How might school facilitate the “infinite game”?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Harvard and the other Ivies have gotten even tougher in the college admissions game.

This is a perfect example of the diminishing returns of playing "finite games."

By coincidence, in his podcast Akimbo (S1E7, "Game Theory and the Infinite Game"), Seth Godin illustrates this challenge through "the game" of Harvard admissions:

Here's one thing we know: by many measures, 50% of the people who get into Harvard get in because they got a recommendation that they play a sport really well. So even though Harvard isn't a Big 10 football power, it turns out that playing football, or fencing, or squash, or swimming is a really good way to get in a shorter line to get into Harvard.

So one thing you can do for your daughter when she's eleven years old is to encourage her to start taking fencing lessons. Not because she loves fencing, but because you're playing a game. You're playing a game with a 400-year old institution in Cambridge Massachussetts, because they have a set of rules that they don't tell everybody about.

Of course, for any resource as valuable and as scarce as Harvard, there are multiple games to be played. One of them might be a game with the Physics Department.

Turns out that the Physics Department doesn't often recommend incoming freshmen to the Admissions people, so when they do, the Admissions Department pays a little bit of attention. So a game might be to build alliances, alliances with professors--to attend their lectures, to write them letters, to read their books, to engage with them as a high school senior, showing real, honest interest in the work they do. Because after all, that's a great strategy for this game. The end result is that this scarce resource [admission to Harvard] is allocated differently because you saw that a game was being played.

We already know that Godin is deeply curious to know, "What is school for?" Playing finite games, in which a very few people win--this year, 4.6% of applicants to Havard--is not on his list of answers.

Fortunately there is another kind of game: the infinite game, the game we play to play, not to win. Again, Godin:

Let's go back to your daughter at Harvard. One way to [play the game] is the scarcity ratchet.

It's hard to get into Harvard, therefore it's more valuable to get into Harvard, therefore more people want to get into Harvard, therefore it's harder to get into Harvard... and on and on and on.

But what if that's not the game?

What if the game is to live a life? To weave together community? To make a difference?

What if the game is to make it so that going to Harvard isn't even important anymore?

What if the game is to create education for everyone, easily accessible?

What if the game is to go to whatever college or university is open to whatever journey you are on, and to use that opportunity as a platform, to leverage yourself ever further by connecting with other people--not people who have the same fancy, scarce thing that you were seeking, but merely people? People on the same journey as you are.

As soon as we start playing an infinite game, that thing that used to be scarce isn't as important as it used to be. And thus we have the time, and the resources, and the energy to focus on the infinite instead. To play merely because we can play. To weave things together and make them ever better.

How might we create the conditions for school to be a place where learners can grow by participating in the infinite game, rather than conforming to the finite game?


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Christian Talbot