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It's Not Pie

There's a meme that's been popping up every now and then over the last year that I keep coming back to as I think about how we make decisions in our lives and careers.

Meme stating "Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It's not pie."

(original credit unknown)

I wish I knew who came up with this one because they deserve serious credit for simplifying a concept that people seem to sorely misunderstand. And while this particular meme is on the topic of civil rights, the idea of "It's not pie" can be used throughout our lives to help us realize when we're making fear-based decisions because we falsely believe in the zero-sum game.

Merriam-Webster defines zero-sum game as "a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it." In other words, a zero-sum game is one where resources (or rights or opportunity or whatever you're striving for) are strictly limited. So limited, in fact, that if you gain a bit of these resources for yourself, someone else must lose the same amount. You have a pie of resources, and the whole of that pie represents the whole world for that particular resource - there is no more available beyond that pie. So if you want a bigger piece of pie, whoever you are sharing that pie with needs to give up some of theirs.

No one likes giving up pie. Giving up pie creates fear. "But I love my pie! How can I survive without my pie? I worked hard for this pie, and I'm going to eat every crumb!"

In the meme above, the creator points out that the achievement of equal rights is NOT a zero-sum game. It doesn't hurt my rights, as a white woman, if a woman of color is treated fairly by the institutions that surround our lives (law enforcement, government, employers, etc.). It doesn't hurt my rights, as a married straight parent, if a gay or lesbian couple decide to get married and build their own family. It doesn't hurt my rights if an immigrant is treated with dignity and given the opportunity to work and provide for his or her family. These things have ZERO negative impact to my rights - and I would argue that they actually improve my life because opportunity for others creates more opportunity for us all. We get to learn and grow and become more human.

But let's take this concept beyond the meme. What about the zero-sum game at work?

Well, how about the ever-elusive work-life "balance"? Some believe that time spent away from work or the office is detrimental to getting the job done. But is that really the case? Doesn't the organization benefit if its employees are more engaged and energized when they're at work? And isn't part of the engagement equation some freedom and autonomy over one's time and energy? This HBR article, written nineteen (!) years ago, still does a fantastic job of providing examples in this light.

Work productivity isn't pie. THIS is pie.

Picture of red berry pie

Photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

Next, what about recognition and opportunity? As a manager, if you praise one employee or give him an opportunity, does that really mean holding back someone else? Think about the lack of representation within the workplace. If there are few women, for example, in a male-dominated office, the women may begin competing among themselves because they see the "opportunity for women" pie to be finite in that environment. Who benefits from this approach? No one but those who benefit from and are comfortable with the status quo.

Employee opportunity and recognition? Also not pie. But this is!

Photo of apple tart / pie

Photo by Chloe Benko Prieur on Unsplash

And how about competition? Business owners are often led to believe their market is a pie, and only by tearing down the competition can they build themselves up. This is false. The more you believe in the zero-sum game with respect to your market and competition, the more you limit yourself and your business. Why, instead of trying to steal someone else's portion of pie, wouldn't you get out there and make a NEW, BETTER pie for your business?

Your business's market? DEFINITELY not pie.

Photo of meringue pie with text "This right here? Pie."

So what do we do to fight the zero-sum game mentality?

The first step is to recognize it. Why are you annoyed that Joe is getting more attention in the office for his project than you are for yours? Why are you, as a manager, afraid to give Joann that opportunity because Jeff might feel left behind? Are you bummed when you see someone in your line of business achieving a huge milestone? These are all rooted in the false belief that recognition, opportunity, and the marketplace are pie.

Once you recognize your zero-sum game thoughts, question them! Is there REALLY such a strict limit on this particular resource or opportunity, or are you just conditioned to feel this way? Who benefits from your limited belief in the pie? How can you think about things differently and reject the pie mentality?

And finally, talk to each other, even and especially the people with whom you feel you are competing for a piece of the pie! Some creative thought around new opportunities and solutions will get everyone to a different way of thinking. Maybe you can work together to throw that pie in the face of the status quo and move toward abundance.


Unless it is, literally, a pie like this one...and then you might have to fight me for it. ;-)

Photo of strawberry pie

Photo by Reuben Mcfeeters on Unsplash

Question time!

Where have you encountered the pie mentality in your life?

How has false zero-sum game thinking affected you?

What ideas can you share with others on how to move past it?

Thanks for reading!

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