When I was a senior in high school, I won an award I never even knew I was being considered for. If you haven’t been there, I’m not sure how to describe such a bizarre feeling. A teacher hands you an award, in this case an obviously-plastic book covered in gold leaf floating in a small block of lucite, labeled “The Xerox Award for…”
You know, I can’t even remember. Obviously, it was one of the defining moments in my life. And I scratched my head, trying to figure out why. I don’t think she ever really told me what I’d done to earn this award. Scored high on tests and achieved good grades, as far as I can see. You know — general all around awesomeness. It came with a small scholarship. A few hundred dollars.
I didn’t get it then, but that moment really was a defining moment in my life. I vaguely wondered then if there was some other kid that had actually tried to win that award. For whom it had a real meaning. Who actually cared about it, had worked for it, and now was sitting there wondering why he or she hadn’t measured up to me. I still wonder about that, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But mostly, back then, I took it as my due. I was very good, then, at winning things.
I was a National Merit Scholar. My education was paid for by my own determination to be the loyal Son of Academia. If my peers called me a nerd (which was not at all cool in the eighties, but that’s a different story) and cast me out of all cliques of friendship? I would damn them and work twice as hard. Because I wasn’t just good enough and smart enough. No, fuck that: I was better, I was smarter, and if people hated me, then who fucking cared? Because I was better than all of them.
As you have no doubt guessed, I was kind of an asshole. But I was a competitive asshole.
I was naturally good at the zero-sum game. A zero-sum game, for those who might not know, is a game in which the person who wins does so at the expense of the person who loses. For me to win, you must lose. Sports work this way. My W is your L. So do most games that make people hate each other: Risk. Monopoly. I chose to obey the rules, because they were good for me. Because I could succeed on the terms set for me by authority. Be better than others. It was easy for me to “win.” And yes, it’s been a blessing; I won’t lie. I’m not looking for sympathy from people whose college was paid for by parents (and yes, mine helped me out when the scholarship money wasn’t enough, too), or crushing amounts of debt, or a spouse, or a sleep-stealing part-time job. It was a good thing on many levels.
But what I learned from that was that I had worth because I won. I tied my self-worth to winning. Chained myself to it. “Link by link, I girded it on, and link by link I wore it,” in the words of Marley’s tired old ghost. Worse, I won so easily that I did not know how I won. I put little effort into doing it. It just was. When I tried things, I tended to win. Every victory was another validation of my greatness.
Until I began to lose.
The lows were as low as the highs had been high. I got out of graduate school, which I had attended with another full-ride fellowship I never really understood how I won, (GRE test scores, my friends!) and stopped winning. The reason is no doubt obvious to you. Because in the real world, no one sets the goals for you. In the real world, there aren’t tests, except can I convince someone to pay for this? Am I good enough to get people’s attention?
Of course I wasn’t. I hadn’t had to sell myself, and I hadn’t had to make friends. So I sucked at both those things. When I pursued my real dream, that of writing science-fiction and fantasy (nerd, remember?), I had no idea how to do it. So I wrote badly, alienated the few writers I did meet (asshole, remember?) or lost touch with them, and met rejection after rejection.
But I kept plugging away at it, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I was having a little success. A very little. I was better than the others in my writing group, anyway, and that was something, right? And we were all getting better. All three of us got stories into the final round of an anthology that was the most prestigious market any of us had ever been considered for (very little success, remember?).
They got in. I didn’t. And that, small as it was, was devastating. Because now I was worthless. All my life, I had tied my worth to my success. To being better than. And now I was worse than. The highs had been exaltingly high. But now, that life — the only life I had ever known — was over. I was a failure, and since that was what I was rather than a result of what I was doing, it meant hopelessness. It meant damnation. I stopped writing. What was the point? I was no good. I couldn’t talk to these people any more. I was shamed before them.
It took a long time to dig out of that crash. It took friends and mentors and counselors all helping me shovel the enormous pile of bullshit I had stuck myself in. And to be clear: the fact I was stuck there was my responsibility. No one else’s. Digging out of it meant getting through a lot of anger and resentment as I was forced to look up at people who were now more successful — and, in my twisted world, therefore better — than me.
One of the things that pissed me off the most in those days, were the gracious people. Those incredibly condescending, gracious people, who kept saying how happy they were when others succeeded, because writing isn’t a zero-sum game. They loved it when other people did well. I dismissed these people as liars. After all, of course writing is a zero-sum game. If you get into the anthology or the magazine, I don’t, because there’s limited space. Besides which, the people saying this were the ones who were succeeding. They’re like the rich guys saying “money isn’t everything.” Only then I remembered something. My writing group, those people who had dared become better writers than me? (And they still are, by the way, much better writers than me; they didn’t quit in sulky rage). They didn’t play the zero-sum game. They didn’t look at the world as an arena. And though I doubt that either of them will read this post, I will take this time to apologize to them. I am truly sorry for my unfriend-like behavior and disrespect.
It wasn’t, as I had told myself, that successful people could afford to play the zero-sum game. It was that people who didn’t play the zero-sum game could afford to fail. And the failure that they accepted, learned from, and capitalized on became success. I, who could not tolerate losing, had damaged my own soul, incredibly. Because I could not love, could not befriend, and could not learn unless I was winning. Could not tolerate even looking at my failure long enough to learn from it. And that was true foolishness.
Because really, I should have known. I should have at least trusted in the words of my own faith, which teaches us that our worth is in things like kindness, patience, self-control, goodness, love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-23). That should have been enough for me to know that worth does not depend on what I make other people do, still less upon defeating them. The cost to me in friends lost and opportunities missed and lessons unlearned is beyond numbering. Doubtless, many of you reading this feel that I am an idiot. Well, I was. Perhaps you feel any good person ought to know all these things already. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to learn these lessons at a much earlier age, from better teachers. Well done. I can only learn from where I am.
So why am I writing this? For pity? No, I neither deserve nor need that. You see, I’ve learned better. I am becoming better. No, I’m writing this in the hope that someone who reads this will need to read it. That people out there who can’t sell a story, or can’t land a job in their fields, or can’t find romance will listen, as I did not. Will see that they are not irrevocably flawed, so long as they can practice virtue.
Also, since followers of Christ should know this better than others, I leave a warning to my own Church. I see far too much, at this present time, about the Church “winning” or “losing,” especially in politics and culture. Our victory is not over flesh and blood. It is already won by Christ our founder. Our faith is no zero-sum game. And as long as we can love our enemies, we can never lose.
From Somewhere In Orbit
3 thoughts on “UnWisdom: Confessions Of A Zero-Sum Gamer”
Reading this, it felt like i was looking into a mirror. This person could have been me. And yes, i came to the same realization about being a zero sum gamer in my late 20’s and it sucked. It sucks when you realize who you are and you hate it but you don’t know who you want to be. Its like you have build your identity all over again, when you don’t want to relate to who you think you were al that time.
The title grabbed me. The syntax, writing style, and honesty kept me enthralled. I loved the progression towards the moral. I felt the last paragraph was kinda “meh” in relation to the whole article but the last 2 sentences of it were really powerful. Thanks for sharing.
And that’s what happens when a former student comments, folks: you get the same kind of critiques you used to leave on their papers! Thanks Brad. And touche.