This is not a conundrum faced by all people, but as our priorities shift to helping others, some people may feel that they are striving for success at the expense of others. An apparent “success guilt” seems to exist, not unlike the phenomenon of survivor guilt.
By taking that promotion or getting that raise at work, some people may feel that they are effectively taking the accolade and success away from another suitable candidate. Why should I get this promotion when Jack in the next cubicle is just as qualified, just as hard-working, and just as deserving? Why should I splurge on a new car when a perfectly decent human being is starving in a developing nation?
The Issue of Limited Resources
The concept of success as a zero-sum proposition stems from an assumption of limited resources. We assume that there is only so much to go around, so by taking a cup out of the well, there is less water in there for everyone else.
Taking this analogy to the realm of freelance writing, for example, it could be said that when I take on a writing project from a client, I am effectively taking that job away from another freelancer who could have also completed the project. There is only so much work (and money) to go around, right?
This may sound like a reasonable perspective, but the truth is that many resources in this world, both physical and virtual, are renewable. Yes, by taking on that freelance writing job, I am effectively taking that task out of the pool, but other clients will have other work available for other freelancers. We compete, but there is more in the pool to be had by others.
Life Understood as a Race
Part of the reason why we may believe success to be a zero-sum game has to do with the largely western culture of capitalism. I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with striving to achieve success, but as a result, we often take on the viewpoint that life is a competition. Professional sports are all about competing (and winning). Moving up the corporate ladder is about outperforming your colleagues.
Through this perspective, success is very much a zero-sum game. There can only be one Super Bowl champion each year. By definition, all the other other NFL teams are not the champion (that year). There can only be one ultimate winner, but you can think about it in a different way.
I enjoy victory and success as much as the next person, but for me, life is better understood as a song and not a race. Enjoy the journey. Strive to come out on top, but appreciate what you have and experienced when you don’t.
The Possibility of Mutual Benefit
So, what happens when you don’t come out on top? If success in life is truly a zero-sum proposition, what happens if you end up with the shorter end of the stick? As it turns out, the short end of the stick isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even the loser can become a winner in a different way.
One of the better examples of this was the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore from nearly one decade ago. Rightly or wrongly, “Dubya” ended up in the White House and Al Gore was dubbed the “loser” of the election. Gore lost, but he didn’t really lose. He used his celebrity status, both as a former Vice-President and as a presidential candidate, to raise awareness of global climate change.
We’ve all seen An Inconvenient Truth and, arguably, Al Gore has had more of a positive impact on the planet outside of politics than George W. Bush had from the greatest political office in the land. Losing the election may have been the best thing that ever happened to Gore, because he didn’t have to deal with many of the difficult issues that plagued the Bush administration.
Everyone Has a Place and There’s a Place for Everyone
Is success truly a zero-sum game? It can be if you allow it to be. However, you can view the world through a different lens and realize that even the so-called “losers” can find new positive outcomes. Each and every one of us can not only get our respective piece of the pie; we can all work on making a bigger pie for everybody.