For the last three Christmases, my family and I have played a wonderful board game called Pandemic Legacy. The “standard” game pits the players—who constitute a collaborative team, rather than opponents—against a lethal virus which is threatening the world with extinction. The objective of the game is to keep the virus from spreading, and find a cure.
The “legacy” editions of the game are some of the greatest board games ever made. Each time you play the game, a larger meta narrative develops. The entire game is played across 20 or so individual games, each evolving the story, and changing the game. New characters are discovered, rules change, viruses mutate, clues are discovered, conditions get harder. It’s amazing fun.
It’s a wonderful metaphor for the game of work in this modern age of complexity and unprecedented change.
And so as I sat on New Year’s Eve outside my house beside the fire, working on my goals for 2020, I realised that I had started to think of my goals, like Pandemic Legacy—as a game that changes as it is played.
The objective of the game
The objective of the game of work is to unfold your soul—unwind its potential— into actuality. To create a life forged from the blueprints held deep inside. To become who you were born to be, and contribute what you were designed to create.
There is no obvious end point to this objective. It cannot be clearly achieved. It is not a measurable goal. It is what James Carse calls an “infinite game”.
Most of the games we play in life are the opposite—finite games. The goal of these games is to win at the expense of others. Make more money than your neighbour. Get more twitter followers than Stormzy. Commune with more unicorns than other shamans. They are zero-sum. The game is over when you’ve accumulated enough of the limited elements to beat your opponents.
The most important games are infinite games. The objective of an infinite game is to keep playing the game.
This is the game of soul-unfolding. You keep playing. It has no ultimate destination. There’s always another layer, another lifetime.
This is the context for goals. The game objective is soul-unfoldment and embodiment. The game goals are what keeps you moving along the soul path.
Setting soul goals
As I sat with my notebook beside the fire, I thought afresh about goals, and what this new year, indeed this new decade, held in store.
Goals and I used to have a rather fractured relationship. I thought they were constraining prisons that blocked creative emergence. They thought I was a lazy schmuck who was too scared to put my balls on the line.
We respect each other now. We work together. And as I sat writing beside the fire I once more enquired into their nature.
A goal is a conceptual stake that you plant in the ground of the future, and aim your life at. It’s something that—as far as you can tell—moves you along the soul path.
Some people like setting modest goals, targets they’re confident they can hit. The goal of the goal is to achieve it—they fail if they don’t.
Some people like setting impossible goals, something that looks utterly unattainable. The goal of the goal is to blast apart their conceptions of what is possible. They fail if they attain it (and discover they aimed too low).
My neurotic insecurity doesn’t do well with impossible goals. I’m still building the muscle of discipline and conscientious work. So I create goals which are attainable. But (and this is the key) in order to attain them I have to change.
This is a soul-goal.
The goals constellate into a whole which—if achieved—will be completed by a man more soul embodied than this man now, writing these words.
Ewan(2019) isn’t capable of pulling them off. I have to become Ewan(2020) to do so.
And I check—carefully—that Ewan(2020) is someone that is soul-embodied, not ego-inflated. Let me explain this. It’s also key.
The place from which we source goals determines the path the goals will then lead us down.
If I create goals that pump my self-esteem and help me feel superior, then the man at the end of that path will be narcissistic. If I set goals that protect my insecurity and maintain safety, then the man at the end of that path will be a coward.
If I set goals that further the work I know I’m here to do, which put me face to face with that which scares me existentially, which force me to embody those capacities that call out to be integrated, then the man at the end of that path will be more soul-manifest.
The rules change as you proceed
The nature of a soul-goal is that it requires transformation. The current self is insufficient to accomplish it. The muscle of the future self must be exercised in order to attain it. The very act of setting the goal, and perusing it launches you along the path toward greater soul manifestation.
And then? You dynamically steer as you move through the actual territory of life. Reality never measures up to our concept of it before the fact. This is very important. It allows for the possibility that you realise that the goal you set wasn’t in the right place.
We can set goals with the best of intention—the deepest conscious presence—and then reality can change the game on us half way through.
This is fact confused me for a long time. I can never know exactly how the reality of the future will play out. Indeed, the deeper the transformation—the more I walk the path of the soul—the less sure I can be of where I can end up.
A cynic (and I flirted with this for many years) may therefore conclude that goals are both pointless (due to the unpredictable nature of emergent reality) and harmful (for they constrain the “pure” emergence through our mental conceptions of where we “should” be.)
This issue took me a long time to untangle.
I remember sitting in a car with a man I was staying with in Dallas some years ago. He was a very successful business man and was grilling me on my business goals.
I mumbled my way through lofty aspirations that I hoped would satiate his challenge, while actually revealing the fact I didn’t have any clear goals.
“Well that doesn’t work, you need to have goals.” He replied.
“But I can’t know what the future holds, what if things change?” I argued back.
“It’s very simple.” He said. “You plant a stake a ground and you go at it—hard. And if you discover it wasn’t in the right place, you move the stake, and then you go at it—hard.”
While we indeed cannot expect our conceptions of emergent future to be accurate, the coin has a second face.
It is the great human gift to be able to manipulate time—to conceive of the future, and sacrifice the present in service of creating that future. This is what separated our hunter-gather ancestor, who lived in the blissful ignorance of the present, to our famer ancestor, who planted his seeds, and suffered in the present for a better future when the crop would be harvested.
Our predictions of the future may be insufficient, but it is our job to make them nonetheless, and in doing so, discover that we can indeed create the future. And while it may not be what we always expect, if we are able to stay in touch with the soul’s guidance inside—the voices that call out and activate our deep yearning—the path is one that transforms us into something greater.
The goal is not the point. It is not the win-condition of the game.
The win-condition is to keep playing, learning, and unfolding the soul.
This is the infinite game.
But the goal is what drives you along the path. The goal is how you continually play the infinite game.