Creativity as an infinite game

Writing a book was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The next-best decision was to write something I wanted to make.

That may sound dead simple to you, but to me, it wasn’t. I experienced what my friend Hamza Khan calls “marketing brain”, which he describes as, “We think about the product, we think about the design, we think about the reception, and then we try to create something that will meet that moment.” In fact, you could say I was trained to experience it; as an entrepreneur and marketer, I could only stay in business and grow it by focusing on making things that other people wanted.

I happened upon the decision to write a book on creativity; to be clear, there was some evidence in favor of it (“creativity books” are a relatively clearly defined category, and over 200,000+ people read this article I wrote), but my marketing brain was telling me that, “strategically speaking,” I was probably better off writing a book about content marketing and re-envisioning what it could look like. I’d find more clients for my editorial studio, I’d establish my reputation in the space, and it’d fit into the my overall business ecosystem a lot better.

The main problem was, I didn’t want to do it! To be clear, I didn’t hate content marketing—in fact, I actually had a blast writing this relatively popular series on Slack’s copywriting, web content strategy, and blog content strategy, which 60,000+ people have read altogether—but I just didn’t want to keep playing the game. I chose the game because it made me money, and I felt the pressure that it was choosing me; the goal with content marketing is to stop doing content marketing.

For me, I was playing content marketing like what author James P. Carse calls a finite game, which was basically to win and stop playing. Bestselling author of self-help tomes Mark Manson writes, “I’ve said this many times: The whole point of self-help is to leave self-help. If self-help works, you don’t need it anymore.”

By contrast, I’d unconsciously chosen a different game—one that I believe I’d want to keep playing, which was creativity. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d already been obsessively researching people’s creative processes for almost a decade (mostly as a hobby!), and I loved practicing creativity.

What’s beautiful about the game of creativity is that a lot of people play it like an infinite game; the goal of playing isn’t to win and stop, but to keep the game going. In other words, you win by extending the game. Here’s an example of how Steph Curry describes playing basketball as an infinite game, when a journalist asks him if his slump is over:

“It’s the infinite game to me. So it’s not really, ‘are you past it?’ It’s just, ‘keep shooting,’ because you never know what’s going to happen. That’s how I always approach it. It’s never like, when you’re hot, shooting 60 percent from three, it’s never like, ‘oh that’s going to last forever,’ And every dip, it’s not going to last forever.

“So that’s how my mindset is. It doesn’t really answer your question but that’s how I approach it. I never really think about finite endings to any period of the season. It’s just a constant through-line of the season and I like that perspective. It helps me just keep moving toward the next play, next shot, next whatever.”

Watching this lecture from Tyler, the Creator, I realized that he did the lecture to empower another dozen people in-person, and thousands of people online (including me). I’ve found artists to be surprisingly generous with other artists in their insights and support. They do what they can, and they’re obligated to do nothing. 

The energy the people get from viewing that conversation, and the results from applying Tyler’s insights, will galvanize at least another few people into practicing creativity. And then those people will have a chance to talk about their processes, and they’ll be able to get more people playing… the infinite game continues.

This recording with Rick Rubin talking Andre 3000 through his creative block also is another example of playing creativity like an infinite game.

Infinite games are incredibly fulfilling to play. The best way to play an infinite game is to join an existing game where a lot of other people play it like an infinite game. 

To be clear, parts of the entertainment industry can be cutthroat, as I’m sure it is with publishing and art as well. There will continue to be people who play creativity like a finite game, or describe it like they do even when they’re playing it infinitely. 

But that doesn’t mean the artists and creators themselves are. I believe that the best creators are all generous and play to keep on playing. 

If you want to start playing this game as an artist, creator, or practitioner—it’s really fun, and highly encourage you to!—I’ve written about daily creativity challenges before, and I’d recommend #the100dayproject run by Lindsay Jean Thomson. You may also find my book Creative Doing interesting!

Creativity has this effect on people, even when it comes to supporting the creative arts and buying it. When David Geffen sold a piece of art to Steven Spielberg at a mindbogglingly-low price, Spielberg asked him why. Geffen says it was actually a good deal for him, because, “You are going to become a fanatic as an art collector. And I’m going to be able to sit on the sidelines and enjoy watching you build your collection.”

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. This is part 5.

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