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February 24th, 2020
There are two frameworks that we apply to the world, either consciously or unconsciously, and when we mix them up, or misapply them, or forget to look for the right one, the good that we might have wrought slips from our grasp.
The first is the notion of a non-zero sum game. This is not a game like Monopoly where everyone eventually loses out to one single victor. A non-zero sum game is where everyone wins. The result of the game becomes more than just the sum of it’s parts. Something is actually created in the collaboration and a virtuous series of results proceed. We might think of two start up founders, both with perfectly complementary traits, where one is great where the other is faulty and vice versa for other qualities, and together they make a perfect team, and as a result of their efforts they build something that neither could have done alone.
Or, we might simply think of a basketball game where no one keeps score because everyone just wants to play.
The other framework we use when we look at the world is an echo of humanity’s oldest story. This story is referred to as the Smith and the Devil.
In this story, a blacksmith makes a wager with the Devil. In exchange for his soul, the Devil agrees to grant the blacksmith one single wish. Then the blacksmith wishes for the ability to weld any two things together. The Devil grants him this power, but before the full exchange can occur, the smith welds the devil himself to a rock to imprison him in place, and by doing so, the blacksmith escapes.
At first glance this seems like a zero-sum game. One person wins by screwing over the other. But this is a grossly incorrect reading of the story.
The story of the Smith and the Devil is all about having your cake and eating it too. It’s about discovering some subtle loophole in the nature of things and using it to excellent effect.
Technology by and large fits this bill. For example, a computer is essentially a rock that we’ve tricked into making calculations by sending electricity through it. If that’s not an example of the sort of loophole sorcery that our primordial blacksmith conjured, then we might simply remind ourselves of nuclear power, or the fact that there are people orbiting the planet in a space station, or that we cured smallpox, and countless other diseases, or the fact that I can pick up my phone and within seconds talk to anyone I know. These innovations are the result of countless hacks that we’ve discovered by observing and understanding the natural world to an unusual detail. It’s akin to the blacksmith thinking about the rules of the deal with the devil to an unusual depth and exploiting the loophole.
But so often, we fail to see the win win situation of a zero-sum game, and we assume that we need to screw other people over in order to get ahead.
We forget that the devil in the story does not represent an actual person, he represents our fate without ingenuity.
Both of these stories together conjoin to create a dual lenses through which we can look at opportunities.
When dealing with people, we should always look for the non-zero sum game. We should always be primed to go for a win-win.
And when people aren’t involved, when it’s a system that we’re dealing with, we should look to weld the devil in his place. We should look for beneficial loopholes that clearly don’t put others at risk for harm. They are replete in human systems and they are even more abundant in nature for the engineer or the scientist who is willing to tinker with the pieces until some kind of magical synergy is achieved.
Ideally, our endgame is to see no difference between these stories. The win-win is a kind of hack of human nature. It’s a way of reevaluating the way we look at each other, and where before we have been so quick to see an enemy, someone to battle, we can also see a potential ally. The same can be said about the natural world. It’s all a matter of looking for the opportunity, because if we’re always primed to win selfishly, then we’ll forever be blind to the subtle chances where we might rise higher with the help of the person or natural world that we’ve previously sought to undermine.
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