The Infinite Mindset: Lessons from Simon Sinek

As I rolled into the final week of my first semester in the Urban and Regional Planning Masters program at CU Denver, I felt unmotivated, uninspired, and dispassionate. The show ‘Goliath’ was more appealing to me than working to finish this semester with good grades. Even washing dishes was an adequate distraction.

This bothered me. So, I took time to reflect on why I was unmotivated and I learned two valuable lessons that apply to city leaders, planners, designers, and advocates:

  1. I was playing with a finite mindset in an infinite game, and

  2. I was disconnected and unaligned to my higher purpose.

Finite Mindset in an Infinite Game

In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek describes a “finite mindset in an infinite game” as trying to “win” in a game where there are no agreed upon rules, players, time, or metrics that define what “winning” means. Finite games, like football, have a specified time, agreed upon rules, specified teams, and clarity that whoever has the most points at the end of regulation (the agreed upon time), wins. “There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.” However, planning and design is an infinite game because “the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint.

This misalignment results in planners, designers, city leaders, and advocates to focus on short-term thinking, playing as if they need to “win” the bid, or “beat” congestion. An infinite mindset works towards a vision where people have equal access to where they need to go and financial opportunity to live their best lives.

I was too focused on the short-term outcome of receiving a 4.0 gpa, rather than learning how to best serve communities. This led to a drastic decrease in my motivation and passion, leaving me wondering why I am working this hard.

A finite mindset causes us to compare ourselves to others, rather than being better than who we were yesterday and focus on a mission to serve others. I wanted to receive a 4.0 gpa because my younger sister did in her graduate program. This led me astray to why I was putting my time, energy, and money into my graduate program: to improve our cities to be sustainable and livable places.

If we believe trust, cooperation and innovation matter to the long-term prospects of our organizations, then we have only one choice–to learn how to play with an infinite mindset.

-Simon Sinek

Many cities replicate what other cities have because they believe they need the same thing. For example, many city leaders wanted to copy Portland’s light rail system because they thought the systems would magically boost their economy, reduce congestion, or create a “livable place”. Cincinatti did just that, but with drastic differences in success compared to Portland. Cincinatti’s finite mindset led to half the predicted ridership, operational issues, and budget deficits. With an infinite mindset, Cincinatti would have focused on providing affordable access to desitinations, and realized that light rail wasn’t the best solution to reach that goal.

Cincinnati light rail. Source: DilemmaX.com

Planning and Design are an infinite game because planners and designers are never quite done making our communities a better place. There will always be change in business, culture, government, and the physical spaces we live in. The sooner planners, designers, city leaders, and planning advocates realize they are in an infinite game, the better prepared they are for any situation.



Connect to a Higher Purpose

My intention to receiving all A’s in my classes was a worthy goal, but it lacked the intent to learn and grow for a purpose larger than myself. This intention led to dispassionate work, working to only get a surface level high, rather than deep emotions such as joy and passion in what I’m learning and working on. That’s why I have changed my mission to reflect the values Simon Sinek decribes in The Infinite Game.

Cities and planning organizations also have this problem. Most city websites have no mission, purpose, or vision statement they are working towards. It’s also rare for planning departments to have an inspiring mission. For example, the Los Angeles Planning Department’s “About Me” page starts with: “Los Angeles City Planning reviews project applications, processing entitlements, and approvals to ensure that future decisions about development are aligned with the City’s land use policies and proposed land use regulations.” This sounds more like a task, not a purpose to live by or a mission to work towards.

Connection to a higher purpose, mission, or “just cause” as Simon Sinek describes, is critical to living with an infinite mindset. It must be “for something, inclusive, service oriented, resilient, and idealistic.” Once you have a higher purpose, don’t let it only be for show. Align your actions, words, and thoughts to that higher purpose because otherwise, it’s an empty jumble of words put together nicely. Make it your foundation!

Breaking it Down

My experience in my final week of my first semester taught me how my previous mindset was incapable of leading a fulfilling life worth living. Therefore, I must:

1. Live with an infinite mindset because city planning and design is an infinite game.

2. Align my thoughts, actions, and words with my higher purpose.

And I leave you with this call to action:

Connect to a higher purpose and align your actions, words, and thoughts to that purpose.


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