, do it. Show up every day and see where it takes you.

  • Jerry Berry

    Nice piece Phillip, we especially liked the illustration with Maddy and the personal note.

    Mom & Dad

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