work + life
Let's talk about the zero-sum game
by Brittany Taylor
published September 1, 2017
updated June 5, 2018
¶ I learned what a zero-sum game was in the most zero-sum environment possible: a high school economics class.
It was one of the few classes I took there that mixed grade levels, and I remember feeling intimidated by the slick, down-with-whatever seniors slouching around in their Birkenstocks and spray tans. I felt this oppressive sense of competition on all fronts: academic, interpersonal, superficial. It was…well, it was very high school, and like all other high school things, I survived.
A zero-sum game is a situation in which, if there is a winner, there is a corresponding loser. If I win a point, you lose a point—that’s a zero-sum.
¶ The internalization of the zero-sum game theory, for me, was accompanied by an overlarge helping of jealousy and judgement. A girl couldn’t bring a new purse to school without me bitching her out in my brain over it. It was all everything for her, none for me, which is absurd because it was A. entirely untrue, and B. grossly ignorant of my own privilege. I couldn’t let myself be happy for anyone—especially me—and that eats away at you.
When do we internalize this idea? I don’t know. I didn’t even realize what it was until sophomore year. All I do know is that at some point, we—and is it just us women? I hope not—see the world, and, particularly, our relationships with other women, through a competitive lens. Even our greatest friends can become our most-loathed enemies, even if it’s just for a split second.
It’s like we’re blind to the space right next to our BFF, who just got a killer promotion she worked her ass off for. It’s like we’re blind to the fact that a promotion for her is great, full stop—and that it doesn’t at all mean no promotion for us, no opportunity for us, no success for us. It’s like we’ve trained ourselves—been trained?—to count our chances in singles: One role. One job. One raise. And if she gets it? Well, fuck her and her luck, because that shit was mine and she took it from me.
That’s the zero-sum game in action, and folks? It’s all in our heads.
And it really, really hurts.
It hurts everything: your self-esteem, your desire to work hard, your relationships with the people who know you best. When you think that someone’s success steals from your own potential for it, you become a victim to your own thoughts. You see yourself as weak, them as despicable, and both of you as unworthy, but in different ways. None of those things are true, but you believe them anyway. And when you do, you can’t see yourself—your strengths, your talents, your accomplishments—for the very great things they are.
It’s time to strangle this way of thinking.
I think what’s important for people to realize is that achievement at work is not a zero-sum game. It’s silly to compete, because your accomplishment shouldn’t be someone else’s failure.
Sally Huang, lead of visual technologies at Houzz
Coveteur, may 31, 2017
Let’s find ourselves a little piece of heaven, just for a second. Let’s see what it looks like when you take this zero-sum game mentality out of the picture. What does your mind look like?
Mine is…more content. More enthusiastic. More ambitious. More motivated. Less critical of everyone, myself included.
Damn, y’all. Doesn’t that sound good? Here’s how to slowly (so slowly!) achieve it for yourself:
Zero-sum talk can range from a passing “oh, that book already exists, I guess I can’t write it, then,” to “what a fucking bitch, I can’t believe she got another sponsorship deal when my stuff is sitting right here and it’s just as good, now I’ll never be successful at this thing I thought I could do but obviously can’t because she did it first and better.”
It could be a tirade. It could be a tiny, tiny voice that makes you feel just a little bit smaller than you did a moment ago. It could wound you so profoundly, you remember it forever, or it could be something that runs on your brain’s backburner so consistently that you hardly know it’s there.
Spend one full day examining your thoughts to see what form your zero-sum talk takes, and make note of it. Just point it out to yourself: “Oh, there it is.” That’s a good first step.
I have met exactly one person in my life without an internal filter, and damn was that girl a riot. Chances are good you’ve got one, though, and if you do, it’s time to do a little system update.
Here’s what the update looks like: Pick a day, a morning to start laying down the zero-sum hammer. This is the day you’re going to start crushing every zero-sum thought to smithereens. That morning, tell yourself that you’re done with this bullshit. Commit yourself to catching these thoughts and wiping them out.
(I know it sounds corny and woo-y, but just humor me and tell yourself that you’re done. Do it, and I’ll graduate you to step 3.)
We’re going on the honor system here, so, hi, welcome to step 3. This is the uncomfortable part: Every time your internal filter catches a zero-sum thought, you’re going to yell at yourself, preferably in your head for the well-being of those around you. When I do this, it sounds like me censuring a dog that peed in the house, except that dog shares my name: “Bad Brittany! Bad thought!”
(I know it sounds lame, but it works. It’s quick and it does the job and hey, at least I’m not peeing on the rug…)
You can yell at yourself however you like, but I urge you not to shame yourself. A quick corrective that identifies the thought as bad is all you need. Shame brings on guilt, which makes you feel worse, not better. So, you know, consciously avoid that.
Now, it’s time to model positive thoughts for yourself. Yup, totally pre-K, but again it works. It gives your brain another path to follow as it forms new thoughts, which is more effective than just shutting down the old, damaging ones.
Here’s what this could look like: “Oh, she already wrote that big I’ve been thinking about. I guess that’s another thing I can’t do,” could become, “Oh, I’ll have to read that and see what I can add to the conversation or how I can do it differently.”
Changing the way you think is a choice you make every moment of every day. It takes courage and it takes fortitude, and every time you make the right choice, you should congratulate yourself. You’re doing a good job, you. You really are.
The zero-sum game isolates us. All the jealousy we store inside our brains and our hearts erodes our relationships. We stop trusting, we stop encouraging, and we stop communicating with each other—and when we do that, our lives suffer, both personally and professionally.
When we step outside of the zero-sum thought pattern, we open ourselves up to the world again. We begin to see others’ opportunities for what they are—great chances—and we stop seeing them as roadblocks to our own success. We start seeing our competitors as friends who can help us grow, as mentors and motivators and people just like us who are doing the very best they can with what they have.
That’s the way forward.
To start seeing the possibilities for yourself, set aside some time to walk through these questions. Give ‘em a good think, and use your answers to motivate you to keep filtering out your zero-sum thoughts and to start building for yourself supportive communities in your professional (and personal) life that can help you work toward your goals.
My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.
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