Penny For Your Thoughts? How We Risk Killing Creativity With The Rise In Zero Sum Thinking

Penny For Your Thoughts? How We Risk Killing Creativity With The Rise In Zero Sum Thinking

Create January 17, 2019 / By Larry Robertson
Penny For Your Thoughts? How We Risk Killing Creativity With The Rise In Zero Sum Thinking

Creativity has everything to do with mindset - beware the zero sum mindset.

Suppose I invite you to play a simple game, one we’ll call ‘matching pennies.’ The game is entertaining (at least for awhile), and its implications, regardless of the results, are basically inconsequential. The game works this way – round by round, we begin with each of us holding a penny. Simultaneously we place our pennies on the table. If the pennies are both heads or both tails, you take them. If they are opposites of one another, I get the pennies. And so it goes, taking up a lazy Saturday afternoon, until one (or both of us) loses interest and maybe leaves the game a few pennies richer than when we began. 

Matching pennies is a simple game, one with little collateral damage or lasting impact. It also happens to be a classic example of a zero sum game. An all-in poker hand works the same way – we both toss what we have into the middle and the person with the winning hand walks away with all the dough, while the other walks away with zip. A mathematician or game theorist would point out that the sum of our wins and losses equals zero, making us collectively no better or worse off. But experience teaches us something different – a lesson that extends to creativity.

In our daily lives winning and losing is far more nuanced, in no small way because everyday wins and loses aren’t fixed in time, something we often fail to consciously consider, even though we rationally know it to be true. Day-to-day wins and losses flow into and out of one another – meaning, for example, that a loss today might yield an insight that allows us to succeed the next time around, or similarly that today’s win could be cancelled in our next go round by anything from shifting circumstances to overconfidence. 

At its core and at its best, creativity operates by the same truth. Creativity is fluid. Rather than a thing, creativity is a form of thinking. It’s thinking not simply focused us on getting us from here to there, but is a notably anomaly that appears to be unique to human thinking, and gives us the advantage of conceiving a place beyond ‘there,’ ad infinitum. Creativity is also additive. A winning idea doesn’t simply burst forth like a single winner-take-all poker hand. The breakthrough ideas we associate with creativity are always an accumulation of ideas flowing and folding into one another. Our language and our societal patterns often try to tell us something different – that big ideas come down like light bulbs or lightning strikes, or that once they arrive, such ideas will perpetually hold value. But a wider frame view of anything from iPhones to democracy will reveal the truth of creativity’s fluidity and accumulation that add up to something greater than just the simple sum of the parts.

Pause a moment longer to take a more considered look at it, and it’s easy to discern that creativity is always, always, always a multiplayer game too. Indeed this is fact doubly true. Not only are breakthrough creative ideas a result of an accumulation of many smaller ideas, but inevitably those many contributing ideas come from many contributors too, rather than some single, mythical, creative genius source. To punctuate the observation, consider that MacArthur Fellows, those famous creative folks who have the moniker of genius thrust upon them, are the quickest to tell you that, in the words of mathematician and Fellow Maria Chudnovsky, whatever they create rests on the broad shoulders of others before them, and that their greatest hope is that what they create will do the same for other people and other ideas yet to come. In short, the multiplayer nature of creativity is true both in any individual creation and across creations and time.

If all of this strikes you as somewhat self-evident, you might be asking yourself, why make the point? Considered in a thoughtful moment, the answer is just as clear, though in the current environment, all too easily missed. Our world is increasingly dominated by the short view, the quick answer, and the implicit goal of finality. On a growing list of subjects, we humans are also increasingly leaning towards not only an us versus them view, but strategy, a textbook zero sum strategy where I must win, and you must lose, and together we fail to advance. At the very least, if our endeavor is a creative one, with this mindset we’re pretty much done before we even begin. But as zero sum spreads to an ever-widening number of endeavors, it’s important to do the math. Inevitably, the conversation is about far more than pennies.

Larry Robertson is the author of two award-winning books: ‘The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity’ and ‘A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and its Moment in Human Progress’. He’s the founder of two ventures, one for-profit and one non, and a highly respected thought leader in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, advising individuals and organizations across a broad spectrum. Larry is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

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