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:

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.

Success! You're on the list.

Wondering How to Make a Difference in Your City? Start with Purpose.

My last week’s post gives guidance on how to develop your goals. The first step was to start with purpose, and I want to dive a bit deeper in how you can do that. Many people may think that your purpose will find you, so you can wait until it comes. However, John Coleman argues that “in achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it.” Take purpose into your own hands and develop your own personal purpose statement, and relate it to the work you do everyday. I promise you this will make your current work more fulfilling. Here are a few tips in creating a purpose statement:

Take time to reflect on what matters most. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, suggests to visualize your funeral with all your loved ones attending and speaking about you. What you would like them to say about you? What will they say you are most remembered for?

Write it out. Whatever you visualized above, write it out on paper. It may be vague and not make much sense at first, this is okay. As long as you start, you can gain momentum to continue the process.

Let it evolve. Your purpose statement will evolve as you grow and change. Redefine it whenever you feel it is not capturing what you truly want to work towards. I suggest keeping it in a journal, calendar, phone notes, or somewhere you check regularly. This will help keep what you purpose statement is.

Developing Goals for Growth

It’s that time of year when people are buying gym memberships and running early in the morning because of their New Years resolutions. By February, the gym is back to its normal numbers of people and people are again wondering why they couldn’t follow their resolutions. How can urban planners develop the right resolutions to actually make an impact to their communities? First, change the vocabulary and develop goals, not resolutions.

Goals are one of the most important tools for people to improve their cities to be more equitable, environmentally friendly, economically viable, etc. Without goals, people can work endlessly without working towards something of meaning or significance. In the end, when things get tough and/or tedious, the hard work dwindles, frustration takes over, and people spend their time waiting for Friday. Goals give direction and have a powerful affect on productivity and fulfillment. So how can you create goals that lead to success?

Start with purpose. Why are you in the business in improving your city, community, or region? Use Toyoda’s technique and ask yourself why 5 times. This will help determine why you are an urban planner or why you want to improve communities, or why you want to help people. Give it a try.

Without goals, people can work endlessly without working towards something of meaning or significance.

Align goals to your values. Does this goal mean something to you? Is it in tune with what matters most to you? The goal may not initially seem like it is, however try to make a connection with your goal. For example, my goal is to save $17K by July. Initially this may sounds bland and not motivating, however I connected this goal to be financially wealthy so I can preserve land for people to enjoy nature and build a camp to connect kids to nature. It now has much more meaning to me personally and emotionally and I’m much more committed to achieving it.

Be specific. It’s OK to start with a vague goal, but work to create a specific goal that defines the actions needed to achieve the vague goal. For example, my vague goal was to start a website that improves leadership in urban planners. This was a good start, however there wasn’t something specific for me to determine if I achieved that goal or not. Now, my goal is to write 52 posts for the year, or 1 post each week by Sunday night. This may not improve leadership if the posts are garbage, however it gets me started to put content on this site for you the reader to benefit from. Determine if your goals are habit goals or achievement goals. Michael Hyatt introduced me to the concept that some goals are habits (daily, weekly, quarterly, etc.), or some have an end result.

Make it fun. Research has shown (see below for info) that when people working on their goals feel a sense of enjoyment, although tough and difficult, they are more likely to achieve them. When making your goals specific, figure out an activity that you will enjoy doing that will bring your goals closer. For example, I enjoy reading, and to help achieve writing 1 post each week, I use the content from my reading into my posts. You can find a way to make your goal fun by using creativity and resourcefulness.

Make them measurable. When will you achieve your goal? How can you incorporate numbers to your goal? This helps determine if you actually achieved your goals and evaluate during your execution how close you are to achieving goal and if there is something you need to reevaluate. Without some sort of measurement, I find myself wondering if I’m achieving my goal or not.

So what are you goals for 2019? Leave them comments so I can tailor my website to provide content and resources for you!

You can find more info on goals and where I learned some of these tips on my goals page.

Core Value-Alignment for Planners

Everyone has their own core values, even if they don’t know them yet. I’m not talking about societal values that are sometimes pushed onto others. I’m talking about the core values unique to every human being. Everyone’s unique values is what makes each human different and unique to our world. Although some people may seem to have the same value, that value will mean something different to them. For example, many people may share the same value of sustainability. Sustainability will mean something different to each person. Sustainability is defined in many ways and it could mean saving the natural resources on this planet, OR financial viability.

Successful planners understands each person has their own set of core values that drive their behavior and decisions. Even communities come together to set values they want to live by and make decisions from. When working on a project or plan, know these values by either reading the general plan, or talking to a local elected official. Values may not be explicit, so more research may be needed to identify them.

Align your project with the core values of the community. If you believe the project doesn’t, why not? Many agencies have certain policies or standards they must follow that could be perceived as misaligned with the communities core values. Often, your project will be aligned with a community’s core values, but it takes time to identify the connections. Once it is determined your project is aligned with the community’s values, communicate it with the public and use their core values as part of the conversation. It will help show the community you are thoughtful in addressing their needs.

Values also shape planning agencies decisions and behaviors. When public agencies don’t commit to a core set of values, internal organizational issues occur. People want to be personally aligned with their work and believe they are working on something that matters. I believe most of the problems in organizations today stem from not aligning their day to day actions with core values. Some of our most complex planning challenges and issues can be solved if planning agencies align their actions with core values.