The Dual Psychology of Olympics and Business Success
I’ve never baked a pie. Or, if I have, I can’t remember doing it.
But I’ve sliced lots of pies, and eaten many more; which is apropos of nothing …except slicing pies is the most enduring image used to explain a zero sum game.
When defending world champ Jordyn Wieber failed this week to make the Olympics finals in the gymnastics all-around competition, her NBC interviewer exclaimed, “Quite honestly, it’s horrific.” As Salon’s Willa Paskin sums up, “for every medalist, there are many more losers.”
It’s simple really. You start out with a fixed quantity (the pie), then you divide it up any way you like (equally, unequally, fairly, unfairly, predictably, unpredictably, competitively, or not). In the end, you can’t divide up any more than you have.
To put a real fine point on it, if my share increases, yours decreases. Some win. Some lose.
At this stage of the game, the Olympics are a zero sum game. Very few make it out of the Olympic trials. Preliminary heats knock out other hopefuls. And in the end, only three get medals.
For everyone else: no pie.
That’s what bothered me about the commentator’s cry, “it’s horrific.” It’s only horrific if that’s all there is.
While looking at life through the zero sum game lens yields some unavoidable truths, that single view of events fails to capture the whole story in athletics, in business, and in any area of personal achievement.
I’ve shut down a failed business. I’ve worked hard to compete with others for “market share”. So I know some lessons in the zero sum game (unlike pie) are hard to swallow, but no less real.
But the zero sum game doesn’t explain why I would start a business in the first place. Nor does it explain why an athlete would even try to compete in the Olympics.
The premise of the zero sum game, “you start with a fixed quantity,” is too limiting for entrepreneurs and Olympic hopefuls. We know that you can add ingredients, add value, and make the pie bigger.
I’ll happily take my share, or more, from the larger pie. The size of the pie isn’t fixed at all.
I was having coffee with my dad a couple weeks ago when he pointed out that the young woman sitting at the table next to us was Jefferson City native and internationally known pole vaulter Vera Neuenswander. She’d just competed at the Olympic trials and, like Jordyn Wieber, failed to make the cut.
I guess I’ve been living under a rock. It seemed like everyone around us knew her. They were coming up to her congratulating her on her pending nuptials. But I had to find out about her from her blog. Impressive. Incredibly impressive.
Take some time to read what she has to say about how she decided to keep training and competing so she’ll be ready for the next Olympic trials. Even though she might “fail,” there’s nothing horrific about it.
If you’re in business, you won’t survive without taking a hard look at the results of your work. You’ll live with the zero sum game whether you like it or not.
But it’s not the only game in town. You must create and contribute value, that others will demand and exchange their time, money and enthusiasm for.
Grow your pie. And eat it, too.