Self zero-sums

The zero-sum approach dictates that for one side to win, the other must lose. There’s no win-win, no version of an agreement where both sides get some of what they want and still feel whole at the end. It’s all or nothing, one winner, one loser. If you sit down at the lunch table ahead of somebody else, it’s the difference between saying, “It’ll be a little tight, but we can both fit if I scoot over” and “Sorry, there’s no more room.”

Some high school students take a zero-sum approach to their college prep, only they are the only winner or loser.

If they study hard and get an A, they win. If they study hard and don’t get an A, they lose.

If their ACT score cracks 30, they win. If not, they lose.

Chosen as the lead for the school play? You win. Chosen as the understudy? You lose.

Swarthmore says yes = you win. Swarthmore says no = you lose.

Zero-sum makes life adversarial. And it’s even worse when you’re your own adversary.

This isn’t a post arguing that everyone should be dubbed a winner and that life should be full of participation trophies. I’m arguing that life—and college prep—cannot be so neatly divided into two distinct outcomes of winning and losing. Basketball and elections, yes, somebody has to win. But that’s not the way the world in general works, and it’s not a good posture to take in high school.

Naysayers will tell you this is soft thinking, that winners get ahead and that you need to best the competition lest you be left behind. That’s demonstrably untrue, by the way, but that doesn’t change the mind of someone with that worldview. If you’re in that camp, good luck with it. But please don’t blame what you’ve decided is the harsh reality of the world each time you come out in the loser’s bracket. The more you view life as a zero-sum competition, the more it will feel that way.

Your effort has value. Your contributions have value. And your learning, especially in those instances when things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, has enormous value. Don’t discount or miss it entirely just because you perceive that you somehow lost.

When you really look at all the value you’re creating and receiving, it’s a lot less likely that you’ll calculate a self zero-sum.