We are led to believe success means winning; whether it’s defeating cancer, coming out ahead in a negotiation, prevailing in a family conflict or justice for a wrong committed against us. These daily conflicts and a multitude of others structure life as a zero-sum game where if you win, I lose.

A Zero-Sum Game-Labeling People as “Winners,” and “Losers”

“Winners and losers divide the world,” is a phrase often heard from motivational speakers, PBS pledge week presenters, personal trainers, diet gurus, and best-selling self-help authors. They challenge “losers” to become “winners,” as if the two categories are mutually exclusive.

If you already don’t believe your life would be better as a winner, you’ll be inclined to embrace the concept after listening to a successful entrepreneur espousing his 10-point program. But is that what life is about—a zero-sum game?

The Wisdom of Monty Python

In the 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Knights of Ni come upon a cave containing a vicious legend in the form of a rabbit cute enough to be affectionately held by a child.  After many knights are killed attacking it, the leader yells, “Run away! Run away!” The line produced hysterical laughter with the image of men with swords and clothed in armor retreating from a bunny.

Whether intended to or not, the scene is a poignant allegory for life. There are times when common notions of winning result in losing—when “righteous” behaviors result in unintended consequences for the winner.

We tend to view conflict in absolute terms: I’m right, my relative is wrong; my customer is too demanding, I provide great service; either I or my cancer will win. I would bet you can find at least ten conflicts in your life that are being played out as a zero-sum game.

The Cost of Winning

You are thought to be weak, or a loser if you ask if the cost of “winning,” is worth the victory. In the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, mad scientists present “winning” strategies for how to come out on top following a world-wide nuclear holocaust. It’s easy to see the absurdity of the argument in this classic comedy. But we often don’t recognize it when arguing with a family member, confronting a friend, or fuming over an idiotic decision made by a supervisor.

I think back to my interactions with people I served as a communicative disorders therapist, hospice volunteer, caregiver counselor, friend, husband and father. When the goal was “to win,” the joy of success was tainted by the feelings of the person who lost. Sometimes I was the observer, as when I listened to a diatribe by a sister against her brother in hospice for all the wrongs he committed against her. At other times, I was either the winner or loser in a family conflict. Looking at the fallout, I realize winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and compromise never as defeatist as Ted Cruz asserts.  

I always wondered how the lives of the those involved in zero-sum games would have been different if each didn’t view life as a contest. What if life is thought to be a journey of compromise whose purpose is to gain mutual satisfaction, rather than unprincipled as it is to many politicians, cause celebrities, heads of governments, and business leaders?

In Part II of this series, I’ll present the emotional cost of zero-sum games when they unwittingly direct our lives. In Part III I’ll offer suggestions for transforming zero-sum games into journeys embracing the middle ground.

6 Responses

  1. Paul

    As a retired trial cout judge now working as a mediator, I want to thank you for taking on this project.

    Reply
  2. Nurse Jon, Holistic Nurse

    There are so many losers in business because they see business as a zero-sum gain.

    In hospice for instance, they are competing, agency against agency for a small population of people that are using the service.

    Unfortunately, hundreds are dying in pain and suffering because they are not even referred to hospice.

    If the agencies would compete with non-consumption, they would make incredible profits, people would have better qualities of life, nurses would have jobs (yea, there are a lot of nurses looking for work because of the new masters requirements) and everyone in the value chain as well as the channel partners would all win.

    Reply
  3. Susan E. Mazer

    I so appreciate your writing on this issue which makes happy people into miserable ones! Being a winner has nothing to do with someone else being a loser. And, the reverse is also true. My understanding of the zero-sum game is that for me to win, you have to lose! …an even more brutal dance that always results in loss on both sides. Interesting to think about the Olympics. To win a Gold medal is not only about being the best; it is about someone else NOT being or doing their best, having a random fall, just failing to reach the top. Competition, by its very nature, is a zero-sum game, allowing for neither peer nor shared success. Great post, Stan!

    Reply

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Family Conflicts During Health Crises: 13 Best Strategies To Prevent Them