Zero sum game: A situation or interaction in which one participant's gains result only from another's equivalent losses.
Sometimes, we imagine business works that way. But what a sad, sorry way to look at the world. And if we do look at the world that way, does it make us happy?
Let me explain:
The other day, Seth Godin wrote a post on his blog titled "Destroying happiness."
"Most people," he wrote, "have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?"
He said that what makes people unhappy is not what they have but what they want. And that the job of companies is to create want for their products.
Therefore, Seth wrote, "Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy."
As this story goes, for me and my company to be happy, you must be unhappy. My happiness depends on your unhappiness. Zero sum game.
What a sad, sorry way to operate in the world. And if a company operates this way--when you think of employees, shareholders and customers--does it make them happy?
We're stuck in an economic model where we pull precious resources out of the ground, fashion them into some often-unnecessary product, convince people that they need it, get them to buy it, start convincing them that it is no good anymore so they buy the next version, and then take the old version and bury it back in the ground.
In the process, we pump the atmosphere full of carbon, use up dwindling resources, and fill our precious land and water with toxins.
It wouldn't be so bad, maybe, if we did it for products people really want and need. But if they really wanted and needed them, why would marketers have to work at making them unhappy in order to force them to buy?
Zero sum game. What a business model!
So here's the challenge, and it's not about the end of commerce. It's about finding a different model of commerce.
What makes people happy, Arthur Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness, reminded me the other day, is a sense of transcendent meaning, success in living our lives in accord with our values, and a sense of control of our destinies.
Marketing often depends on convincing people they don't have these things and then tricking them into thinking that the product on offer will somehow provide them. Then the whole pull-things-out-of-the-ground-only-to-bury-them-back-there model of commerce kicks in.
But what if, instead, business actually tried to provide the meaning, success and control to people instead of selling them material proxies. What if business actually tried improve life on this planet and make a profit doing it.
Last I heard, there is an infinite supply of meaning, success and control available, so providing them wouldn't waste our precious resources.
You get the--admittedly long-winded--point? Find a way to make money giving people what they really need--a good life. Do that, and it's good for your company, good for your customers and good for the planet.
In other words, don't see green, sell happy, and if you do it right, it will be green.
That's not zero sum game. That's win win. Isn't that the world we'd rather create?
PS Any ideas for how to do it are very welcome in the comments.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.