Life Is Not Zero Sum

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin

Why do we so often treat life like a zero-sum game…

…that any win you get is a loss for me? If you’re right, I must be wrong, black-white, yes-no, my way or the highway, you’re either with me or against me… life, business, politics, families, are so often treated adversarially, like competitors, but that approach couldn’t be more wrong.  

Crap, I did it again: right/wrong…this is hard, isn’t it?

I think the problem begins by seeing everything as a game: the game of politics, business, Thrones…and the mindset of games is to win. But they’re not games. And winning at life has a whole different meaning than it does in, say, ping pong. In life and all its manifestations, it’s more a matter of whether you actually stay in the “game.” Like the Lottery, “You’ve gotta play to win,” and if you’re not playing, you can’t win. So staying in the game truly is paramount. 

Take business: it’s a long game, not a short one, or what James Carse calls the Infinite vs the Finite Game. The problem with the shortsighted nature of winning and losing is it forces everyone to measure only by their strength, or whatever factor puts them ahead. You can’t be first in everything, and first in anything never lasts — otherwise Michael Jordan never would have missed a shot. Just look at the companies Jim Collins profiled in Good To Great. They virtually all fell from greatness, and he had to write a new book.  

A long game, the Infinite Game, is about our growth, our strength, our skills — and building them up. It’s internal. It’s not about defeating or destroying other people; it’s about being better, stronger, wiser, faster than you were yesterday. Do that enough, and you can be like Michael Phelps: the most decorated Olympic Medalist in history.

That’s the game in business and in life — playingIt’s really not zero-sum. The success of someone else doesn’t take away from your own; we need competitors, those that do something better than us. It builds our muscles, sparks our motivation, gives us something to leapfrog over. Then they leapfrog you, and then you leapfrog them…but if you’re no longer in the game, what chance do you have?  When we stop measuring a zero-sum game and realize that our real goal is to stay active, to stay in business, to stay in relationship…then winning takes on a whole new meaning, and how we lead, empower, connect, partner, grow, learn and respond to mistakes become the bars we measure ourselves against.

So: how are you improving today?