The Non-Zero-Sum Character


Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of real-life non-zero-sum characters.

Jesus of Nazareth

The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

Joan of Arc

Abraham Lincoln

A non-zero-sum kinda guy

Mahatma Gandhi

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

John F. Kennedy

Malcolm X

Robert Kennedy

John Lennon

Yitzhak Rabin

And a few from fiction and motion pictures:



Atticus Finch

Huckleberry Finn

Celie in The Color Purple

Rick Blaine in Casablanca

Pike, Dutch, and the Gortch Brothers in The Wild Bunch

Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in Saving Private Ryan


Travis Bickle

Princess Leia

Luke Skywalker

If the Villain believes in a zero-sum world, the Hero believes in its opposite.

If the Villain believes in a universe of scarcity, the Hero believes, if not in a world of abundance, then at least in the possibility of such a world.

If the Villain believes in a reality dominated by fear, the Hero believes in one ruled by love.

The Villain is cynical. He or she believes that mankind is inherently evil. The Villain believes in “reality,” in a Hobbesian world of all-against-all.

The Villain is not necessarily “bad” or even “villainous.” In the villain’s eyes, he is the Good Guy. He is simply acting and making choices within a universe of monsters. He must therefore become, in the name of Good (or at least self-preservation or the preservation of those dear to him) a monster himself.

The zero-sum view of life is that of limited resources. Not enough to go around. If you and I want our share (or even simply enough to survive), we must take it from somebody else. However much of the pie we grab, that’s how much less remains for everyone else.

In the non-zero-sum world, on the other hand, resources are infinite. The love a mother gives to her child (and that the child returns) grows greater, the more each loves. There is and can never be a shortage of love.

Compassion is infinite.

Integrity is infinite.

Faith is infinite.

Zero-sum versus non-zero-sum. Which point of view do you believe?










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  1. Alkan on July 10, 2019 at 3:31 am

    I definitely believe in the non zero sum world. Even though sometimes I find myself being stuck in scarcity, I know that there is an abundance.

  2. Paulinho Uda on July 10, 2019 at 5:25 am

    The great greek philosopher Diogenes, the cynic, said “if all the books of the earth were burned, only the ignorants would suffer. For the wise have learned to read in nature, they know how to access the source of knowledge”.

    Just observe nature, to disbelieve in zero-sum world.
    There is no scarcity in nature.

    • Bill on July 10, 2019 at 1:12 pm

      Until Man messes with it. I guess that qualifies me as a villain.

    • Tobi on July 10, 2019 at 3:05 pm

      Well said

    • Dario A on July 11, 2019 at 1:41 am

      You’re right !

    • Ken England on July 11, 2019 at 6:34 pm

      Thank you!

  3. John Braddock on July 10, 2019 at 7:13 am

    Some are starting to use “Positive-Sum” in place of “Non-zero-sum.” Although not technically the same (according to game theory geeks), “Positive-Sum” better conveys the love and faith and expansion you’re writing about. Positive-Sum means a positive result for everyone.

    People using “Positive-Sum” in place of “Non-zero-sum” include Silicon Valley investors Naval Ravikant ( and Peter Thiel (

    Positive-Sum is a mindset shift. Instead of the double-negative of “non-zero-sum” (if zero-sum is a negative), Positive-Sum says there’s a positive result for everyone.

    • Thomas Harrison on July 10, 2019 at 11:04 am

      Based on Mr. Braddock’s definition and sources,
      My mindset is not only shifted, my mind is blown.
      I choose Positive-Sum and to bake another pie.

    • Dr Besh on February 26, 2020 at 12:56 am

      This is better than NON_zero_ sum .

  4. Brian Nelson on July 10, 2019 at 10:06 am

    I believe in both. Similar to Carol Dweck’s ‘Fixed or Growth Mindsets’, I know that I frequently have a fixed mindset about my circumstances, talent, character, worth…in this domain this is likely one of Resistance’s clever ploys in my head.

    Jocko Willink made a comment about mental toughness in one of his earliest podcasts. “Being mentally tough is a decision.”

    This may be true for Jocko, but for me it is thousands of decisions made thousands of times. My ability to see abundance is directly related to my willingness to do the work. The only way I see to permanently shift my mindset is to behave in a way that supports this belief. And this behaving may take years to overcome the 60,000 negative thoughts I’ve used to create Grand Canyon type neural pathways in my head.

    Maybe another way to say it is that when I feel strong, I believe in an abundant world. When I am feeling weak, afraid, impotent, I see a zero-sum world.

    Identifying this capacity to see so narrowly helps me to deal with it when it appears.

    • Travis Fields on July 10, 2019 at 10:56 am

      “Maybe another way to say it is that when I feel strong, I believe in an abundant world.
      When I am feeling weak, afraid, impotent, I see a zero-sum world.”

      I think that’s a good way of looking at it — the way you perceive the world to be is strongly colored by your mood and mental state. In peak states, like being “In Love” the world can literally seem a bit brighter, more colorful, and more cheerful. Smile, and the world smiles back!

  5. Gwen Abitz on July 10, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Non-zero sum is my point of view. “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” ~Eckhart Tolle~ For me, I’ve needed to create this GET REAL foundation within myself with the Six Pillars of FEEL DEAL HEAL LIVE GIVE GROW which encompasses Functional Medicine, Functional Nutrition, Functional Psychology, Functional Spirituality. For me I cannot have one without the other in order to synergistically weave “it all” together for my point of view. Resistance doesn’t give a sh*t when doing a Power Point Presentation instead of “a book” and keeps on truckin to mess with my mind.

  6. Travis Fields on July 10, 2019 at 10:52 am

    That’s an interesting list — I agree with all of the characters you’ve listed here but for two:

    Bickle was a racist sociopath for most of the movie “Taxi Driver”. (The racism isn’t as obvious as it was in the original script, but it’s there). He tries to kill a US Senator simply because of sexual jealousy. He redeems himself at the end by rescuing the girl from her evil captors…but the acting, cinematography, and music in the final scene gives you the feeling that he hasn’t changed at all…and will most likely explode into violence again in the future.

    Malcom X spent at least 20 years of his life living as a racist sociopath if you start from the time he went to prison for repeatedly targeting wealthy white people and end it around the time he left the Nation of Islam. Maybe he redeemed himself at the end, but I can never forgive a guy who, upon hearing JFK had been assassinated said:

    “Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad”

  7. Lyn Blair on July 10, 2019 at 10:58 am

    I’m definitely a non-zero sum game believer. The finite world has an end to everything and touts the idea that you better be afraid because scarcity is real. So is death for that matter.

    Buying into that mental tank of collective thought is the built-in trap of the physical universe. Truly, the heroes are able to transcend this way of thinking and the villains get stuck in it.

    I love this emphasis you’re pointing out between heroes and villains. It certainly gets to the heart of the matter.

  8. David Tindell on July 10, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    We are constantly being told these days that the Earth has a finite amount of resources. Nobody is sure where the limit is, but it’s out there, somewhere, and many say our arrival at the limit is close. So, tough choices have to be made. (It’s almost always just us Americans who have to make the tough choices, but that’s a different discussion.) I would submit that belief in climate change, and the necessity for humanity to address it by using fewer resources and using them smarter, is a zero-sum game. Ironically, those who don’t believe in it, who do not accept the concept of scarcity and the necessity for drastic action, are termed the villains.

    • Dave Richardson on July 11, 2019 at 11:09 am

      Interesting analysis, and completely backwards. While I agree that some people see the changes necessary to avoid climactic disaster in a zero-sum way, the actual changes necessary are clearly positive-sum in nature. Those that see it as zero-sum are rightfully seen as villains for trying to maintain their carbon-fueled existence at the expense of the rest of the world.

      For example, take the Koch brothers. The shift away from carbon-based resources will hurt their profit somewhat, but except in numerical terms it will not in any way affect them – they have everything money can buy, they just want more. That is the basic villainous motivation – greed. It isn’t enough for them that they “have,” it is important that others “have not.” That is not just “zero sum,” it is “negative sum” in many ways. These are the kind of villains that comic books conjure up to keep superheroes busy, minus the entertainment.

      I operate under the rule that “no man is a villain in his own mind,” but I have difficulty seeing how such greedy people can NOT see the damage they do.

      • David Tindell on July 17, 2019 at 1:29 pm

        I assume you know the Kochs personally and so can accurately report on their motivation for how they run their businesses. If you don’t know them, then you are just repeating an opinion that somebody else has formed about them, and that opinion is likely not based on first-hand knowledge either. As for the zero-sum concept being applied to the environment, your suggestion that it is instead a “positive-sum” situation seems to fly in the face of the popular climate-change theory that Earth’s resources are, in fact, finite. There’s only so much land, so much water, so much oil, so much coal, and even only so much air. Using that coal, oil, gas and other resources to produce energy reduces those quantities, and they cannot be replaced. Even the use of bio-fuels is finite, since the amount of land that can be devoted to growing those plants is finite–and for every acre of land converted to agriculture to grow those bio-fuel plants, an acre of wetlands or forest is lost, probably forever. New coal and oil deposits might be discovered, but they cannot be created. That sounds like zero-sum to me. To make it a “positive-sum” game would mean that someone wins at nobody else’s expense. Shutting down all coal mines and oil fields in favor of solar plants or bio-fuel farms, even if such a thing was possible without a net loss of energy produced (and the resulting economic calamity), means that those many hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods rely on coal and oil production would lose their jobs. That doesn’t sound like a “nobody loses” situation to me. Of course, if one’s purpose is to reduce the Koch brothers and other climate-change-questioning businessmen to bankruptcy, that might produce a “positive” outcome, in the minds of those who dislike them, but it still fits the definition of zero-sum.

        • Andrew Billemeyer on February 24, 2020 at 10:07 am

          This is an interesting thread. I first would like to say that I recognize your point that the collapse of the fossil fuel industry would have adverse affects on anybody whose livelihood is tethered to it. However, an effective change in the sustainability of our planet would have positive (and possibly greater) effects against the potentiality of world wide environmental damage if nothing were to be done. The situation is complicated and you can clearly make a case that there will be winners and losers in either scenario. I am of the opinion that there will be far more losers, and losing harder, if action is not taken to combat climate change. I suppose if the definition of “positive sum” suggests no losers than this is isn’t a positive sum situation. I also don’t see this a zero sum or negative sum situation either. The so called “losers” would not have to deal with the repercussions of environmental negligence. The future of the people in that industry isn’t predetermined either. I would like to think that along with a cultural shift in energy consumption would be a plan to buttress the economic well-being of the middle-class workers in that sector. I am far from being qualified to speak on the likelihood and capability of something like that happening, but it seems as though there is an opportunity to prevent or at least anticipate large scale socioeconomic changes.

          As for your your concerns about resource scarcity and its relation to zero sum I disagree. We are not devoid of energy on this planet, we are devoid of technology capable of harnessing it. On an annual basis the Sun alone omits 3,766,800 exajoules of energy that reaches each. All human activities and industry combined worldwide amounts to 500 exajoules, about 90 minutes worth of energy from the Sun. This is but one form of energy that surrounds us. Other sources include gravitational energy, as seen in hydrodynamics with the rising and falling of tides, and nuclear energy. I understand this is a bit flowery to say, but innovation can be a powerful tool, and it’s important to at least recognize the reality of where the problem actually lies so we can devote our energy and resources into what actually matters. Like I said i think the trying to apply a zero sum or positive sum tag to today’s environmental problems is a thought provoking topic. My opinion may be short sighted of certain political/economic factors that I am not taking into account, but as of now that is how I view the situation.

  9. Yvonne on July 10, 2019 at 10:42 pm

    This is fascinating and beautifully written…this is why I look forward to Wednesdays. Thank you.

  10. Alex Cespedes on July 11, 2019 at 6:21 am

    This is a great topic and series of posts, and a great tool for writers. However, I must admit the posts describing the villain’s mindset feel a lot more “concrete” and full of supporting evidence as to how they arrived at that belief. You even included some terrific villain speeches that make solid points.

    Whereas this post about the hero’s mindset feels more “abstract” and less convincing. No speech examples provided.

    Does that indicate something about myself, or maybe your own personal beliefs? OR is this exactly the point: that a hero can operate on less-tangible arguments and act on pure faith? I’m torn on this.

  11. Anusha on July 11, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    When you put it like that, I’d like to say “I believe in the non-zero-sum” but truth is, I don’t. I believe in the zero-sum and this is a wake-up call to look at life differently. I’d love to be RIGHT and say the right answer, but I am not perfect and it will take time change this mindset from scarcity to abundance. My environment doesn’t allow me to, but I’ll give it a shot 🙂 a fairly determined shot.

  12. Justine on February 24, 2020 at 9:38 am

    I believe in the non-sum zero world. I think all humans hopefully inspire to achieve this ideal. The real world makes it difficult with many distractions. Takes grit to sort through the BS and find truth. Even within ourselves. Thank you for the great words and thought provoking ideas. New reader and will be back.

  13. Herman on February 24, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    Believers, heroic or villainous, have not learned how to sum. (Summary executing is something else altogether.)

    Belief sellers, if they don’t believe their own braunschweiger, can sum. But then they use that ability to zero sum those who can’t sum. So it’s a wash: lather, rinse, repeat.

    “No solicitors” can sum. Can’t be closed, can sum. Summa cum Niki lauda, those folks.

    That belief hasn’t been generally banished, by now, indicates capacity to learn – to sum – is not generally present.

    Belief’s the sum\p that pumps…like that molten chamber beneath the Yellowstone caldera that bubbles & geysers between punctuating equilibrium explosions.

    As for the list of exemplars…takes a trash pump that can pass some serious solids to circulate that sump.

    But it is fun to see the murdering\robbing Wild Bunch, Lincoln, & Bickle believing together, & weaving together the 1+1 for any who can sum.

  14. bogwood on March 6, 2020 at 2:47 pm

    If you take a literal approach non-zero sum is like perpetual motion. It doesn’t exist. So I would be on the reality based side of that great American polarization between English majors and STEM majors. Squishy qualities like faith and compassion are not infinite unless you know how to hold more than one emesis basin at a time or sit up in more than one hospital room at night.

    The best you could hope for is the bigger energy pie, as in the solar comment, but even that seems unlikely.

  15. Milenia Dolores on August 21, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story. It really makes me think more about my writing. I am 100% agree with you and support the point about real-life non-zero-sum characters. I work a lot to improve my style of writing, but you are a real Master 🙂 Now, I create content for this resource so it would be great if you could check it out and give me a few advice.

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