Self-Inflicted: Nobody Wins the Zero-Sum Game
This article is part of a series called “Self-Inflicted” where I finally face the barriers I consciously avoided or was always too afraid to resolve.
Zero-sum was a concept I originally only tied to math class… arguably my least favorite subject in school. But what was once a homework problem has now found its way into a real world application and explanation for the realities of the post-graduate nerves and epiphanies that have me thinking… if only I discovered this sooner… and, should I tell someone about this?
In the few weeks where I’ve set foot off-campus and logged on to more Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls than I could count, what surprised me was the accelerated realizations of not what we call the “real world” but what I uncovered about myself when stresses and excuses were no longer masked by a class schedule or dependency on a university.
It was only once my environment was bombarded with job announcements, friends receiving promotions, and other professional achievements in all corners of my social setting did I realize a mental barrier I’d been suffocating myself with since I took a step towards creative or professional fulfillment.
I talked in a recent podcast about how I believe LinkedIn to be the most toxic social media platform because its sole basis is to build an appealing professional portfolio and update your network with major life events. Your feed on LinkedIn itself can be mentally damaging for someone like me struggling to find their footing in an already competitive job market. Let’s be real, I’m happy for you, but your dream job isn’t making my rejection easier.
For so long, in both my creative endeavors and my professional pursuits, I viewed the success of others as the removal of opportunity for myself: a promotion for a friend of mine meant that opportunity no longer existed for myself, a certification or streaming record for another artist meant I would never top that, or a viral video meant digital success was off the table for myself. It was an unconsciously damaging self-inflicted harm that forced a loss of faith in my own creativity and made ambition much less capable of leading to idolized destinations.
Some days feeling as if opportunities were slipping away made me all the more motivated, but most days it meant I’d retract into a submissive state of somebody else already delivering all that I want to be for others. I don’t know why this picture of limited capacity was painted in my mind, but I have a few ideas.
The Corporate Hierarchy
I took many business classes while at Boston University and there was always an aura of “only some of you will make it” or “you can only make it at the expense of others.” The way we’re motivated has always been a point of interest for myself, but such inexplicit education made me look around the room and instantly instill doubts that as a business minor, I’d never stand a chance against those who did this full time. Each semester as the peers I spent my time in the business school with gathered new skills and began discussing topics I’d never heard, I became all the more disappointingly complacent with a sad reality I had invested time in a space where I’d never be an ideal candidate. But it wasn’t only the inability to compete that frustrated me, it was the fact that I believed if I can’t compete then there was no point entering in the first place.
Even outside the business school the epitome of job preparation is founded on climbing the corporate ladder. The intern to associate to lead to director to executive agenda was instilled at every moment possible. It was so vehemently expressed that students would break down in tears if they already didn’t have the internship for their dream job before junior year. It was as if there’s no point because someone else will always be one step ahead. One experience you don’t have. And always one more reason for employment over you.
And to think, a twenty-year-old thinking their career is over? That didn’t raise a red flag for anyone?
The Stories We’re Told
Music itself is a narrative I can’t succinctly summarize in a paragraph, but I’ll opt for the long-story-short route. Music is my hobby, never a career I pictured for myself. But as I continued with it and began expressing new pieces of myself and discovered what it meant to be confident, many people took that as validation to not only their own beliefs of how serious I took it, but their personal opinions of it. To them, confidence meant acceptance of criticism.
My life would have been a lot easier if I didn’t pursue what I wanted to create. If I never started a podcast, never released an album, never toured, never showed music to my friends, I’d probably be a lot more confident in who I am. But at what expense? My creativity. My sanity. My ability to take a hit. My ability to understand risk. My empathy towards others who put themselves out there. My understanding that hard work doesn’t always pay off. My patience. My realization not everyone’s path is the same.
The success stories that motivate us make headlines because they’re just that: headline-worthy. A viral sensation. World-record holder. These are all rare, infrequent, and worth the hype. So when I passed the ages of my favorite artists at their viral debut, it was frightening, because I read that as “Jacob, you don’t have what they do.”
But what doesn’t make headlines are those who take the path most of us stride upon. The 24/7, non-stop, beyond dedicated to their craft that the sensationalism of one-time occurrences doesn’t discourage them. That’s a group I now proudly include myself in. And because of that, every new viral artist who has a record deal placed in front of them or hops as opener for the must-see tour of the summer doesn’t change my trajectory: creatively and emotionally.
The conclusion I’ve come to recently is that the more creativity out there, the more I want to create. It doesn’t matter how anybody got to where they are, the lower the barriers to entry, the more exciting any industry is.
Industries Thriving on Competition
I’m one to affirm that competition leads to innovation, and if an industry doesn’t innovate then it ultimately can’t keep up with our never-fulfilled always-seeking-more ambitions, especially those of my generation.
I’m also not the most competitive person, and by no means do I think I can compete in most industries. Because competition inherently means comparison. And when it comes down to me and Adele, I’d also pick Adele.
The music industry specifically favors artists with star power, vocal ability, and music fit for stadiums. Entertainment has always been incredibly competitive, and I’d agree that this atmosphere has contributed to thoughts and ideas that have culturally defined my generation. There’s no way we’d have the albums, movies, or moments that changed my own career ambitions if it weren’t as competitive. Think about your favorite piece of it. Odds are it came from a risky idea. How would you feel creatively if it never happened?
But on the other hand, competition dwindles the potential for new ideas. At its origin, we evaluate an idea based upon the application of it into the work of others. We believe if an idea failed for someone else, it won’t work for us. We believe if someone else has had a similar approach, it’s off the table for us. Or, even, if no one else has approached this idea, it won’t be appreciated because we make excuses like “If it hasn’t happened yet it wasn’t meant to.”
At the end of the day, I believe the solution to interpreting our ambitions as a zero-sum or winner-take-all game is minimizing the opportunity for excuses. The moment we aren’t able to rationalizing not to pursue something for any reason (someone else did it, no one else has done it, this isn’t the way it’s done, someone beat me to it, etc.) is the moment we can no longer sit in the fear of failure but thrive in the fear of never knowing how it could turn out. The moment we begin celebrating one success as universal and relative to everyone is the moment we peak.
I still consciously stop myself when I do this, too. LinkedIn, TikTok, and many other social platforms have exacerbated these effects by putting our biggest excuses, our most severe fears, and most damaging rhetoric in a beautifully organized algorithm that either motivates or dissuades.
And if sharing this isn’t done with the intention to dissuade, why do we so easily accept the mental damage? Why do we find it so hard to simply applaud and cheer on the victories of others? Where did we learn that someones success comes at the expense of our own?
The answer to the question isn’t even worth the thought, because the most fulfilled I’ve ever been were the moments I celebrated the success of others and appreciated the defiances to industry norms and the barriers to entry that previously eliminated new thinkers of new backgrounds from entering these spaces. If someone finds a limit for creativity, let me know. Until then, I can’t think of a reason to ever be afraid of it.