Adios Zero Sum

My five-year-old daughter felt bad.

One day at school, a frienemy teased her about having had a play date with another girl in their class. My daughter had not been included. Nah…Nah…Nah Nah Nah.

I discovered this while helping her put on her tights. It was the day she’d planned her revenge.

I’m pleased that my children were born in an age of abundance. I grew up in the era of scarcity.  In my day, there were only so many jobs at the steel mill, there were only so many football scholarships available…there were only a few opportunities to “make it.”

If someone won, someone else lost. The sum of the positive and the negative equaled zero. That made a lot of sense back then when our worlds were provincial and closed.

But this competition for scarce resources (jobs, education, status) created a “give as good as you get” culture. If another person was kind and generous to you, you owed them something in return. If they attacked, you hit back with equal ferocity. Accepting a kindness as a gift or turning the other cheek upset the social balance.

“Can you believe Bridget never sent me a Thank You card after I watched her kids all afternoon?”

“Everyone loses a fight sometimes, son, but you can’t let another boy intimidate you. Get back in there and get your licks in.”

This was a world that ran on fear, mistrust, and isolation. To open oneself up in search of an authentic connection with another human being—and all the joy and sorrow that entails—was lunacy. The naïve who showed any vulnerability quickly learned about the necessity of building walls around themselves. How to be one way with one person and another way with the next… Insert your own remembrances of fat jokes, fat lips, and fat chances here… We’ve all got ‘em.

But seeing the world today through the lens of scarcity is a mistake.  We no longer live in tiny little kindergarten communities where everyone knows our name and knows where we rank on the big scoreboard of life.  In fact, some of us don’t even speak to our next door neighbors.  We’re too busy keeping track of our hundreds of Facebook friends who live thousands of miles away. We live in a global village today, with abundant opportunities to authentically connect with likeminded people.

In the world of scarcity, our actions were for the most part, automatic. My father did it that way, as his father did before him, who am I to do something differently?

But in an abundant world, that old model is ridiculous. The old way is not just becoming more and more ineffectual (see American Icon by Bryce Hoffman ); clinging to it distracts us from our real work.

The big scarcity scoreboard just doesn’t make sense anymore.  There are just too many people who believe too many different things and care about too many other things to tally. Who is the best microbiologist today? Who is the best book publisher? Who is the best CEO?

There isn’t any one answer because it depends on who or what group you ask. . . . And each day more and more little groups are formed online joining the conversation. They have different skin colors, different religions, and different places of birth, but they value the same passions.

It makes perfect sense that the digital disintegration of the scoreboard causes a lot of anxiety.

How do you rank yourself in a world where the pseudonymous “Tyler Durden” at is as respected and as vilified as the head of JP Morgan Chase?

You can’t.

Those still trying to find their place on the scoreboard end up on Reality TV, or on the Forbes 400 or are gaming The New York Times bestseller list. To what end? To what purpose do these hierarchies serve us?

The pursuit of titles (Shift Foreman or Head of the Homeowners Association) used to keep us all on an even keel—in control. The payoff for keeping in line was security. I put in my 25 years, and then I get my pension. That was the mantra of men in my youth. It was life led like the lead character in Jackson Browne’s classic song The Pretender.

We can no longer rely on the pre-programmed “take care of number one” scarcity decision-making strategies of our fathers. In his terrific new book How Will You Measure Your Life? Clayton Christensen writes about the failures of “marginal thinking.” Is it so shocking that a monomaniacal pursuit of a life at the top, even just wanting to make it to the middle, is the source of so much sadness and alienation in the world?

So if a global abundant village means that we can’t live in the winners and losers world of our past, how do we navigate this new paradigm?

The first thing we need to do is remember that every action we take is a choice. Just like in the old scarcity model, each choice in an abundant universe has a positive and a negative option. But the similarity ends there. The positive option in the scarcity model just moves us one step closer to our goal of being the employee of the month or head coach.  The negative simply sets us back a step from that goal.  That’s it. There’s no higher purpose in the scarcity model other than to attain a material objective—your name on a plaque, or a David Mamet-ian second place set of steak knives (check out Glengarry Glen Ross).

Ever watch an interview with a Super Bowl winning player? Words like “it’s unbelievable” inevitably come out of their mouths. It’s not that they can’t believe how wonderful and fulfilling their victory is, it’s how empty they feel after attaining it. They come to understand that old Peggy Lee refrain “Is that all there is?”

But in the abundant model, the positive option is the one that expresses our authentic selves . . . the action that we know is “the right thing to do.” Not the one that will get us up the ladder. In fact, the negative option in the abundant model is continuing to blindly behave as if resources are scarce. “If I fudge this one little piece of data, it will move me ahead of the PhD pack and I will get closer to my ‘dream’ of being the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history!” And then what?

Yes, we can cynically manipulate the abundant digital landscape for our own “gain,” be it for money, power, fame, or whatever makes us feel like a big shot.  We can create fake email addresses and bogus news stories and take advantage of the insatiable 24/7 news cycle all in pursuit of page views that we can parlay into higher advertising rates.

[I just read a bound galley of a jaw-dropping book about this phenomenon called, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, by Ryan Holiday…someone I met through Steve’s website.]

We can trick people we don’t really know into debasing themselves for our entertainment and profit. We can start up companies with complex exit strategies for the sole purpose of being bought out by Google.

But these kinds of choices serve the negative old ‘dog eat dog’ scarcity model. We know this because we feel like Hell after we’ve dumped our toxic psychic sludge into the world just for some extra digits in our bank account. No matter how much we “win” when we behave abiding the zero sum mentality, it’s never enough. Ask Charlie Sheen.

How many impossibly rich people and celebrities do you think are content…sure that their contributions to the world are the best expressions of themselves? Are they living the dream or are they trapped in a nightmare?

“Most people in showbiz are either bitter that they aren’t huge stars or unhappy that they are. From the Starbucks barista to Oscar winners, almost everyone thinks that they’re getting a raw deal. Here’s my advice to them and to all of you: Quit.”

—Bobcat Goldthwait )

The alternative to holding on to the old “I’m Number 1!” world is to consciously think about every action you choose. Is this action a positive expression of who I am or is it a negative one? Do I want to send positive mojo into the world or negative?

Taking the positive route is hard. There is no “atta boy!” slap on the back. There is no limousine or Gulfstream Jet waiting for you at the end of the day. The food is lousy and the portions are small. There is only the opportunity to do the work you were put on earth to do. Seize that opportunity. Thousands of years of civilization had to happen before it could emerge. It’s here.

Find the labor that will give your life meaning.  You may never have a million dollar beach house, but you won’t have a hard time looking in a mirror and you’ll certainly sleep better. And who knows that beach house may be in the offing too. Just don’t work for the beach house.  Work to contribute that thing you were put on this earth to leave behind.

Yes, the digital world of abundance, scale, and infinity can create a 100 Billion dollar IPO. Whoo Hoo! But what is more remarkable is that it can also provide for people who want to explore an idiosyncratic territory without slavishly climbing a hierarchy.  They can share their work and build digital communities of compadres who appreciate their True Gen…with no advertising revenue streams, no twenty five page “privacy policies,” and no Bullshit.

Authenticity and hard work are valued in this abundant world in a way we are only beginning to understand. There will always be disingenuous hustlers and scammers and cynics to prey on us, but what is amazing is that the abundant digital world gives us the chance to shame them into becoming their better selves. Not by literally “shaming” them with scarlet letters, but by just not playing that game anymore. The more who don’t, the better the world will be.

There is no reason why the positives can’t outnumber the negatives.

All of this scarcity and abundance soup I’ve spilled above is just the result of listening to a hurt little girl and wanting to teach her how to metabolize her pain.

To see the world as a child does is a gift.

She told me that she couldn’t wait to get to school and stick it to that friend of hers who made her feel bad about not being invited on the play date. She had a play date herself that day and her nasty friend wasn’t included in this one. She was going to give it to her as good as she got.

Children are our best and worst selves.  You’ll find no better representation of joy and unrestrained fury than watching a child play whiffle ball on a warm summer evening or putting on a puppet show on a rainy afternoon. A child has both light and dark impulses and indulges them in equal measure. They aren’t yet wired to make rational choices.

They do eventually learn to choose. And the way they learn is by watching us. Not listening to us. Watching what we do…day by day, year by year until their brains process the information. Mom always holds the door for old people…that’s what I should do too.

I explained to my daughter that I thought it would be better for her not to taunt her friend about the play date. Don’t add more hurt to the world to get even. She listened and really seemed to get it.

That night I came home from work and asked her what she had decided to do.

“I told her about my play date and made her feel bad,” she said.

I gave her a hug and remembered a passage that still sticks with me from my days living in scarcity, sitting alone in the back of a Sunday school classroom over forty years ago…

Paul the apostle’s first epistle to the Corinthians…

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

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  1. Paul C on May 18, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I think Tiger Woods would say amen. Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer a few months after finally winning a major. He said this yesterday in an interview:
    “It occurred to me that I had spent all this time, all this time,” he repeats to himself, “trying to be remembered in history, trying to win this major and now I’m facing my mortality. So now how I’m going to be remembered is nothing like I thought I would.”

    He pauses for a moment before his next sentence, “I felt I had wasted my life in this pursuit of trying to make history – does that make sense?”

  2. T. AKA Ricky Raw on May 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Great, great piece. It’s not easy to undo the scarcity mindset because it’s likely hard-wired into us from evolution, but like you point out, we need to do the work necessary to counter it.

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on Ryan Holiday’s new book as well. I just advance-ordered it.

  3. David Y.B. Kaufmann on May 18, 2012 at 9:16 am

    A passionate blog post. Thank you for the time, the energy, the caring, the commitment.

  4. tolladay on May 18, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Dang. Way to throw down Shawn. What an awesome post. The book ideas alone are worth the read, and they’re the least part.

    It takes guts to be sensitive, caring and kind to others. Its also the only path worth walking if you are a creative person.

  5. Joel D Canfield on May 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I didn’t wake up this morning looking for validation, but thanks just the same.

    (Should “There is no reason why the positives can outnumber the negatives.” say “can’t outnumber” ?)

    • Shawn Coyne on May 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks for catching that typo Joel! Just fixed it.

  6. Paul | All Groan Up on May 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Powerful article. Loved these two lines:

    “Find the labor that will give your life meaning.”

    “Authenticity and hard work are valued in this abundant world in a way we are only beginning to understand.”

    Shawn you’re a living example of what happens when someone has given themselves permission to give others permission to be themselves.

    Powerful indeed.

  7. Mark on May 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm


    A phenomenal post. There is absolutely true joy and contentment in knowing that you’ve done the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. Even when, maybe especially when it comes at personal expense. It’s hard to stop playing by the old rules, but it builds so much more value in this world once we do.

    Keep building that value. I look forward to more of your writing.

  8. Mauricio on May 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you Shawn!
    Your insights are extremely valuable.

  9. basilis on May 19, 2012 at 5:50 am

    As a kindergarten-teacher I don’t have to add anything.

  10. Andrea Maurer on May 19, 2012 at 6:54 am

    The highest compliment I can give regarding something I’ve read is to say, I wish I’d written it. I SO wish I’d written this. It’s brilliant and very timely for me.

    For the last few days, I’ve been thinking and talking with others about how our definition of success is getting in the way of… well, almost everything good that can and is being created out in the world. People I know and love (myself included, at times)are sitting around actively fretting about the possibility of never reaching commercial/societal-driven goals and are contemplating what that will mean to them, their legacies and their lives in general. These aren’t people who are struggling to make ends meet or wondering where their next meals are going to come from. These are people with rich, full lives, lots of friends and family and an overabundance of our most precious commodity, love.

    We have to evolve. We have to learn and accept that the only thing that will ever really last long after we’re gone from this world is the love that we create for ourselves and others. That might be in the form of a piece of art, a book that’s never published or an online conversation started with people all over the world. It also might (more likely, in fact)simply be a result of the way you interacted with and treated the people with which you came into contact. We have to learn to value that more than fame, fortune and everything else that an antiquated system continues trying to sell us.

    Thank you so very much for writing this important piece.

  11. Marty Holthaus on May 22, 2012 at 10:44 am

    I am moved to tears by your tale of you and your daughter as I think of myself and my own children and how I try to “teach” them the “right way” to be – ALL THE TIME. What a freedom to consider I might be able to give them the choice. What love I feel when I consider that option.

    As far as the main underlying them of this post, I am completely struggling with what Andrea mentions above. I am not “struggling to make ends meet.” I am simply disappointed in how things are and completely missing the joy that weaves in and out of every day. This is that with which I grapple.

  12. solar on September 18, 2013 at 8:10 am

    Fantastic factors altogether, you only need to received a brand new reader. What might anyone recommend relating to your submit that you simply made a week previously? Virtually any specific?

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