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Don’t Be Zero-Sum

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Steven Pressfield, whose historically-driven novels about ancient Greece have sold millions of copies, wrote a recent post that posits that there are two kinds of people in the world—Zero-Sum and Non-Zero-Sum. 

Hitler was zero-sum. He believed that the Aryan race could only survive if it took from and eliminated other races. Abraham Lincoln was non-zero-sum. Yes, he believed that slavery was a horrible evil and needed to end, but he did not believe that the North needed to crush and destroy the South. In fact, his famous Second Inaugural Address is all about how both sides shared the blame and both could be redeemed by the suffering they had endured in this horrible Civil War. Martin Luther King was non-zero-sum. So were the Spartans at Thermopylae, who sacrificed their lives just to buy a little more time for their Greek allies to prepare. Almost all villains in history and in fiction, on the other hand, are zero-sum. They believed that someone else’s loss was their gain—and that their own pain justified the infliction of pain on other people. 

Over and over again in the Stoic writings we see reminders intended to nudge us towards seeing the world as non-zero-sum. If you want to find some good, Marcus Aurelius writes, all you have to do is look inside yourself—it’s just there ready to bubble up. Wherever there is another person, Seneca writes, we have an opportunity for kindness. The best revenge, Marcus writes, is to not be like the people who have wronged you. What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee. What is the concept of sympatheia but a realization that harming other people does not benefit you? That you can’t steal your way to prosperity or harm your way to happiness? 

And yet, so much of what we do is selfish and zero-sum. That’s why we lie. Or cheat. Or vote for politicians who promise to aggressively fight for our own interests, even if it means that other people will suffer terribly. 

Pressfield’s beautiful article is a call to a higher standard to all of us. It’s worth quoting the final sentences of it here in full:

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?

P.S. This was originally sent on February 24, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.