The Curse of the Zero Sum Game

There are so many examples in our society of win or lose, black or white, right or wrong, right or left as if everything has to be one thing or another. There can only be one winner, one gold medal, one number one hit single. The danger with this is that it can stop people reaching their potential as they think, if I can’t be the best, the number one, then there’s no point in taking part.

What is a number one hit single? It’s the music track that sold the most from a select number of outlets in seven days. There can only be one, the rest of the chart is full of singles that are not number one and yet many more music acts have had wonderful success without it having to be confined to such arbitrary measures of sales.

What is an Olympic gold medal? It’s an award given to someone who performed the best at one task on one particular day. The rest of the participants were also-rans, they lost.

Because these type of successes are so visible we can make the mistake that the concepts should apply to our everyday potential. We fall into the trap of thinking that we need external verification for success instead of internal satisfaction and that for us to win, others must lose. The bigger slice of the pie I can get, the less there is for you. This is the Zero Sum Game, the ZSG.

There’s nothing wrong with being, or aiming for being, the absolute best in the world but if you feel that no other place counts then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

I’ve seen this time and time again with aspects of people’s creativity. “I can’t draw” is the classic. Of course they can draw, everybody can draw. And like everything else, if you practice you get better. But people notice that they can’t draw like Leonardo so they label themselves within the ZSG: Leonardo can, I can’t. Leonardo wins, I lose or more seriously, they refuse to take part so that I avoid being labeled as a loser.

Being the ‘best in the world’ would be a wonderful thing to be, but a short lived and arbitary thing to be. Chasing the ZSG is a battle you can only temporarily win. But being the best you can be is different. Getting as far as you can get compared to what you’re capable of, compared to your own personal best is different. It isn’t a ZSG but a continuous journey to excellence and one where others can win with you along the way.

The most damaging thing anyone can do to their potential is to compare themselves with someone else. There is always someone who appears more successful, better looking, cleverer, richer, happier, funnier or whatever. Creating a secret ZSG competition like this between yourself and another person leads to stress. Such a race can never be won because unlike all sports competitions, the players will never have an equal starting position on all attributes except the one that is being tested.

If you’re on a racetrack aiming to take home the gold medal then you need to compare your performance with others to reach and snatch that discreet ZSG victory. You’ll know you’ve achieved it due to the brief externally verified reward. You know you’ll have won because others will have lost.

In almost every other endeavor we engage in this is not the case. Competition has its place, but when it comes to your talent, your goals, your desires, a much better idea is for us to aim to be our best, our personal best, every single day. Do that instead, aiming for internal satisfaction, and we can continually take the gold home every single day. And so too can everybody else. Decide not to play the Zero Sum Game.

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10 comments on “The Curse of the Zero Sum Game

  1. So true! I’ve always had a problem with people telling me I’m this or that (good or bad) because I have never felt that *they* are qualified to judge me.
    Most of the time I’m happy with my performance although I’m realistic to know that there will always be people who are cleverer, more eloquent or more original in their thinking but I also know when I’ve cut corners and done a sloppy job and no amount of other people’s praise will convince me its good enough.
    Our late lamented friend Clive Gott had a wonderful phrase: “Other people’s opinions of us are none of our business” and i agree with that 100%. Unfortunately, our own opinion of us can be even more damaging.


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  3. Ayd,
    Another gem.
    Got me thinking about that old cliche: Win-Win. Clearly not a case of ZSG. I heard Adam Ant talking recently on the radio and he explained that his competitive nature was still there but it was now about doing the best within the process rather than the importance of winning.
    As a former international sportsman I know winning is important and so is being the best one can be every day as it may well result in a win.
    I heard recently of a 74 year old who swam the channel doing the Butterfly stroke. I bet there are other swimmers out there that can swim faster, longer, etc. than her but does that make her a loser? I think not!
    Intrinsic achievement (with thankfully a good number of exceptions) seems too often to be sacrificed at the alter of extrinsic celebrity.


  4. The ZSG is a seductive and often poisonous meme at every level from international politics to personal relationships.

    So many people live their whole lives affected by it – both those who think that in order for them to win then someone has to lose – and those who are oppressed by it in the way you describe so well.

    In nature the equivalent is a parasite – who needing ‘losers’ to feed on. Evolution (raw in tooth and claw though it is) is not a ZSG – it’s the opposite, spinning off new ‘winners’ and species at every opportunity.

    It’s creative. Creativity is by it’s nature win-win (except for the Turner prize et al of course) 😉


  5. I so completely agree with your here. I get quite disgusted with the USA during the Olympics and how the media here (and even the athletes) act as if anything less than gold is a failure. Makes me want to scream. YOU’RE IN THE OLYMPICS!!! YOU ARE AMONG THE TOP ATHLETES IN THE WHOLE WORLD!!! BE PROUD OF YOURSELF. Just walking into that arena during the opening ceremonies is an honor.

    And, on a less grand scale, local competitions….same thing. Ironically, I was one who “came in first” often with my singing, and I had to explain to those who felt dejected not to have won that I had lucked out that day, happening to have a tight performance at just the right time. I was under no grand illusion that I was superior or that there is a finite amount of talent in the world.


  6. I quite like the attitude that I think exists in a lot of swimming and athletic events where the concentration at club level is personal best. My son was aiming for a personal best for sub minute 100 metres freestyle for ages – and was so close on many an occasion. When he finally did it he smashed it by a full 4 seconds. He was never going to be a top swimmer but this achievement was flagged up well by the club. I guess it is when you get to the very top though that the pursuit of number one only mattering kicks in.


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