Sums over time

The descriptors for things as being “zero-sum” or “non zero-sum” have been having a moment lately, be it in finance, policy, psychology, or your field of preference. It’s always interesting and often beneficial for a new framing to enter the discussion of the public sphere, but the treatment of this property of thing-ness as being binary–that is, every thing that involves sharing or multiple stakeholders is either zero-sum or it’s not–is missing the crucial nuance of context.

Let’s get tangible

For me, drinking coffee affects the timing of my awareness and sharpness, but not the total amount I have available over the course of a day. Perking myself up means I’ll crash later.

In the moment, and for the next hour, drinking coffee is pure benefit. Going from not very awake to highly alert with very little downside. Let’s go! Non-zero-sum system, let’s get some benefits!

Over a 24-hour period, it’s roughly zero-sum. Perky now, bottomed out and crawling later, in near-equal measure.

Over the course of months, it’s helpful to be able to time-shift sometimes and balance out others. How this maps out to summarized thinking is a matter of opinion.

What’s the big idea?

When using a mental model to simplify a situation, like whether to consider a situation as zero-sum or “grow the circle wider”, think about what framing you care about. Do you really care how this will shake out over 30 seconds when your goal is longer term?

Did that make your day a little better?

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