Life Is A Positive Sum Game

When I was starting my blog seven years ago, I noticed other blogs had small print at the bottom of the page that said:

© [Insert name of blogger]. All Rights Reserved

I then consulted a book about blogging which also said I needed to include that legal wording. And yet I didn’t. Take a look…it’s not there.

That’s because I’m okay with people stealing spreading my ideas. Hell, most many of my ideas were stolen borrowed from other people so it seems a bit much to sue if someone else borrows mine.

Some of you may think my relaxed attitude to theft is because surely no one would bother to steal my crappy writing. But you might be surprised to know that, more than once, bot sites have sprung up on the internet to rip off The Escape Artist and copy the ramblings of yer boi here.

Am I bovvered? No, when you write a blog to spread ideas, it’s a good thing if people take those ideas and pass them on. Usually they will add something new, their own twist or insight or experience that will make the thread more valuable as they pay it forward.

If they have any class, they will credit you and link to back to your site…that’s just good manners. I always try to do this but sometimes its harder than you might think. Often I will go to Wikipedia etc to look up who invented a quote until I realise it’s attributed to different people.  Who knows who really said it first? Hence my policy of “as someone smart once said…”

The reason for my (lack of) copyright policy is that blogging is a positive sum game. I enjoy the process and, believe it or not, some of the readers enjoy the results. Enough people tell me that they benefit from it to make me think that it’s a victimless crime.

And when readers take my ideas and use them to improve their life, well that’s fantastic:

The difference between positive sum games and zero sum games is perhaps best explained with cake.

Baking a cake is a positive sum game because you buy some ingredients from your local supermarket, add some labour and some oven time and hey presto you now have something that’s worth more than the resources cost to make it. You have added value. Your local grocery store and utility company benefited from the business and so did you. Everyone’s a winner.

Cutting up the cake between a large group of hungry people is however a zero sum game. The cake is only so big. To the extent that one person gets a bigger slice, someone else is gonna get a smaller slice. The gains and losses sum to zero: hence the phrase zero sum game.

Once you understand the concept of positive sum games versus zero sum games, you can’t help but see them everywhere.

If you want to get rich, you should play positive sum games wherever possible. Anytime you can help someone else without hurting yourself, you should do so and bank the Karma credit.

In your career especially, you should always try to play positive sum games. Yes, there are office politics that you must learn to understand and navigate. But you should always try to take the high road and find ways to do favours for other people (clients, colleagues etc) because the principal of reciprocity is so deeply baked into us that The Bank of Karma will pay you back with interest.

The modern world seems to hide these truths from us. Many (most?) internet discussion forums seem to quickly degenerate into zero sum game point-scoring over who is right. The internet is infested with trolls and nitpickers who seem starved of attention. The scarcity vibe reminds me of lizards fighting over a dead cockroach in a post-apocalyptic desert. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Status and attention within a group are zero sum games. For someone to get more of them, someone else has to get less of them. This is why I try to ignore status games and attention games.

At this point we have to admit sheepishly that we all quite like a certain amount of status and attention.  But it turns out that too much tends to drive people nuts.  I don’t know what it’s like to be famous but I’ve seen enough to know that most people are really badly equipped to deal with the shit that comes with that. Fame is more exhilarating than cocaine (and no healthier). This helps explain why so many celebrities, politicians and actors end up batshit crazy. Their craving for attention overwhelms them.

People playing zero sum games tend to have scarcity mindsets. Because they think there is only so much money in the world they think it can only be gained by taking it from someone else. Old Skool left wing politicians are the classic example of this, their TAX THE RICH slogans are fuelled by scarcity mindsets (this was before transgender toilets 🌈 🚻 🚽 etc became The Most Important Issue Of Our Generation).

But people on The Right often make bad decisions based on a scarcity mindset as well: think Mr Burns from The Simpsons and other evil bosses who forget that capitalism works because it incentivises trust and co-operation (as well as competition). Short term CEOs screw their customers and staff and end up burning the company’s reputation and goodwill over the long term.

Elon Musk did not get rich by taking stuff from other people, he got rich by adding a huge amount of value to the world. If you believe that all rich people are evil, you believe that money itself is evil (it’s really just a neutral tool). You will then find ways to self-sabotage and remove money from your life and wealth will evade you.

You should be able to celebrate the fact that other people have been successful. Envy is the most childish of emotions. It’s natural for kids to feel envy when they’re squabbling over the toys in the sandpit but it’s a sign of personal growth to leave that behind as an adult. You should be happy when anyone you know gets rich. If they get richer than you, the appropriate reaction is to be genuinely pleased for them. This is important. Don’t be a hater.

The opposite of a scarcity mindset is an abundance mindset. In an abundance mindset, you relax because you have confidence that you will be able to figure out a way to get more (or live with less) in the future. In an abundance mindset, you worry less about yourself and can think about how you can help other people as well as yourself.

A lot of savers get started because they fear scarcity…that was what got me going. This is a start: it’s better to be a Penny-In-The-Jar Saver than an idiot spender and credit card juggler.

Yes, you need to get the fuck out of debt ASAP. But the problem with being a Penny-In-The-Jar-Saver is that they we tend to miss the bigger opportunities to make more money. We need to THINK BIGGER.

One of the traps of a scarcity mindset is that you miss opportunities…including career and investment opportunities. As a sensible saver turned value investor, a scarcity mindset and unwillingness to pay high valuations led me to miss the rise of Amazon, Google etc, as I underestimated the power of exponential growth. Fortunately, index funds kept increasing my exposure to these tech companies.

Technology advances are a huge positive sum game. Technology progresses as new technologies are built on top of old like Lego bricks. The changes have gotten faster over time as one innovation facilitates the next. Packy McCormick made this point using the tyres on the Tesla which rely on a string of innovations that go back in history so that Elon Musk did not have to re-invent the wheel.

Technology is changing the investing landscape and the balance of risks and rewards has shifted away from focusing on scarcity towards focusing more on abundance.

Money is a positive sum game. Or more accurately, wealth building is a positive sum game. And, once you have mastered the wealth game, you can play better at the other games that are more fun and rewarding.

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  1. With all the noise online it’s easy to fall into a scarcity mindset. Thanks for the timely reminder that we can build wealth without it being at the cost to someone else (or the environment).

  2. […] Life is a Positive Sum Game (the Escape Artist) Positive article about spreading the good news of FI […]

  3. Love the message of this blog post. I definitely agree with the idea of positive sum game in careers – you should bring other people up with you when you move up the ladder. You’ve inspired me to start my own blog about my money journey as I aim for time freedom.

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