A Zero-Sum Game

Zero-Sum Game n. A situation in which a participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of other participant(s); if one gains, another loses. A zero-sum game is also called a strictly competitive game. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Zero-Sum Game n. My life. Or at least it was. Until now. Hopefully.

Before jumping in, let me give a little background on me – which will probably help to explain where I’m coming from. I’m laying out these facts not to boast in the least, but really as proof of my dementia.

I grew up in an affluent suburb. Started playing soccer at the age of 5. Started playing the violin that same year. Started playing basketball at the age of 7. Started playing the piano at the age of 8. Never stopped.

By the time I entered high school I had accumulated enough certificates, trophies, medals, team jerseys, concert performances, student council votes to fill a closet — floor to ceiling.

By the time I exited high school, I’d added AP courses, SAT scores, straight A’s, varsity letters, captaincies, state championships, regional championships, national championships, concerto competitions, piano recitals, college recruitment letters, and a Harvard acceptance.

I’d walk down the hall with a sport bag on one shoulder, a violin on the other, and a heavy book bag on my back. I was that girl. I was Tracy Flick (though I hope a bit kinder). I was a poster-child for type-A overachiever. A soccer teammate wrote about me for her high school essay on 21st century Renaissance women. I’m not even making that up.


Let’s start a list:

  • Competitive: I couldn’t go jogging with friends because I’d “have to” be first no matter what – which meant I’d need to run way too fast (the other runners weren’t a fan of this either).
  • Obsessive/Compulsive: Wrinkles in my socks, bumps in my ponytail or coloring outside the lines would send me off the deep end. Trust me. You can ask my mom.
  • Results-Oriented: In my defense, I fundamentally cared (though probably too much) about the outcome of things I touched – whether that was an essay, exam, soccer game, performance, etc.
  • Passionate: I was passionate about my life. I wanted to express that passion to its fullest. I actually loved the experience of doing everything I did (okay, well maybe not studying…).
  • Fear of Failure: On the darker side of things, I was terrified to fail.

Sophomore year of high school, our soccer coach used a quote from tennis star Chris Evert to amp us up for a big game: “The top players just hate to lose. I think that’s the difference. A champion hates to lose even more than she loves to win.” That sentiment has stayed with me ever since, though my interpretation of it has become a bit less positive through the years.

As of today, I think my achieving disorder wasn’t so much because I hated to lose, but because I didn’t know how to fail.

Let me explain.

I didn’t know how to fail without becoming a failure. I didn’t know I could mess up and still be okay. Shit, I thought I’d become an alcoholic, meth addict and high school drop-out if I took a sip of booze in high school. A sub-par grade would throw me into a tizzy. There were no gradations for me. Success was black or white. I was either the best or I was nobody. Being average was the kiss of death.

My high school American Studies teacher saw right through me. On graduation day, he stopped me in the hall: “You know, you don’t have to be perfect all the time. It’s okay to screw up.” If only it were that easy…

In the years since, I’ve screwed up in various arenas – academic, athletic, personal, professional. I’m working on the “it’s okay” part. But in the meantime I adopted a behavior that’s far worse than failure. I started to avoid situations in which I didn’t think I could “win.”

As we overachievers and success-fiends grow up and life happens, I think we can become paralyzed by success (survey of one, but an observation of many). What once opened doors out of high school can start to close them in real life. After all, how terrible would it be to spoil a perfect track record? What if you can’t measure up to your earlier self?

Conan O’Brien made light of this mentality in his commencement speech to Harvard’s class of 2000:

You see, kids, you’re in for a lifetime of “And you went to Harvard?” Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction, and it’s “And you went to Harvard?” Ask at the hardware store how the jumper cables work, and hear “And you went to Harvard?” Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants, and it’s “And you went to Harvard?” Get your head stuck in your niece’s doll house ‘cause you want to see what it’s like to be a giant, and it’s “Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard?”

It’s comedic. It’s also crippling. I coped by avoiding situations in which I could disappoint. But, like a disease, the core infection grew worse.

To finally connect to the title of the blog post – life turned into a zero-sum game.

I think the ingredients of my life produced a brain that functions, in its natural state, with a mentality of “me against the world.” It’s a competitive mindset run amuck. If I win, someone else loses (okay…). But if someone else wins, I LOSE (devastating). It fosters a pretty narcissistic attitude, a closed-mindedness, a deep bitterness and a sick feeling in my stomach every time I log on to Facebook and see someone who got a terrific job, was accepted to X business school, etc. etc. etc. (This is why I eventually chose to quit Facebook. Entry on that still to come.)

It makes me a horrible, horrible person.

I’ve been aware of this aspect of my personality and have done my best to keep it in check. But I deeply despise my knee-jerk reaction of intense jealousy whenever I hear of someone else’s success – no matter how small. This attitude has no place in a healthy, balanced life (which is something I’d love to have someday!).

Coincidentally, it was Mr. O’Brien who helped me see the light after (I think – or hope?) he found it himself.

In his speech to Dartmouth’s class of 2011, after walking us through his “failure” to take over Jay Leno’s seat atop the late-night talk show hierarchy, he struck Chicken Soup for the Soul gold:

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.

Read it again.

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.

It was an Oprah “a-ha!” moment. How right he was! He’d managed to summarize what I’d been grappling with for decades – and even frame it as a positive! Failure isn’t bad. Failure is good.  Failure helps us become the fullest, happiest, least-terrified, best version of ourselves. Someone that nobody else can be. Through failure there is freedom.

Which is why, as of today, I’m pledging to quit the zero-sum game and join the kids playing the game of life just for the sake of playing. Maybe jump into a non-zero-sum game where we win and lose together. Embrace my failures and be happy for others’ successes. Spread my wings and fly — into a window. Lose.

It’ll be tough. This mentality is deeply engrained in my DNA. But I have to try.

Worst case scenario?

I succeed.


One thought on “A Zero-Sum Game

  1. Fichte says:

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