james carse what got you there sean delaney

The Art of Thinking, Reading, and Teaching – James Carse, Author of “Finite and Infinite Games,” on What Got You There with Sean DeLaney

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Key Takeaways

  • Finite vs. infinite games:
    • Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life played to be won (when they end)
    • Infinite games are played not to be won, but with the sole goal of continuing play
  • If you can, consider reading books in your non-native language; here’s why James reads in both French and German, in addition to English:
    • “It takes a little more energy to read things in those languages, and as a result, I remember what I read better … I can do a much better job recreating what I’ve read if I read it in another language.”James Carse
  • Quotes to ponder:
    • “Here’s one of the ways I think about writing: I want to say something and then see what I said, and then back off further and see what I’m seeing, and then write that down. It’s a kind of emptying the mind, reflecting on it, and then reflecting on the reflection.” 
    • “The first challenge a teacher has is getting their students to realize what they know—to come to terms with their knowledge, and therefore, know the limits of their knowledge. That’s where you begin to think. You don’t think about what you know; you think about the edge of what you know.” 
    • “I don’t care what you read as long as you read it critically”
    • “I’m never completely satisfied with anything I’ve thought, anything I’ve read, or anything I’ve said. I’m always looking for how I might draw an exception.” 

Books Mentioned

  • James is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking book, Finite and Infinite Games
  • While healing from a knee industry in college, a hospital roommate (a professor of economics at Northwestern with late-stage leukemia) gave James two books:

Intro

What are “finite games” and “infinite games”?

  • Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life played to be won (when they end)
  • Infinite games are a bit different—they’re played not to be won, but with the sole goal of play continuation 

James’ Early Athletic Career

  • Growing up, James’ dad was a professional boxer who stressed the importance of athletic competition
  • James followed suit and ended up paying his way through Northwestern University with a football scholarship 
    • That said:
      • “I was way happier as an intellectual than I was as an athlete. When I was a kid, that was an odd conflict. I was the only one on the football team who thought of himself as a scholar and poet, and I felt out of place.” – James Carse
      • “I realized, at a certain point, that much of what I was doing was trying to please my father … There were 65,000 people in Northwestern’s stadium for a football game, but actually, I had an audience of one—my father. I wanted to please him more than I wanted to please the crowd … In a way, I was playing against myself.” – James Carse
  • Another essential lesson James learned from sports:
  • “I learned a lot about what it meant to win and lose. That played heavily into the way I thought out some of the problems discussed in my book.” – James Carse

A True Intellect

  • Towards the end of his college career, James was invited to try out for the Indianapolis Colts, but elected to attend grad school at Yale instead
    • “I was way happier going to Yale than I would have been going to play with the Colts. In a certain sense, one of the ways I describe my life: I went to school at the age of 5 and never left.” – James Carse
  • Throughout his grad school career, James estimates he spent thousands of hours in the library
    • “I realized how much I loved that—to grab a book, sit down in a big chair, and read for hours without any kind of interruption.”James Carse

The Book That Changed James’ Life

James Isn’t Your Typical 87-Year-Old

  • “I’m always writing a book” – James Carse
  • “Even now, I’ll go to a library in town and sit there most of the day. I’ll be there for four hours and hardly know I was there at all. I get lost in both reading and writing … I think of it in two ways. It’s creative; it’s original; it’s making stuff up—creating thoughts I’ve never had before. On the other hand, it’s a kind of ecstasy—it’s a kind of standing outside of yourself in an almost mystical state—deeply entering somewhere into the depths of your psyche.”James Carse
    • The above relates to a line from James’ book: “The creative is found in anyone who’s prepared for surprise”

There’s More to Games Than Winning

  • After grad school, James made his way to New York University (NYU) where he taught for his entire career
    • “I really only had one job my whole life. I think of it as having lived a life without ever being gainfully employed. All I did was read books and talk with smart young people.” – James Carse
  • One day, a group of NYU faculty members got together to discuss game theory—a popular new topic in the academic community
    • “I realized the point of game theory was to figure out either how to win or to minimize your losses. It had nothing to do with playing the game itself. It wasn’t about play; it was about winning.” – James Carse
      • This led James to further realize: By aiming to win a competitive game, you’re trying to bring the game to an end. There had to be more to the “play” aspect—playing with ideas, playing with the sole goal of lengthening the game, etc., ultimately leading James to write the 400-page manuscript for his first book, Finite and Infinite Games

That’s Not the End of the Story…

  • On a sabbatical in Paris, where James planned to put the finishing touches on his manuscript, he lost it!!
    • But, a few years later, James sat down to summarize what he remembered, eventually leading to the final ~180-page copy of Finite and Infinite Games

What’s Next?

  • James is currently, 40 years later, writing a sequel to Finite and Infinite Games
    • And good news: “I find myself in the same mental creative mode as when I wrote the original” – James Carse

James’ Writing Process

  • “Here’s one of the ways I think about writing: I want to say something and then see what I said, and then back off further and see what I’m seeing, and then write that down. It’s a kind of emptying the mind, reflecting on it, and then reflecting on the reflection.” James Carse
    • (In a certain sense, it’s as if James is watching his thoughts like a movie)

James’ Teaching Approach

  • “The first challenge a teacher has is getting their students to realize what they know—to come to terms with their knowledge, and therefore, know the limits of their knowledge. That’s where you begin to think. You don’t think about what you know; you think about the edge of what you know.”James Carse
    • “If you look at what you know as a body of knowledge, you’re somewhat removed from it—you transcend it a bit, and therefore, you can decide what to do with it.”
  • James taught with on goal in mind: teaching students how to think
    • To facilitate this, James would frequently write down topic points on the classroom’s blackboard, thinking through each one with the class as a group
      • “I didn’t go in with a body of thought; I went in with things to think about and to do my thinking in public as a way of not transferring knowledge, but teaching students how to think … I was exploring ideas myself in their presence.” – James Carse
      • “I wanted to present a lecture in a way that left my students somewhat confused, but not so confused that they wouldn’t think about it again—just confused enough where they’d keep thinking about the ideas.” James Carse
  • “One thing I insisted on in my teaching was that students learn the difference between reading a book and studying a book” – James Carse
    • “I hoped that whatever my students ended up doing, they’d be readers, thinkers, and students of what they were reading and thinking”
    • Another related thought: “I don’t care what you read as long as you read it critically

Never Be Satisfied

  • “I’m never completely satisfied with anything I’ve thought, anything I’ve read, or anything I’ve said. I’m always looking for how I might draw an exception.” James Carse

James’ Reading Process

  • James marks up physical books quite significantly 
    • “I have arrows and checks and circles and lines and double lines and exclamation points and so on that alert me to certain features of a book” – James Carse
  • James will frequently read books in French and German (although he’s only fluent as a speaker in German)
    • “It takes a little more energy to read things in those languages, and as a result, I remember what I read better … I can do a much better job recreating what I’ve read if I read it in another language.”James Carse

If James could spend the afternoon conversing with anyone, who would it be?

  • #1: Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • #2: Karl Marx
    • Why? “There’s a creative energy in Marx’s thought, regardless of his point of view … His thought process, the intellectual part, is incredibly interesting.” – James Carse
      • Marx had a knack for questioning things, and then questioning his thinking: “That activity keeps turning over new thoughts in your mind. You can see that at work in Marx’s thinking.”
  • #3: Plato

What’s the most striking thing James has learned over the past year?

  • “We define our humanity by way of money”James Carse
    • (James plans to dive deeper into this topic in his sequel to Finite and Infinite Games)
  • Further: “You can be wealthy without any money at all. Wealth has to do with your ability as a creative individual to add to or deepen your human relationships with other people and yourself.”James Carse
    • This insight came from reading the work of Plato

Additional Notes

  • In his teens, James took an interest in art (but the fascination was mostly pushed to the side due to athletics)
    • He’s since rekindled the flame, taking up sculpting 
  • “I look at language in five ways: you speak it, you read it, you hear it, you write it, and you think it” – James Carse
  • James lives in Greenwich Village in NYC
    • He also has an old farmhouse in the Berkshires (in Western, Mass.)
  • James’ wife is a psychotherapist
    • James jokes: “I’m her main client”
  • James thoroughly enjoys the writing of Lee Child
  • Every morning, James reads The New York Times
  • “I’m a reader—you’ll never find me without a book in my hand” – James Carse
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