Scott H Young

Avoid the Zero-Sum Mind Trap


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In life, few things are truly zero-sum. A zero-sum game has winners and losers. If you believe that in order to make $100, someone else needs to lose $100, that’s zero-sum. While there are often tradeoffs in life, in most situations having a winner doesn’t mean there needs to be a loser.

Unfortunately, I think it’s easy to fall into seeing problems as zero-sum. I call this a mind trap, because once you start seeing problems as zero-sum, it’s hard to solve them without painful costs. If you believe financial success means your family life needs to suffer, then you won’t notice solutions that allow you to be rich and happy at the same time.

Zero-Sum Thinking is the Enemy of Self-Improvement

Self-improvement is building something from nothing. It could mean going from poor to wealthy, isolated to social or unhealthy to fit. When you’re done building, you should be more than when you started. If you view a problem as zero-sum, however, then you’re cut off from those solutions. Every attempt to build improvements requires that you tear down something else.

Income is not Zero-Sum

Money can be deceptive because it looks fairly zero-sum. In order to buy something, I need to spend money. I lose $15 for a meal, while the restaurant gains $15. Somebody wins, somebody loses.

But money isn’t zero-sum. Although the amount of currency might stay the same, that’s just a medium of trade. In reality, value is being created through each trade. In the above example, I’ve gained a meal and the world has gained whatever it was I did to earn the $15 to pay for that meal. The sum is greater than zero.

Unfortunately, if you look at money as being zero-sum, you’ll focus on the wrong parts. If you’re evil and selfish, you may try to steal or swindle to get money. If you’re nice, but uninformed, you may never try to sell yourself and any value you offer because you don’t want to take people’s money. But if you think from a nonzero-sum perspective, then you’re able to focus on providing value so you can contribute while being able to feed yourself.

Life isn’t a Trade-off

Money is a simple example, but there are many other places where the zero-sum mind trap can lurk. One of these is the belief that for every improvement you make in one area of life needs to come at the cost of everything else.

Someone who sees life as being zero-sum might hold back on an ambitious project, because they’re worried that it will take away from their relationships, health or other pursuits. While there might be some smaller trade-offs, I’ve often found that investing yourself into a big project gives you the motivation and enthusiasm to improve elsewhere. I really started working on getting in shape once I got into a big project. The drive to work on the project created the need to work on my energy levels and physical health.

I’m not saying there will never be sacrifices, just that zero-sum should never be the default perspective. Always look for the synergies and combinations, where something is being built without something else needing to be destroyed.

Strengths don’t Create Weaknesses

A common interview question for a potential employee is to ask the person to list one strength and one weakness. The goal of this exercise is to see if the person has self-awareness (and to avoid people who give BS answers like, “my biggest weakness is that I work myself too hard…”). However, implicit in the question is that to have a strength, a person also needs to have a weakness.

Strong communication skills does not mean that you need to be bad at math. Being able to work alone and focus on individual tasks doesn’t mean you need to be shy. Being good at chemistry doesn’t make you worse at history.

Unfortunately, many people look at strengths and weaknesses as if it were zero-sum. There are probably people who are better than me at almost everything I do. They are more sociable, have better technical skills and are more productive. Their biggest weakness might be better than my biggest strength. However, the language of skills tends to create the picture that everyone is equal, just with a few random dials turned up and a few turned down.

While this picture of equality might be nice, it’s also limiting. If you see every strength as creating another handicap, you won’t train yourself. The truth is, most people spend very little attention to self-education and building skills, so many people are all weakness and little strength.

If you view the problem as building skill instead of trading strengths and weaknesses, you’ll get a lot more done.

The Default Perspective Should Be Building

You’re going to have a default perspective for life, no matter what you do. People need prejudgements. Although prejudice has a nasty connotation, pre-judging things are absolutely necessary for thinking. If you needed to carefully review everything before forming an opinion (if this were even possible), you’d never get anything done. Still, it’s better to pick a good default than one that cripples you.

I think the best default perspective is one of building. This is where the sum is greater than zero. Making an addition to one area doesn’t damage another. In many cases, when you build, the added structure in one section can actually make it easier to improve another. Although some rare situations in life may be truly zero-sum, I don’t think this is a good place to start.

Whenever you start looking at the tradeoffs, or viewing one improvement at the cost of another, stop yourself. Step back and ask yourself if this is the best way to look at the problem. How would the situation look if the opposite were true: that you could eat and have your cake at the same time? Even if there is a choice, when you start with a nonzero-sum perspective you’re more likely to find solutions that let you win without forcing you to lose.


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5 Responses to “Avoid the Zero-Sum Mind Trap”

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Covey would call it the 3rd-alternative. There’s always a third-alternative. I’m a fan of synergy — the sum is more than the parts.

  2. Here’s what I learn about strength and weaknesses. Strength doesn’t make your weaknesses. But if you are controlled by your strength, and having no choice but to behave according to your strength, then it will become your weaknesses.
    You should control your strength, not the other way round. For example, you need to know the time to be honest or smart, to lead or follow, to be fast and efficient, or slow and patient. That’s the real strength.

    Robert

  3. Juliet says:

    Sometimes one’s weakness is one’s strength e.g. being over-sensitive can bring you much pain, but can also enable you to empathise with others

  4. Brent says:

    1) The whole is greater than the sum of the parts – this means that by combining things you attain more than the individual assets. I imagine this is what is meant by “The sum is more than the parts”

    2) What?

    3) Being “over” sensitive is never a strength. It is a weakness. A pasty, whiny, wimpy, self-loathing weakness.

    Commenters owe the blog-reading community an idea of substance if they’re not going to just compliment the blogger. I realize this comment is not in and of itself substantive, so I will add:

    Excellent article, Scott!

  5. Manuel says:

    My idea is less brilliant than Dan Ariely’s approaches, but in this blog you can see a proposal on the hypothetical jump non-zero-sum from an irrational position. The Spanish university is very bad, I am sorry.

    http://misproyectosacademicos.blogspot.com/

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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