Zerosumness

I enjoy watching MadMen, the AMC series about an early 1960’s advertising firm. I started watching it midstream, so I’m in the process of catching up from the start. In one episode, in the middle of year one, there was an especially illuminating subplot involving the junior account managers who continuously compete among themselves for the top execs’ attention and favor.

One of them casually announced he just had a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly. The others didn’t even know he was a writer. Despite being caught off-guard, they suppressed their jealousy and feigned congratulations. Later that night, one of them asked his wife for feedback on his own short story that he probably punched out that afternoon. She tried to defer. When he presses her, she says she’s not used to modern fiction “where bears talk”. Eventually, she cashes in some social capital with a family friend who offers to publish it in Boys Life for $40 (in 1959-60). Funny and extremely poignant.

Are we socialized or hardwired to compare ourselves to others? And why do we begrudge other people their success? Maybe the scene resonated with me because academics seem particularly susceptible to zerosumness, a condition in which I interpret your victories as losses for me. Por exemplar, your getting published makes my scholarship look more anemic by comparison. So people say “congratulations on getting published,” but do they really mean it? We know where the producers of MadMen stand on the subject.

K-12 teachers are susceptible to jealousy and pettiness too. It often takes this form. “Your classroom successes and glowing reputation erode my own teaching success and reputation.”

This most human of tendencies (jealously or coveting thy neighbors’ publications, reputation, successes) pervades far more than the workplace. A few weeks ago Bruce and I were discussing AAPL in the “Y” lockerroom. He not only informed me he owned it too, but he paid $80 for it back in the day. While saying “way to go,” I was thinking, “a pox on your portfolio for sitting on 150% gains!”

How do leaders, whether parents, deans, principals, executives, clergy, or coaches, create family, work, or team cultures where people are relatively secure in what they do well and genuinely celebrate one another’s successes?

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