Zero-sum thinking

Most things in life are not zero-sum, but somehow people often seem to act as if they are. I think that this severely limits their opportunities and wastes time.

Zero-sum thinking is the idea that the total utility in a situation is fixed and hence can only be divided between actors, or more easily said it's the idea that "your gain is my loss". My observation is that people sometimes wrongly perceive situations as such and as a result act in ways that negatively affect the result and their opportunities.

The clearest examples of this are in economics (and many, many in politics, but I won't go into these), but there are also more subtle situations:

  • When talking about economics, I've heard people expressing concerns about the idea of focusing solely on economic growth, fearing that it'll give rise to more income inequality. While inequality can be problematic and you don't want to create a highly unequal economy (e.g. for stability reasons), growth will make everyone better off. Empirical evidence (figures 1 and 2) shows that historically median income increases have also made the poorest better off. Growth may benefit some people more than others, but that's secondary as everyone benefits in the first place.
  • In personal and professional development, developing a wide set of skills sometimes is perceived as inferior to being great in one skill. This wrongly assumes that there's some sort of finite amount of learning one can do, and completely misses any strengthening effects that different skills can have on each other.
  • In friendships, the idea that you can only maintain some fixed amount of friends. This comes into play strongly when people move and become afraid of losing friends because of it. Some forms of jealousy are also a result of this; the idea that your friendship with someone is negatively affected just because they get more friendships with others. There is no reason to believe that any of this would be the case. It's perfectly possible to have many good friends. You may see some of them more infrequently, but I don't think this has to be correlated with quality.

The above are just some examples, but I think the list is long. I can think of very few important things that are actually zero-sum. Time is finite and hence time allocation can be zero-sum. However, I think that in practice for most people a lot of time is spent on things they don't care much about, and hence they can try to free up time by outsourcing tasks and saying 'no' more often to things they don't care about. You'll have to be close to optimal time allocation before time becomes the bottleneck.

Viewing situations as zero-sum only has downsides. You'll spend more time worrying about negative consequences and more importantly, you'll miss out on many opportunities, as you'll see limits and trade-offs instead. You can be exposed to more growth, more interesting experiences, more friends and more fun if you stop seeing zero-sums everywhere. Often it'll also long-term be beneficial as you'll build up more meaningful and trust-based relationships with the people involved than you would have done if you viewed it as zero-sum.

It's a more optimistic and easier view that pays off. You gain much more from seeing that everyone can gain and finding ways to increase the gains for all involved. Assume positive-sum.

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