what is zero-sum thinking?

Zero-sum thinking perceives situations as zero-sum games, where one person's gain would be another's loss.

Most sports are zero-sum games. If you win, I lose.

Possibly due to the exposure of sports all around us and these zero-sum games being persistent in our periphery, we tend to have a zero-sum bias. Meaning we look at most things as a zero-sum game.

This is hugely detrimental to our goals, to our motivations and to our progress.

comparing ourselves

I see students of mine being angry or annoyed when they see their batch mates lift heavier than them. I've known several people to quit their training because they felt inadequate with the numbers they put up. While I'd like to take some of this on me - I can communicate better about what is StrongEnough for them and how that is not the same as for someone else - I do wonder how many of these I miss out on.

As kids, it was an unfortunate but common practice to compare and be compared. Parents would remark how that kid got so many marks or was so smart or so diligent with their homework. Kids weren't much better - my friend's parents got him Nikes, so you need to get me one.

Photo by Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

This seemingly harmless (?!?) practice seems to play some part in our zero-sum thinking/bias.

the purpose of competition

I think one purpose of competing is to elevate ourselves and our performance. Whether it is at an elite level or at our level (of playing badminton with our friends or whatever), we are there to push our abilities to the maximum. And therein find the joy of a sort of maximising our physical and mental capabilities for that short window.

But from our youth, this baggage of comparison seems to instil in us a weird sense of destructive competition.

Finding someone who's just a bit better than us can provide us with the challenge to elevate ourselves. Playing a game of shuttle where, even if you end up losing, you played way better than any game you've ever played before. The competitor elevated you. Isn't that great?

From Roger Federer’s opening match in the 2018 Championships at Wimbledon against Dusan Lajovic of Serbia.
Photo by Shep McAllister / Unsplash

You played better than you probably have.

That's not a zero-sum game. But if we look at it as they won and you lost, then it becomes a zero-sum game.

big fish in a small pond

If you were looking at whether you improved, whether you elevated your performance, whether you had fun - it becomes something else.

When someone in your peer group, say in your fitness class, squats the gigantic 32 kg bells, instead of comparing yourself or wishing they were not that strong - what you should instead take away from that is the creation of possibility. If someone else, rather similar to you, can do it, then so can you.

Many times, some kettlebells seem prohibitively big to me. But then, someone else in The Quad Squad will lift it and in a few weeks or months, I'll lift it. Until then, I would have put my ceiling below it because well, I didn't know it could be done. Squatting bodyweight or pressing half-bodyweight seemed possible only when I realised that there were a lot of people in the StrongFirst community who were doing it.

What's the point of being a big fish in a small pond? And when you aren't, you just move ponds?!

community and healthy competition

I think having a support group is important - an intentional community like Coach Dan John says. Your batch mates are your competition, absolutely. Having someone else who can squat 20 kilos more than you shows you that it can be done. You can learn from her, on how to elevate your performance. You can chat with him about what (all) habits he has in place and his own journey to getting to where you want to be. Someone else has solved this problem for you - you can learn from them.

It can be a healthy competition, where the point is not winning or losing. But elevating ourselves.

Or it can be stupid and creating a zero-sum game where none exists. You win, or they win.

I know what I'd like to teach in my class.