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When I was younger, I was convinced of the validity of the zero-sum mindset: the idea that one person’s gain automatically meant another person’s loss. In my view, there was a fixed amount of available resources and there was only one way to distribute them. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that these were arbitrary limitations and that you could, in fact, expand opportunity to meet demand.
That’s not to say the zero-sum concept is only for the young or inexperienced. Actually, it’s something that surfaces quite often — with pride, angst or censure depending on the audience and context. Take extreme wealth, for example. Many people view the outsized success of others as limiting their own prospects and/or an obligation to contribute to the benefit of others.
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I understand and empathize with the second point, suggesting we act with the well-being of others in mind. Yet the economist in me recognizes that the zero-sum mindset itself is the only limiting factor here — impeding our individual growth by diminishing our self-determination and self-reliance.
Getting Your Slice of the Pie
The reality is that no one operates in a vacuum. It’s easy to examine the tangible aspects of wealth, but there’s an underlying ecosystem of benefit. When you think about the businesses created to build that wealth and the jobs, taxes and ancillary income for local economies as a result, it becomes a much larger consideration.
Yet we tend to view needs and assets as a finite construct, like a pie we’re trying to divide up and serve. When you reexamine the paradigm of “have” vs. “have-not,” however, you can find value. And when you find value, you understand the true size and shape of the so-called pie.
Not only does that help you avoid falling into a trap of bias about how to measure and determine what’s “fair,” it helps you realize you can make a new pie. That takes some amount of disruptive thinking, which also requires confidence in your ability to re-shape some part of this world. That’s challenging under any circumstances, but particularly when you consider the socioeconomic, political and cultural influences that play a role in our views on gain and loss.
And what about when the pie changes? History is brimming with examples of the fickle nature of what we value. For the longest time in New York City, taxi cab medallions were so prized they had become equivalent to a form of currency. But in the rise of ride-share apps, that economy folded. The pie had changed dramatically and there was a new plus/minus dynamic.
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Competition, Connection and Character
All roads seem to lead back to this either/or framework. Winner versus loser. Success versus failure. Competition is an age-old human tradition that, in most cases, occurs in archetypal zero-sum situations. Take sports, for example. A team or individual triumphs, which means another team or individual is defeated. Yet there’s a danger in placing all of the value in competition on the outcome. If the final score is the sole focus, you’re missing the potential of different types of gains.
Our American obsession with sports aside, why is it so difficult to reshape our thinking? Partly because it’s a thread that winds through the fabric of our lives: academic competitions, business units vying for recognition and/or resources, even in competition between people in virtual spaces like social media. Where we truly struggle, though, is in the transition from these all-or-nothing scenarios to the not-so-cut-and-dry reality of the rest of life.
Real life is complicated. In fact, as Robert Wright theorizes in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, as society becomes more complex, specialized and interdependent, it becomes increasingly non-zero-sum. We can see it, both as leaders and as participants — the greater impact of interconnected pockets of innovation versus single industry silos.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has underscored how sensitive that schema is. It broke the equilibrium of those interconnected points, resulting in supply chain and labor shortages, and inflationary pressure. It also highlighted the inequitable distribution of resources, which takes us back to where we started.
To break the hold of the zero-sum mindset, we need to remember and celebrate how self-determined we each can be in our own lives. The alternative is to limit the potential for invention and innovation by settling for what we see set in front of us. We would, in essence, imprison everybody around that sadly insufficient pie.
We can start by better championing examples of how to “fail” with respect and dignity and how to “succeed” with humility and kindness. Again, when we don’t focus solely on outcome, we gain skills that build character and let us navigate life more fully. Setbacks build tenacity, courage and drive — things we need for both competition and cooperation.
Most importantly, we need to stop reducing ourselves to one-dimensional representations of value. With all of our pandemic-induced reflections on priorities, we’re reminded that what defines us as humans is as multifaceted and complex as the world around us. So, in addition to those assets that we think aid us in conflict or contests, the “human balance sheet” should include mental and physical wellness, kindness to others and to ourselves, and the ability to give, receive and lead with love.
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