If there is one idea I’ve thought about most in the past 10+ years, it is likely game theory.
For those unfamiliar, this probably sounds like a strange thing to think a lot about.
This idea may even sound impractical.
But I actually think it is helpful for almost anyone to understand because I believe it can give you a framework to help you understand the ever-present phenomena of comparison, competition, and feeling the need to keep up with the social status of your peers.
Since establishing a better framework for understanding my unhealthy tendency to compare my situation to others, I have been able to avoid unhealthy comparison more easily.
And perhaps, after reading this, you may be able to better avoid unhealthy comparison more easily too.
Before we dive in, I’d like to make a note about the formatting of this article.
Because I’ve thought about this topic for several years, I have come up with an abundance of content to include that has resulted in certain sections becoming quite long.
In fact, I’ve removed several thousand words from earlier drafts to try to make it a more manageable read.
To that end, I have collapsible sections of this article that are open by default, but can be closed if you understand the gist of the section by the title or don’t want to take a deeper dive into that subtopic.
In other words, you should be able to collapse and not read any or all collapsible sections (like the one below) by clicking the icon next to the section heading to get a condensed version of this article without missing its primary points.
Game Theory in the Mainstream
Understanding game theory isn’t only helpful in avoiding unhealthy comparison.
It’s also helpful for understanding some intellectual undercurrents at work in the current geopolitical landscape.
I remember when I first encountered a thorough treatise on game theory in 2014.
I was flying to California for a friend’s wedding, so I had a few hours of plane time to kill.
As I wondered just how I would spend that time on the plane, I came across Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One, when perusing the Kindle store on my phone.
Just before the plane took off, I downloaded it to my device for plane reading and have been stewing on game theory ever since I read that book on my flight.
And even though the concepts in Zero to One are thought-provoking, it’s a quick and easy read.
Although I don’t recall if Thiel ever explicitly mentions game theory in his book, game theory is what it’s all about.
This book is just one piece of evidence that game theory is making its way more and more into the public eye.
But there are plenty more.
NYU theologian James Carse alludes to critical aspects of game theory in his 2013 book, Finite and Infinite Games.
More about Finite and Infinite Games
I’ve never read this book, but I remember hearing about it from Kevin Kelly, a founding executive editor of Wired magazine.
According to the author of Finite and Infinite Games, “there are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite; the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
In short, my understanding of the thesis of this book is that you will get the most out of life by pursuing “infinite games” with people you enjoy.
I couldn’t agree more with this idea, and I’ll address how these concepts relate to game theory in the sections below.
Online writer and Twitter personality David Perell has written extensively about Peter Thiel directly (and game theory indirectly) on his blog.
His popular 2021 essay Peter Thiel’s Religion links Thiel’s interest in positive-sum games to his Christian faith.
It’s one of the better online pieces I read in 2021.
Perell and fellow intellectual Johnathan Bi have since taken a deeper dive into the originating philosophies of Thiel by studying Renee Girard, an influential intellectual in Thiel’s life, and sharing their findings in interview/lecture format on Johnathan’s YouTube channel.
Serial entrepreneur and author, Luke Burgis has also written about the profound effects Girard’s philosophy have had on his thinking in his 2021 book, Wanting: How To Avoid Chasing the Things You Don’t Truly Want.
More About Luke Burgis’s Wanting
In general, I enjoyed this book and found the personal storytelling engaging.
However, I found it lacking in some practical applications and overall clarity of ideas.
I hope to make up for that in this article.
In short, game theory is in the mainstream.
And its influence on culture seems to be growing.
At this point, you may be wondering what game theory is exactly.
And I will certainly get to that.
But before defining game theory, I’d like to contextualize it with a foundation of related ideas.
Game Theory’s Rise Thanks to Thiel and Girard and Its Influence on The GOP
As noted above, I think you can largely credit game theory’s more mainstream recognition with Peter Thiel.
Besides authoring Zero to One, Thiel is an entrepreneur and investor who helped run Paypal with Elon Musk and others.
(Proceeds from the sale of Paypal enabled Musk to build the myriad of companies he’s involved in today like Tesla and Space X.)
Since Paypal, Thiel’s wealth and influence have continued to skyrocket.
Once known for being the first outside investor in Facebook, he has since distanced himself from Facebook, now Meta, to focus more on political activism.
And although he hasn’t personally run for any office (yet), he has put funding behind several libertarian and, more recently, Republican candidates like JD Vance and Blake Masters.
But his political involvement seems much greater than acting as a passive investor.
Rather, he seems intimately involved in attempting to create a new right in American politics.
At least, that’s how Vanity Fair news correspondent James Pogue and several others have described this new brand of conservative intellectual thinkers.
In short, Thiel’s philosophy has a shot at influencing the American political landscape.
(Many would claim it already has.)
And understanding aspects of game theory may help you understand Thiel’s philosophy and how it might affect America and your own thinking about competition and comparison.
Thiel’s Philosophical Origins and The Mimetic Theory of Desire
As detailed in the previous sections, billionaire entrepreneur, investor, and political activist Peter Thiel helped bring game theory and the mimetic theory of desire more mainstream.
And you can trace the influence of these ideas on Thiel back to his education at Stanford.
While a student there, Thiel met René Girard, a philosopher and professor whose life’s work revolved around what he calls The Mimetic Theory of Desire. (I’ll use mimesis and The Mimetic Theory of Desire interchangeably in this article.)
Girard posits through his theory that man often doesn’t know what he wants and thus pursues what it seems his peers want. This pursuit often leads to needless competition and, ultimately, conflict.
On the one hand, Girard acknowledges that competition is at least part of what contributes to societal advancement.
After all, competitive forces are often part of what drive incrementally better products and services over time.
However, Girard believes that competition actually limits progress when it becomes an end in itself.
Thiel has echoed this sentiment on numerous occasions with quotes like:
The big problem with competition is that it focuses us on the people around us, and while we get better at the things we’re competing on, we lose sight of anything important, transcendent, or truly meaningful in our world.Peter Thiel: Competition Is for Losers – WSJ
The Mimetic Theory of Desire in Action
Girard’s theory is rarely more apparent to me than when I observe young children playing together.
When one toy is introduced to two children, they often fight for the exclusive right to play with it.
Perhaps one child picks it up, and then another tries to take it from him.
At this point, parents often intervene, negotiating with the children and asking them to take turns or try to play together.
And if the children take turns, each child often quickly loses interest in the toy when his peer no longer seems to want it.
This loss of interest seems to indicate that each child isn’t always interested in the toy itself.
Instead, they often needlessly compete over the toy they think the other wants.
I’ve watched this scenario play out with various children in my immediate and extended family countless times.
And although unsurprising among children, this same sort of mimetic rivalry continues into adulthood in perhaps less obvious ways.
There are plenty of fairly innocuous contexts in which The Mimetic Theory of Desire seems to drive behavior.
For instance, fashion trends are likely a result of mimetic behavior among many.
In fact, many trends driven by “influencers” today are likely adopted in many cases due to mimetic desire, whether in fashion, home decor, food and supplements, or something else entirely.
And while mimetic behavior in these areas may not seem particularly harmful, mimetic behavior in more life-altering contexts can be.
College majors and career choices are areas where mimesis drives countless students to irrationally pursue highly competitive career paths many of them don’t actually want.
I know, because I’ve been there.
And while the list of viable careers that college majors directly lead to is small (making you think the pool of careers is small and you must compete with your peers to get one of these careers), the reality of life is that you can turn almost anything into a career.
Thiel has his own story of mimesis driving his decision-making in college when he attempted to clerk for a supreme court justice.
The process was extremely competitive.
Even though he made it into the final rounds of consideration, he ultimately lost out on the clerkship to a peer.
Naturally, this was devastating at the time.
However, Thiel views this as a blessing in hindsight.
Instead of remaining entrenched in a negative-sum context vying for fewer legal positions than candidates with equally intelligent peers, he pursued a new opportunity by building PayPal.
This business ultimately made Thiel much more wealthy than a legal pursuit likely would have.
And more importantly, building PayPal was more in line with his true, non-mimetic desires.
Mimesis and Game Theory
The crucial relationship between mimesis and game theory is that mimesis seems to explain, at least in part, what drives us to some of the unnecessary zero and negative-sum competition with our peers.
But before we go further, let’s define game theory.
If you’ve searched the web for information about it (unlikely, I know), you may have come across Investopedia’s definition which can be distilled into:
The science of optimal decision-making of independent and competing actors in a strategic setting.Investopedia
I really like this definition.
If you think of life as a strategic setting with independent and competing actors, then game theory has to do with optimal decision-making in life.
And what could be more valuable than helping you make optimal decisions in life?
Game Types: One of The Most Practical Aspects of Game Theory
There are many academic and theoretical aspects of game theory I don’t know anything about.
But I do know a little about the types of games in game theory.
And I believe they are relevant to understanding and combatting unhealthy comparison and competition.
To distinguish game types in game theory, you will find games or situations in which the total of gains and losses is:
- greater than zero in positive-sum games,
- equal to zero in zero-sum games,
- and less than zero in negative-sum games.
If you think of wins as +1 point and losses as -1 point, these descriptions may become clearer.
For instance, you could have:
- Two players win in a positive-sum game for a net gain of two,
- one player win and one player lose in a zero-sum game for a net gain of zero,
- or two players lose in a negative-sum game for a net loss of two.
Of course, you will often find greater complexity, more players, and less clear application in the real world.
However, these general concepts seem to hold in practical application.
If you feel like the types of games in game theory still need to be clarified, don’t worry.
I’ll take a deeper dive into game types in the following sections.
And if they seem clear enough to you, feel free to skip the following sections.
But before I dive into examples, I recommend you think of these “game” types as situations instead of games.
Even though the vocabulary of games with players, points, and more is helpful for discussing game theory, game theory has much broader application than simply in “games” as we think of them.
Rather, game theory seems to be a helpful framework for understanding many situations in which multiple people or entities interact, whether it’s considered a game or not.
Negative Sum Games: Fruitless Wars & Broken Relationships
Negative sum situations seem less frequently discussed but just as prevalent as the other game types.
And although less frequently discussed, a situation where multiple parties lose isn’t too hard to imagine.
I think unresolved relational conflict is an excellent example of what could be described as a negative-sum situation.
There are plenty of situations where say, two people fight and never resolve their conflict.
In a sense, they have both “lost.”
Anyone who is or has been in a long-term romantic relationship likely knows what I’m talking about.
But it’s not just interpersonal conflict that can be negative sum.
Many consider some geopolitical conflicts like the US’s occupation of Afghanistan a negative sum situation in which the losses far outweighed any positive outcomes that may have occurred.
And this brings up an important point about negative sum games; there can be some degree of winning in this context.
It’s just that the losses are greater than the wins.
Of course, measuring losses and wins is subjective, particularly when not in a formal game context.
And that’s exactly where the messiness of the real world comes into play.
Ultimately game theory is just that – a theory to help us understand and discuss how people or entities relate to one another.
Still, many can agree on the qualities that make a situation negative, zero, or positive-sum.
Zero-Sum Situations in Game Theory: Sports & Politics
Zero-sum situations are probably more intuitive to most people.
Most games, sports, and political races are examples of zero-sum contexts in which one person’s or team’s win comes at the expense of another person’s or team’s loss.
Zero-sum contexts are often easier to understand because games, sports, politics, and other zero-sum situations typically have defined rules.
In other words, you know when someone wins or loses a game or political race because the rules of winning and losing are clearly defined beforehand.
In fact, a defined set of rules helps identify zero-sum contexts of all sorts.
For instance, tennis is a zero-sum game with clearly defined rules leading to one winner and one loser.
Another quality frequently present in zero-sum contexts is that they almost always have a clearly defined end.
It’s often important to have a clear ending in a zero-sum game to define winners and losers.
James Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games, that I mentioned above dives deeply into the finite aspect of zero-sum games, juxtaposing it with the infinite nature of positive-sum games.
Examples of Positive Sum Situations: Education and Relationships
Positive-sum situations are my favorite type of context to consider.
That said, like negative-sum games, they aren’t always as straightforward as zero-sum games.
Regardless, I’ll try to provide some examples.
I think education is a great example of a positive-sum situation.
In the context of education, the teacher does not have to lose the information for the student to gain it.
Instead, both parties can end up with the information in a successful educational context.
Countless positive-sum situations in life work something like this.
For instance, friendship is another situation that can be positive-sum in which both people can gain from the friendship, and no one loses or necessarily has to lose.
Even wealth creation can be positive-sum.
For businesses that create something fundamentally new, it’s possible that few, if any, incumbents lose due to them winning.
For example, PayPal created a fast and easy payment exchange when one didn’t really exist before, and instead, online sellers and buyers were sending checks to each other in regular mail.
Of course, competitors often spring up shortly after a business creates something new.
But that business expanded the proverbial pie instead of taking a slice of the pie from someone else.
Something else to remember about positive-sum situations is that the net effect is positive even if some people lose.
So losses can still happen in a positive-sum context. It’s just that the wins are greater than the losses.
To illustrate a positive sum context with some losses, online flight booking removed the need for most travel agents.
However, it lowered the barrier for many others to plan travel themselves.
And it would be hard to argue that the gains were not greater than the losses for the world with the advent of online flight booking.
In general, the internet has led to the demise of some careers.
However, countless new jobs and opportunities emerged to replace what was lost.
And few argue that the net change of the internet was not positive.
Tying Together Comparison, Competition, Mimesis, Game Theory, and More
I’ve discussed several related concepts thus far.
But I’d like to clarify how these concepts relate to one another in this section.
To do that, I think seeing these concepts defined one after another could be helpful.
Comparison: A consideration of the similarities and differences between two or more things, people, or situations.
Competition: Striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same. Competition typically starts with comparison and becomes about leveling or gaining ground on your comparison-turned-competitor.
Mimesis: A philosophical term that can mean different things in different contexts. But in the context of this article, I use its meaning of engaging in the Mimetic Theory of Desire.
The Mimetic Theory of Desire (TMTD for short): A philosophical concept established by Rene Girard through which he posits that man often doesn’t know what he wants and, as a result, pursues what seem to be the desires of his peers, frequently resulting in unnecessary comparison, competition and, ultimately, conflict.
Game Theory: The science of strategy, or optimal decision-making in a relational context. I think of it as a way to make sense of situations involving multiple parties or people. Game theory provides context for TMTD, helping us understand that mimesis often drives us to unnecessarily pursue negative and zero-sum situations instead of positive-sum alternatives.
Negative-Sum Games: A context in which the losses are greater than the gains for those in this situation according to game theory. Many wars would likely fall into this category, where those participating lost more than they gained. Broken relationships would also likely fall into this category.
Zero-Sum Games: A context in which the losses are equal to the gains for those in this situation according to game theory. Most athletic competitions and political races fall into this category where there is one winner and one loser. A fixed rulebook and a clearly defined start and end also typically characterize zero-sum games.
Positive-Sum Games: A context in which the gains are greater than the losses for those in this situation according to game theory. Education, general information sharing, and healthy relationships would all likely fall into this category.
Hopefully, these back-to-back definitions provide a clear framework for my thesis.
In short, I believe mimesis often leads many people to have an unhealthy view of comparison and competition, reinforcing an idea I think is false; that life must only or primarily consist of negative and zero-sum games for most people.
Instead, I believe many have a better opportunity than ever to pursue positive-sum outcomes today.
And if you believe that we live in a positive sum world with abundant opportunity, it can fundamentally change your relationship with comparison and competition.
For starters, if you really believe that there are abundant opportunities for you to, say, make a great living, fiercely competing with someone else in one way to earn a living shouldn’t feel as necessary.
But I will unpack more of the implications of a belief in abundant positive-sum opportunities in the sections below.
Are there really plenty of ways to pursue positive-sum contexts in today’s world?
If you’re naturally skeptical like me, you may doubt that there really are plenty of positive-sum opportunities to pursue today.
Societal programming through education promotes zero-sum thinking that’s so intrinsic to western society it’s challenging to think outside of it.
Here is how Thiel describes the pervasiveness of zero-sum competitive thinking within the education system:
More than anything else, competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain… Our educational system both drives and reflects our obsession with competition. Grades themselves allow precise measurement of each student’s competitiveness; pupils with the highest marks receive status and credentials… Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who excel on conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality… Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation.Zero to One
Tl;dr – The western education system reinforces zero-sum thinking nearly every chance it has.
But I think zero-sum thinking begins even before we enter the education system.
In fact, I think it’s likely hard-wired into us from an evolutionary perspective.
For most of history, mankind has lived in more of a zero and negative-sum world where plenty for one man often meant less for another.
Thus, reproductive opportunities may have disproportionately gone to those who excelled in less than positive-sum contexts over those who did not.
And therefore, today, there may be a disproportionate representation of those who focus on and excel in less than positive-sum thinking, which may result from natural selection.
But even if this line of thinking within evolutionary psychology isn’t convincing to you, most agree that we have certain survival instincts, one of which is likely zero-sum competitiveness.
Of course, zero-sum competition has served us well for the sake of survival in a world with scarce resources.
It’s just that many now live in a world with abundant resources.
I’m not naive to the fact that plenty still need to participate in less than positive-sum games for survival today.
Rather, I know that countless people live lives so dire they don’t have the luxury of considering game theory.
They simply tread the water of zero or negative-sum competition to live to fight another day.
But countless others have the opportunity to get out of the rat race of mimetic desire with their peers and instead pursue their true desires.
In short, the belief that many live in an abundant world filled with positive-sum opportunities starts with recognizing that our biology and our environment have biased us against this belief.
And this belief becomes stronger when considering examples of positive-sum contexts in the world today and throughout history.
Examples of Positive Sum Thinking, Growth, and Businesses
One of my favorite examples of positive-sum change for the world is the advent of the automobile.
Before the automobile’s commercial availability, large cities worldwide faced a public health crisis due to horses and their manure.
Growing populations required more horses in cities for transport and labor, resulting in so much horse waste that one newspaper predicted, “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
This became known as the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.
Just 18 years later, this crisis was thoroughly averted thanks to motorized vehicles replacing nearly all horses for transport and labor within cities eliminating the horse manure problem.
Motorized vehicles are a great example of a positive sum creation many likely missed because they were entrenched in the competitive mindset of building better horse carriages.
The internet is another obviously positive sum creation that radically changed the world.
But there are so many examples of positive-sum creations within the ecosystem of the internet like Apple’s and Google’s mobile app stores which fostered an entirely new market for mobile apps with immense demand.
As you can tell from these examples, positive-sum creation often follows technological advancement.
And although these world-sweeping examples are easier to identify than smaller-scale positive-sum examples, don’t feel like you need be in technology or change the world to pursue positive-sum contexts and escape competition.
I’ll unpack how you can do this on a more personal level in the sections below.
How to identify and avoid mimesis.
According to Girard, mimesis starts because we often don’t know what we want.
Thus, knowing what you want is a crucial first step in avoiding mimetic behavior.
But knowing what you really want is often quite a challenge, particularly in the context of big life decisions like a career.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a silver bullet for knowing what you really want.
But these are a few concepts that have helped me identify what I really want and avoid mimesis in my own life.
- Try many different things.
- Create a don’t want list.
- Get a better understanding of what’s possible.
- Be flexible with your desires.
- Ask yourself if many of your peers are pursuing it.
I’ll address each in turn.
As a Christian, all things find meaning in my life through my relationship with Jesus Christ.
I recognize this is not everyone’s worldview.
But I cannot write this article with authenticity without mentioning this as the most important thing I can do to align my desires with God’s will.
Try many different things.
Many people don’t know what they want from their career or life because they haven’t tried different pursuits.
This seems particularly true for college students who often know little to nothing about the working world while they are also “supposed to” be figuring out what they want to do as a career for the rest of their lives.
This is why I think it’s helpful to try many different things.
In the context of a career, getting a variety of different internships can be really helpful in understanding what you want and don’t want.
After each year of college, I interned at different firms and found these internships incredibly helpful in figuring out what I liked and didn’t like in a career context.
Create a “don’t want” list.
In my opinion, knowing what you don’t want is much easier than knowing what you want.
Furthermore, you can use your “don’t wants” to zero in on your true desires.
I used this strategy in the context of career pursuits to help me realize I wanted to write.
For instance, these are a handful of the things I knew that I didn’t enjoy like:
- group work in school
- working for a boss
- working on something that doesn’t scale
The complete list I made was much longer than what I listed here!
But once I finished it, a career as a content creator seemed a lot more obvious!
Get a better understanding of what’s possible.
Even though being a writer seemed like where my don’t want list was leading, I didn’t want to commit myself to the below-average income common to most writing positions.
Plus, I knew the only boss I wanted was the free market which ruled out most conventional writing careers.
But if I had stopped at a conventional understanding of what writing as a career could lead to, I likely would have given up on this dream.
Instead, I researched and explored online to find examples of people doing what I wanted to do (and what fit better with my “don’t wants”).
Specifically, Twitter can be a great place to find those “building in public” or sharing specific milestones of their (often unconventional) professional journey showing others that it is possible to succeed professionally in an unconventional context.
Through Twitter, I ultimately discovered SEO, niche websites, and monetizing websites with display advertising through those building in public and sharing exciting stats about their sites.
Plus, I found examples of websites run by a single person “passively” generating $1,000,000+ per year!
In short, I was hooked.
And although it took me seven years and a lot of help from my wife, we have similarly been able to make a living from our websites and leave our corporate jobs!
This wouldn’t have been possible without my wife, who has been my biggest supporter and has used her complementary skills to help us build a living online.
But I also don’t think it would have been possible without reading Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week.
This book opened my mind to a new way of thinking about making a living.
And having an open mind is crucial to getting a better understanding of what’s possible.
Be flexible with your desires.
Even though pursuing niche websites has been an excellent fit for me in many ways, it revolves around creating content people are searching for, not necessarily content I want to make.
Sometimes, the content I want to create and the content people are searching for overlap, but more often than not, they don’t.
In short, although I’m thrilled with the flexibility and income niche websites have afforded me, it’s not exactly what I want to do.
And truly, I don’t know if I would have known this without trying it for years!
Plus, desires evolve, and over the years, my desires have evolved to want to write more about topics that inspire me, whether or not I can find clear demand for them within search engine data.
Likewise, I think you should be prepared to be flexible with your desires, especially at the beginning of your journey to avoid mimesis, understanding that there are no guarantees in life, and finding your true desires is a moving target.
One example of being flexible with your career desires could be that your true desires seem to point you to becoming a professional athlete, but you just don’t have the skills or biology for it.
If you’re flexible with your desires, you may still be able to find career fulfillment through one of the many ancillary jobs available for your favorite sports team.
Ask yourself if many of your peers are pursuing it (and if that’s why you are pursuing it).
Although not foolproof, pursuing something independent of your peers’ interests can be a signal that you aren’t motivated by mimesis in that pursuit.
Likewise, if many or all of your peers are pursuing something, you will likely want to examine your motivations to ensure they are intrinsic and not driven by mimesis in that instance.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
But awareness of mimesis as a potential motivator is a great first step in avoiding that motivator.
How to Pursue Positive-Sum Outcomes
Avoiding mimesis is a start to pursuing positive-sum outcomes, but in this section, I will try to explain additional proactive strategies to pursue positive-sum opportunities.
As I mentioned above, friendship is a great example of a positive-sum context where both people can win as a result of being in the relationship.
To put it more broadly, I think prioritizing relationships in general is an excellent way to pursue positive-sum outcomes that nearly anyone can apply.
And the importance of relationships echoes throughout wisdom texts of countless belief systems.
As a Christian, I often think of the passage in Matthew when someone asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is.
This is His response:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”Matthew 22:37-39
In other words, Jesus says that the most important thing in the Christian’s life is his relationship with God and his relationship with his fellow man.
Harvard’s longest study on happiness similarly recommends prioritizing relationships:
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.Harvard Gazette
Although seemingly obvious, many in the US have trouble with this.
I can relate!
I feel like I spent my twenties so focused on building an online business that I didn’t prioritize relationships well.
But any steps you can take in this direction can help you live a more positive-sum life!
Pursuing Positive Sum Outcomes Professionally
Before I dive into this section, I want to be clear that opportunities to pursue positive-sum outcomes are uneven depending on the career context.
For instance, some career paths, like building a personal brand, naturally have more opportunities to pursue positive-sum outcomes than others.
Other career paths like, say, being a dental hygienist, have seemingly fewer positive-sum opportunities.
However, as I’ve already mentioned, building relationships is a means of pursuing positive-sum outcomes in many career contexts that otherwise seem to lack the opportunity.
For instance, my mom is a dental hygienist and has done a great job cultivating real relationships with her patients, thus pursuing positive-sum outcomes in her professional context.
Ultimately, I think we should celebrate those who pursue their true, non-mimetic desires regardless of whether that leads them to a career context with plenty or fewer opportunities to pursue positive-sum outcomes.
And we should also also celebrate those who would love to change careers or life paths but can’t due to any number of reasons and yet still find ways to prioritize positive-sum outcomes (like building healthy relationships).
How to Find Positive-Sum Opportunities in Your Career Context
For some, changing careers is the best way to pursue positive-sum outcomes professionally.
But for those not switching fields of work anytime soon, how do you find positive-sum opportunities?
In my experience, finding positive-sum opportunities usually starts with questioning assumptions.
And assumptions in most career contexts manifest themselves as standards of procedure or best practices.
Oftentimes, these SOPs and best practices exist because they really are the best.
But questioning the SOPs and “best” practices can sometimes lead to the realization that they aren’t the best.
And occasionally, positive-sum alternatives that might have otherwise been missed lie behind these not-so-best practices.
In my career context of Search Engine Optimization (SEO for short), or trying to get online content to show up at the top of search engine results, I spent years thinking I had to build links to my websites to get traffic from Google.
Link-building was and is an SEO best practice that typically involves creating original data in your field to (hopefully) get journalists to link to your data in their content.
Google uses links to websites as a gauge of their authority, and it ranks more authoritative websites higher in search results yielding more visitors to these sites from search results.
But when I questioned this assumption and started building my sites without explicit link-building, I was able to grow profitable brands that support my family today.
And I grew these brands in a positive-sum way, not taking traffic from any explicit competitor but creating a supply of high-quality content for which there was demand but no previous supply.
Ultimately, I realized that link-building is important but not totally necessary in every SEO circumstance.
Likewise, SOPs and best practices in other fields may actually be best in many circumstances, but not every circumstance in that field.
And behind those exceptional circumstances may lie positive-sum opportunities.
Questioning Assumptions and Starting with First Principles
I believe questioning assumptions is closely related to another thought exercise that can yield the realization of untapped, positive-sum opportunities.
In physics and philosophy, it’s called first principles thinking.
Here’s how Elon Musk describes it:
To sum it up, first principles thinking involves distilling a concept or problem into its constituent parts or ideas you know are true and then building upon those basic truths.
Questioning assumptions is typically required to think in terms of first principles because assumptions are often things people think are true but haven’t verified.
And, of course, the utility of reasoning by first principles isn’t limited to physics and philosophy as we can tell from how Musk and countless others have used it to solve challenging problems in business and elsewhere.
Rather, thinking from first principles may be one of the best ways to think for yourself.
At least, that’s how blogger and author James Clear describes it, saying:
[It] is one of the most effective strategies you can employ for breaking down complicated problems and generating original solutions. It also might be the single best approach to learn how to think for yourself.James Clear
Many often juxtapose first principles thinking (a form of thinking for yourself) with reasoning by analogy which is often mimetic.
Reasoning by analogy is taking what works in one area and applying it to another.
This method of reasoning is efficient, it’s about not reinventing the wheel, and in many instances, it’s a perfectly fine way to reason.
Reasoning by analogy is saying, “you will probably like this movie because it’s similar to these other movies you also liked.”
But this way of thinking can fail you when mimesis underpins the reasoning.
Although the movie example above is innocuous and likely a valid argument, the mimetic version of that argument in the context of a career, that, “you should pursue X profession because it’s the profession your peers are pursuing (and you are similar to your peers),” likely isn’t.
To use a tactic I recommend and question assumptions implicit in this argument by analogy, I might ask:
- “Are you similar to your peers in such a way that pursuing the same career or set of careers makes sense?”
- “Why are your peers pursuing X profession?”
Frequently Asked Questions I’ve Come Across Related to Game Theory and Mimesis
I hope this article has helped you think through comparison and competition with your peers to arrive at a healthier perspective in this context.
Of course, I don’t have all the answers related to game theory and mimesis.
On the contrary, part of the reason why I have thought about this so much is likely because I struggle with it so much.
That said, I’d like to address a few of the questions I’ve encountered as I’ve researched this topic.
What would the world look like if mimesis drove fewer actions?
For starters, I think it would be a world of higher quality.
What does that mean?
I’ll try to explain with an example.
My brother Barrett is one of the least mimetically driven people I know and seems to pursue his interests entirely independently of what others think of them or him.
For instance, at one point in his career, he became interested in leather working and actually turned this interest into a cottage industry, selling hand-crafted wallets and other leather items on his website and online store.
Each item was a work of art, composed of leather he acquired from hunters, tanned himself with natural materials, and sewed together by hand with antique fabric sourced from all over the world.
He loved the process of creating high-quality leather goods, and to do anything less than his best to create them would be offensive to his artistic integrity.
For that reason, you didn’t need to worry about shoddy work or low-quality products from Barrett because he was independently motivated to make each piece an exceptional work of art.
When people pursue their non-mimetic, true desires, the odds are much higher that they will produce the sort of high-quality work that Barrett did in pursuing his non-mimetic desires.
And if you imagine any larger-scale pursuit of non-mimetic desires, you can probably picture how extensively this could change the world.
A large-scale pursuit of non-mimetic desires could result in products that work and look better and services executed more effectively because they are performed by people who truly want to perform them.
And I think more work would have the artistic vision of its creator infused into it leading also to a world of greater beauty.
But I think you would also see more diversity.
When people are free from thinking they have to compete with each other for a limited number of viable careers, the diversity of careers that they pursue is remarkable.
Here are some examples of people I know of who have gone above and beyond to pursue their non-mimetic desires resulting in unconventional careers to facilitate this pursuit:
- Jordan O’Connor runs Closet Tools, a Chrome extension to help Poshmark users more effectively sell their second-hand fashion, home goods, and electronics. He operates this company solo and has made $38,000 some months.
- Jon Yongfook runs Banner Bear, an image resizing and automation tool, and has grown from a solo SAAS product to a team of seven with ~$51,000 in monthly recurring revenue.
- My wife and I operate a travel blog that earns us a living while allowing us to travel the world and spend more time with our son.
- My friend John left his corporate law career when his portfolio of short-term rental properties provided enough to support him and his family.
- I know of someone who rents golf carts to tourists in the Panama City Beach, Florida area and makes a very comfortable living.
These are just a handful of examples.
But the career context isn’t the only place diversity would emerge, just like the career context isn’t the only place people struggle with mimesis.
A world with more people pursuing their true desires in all contexts would result in more diversity in all contexts including fashion, architecture, music, and countless other places.
A cynic might wonder if more diversity in the world is necessarily good.
And although I would say it is, I think most would agree that a more diverse world is at least more interesting, particularly if that diversity results from people pursuing their true desires.
Finally, I think a world with less mimesis would have less competition and conflict.
One of the likely outcomes of mimesis is unnecessary competition that often leads to conflict.
So with less mimesis, there is also likely less unnecessary conflict.
In the career context, pursuing more intrinsically motivating opportunities often results in adding value in less competitive ways.
In our current world where mimesis drives countless college students to pursue investment banking and management consulting, entry to these fields seems irrationally competitive.
And this competition often leads to conflict.
Peers competing for a handful of positions can suddenly see their friends as enemies fighting for a spot on the seemingly finite list of high-status careers.
But in a world where mimesis drives fewer actions and intrinsic motivation drives more, I imagine fewer people would pursue these fields and more would pursue unique opportunities compatible with their intrinsic motivation resulting in less competition and ultimately less conflict in these presently hyper-competitive fields.
Is comparison bad?
I don’t think so.
In fact, I think comparison is inevitable.
Comparison is a fundamental way we interpret the world around us, and I don’t think attempting to stop the act of comparison in your life will be very effective.
That said, I think we should avoid situations in which we are prone to dwell on comparisons we know could lead us to dissatisfaction.
Is competition bad?
I think competition can be a wonderful thing when in its proper place.
In fact, if you go into a zero or negative-sum context with the knowledge that there are positive-sum opportunities outside of that context, it can give you a perspective that often leads to excelling in those non-positive-sum contexts.
For instance, if you can avoid wrapping your identity in your performance in a zero-sum competition like a sporting event, you often perform better in that sporting event because it takes the pressure off.
Regardless, competition is a part of life.
But negative and zero-sum competition doesn’t need to be life’s primary focus for everyone.
Is mimesis bad?
As long as you know that mimesis is driving your behavior, I don’t think mimesis is necessarily bad if the context is innocuous enough.
For instance, I’m aware that mimesis at least partly drives my fashion choices.
I don’t know much about fashion, and I don’t have particularly strong preferences when it comes to style.
However, I know that people judge you based on your appearance, and your fashion is certainly a part of this.
So I simply wear clothing similar to that of my peers to reduce the odds of any potential relational friction caused by my wearing more avant-garde clothing.
Of course, this mindset could take a turn for the worse if I felt I had to wear the exact brands my peers wear and/or felt like I had to spend more than was prudent to acquire this clothing.
But, thankfully, this is not currently a struggle of mine.
So, I feel like I’m within an acceptable range of mimetic behavior in this context.
In short, mimesis seems most problematic when we are unaware it’s driving our behavior and decision-making.
Is pursuing positive-sum outcomes easier than pursuing negative or zero-sum outcomes?
I think that long term, many people would feel more fulfilled if they pursued positive-sum outcomes professionally.
So in that sense, I think it’s easier to work on something fulfilling than not.
Of course, plenty of people find true career fulfillment in contexts with potentially fewer opportunities to pursue positive-sum outcomes, like professional athletes, career politicians, those who have climbed the corporate ladder, etc.
I think the key for these people is not to lose themselves in the zero-sum context but to remember that life can be filled with positive-sum opportunities (like building relationships).
With this perspective in mind, competition can be less anxiety driven and more about competing for the love of your craft.
And while I do think many would find more career and personal fulfillment by pursuing positive-sum outcomes, I don’t think it’s easy to do this.
For instance, one of the most challenging aspects of pursuing positive-sum outcomes is that this typically goes against the grain of your peers and society.
Unless you’re part of a unique peer group where many pursue positive sum value creation, your peers will likely operate in zero and negative sum contexts.
And to deviate from this seemingly tried-and-true path can be scary and requires conviction.
Why don’t more people pursue positive-sum outcomes in life?
As I mentioned in the section above, pursuing positive-sum outcomes is challenging.
But it’s not just the psychological aspect of doing something different than your peers that makes it challenging.
(And this is extremely challenging.)
Questioning assumptions, reasoning by first principles, and using all the other tactics to avoid mimesis are exhausting because life’s inertia inevitably leads us to fall in line with our peers.
And continually asking whether we really should be pursuing what those around us pursue is tiring.
Plus, questioning assumptions and reasoning by first principles are not always fruitful endeavors.
Rather, my guess is that questioning assumptions and first principles reasoning lead you to a better alternative than what is commonly known less than 10% of the time (and maybe less 1% of the time).
Again, many best practices are best practices for a reason.
So you don’t always need to start from scratch with your thinking.
But I do recommend you try these thought exercises whenever the default path of your peers or society is not in line with your desires or is creating frustration in your life.
Questioning assumptions and reasoning by first principles may lead you to the same conclusion as that of your peers.
But exercising your ability to think in this way is helpful in practicing independent thinking.
Plus, discerning when to reason by analogy and when to reason from first principles is a skill cultivated by practicing both forms of thought.
How do these concepts relate to fixed and growth mindsets?
You may have heard of the buzzy phrases, “fixed” and “growth mindsets.”
But if you haven’t, here’s a description from an author with Harvard Business School Online,
Someone with a growth mindset views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort. On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time.Catherine Cote with Harvard Business School Online
And if you’re wondering where these phrases came from, psychologist and author Carol Dweck coined them in her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Although I’ve never read this book, I think its ideas are just one more example of how game theory has made its way into common conversation and thinking.
To relate it to the content in this article, I think the phrase “fixed mindset” represents zero or negative-sum thinking, and “growth mindset” represents positive-sum thinking.
Is mimesis the phenomenon inferred by the phrase, “The grass is always greener on the other side”?
I think there is overlap between the concept of mimesis and what someone often means when they say, “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
This phrase seems to imply that a person’s dissatisfaction with his current position usually involves comparing his situation to another person’s.
But while mimesis is always driven by comparison to peers, I think this phrase can generically refer to someone’s dissatisfaction with his current state in comparison to another state without explicitly linking that dissatisfaction to another person.
For instance, someone might tell you that the grass is always greener on the other side when you are considering a career switch that isn’t exactly driven by who is doing the other career but more so by what you might be doing in that other career path.
Thank you for caring enough to read my thoughts on this topic!
And if you have questions, comments, or constructive criticism, please let me know in the comments below.
One of my hopes with this website is that it fosters a public dialogue in the comments section!
So please let me know what you think!