Have you ever played a game with a kid who is making up the rules as they go along? And if you start winning they’ll just they change the rules until you finally just get frustrated and quit? Frustrating, isn’t it? Well, at least it is for the adult. The kid had a great time. Your frustration didn’t come from the endless rule changes, it came from not understanding the game the kid was really playing.

At the AAAE Annual Conference in San Diego, Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, gave an outstanding talk. Start With Why was one of the better books I read when I did my “50 books in 50 weeks,” project a few years back and both his speech and his new book discuss the finite versus infinite perspective.

I’m going to borrow Sinek’s comparisons here, so all credit goes to him, but think for a moment about football and the Cold War. In football, everyone knows the rules, both sides agree to adhere to them, and whoever has the most points when the clock runs out, wins. Game Over. This is a finite perspective with both sides understanding they are playing a finite game. It starts and ends and everyone know when that is and who won.

Now let’s look at the Cold War, where the United States and the former Soviet Union played a game of nuclear brinkmanship for four decades. There wasn’t a clock that said when the game was over and the rules of the game constantly changed. But both sides were okay playing because both sides realized they were playing from an infinite perspective. And just like that kids game, in an infinite game, the side that loses their resources and willpower first, loses the game.

However, the real challenge comes when one side believes they are playing an finite game, and the other side is playing an infinite game.

This country has fought most of its previous wars from a finite perspective as did most of our opponents. In WWI and WWII, the side that took the most ground won. Taking ground meant depleting the resources and willpower of the enemy. But in Vietnam, we were still playing the finite game, while the Vietcong were playing the infinite game. Unfortunately, this is the same approach the US took into the ‘war on terror,’

You still win wars by depleting the willpower or resources of the other side, but today’s terrorists don’t need to take physical ground anymore. Today’s battlefield is over the hearts and minds and if we’re not careful, we’ll lose.

After September 11th, we went to Afghanistan with the objective of finding bin Laden, kicking the Taliban out, and bombing al Qaeda back to the Stone Age (which wasn’t much of a step back for them). And as in past wars, we wanted our troops home as soon as possible, but we were now engaged in an infinite war. There won’t be a homecoming for a very long time. In this war, the winner is whoever can outlast the other side in terms of willpower and resources. This is a truth the American people and our politicians need to accept as well, and our military and homeland security tactics need to adjust accordingly, or else we’ll completely run out of resources and willpower, and then the game will be over.

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