Vocational Freedom (Release the Zero-Sum Game)

For twelve years, I worked as a litigator at the largest firm in the state of Arkansas. Litigation so often felt like a zero-sum game, a winner-take-all proposition. My win was my opponent’s loss, and the winners were rewarded. The good litigators never lost, they said, and the awful litigators never last. This is the way the law works. She’s not a jealous mistress; she’s a black widow.

The zero-sum game is an unspoken facet of the lawyer’s ethos. If the cases came to my door, they didn’t come to yours; if they came to yours, they didn’t come to mine. And in that environment, it was easy to loathe (cordially, civilly, privately) your colleague’s success. Their accolades, their clients, their cases were just that–theirs.

Speaking to the baby-lawyer version of myself, I might say these things: It’s not as winner-take-all as you might think, Seth; celebrate your colleagues’ success; there’s plenty to go around.

I’m in a different vocational space, now. Now, I write for a living. I pitch projects against other people pitching projects. Sometimes, I pitch significant works against friends. And yes, in the pitch-against-pitch showdown, one will win and the other will lose. Is this any different than the law? Isn’t my new vocation mired in the same zero-sum games?

In the last six months, I’ve lost a couple of pitches, both times to friends. Both of the winners du jour are fine writers and even better humans, and even in the disappointment of losing a fantastic job, I’ve found myself happy for them. They have their own businesses to run, their own mouths to feed, their own college savings accounts to fund. And because I want the best for them, because I want to incarnate the notion of love-thy-neighbor (and and thy neighbor’s kids), it’s hard to see this as a zero-sum game.

My friend, my neighbor has won, and shouldn’t I celebrate his success?

And celebration of the neighbor aside, each pitch I lost taught me a little more about the next pitch. As I wrote in my series on failure, the loss taught me something about myself, my process, or my skill set. The lessons from loss always make us stronger, always refine us.

The zero-sum-game ethos is an absolute killer. It will haunt you, will cut all the right veins, will drain you and fill you back up with jealously, anger, bitterness, and resentment. Love of your neighbor, celebration of your neighbor–these are the antidotes to the poison.

Ask yourself where you might be playing zero-sum games in your own life. Ask where the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all mindset has taken root, where it’s given birth to jealousy or resentment against your neighbor. Ask where it’s made you covet your neighbor’s clients, career, or opportunities. Practice rooting these games out by loving your neighbor as you would want to be loved, by celebrating them as you would want to be celebrated. This is a key to vocational freedom.

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