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A positive-sum mentality

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, September 25, 2012


“Any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear,” former NFL coach Vince Lombardi wrote, “is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” Competition, as Lombardi makes clear, is not only healthy, but also an integral part of an individual’s fulfillment. Competition in life does not preclude human decency, nor the ability to achieve a mutually beneficial result. Competition balances and enhances the natural drive to achieve meaning in life, as Dr. Cornel West exclaims. Life is “a carnival to enjoy and a battlefield on which to fight.” But in these instances of competition, what are we fighting for?  

It is easy in today’s high-pressured society focused on growing gains and lessening losses, magnifying the material and stripping the spiritual and intensifying the individual and curtailing the communal to fall into a zero-sum mindset. For every winner there is a loser. An increase in one’s happiness equates to a decrease in the happiness of others. It is us against them. The zero-sum mentality reframes the question, “What are we fighting for?” to “Whom are we fighting, constantly?” The zero-sum attitude says, “I got mine,” and believes that if the rest of the community is unable to reach the same level despite not having the opportunity to do so, it is a personal failure not a failure of collective responsibility. The zero-sum mentality accompanies our politics, into “wars” on religion or “class warfare,” pitting freedoms against freedoms. The zero-sum mentality pervades partisanship at home and couches conflict abroad. 

The zero-sum mindset is a wonderfully simplistic way of thinking that ignores the complexities of human emotions, relationships and motivations. We have written this mindset into our way of life through athletic competition. Sports give us an opportunity to take life and force it into a box of simplicity, which says that one side will win and one will lose. When the box score is printed, none of the emotions, the relationships, the pre-game preparations or the personal backstories matter. On paper, there is a winner and a loser, determined in a specified time frame.      

But we cannot force life into a box of simplicity. The emotions and relationships that influence our behaviors are not limited to 60 minutes every week through a few months of a season. Of course, participation in sports does not preclude us from compassion. Likewise compassion does not bar us from the joys of competition. But in the arena of life, where we actively make the rules and shape policies that affect the existence of individuals and communities, the competition in which we engage cannot be tethered by a zero-sum mindset.  

What is needed is a positive-sum mentality. Each individual achievement is a success for the community, rather than being in spite of others. Celebrating the diversity of races, ethnicities, cultures or sexual orientations ultimately celebrates our humanity, rather than poses a threat to normative society. Compromise is a way forward merging varying opinions rather than a loss for all sides.

A criticism to a positive sum approach is the observation that when a bus is crowded, those waiting in line push and shove to get to the empty seat. One will find more courteous behavior when it is very clear there will be enough seats for everyone. However, when opportunity is scarce, it should be our goal to create more. Life should not be a bus with a set number of seats, limited to a certain group of people. 

The difference between a zero-sum mentality and a positive-sum mentality is the difference between closing down dialogue and fostering it, between denying what we owe to others and appreciating and respecting those who have helped us along the way, and between being a Christian in name and a Christian in practice. In life we most certainly are fighting, but not each other. We are fighting the injustices that hold some of us back and the hypocrisy that allows such injustice to exist. We are fighting for opportunity, not in spite of others but for others. And our fight does not end with a whistle, indeed “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”   

Freedom to be exceptional does not mean that one’s exceptionalism denies the opportunity to others. We are better as a community, a nation and a world when we are working together, when we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers. We are better when we are providing all people the opportunities that mark the zeal of humanity. We are better when there is a positive sum mentality, when we are thinking creatively about how to expand the bus and when opportunity is seen, not as a threat to individual good, but as the common good itself.

Alex Coccia is a junior Africana and Peace Studies major, and a Gender Studies minor. He appreciates late night conversations in the Siegfried Chapel.  He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.