There are many people in this world who believe that life is a zero-sum game. In other words, that everything in the world is finite and, if you get a little more, then they get a little less.
We are all guilty of this thinking to some extent. Even Thich Naht Hanh writes of catching himself, after dinner at a monastery, eagerly anticipating the plain yogurt that they were serving for dessert. As the bowl moved around the table, and each monk took a small portion of the yogurt, Hanh’s mouth watered more and more, and he worried that the yogurt would run out before it came to him. Then he caught himself worrying and – enlightenment! – when the bowl reached him, he passed it on to the next monk without taking any.
He recognized his own zero-sum thinking – if they have more yogurt, there is less for me – and it lost power over him.
I see a lot of zero-sum thinking around me every day. Sometimes it centers on money: if you get more money, then there is less for me. Or to paraphrase my grandfather’s thoughts around women in the workplace: if women get paid more, then there is less money to pay men. You may recognize this thinking when you look at the huge houses and beautiful furniture and lavish vacations on TV or in Social Media and feel resentment: they all have so much, I have so little – it’s not fair! – as if the two were related. Or maybe, if you are a woman, it comes up for you when you are offered a job at a lower salary than men with your skills and experience earn but you think that you can’t ask for your target salary: why can’t you ask? Because it would mean less for someone else?
Sometimes zero sum thinking centers around power: people want bigger titles and more money. We are always comparing ourselves to others – even the first thing that people in the US ask each other is, “What do you do for a living?” I find myself getting hung up on this question, as if having the perfect elevator pitch will somehow solve the meaning of life that I have been searching for. I have heard that, in other Western countries, you can spend time with someone for years as a friend, and never know what they do for a living. It’s just not important. But somehow here, it becomes of primary importance, as if having the right job, an impressive job that makes your mother proud and justifies the huge investment in higher education, gives you something that others won’t have, because there is a finite amount of it around. One of the big questions about the 2020 shift in higher education – from campus-based to remote-learning – is, How will this impact the economics of higher education? Some economists theorize that many second-tier schools will fold altogether; and that the Ivy League schools – those schools that thrive on exclusivity, the thought that their education is a zero-sum game, available only to a select few – will struggle with devaluation if they move online.
Some people like this world of zero-sum thinking. They believe that, if they can take away from certain segments of the population, it will give them more. If we disenfranchise voters that don’t think like us, that gives us more power. With that power, we can improve services in the neighborhoods where people think like us, and lower taxes for those same neighborhoods by cutting services in neighborhoods with lower tax bases. We can cut funding for public schooling and public hospitals – since the people who look like us and think like us use private schools and private hospitals, and the people who rely on the public schools and public hospitals don’t pay taxes anyway – and then cut taxes so that our people can save more money.
There are many things in this world that do not play by the zero-sum rules. Joy is not a zero sum game: instead it is exponential. If you feel joy, and share that joy, it is contagious. The more people feel joy, the more joy expands to encompass even more people. Generosity is also abundant: the more you give, the more others give. Imagine if joy and generosity had the same rate of infection that Covid has – oh goodness, you’d better wear a mask and stay six feet away or everyone will be joyful and have more abundance! Look out, the ticker on the right side of the CNN screen is saying that hundreds of thousands of Americans are feeling more joy and going to bed in safety, with a full stomach! Hospitals everywhere are emptying out as the diseases of poverty are eliminated by generosity and joy!
All the people who grasp power and money and privilege, do they find that they are happy? They may have physical comforts – a good house, too much food, warmth in winter and cool in summer – but do their mental torments allow them to enjoy those comforts? Or do they worry that, when the yogurt bowl swings around to them again, that it may be empty?
A few years ago, my young nephew became obsessed with having expensive sunglasses, the fame and following of his favorite Instagrammer, the body of a male porn star he compared himself to online. His lack of these things became a source of attachment for him – he talked about them all the time, felt himself vulnerable and missing out because he didn’t have them, conflated the attainment of them with the commitment of his parent’s love for him. You couldn’t reason with him: you couldn’t say, the sunglasses themselves are of little value; they are only valuable because the designer prices them so high that only people with too much money can afford them, they invent the value of them; the fame and following that you see on Instagram, this oh so perfect life where every day is sunny and your farts smell like perfume, is fake, designed to make you want, and because you want, to buy; the bodies you see in pornography aren’t usual, you only get into that field if you have an unusual body because unusual bodies sell more pornography, most people don’t have bodies like that. You couldn’t reason with him. He was convinced that life was a zero sum game and because those people had more, he had less.
Even I am guilty of zero sum thinking sometimes. I love Thin Mints Girl Scout Cookies. When I discover a colleague whose daughter or niece is a Girl Scout, I rejoice that I have discovered another source. I buy the cookies and store them in the freezer. If I can have just two each night after dinner, for dessert, they are a treat that I savor, giving their chocolatey crunch my full attention. Time slows down for me when I eat a Thin Mint.
And I try not to be selfish about them. When I would take two for myself, I’d give my husband two. Two is enough for me, because I savor them so much, and then the package lasts so much longer. But my husband always challenged me, as if I was rationing him, only allowing him two. Thin Mints just don’t have the same appeal to him that they do for me; they’re just cookies, good cookies, but eating a Thin Mint doesn’t take him as long as it takes me. After two, he would go back to the freezer, take out an entire sleeve, and march through it as if it were some package of store bought cookies. For a long time – and possibly, rereading this last paragraph, even now – this caused me to feel resentment. I came to see the cookies as a zero sum game – if he got more, I got less – and so, when I saw him go back to the freezer, I would demand my share of the sleeve of cookies. And then I’d eat them, because if I put them back in the freezer, he might think I didn’t want them and eat them himself.
Eventually, I came to recognize the zero-sum game I was playing. Despite what the Girl Scouts wants you to think, there isn’t a finite supply of Thin Mints. If more people buy them, the Girl Scouts will make more – that’s how they make their money so, of course, they will make more. I was the one putting the zero sum game in place. I was the one eating more cookies than I wanted to eat in a single serving, because I was afraid of losing out if my husband got more. So I stopped playing the game.
Recognizing the game is the hardest part of stopping.