Success is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Success is Not a Zero-Sum Game - picture of two women with laptops sitting in grass

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A few weeks ago, one of my best clients asked me to provide a reference for another writer in my niche.

The way I saw it, I had three options: a) be vague and say something like “I think she would would do okay, but don’t have any feedback on her work,” b) pretend I don’t know her, or c) give her a well-deserved glowing review.

I spent about zero seconds contemplating the issue and went with option #3.  In my reply, I said that she was not only responsible, but also competent, creative, and classy.  In the end, she got the job, and I got to feel good about the fact that I helped her along.  But, did I do the right thing?

Many people would say “no,” or even “hell no.”  After all, more work for her could easily translate into less work for me.  Further, we’re similar in that fact that we’re both money-savvy moms, and sometimes, working with someone just like you can be bad for your career.

But I would do the same thing again.  And again.  And again. 

Why?  Because in an online world, success is not a zero-sum game.

See Your Peers as Motivation, Not Competition

I love working in the online world for a few reasons, with one of the biggest being that there is room for so many people to succeed.  Think about it.  It’s not like we’re all trying to sell vacuums in Topeka, Kansas for heaven’s sake.  For each product or service we sell, there are billions of potential customers out there.

But it’s more than that.  Whenever I see someone else have success, it gets my wheels turning.  It makes me want to do better, accomplish more.  It lights a fire under me, and I hope to light that fire under other people too.  Success is not a zero-sum game; we can all be winners.

I’ve written about the difference between jealousy and envy before and believe the same principles hold true when it comes to our professional lives.  When others succeed, it’s easy to be jealous and wish you had what they have.  But you know what’s better?  Harnessing those feelings and using them as fuel to light your own fire.

In other words, see your peers as motivation, not competition.  Life is much better when we’re all striving to build each other up, not tear each other down.

Success is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Working as a freelancer has its ups and downs.  There may be times when you feel like you have made a terrible mistake and jeopardized your family’s well-being.  But there will also be times when you are so proud of your accomplishments that you can hardly stand it- when you burst with joy and pride at what you have done.  I truly believe that the “highest highs” mean nothing without the “lowest lows” to balance them out.  In other words, to truly enjoy your success, you have to feel real failure.

But that’s not all.  Being truly successful usually means facilitating the success of your peers – giving them good advice, being a mentor, and being honest about their work when anyone asks.  It’s true that, in the online business world, there is room for everyone to succeed.  But in my world, it’s much more fun to succeed together.

So don’t waste time comparing yourself to others.  Don’t stress out about the fact that other people are trying to make money in the same ways you are – even when they appear to be doing well.  Just focus on your own goals – your own story – and strive to accomplish anything and everything you set your sights on.  Once you’re able to do that, nothing can stand in your way.

Do you feel like success is a zero-sum game?  Do you compare yourself to others?

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  1. I really enjoyed this. I believe that when you are good to other people and support them, good things will come back to you. I just started out on this freelancing journey and just got my first real gig, and I am so excited. I am not the type of person to see others and envy them for I always believe that success can be achieved by anybody. If they can do it so can I. Love this…awesome!!

  2. I firmly believe that what goes around, comes around. There is room for everyone, and it’s great that you gave a glowing recommendation. Some people can be petty, but that is just sad. I feel good when l am able to help people, and l don’t expect anything in return. Good for you!

  3. It\’s hard not to get jealous sometimes. I keep trying to tell myself that I\’m happy for someone\’s success, but deep inside I know I\’m a little tiny bit jealous.

  4. Yes! It’s absolutely not a zero sum game and I get annoyed when people act like it is, trying to raise themselves up by bringing others down.

  5. Good for you Holly to pass on the love. I deal with this a lot in my professional life. Any time anyone has ever asked me to write a recommendation for a job, if they were a good friend or colleague, I forget about all the small stuff and am always willing to go above and beyond to draft something that will hit a home-run for them. Why not pay if forward and help them out?

  6. There is no reason to withhold praise for someone who deserves it. And the only time I compare myself to others is to learn from them…look at their strengths and what they are doing and see how I can improve myself based on that. But not out of envy or to “one-up” them. There is plenty of space for all of us to succeed.

  7. Ooh, I hope this means there will be someone good to replace Kristen Wong on GRS. Because as of right now, Holly Johnson is the only person worth reading on that site (and the occasional Donna Freedman).

  8. I could not agree more Holly! I know it might not make sense to outsiders looking in, but there is plenty of room for anyone to succeed in the online world if they want. We’ve seen similar things with our business as well and love to have the opportunity to give some love to someone else because we’ve been on the receiving end of that many times so we’d be hypocrites, at the very least, by not paying it forward ourselves.

  9. You did the right thing by giving her a glowing recommendation, and that shows that you are pretty classy yourself. 🙂

  10. Although in complete honesty I have felt envious of other people’s success, especially freelancers, but I would still try to always help someone. That’s just good karma and in some way that will come back to you in a good way. And it does feel really good to help someone out and see them succeed!

  11. Great post Holly. I have found the personal finance blogging community to be full of helpful people. I have talked over the phone, via Skype, traded e-mails etc with many to seek advice. All have been very helpfully. In return always try and do m part as well. There’s is plenty of room for all of us to be successful. Just this week at my regular 9 to I’ve been coaching my staff to stop worrying about what others are doing and focus on your work, do the best job that you can do and the other things will fall into place.

  12. Nice article…To often I think we all get wrapped up in our own successes and failures. If we are genuinely happy for others it actually improves our chances of success. Stewing about why others “got ahead” does not help our attitudes, but by being happy for others it improves our outlook on life.

  13. I love this, because I think there’s more than enough room for everyone in the online space. Every freelancer has their own style, their own voice, and their own unique experiences that they can bring to a job. I’m actually glad when I see other freelancers and bloggers finding success, because that tells me that it is possible!

  14. I would do exactly the same. It’s great to have as much work and money as you want, but you also have to sleep at night. If I got to the top by putting other people down, I don’t think I’d sleep very well.

  15. Nice work Holly! While I’m a competitor at heart, I always strive to push other freelancers/entrepreneurs’ services when I feel they are right for the job. I feel it will come back to me in some way. Since my main business is built around word of mouth, I feel that’s how I can help others grow their businesses.

  16. Cheers to you Holly for spreading the wealth around, I know in the past I have used affiliate sites for people I trust and are more up and coming because they just might need a little extra $$$ than a big box website. Sharing means caring right.

  17. I love this! I was jealous of others at first, but now I know it’s pointless. Also, I’m in complete awe by my peers, that they inspire me and motivate me! Especially after FinCon, I realized we are a community, and not necessarily competition. I would have done the same thing.

  18. I think comparing yourselves to others is inevitable. With that being said, the more you can see your peers as partners/motivators instead of competition the better. At the same time…typically bloggers are pushing the same affiliate links, so you truly are competitors in that sense. I think the publishing industry (or blogging industry) is super competitive, but that’s only if you really want to scale your operations and have stand-alone businesses that can operate on their own without your day-to-day involvement.

  19. I’m a true believer that whatever you give out will come back to you 10 times more. Helping others, even your competition, will help you in the long run. I don’t see other PF bloggers as competitions. I see them more as friends who will help me on my FI journey. I will try to help them whenever I can too.

  20. Good for you, Holly! You absolutely did the right thing. One thing I regularly noticed when I coached financial advisors is that some had an awful scarcity mentality. They deeply feared there weren’t enough clients to go around whereas I feared there weren’t enough quality advisors to help those who needed us. I am very proud of my successes and I am equally, if not more, proud of my friends’ successes because I love and care about their happiness. If I can help them obtain that through a well-deserved referral, then it’s a good day for me.

  21. I’m on board with everyone else – be nice and do the right thing! It takes too much energy to be mean and jealous. We are all in this together! My momma always says “Be nice, that way no one can ever say a bad thing about you”

  22. Great post Holly! You definitely did the right thing. I’m just getting started with freelance writing and I’ve realized quickly that envying others or comparing yourself to others is just a waste of time. Everyone is on their own journey at their own pace and it’s really great that you point out seeing your peers as motivation. I get inspired and motivated when I see others doing well and it even makes me feel better about what I’m doing. To be honest, I’d rather be in association with successful hardworking people than people who aren’t doing anything positive. Looking at others as motivation is uplifting vs. being unhappy and stressed out after comparing yourself to others.

  23. I love this! I am so glad that I stumbled upon the FinCon community and all of the awesome people in it! As Shannon mentioned, some in the financial advisor community don’t have the abundance mentality. From my observation, it only hinders them and holds them back.

    By the way, shout out to Topeka, KS where my grandparents live! ” It’s not like we’re all trying to sell vacuums in Topeka, Kansas”

  24. Success definitely isn’t a finite commodity!

    Plus, who’s to know if your reference wont create new opportunities for you, too? What goes around comes around.

  25. I’m glad you gave her a glowing rec. That’s awesome! There’s def not a scarcity of work online, you just have to know where to look. 🙂

  26. I was just telling a group of bloggers yesterday that the Internet is big enough for everyone. There are enough jobs to go around for those who are willing to work for it. I believe in life that you get what you give and the bloggers who keep all their clients and business to themselves won’t be nearly as successful as we are.

  27. Love this! People ask me all the time how/why I’m friends with other bloggers. They see it all as competition, but I don’t at all. Like Cat just said, the internet is big enough for everyone.

    I give jobs out all the time to other freelancers. At least once a week someone will try to hire me for someone but I either don’t have the time for it, what they’re asking for isn’t my expertise, etc., and I give the work out to someone else. I love helping others and I know others helped me in the beginning too.

  28. I compare myself to others ALL the time, but I use them as motivation rather than frustration. I also believe that the rising tide lifts all ships and anyway I can help someone else out will eventually work out for me somewhere down the road. It feels better to help people rather than try to keep them down.

  29. Without evening realizing it, you basically practice being “abundant minded” versus being “scarcity minded”. It’s one way you can really tell someone is going to be successful (so nice work!). But seriously, I am all about this — you have to promote and encourage; being fearful of competition and selfish is not the way to win. Michael Hyatt did an excellent piece on this, too, if you’re interested.

  30. Definitely agree with this. And building nodes in your network only helps to make you stronger as well! Glad you did the right thing.

  31. Good to remember because just hearing the words “Pat Flynn” sends me into a tail spin of depression.

  32. Great post. I refuse to compete or measure my success by comparing to others. It is about being my best me at what I do and continued improvement. There is room for many to reach success so why not help others out when you can. Creating good Karma is priceless.

  33. I feel you did the right thing as well because if you didn’t give the recommendation, the client could have found a good writer elsewhere. ITs always great to get a pat on the back from a peer, and I’m sure you made your friend’s day with a new side hustle gig.

  34. So well said. I feel the same way. I think it’s weird and/or detrimental to pretend that we work or create or write in a vacuum. Networking, connecting, and promoting peers is a key component of success in my opinion. Plus, I always feel flattered when someone asks for my thoughts/opinion.

  35. I dont compare myself to others because I feel like my biggest competitor is myself. Everyone is on a different journey and takes their own path because they have their own set of circumstances

  36. I do compare myself to others. I always have. But I have the choice to take that comparison to the negative of tearing me down or to the positive of motivation. One thing about writing and reading in this vast world of the internet is that there is a real person sitting behind those computer screens…

  37. Holly, you are spot on. It’s all about collaboration, not competition! I really believe in the abundance mentality when talking about freelancing and working in the digital economy 🙂

  38. Help others, do the right thing, and you’re ultimately taking the right approach. I absolutely agree that success is not a zero-sum game, and there might even be a “boomerang effect” where it comes back to help you in turn.

  39. This is a great way to approach freelancing, and I’d go even further and say it’s the right way to approach things even when it kind of *is* a zero-sum game. In academia, I’m constantly competing against my peers for jobs (which are extremely scarce) and grants (which sometimes can have more than one winner but sometimes not) and I decided years ago that I was not going to lose my soul over that. It’s a lot better to just commit to being happy for whoever “wins” (if you like them) (of course all bets are off if someone you don’t like gets something! Then I feel free to be a little bitchy about it, heh) than to get eaten up. I also help freely when someone asks me too, volunteering to share research materials or critique application letters or whatever, on the same principle.

  40. It is so true that success is not a zero sum game. I was just thinking about this recently in relation to my career (law) because so often, one party wins and the other loses. That shit can get depressing real quick! One thing I’ve loved about blogging so far is seeing how everyone is part of a great community that not only celebrates each other’s success, but often facilitates it as well. Your recommendation is a perfect example.

  41. I recently launched my own blog at, where we empower women to achieve financial independence while maintaining a fashionable lifestyle; so as a fellow blog-owner, this was a great read!. We are already up and running and would love it if you checked us out sometime! Keep up the amazing work!

  42. I think this translates to all walks of life, not just online. I work in a pretty intimate professional area where when a job comes up friends and fellow co-workers are likely applying for the same job- it comes with the territory we wish eachother well and trust that the possible employer will choose the best candidate. C’est la vie.

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