The Non-Zero-Sum Game of Ambition
The Rarest of Commodities, But The Furthest Reaching Impact
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Misunderstood on Arrival
I often feel there are some movies that don't have enough cultural impact on society. I remember watching Big Hero 6 in 2016 and thinking its portrayal of passion around STEM education should be shown to every kid. I remember watching In Time in 2011, and feeling like there should be a bigger conversation about what happens when we cure all diseases?
I felt the same way about Arrival. I've written before about how, so often, science fiction represents "a shortage of dreams in the wake of our collective fictional nightmares." Aliens coming to earth are more like Independence Day than Arrival.
If you haven't seen the movie, I don't wanna spoil it for you... but it's almost a ten year old movie so... I don't know. Skip to the next section, or go watch the movie. Cause it's really good.
I wasn't thinking about the movie for today's topic until I started googling around for some interesting context on non-zero-sum games and I kept coming across images from Arrival, including T-shirts (which I bought). And I was reminded of how central the concept is to the plot of the movie.
In the film, 12 massive alien pods land on earth and hover in 12 different locations: US, China, Russia, UK, Pakistan, Sudan, etc. Each country spends time engaging with the alien life forms, trying to understand them and their language. Eventually, misunderstanding of the alien's intent leads to conflict, and the various nations shutting off shared communication about their findings.
Eventually, the protagonist of the film realizes that each piece of information communicated contains 1/12th of a message, and that collaboration is required to unlock the answer. The whole purpose of the alien's visit is to unify humanity by offering them a language that unlocks the ability to see time as non-linear.
When asked to explain non-zero-sum thinking as presented in Arrival, this was ChatGPT's response:
"In a non-zero-sum game, unlike zero-sum games where one party's gain is exactly balanced by another party's loss, the outcomes can be beneficial for all parties involved. The premise of non-zero-sum is crucial in "Arrival" because the film presents a scenario where humanity is faced with the arrival of extraterrestrial beings, and the global response is initially fragmented and competitive, reflecting a zero-sum mindset where each nation perceives the situation as a potential threat or gain at the expense of others.
As the protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), progresses in her understanding of the alien language, she discovers that the language itself alters her perception of time, leading to a profound understanding of the aliens' intention. The aliens have a non-linear perception of time and their purpose for contacting Earth is to unite humanity, implying a need for a cooperative, non-zero-sum approach to solve a future crisis. The aliens' gift of their language, which allows for this altered perception of time, is a tool for humanity to achieve cooperation and unity, highlighting the essence of non-zero-sum dynamics where mutual benefits can be achieved."
Understanding which games are zero-sum vs. non-zero-sum are a critical variable in game theory. I've written before about playing different games where I said, in effect, "the only stupid game is not knowing what games other people are playing." Identifying the players in a non-zero-sum game can be a form of arbitrage to optimize cooperation and outcomes. And introducing and fostering more ambition in the world is one of those non-zero-sum-games.
What's in a Commodity?
Often, when we talk about something getting “commoditized” we're talking about how something becomes interchangable:
"Commoditization moreover often removes the individual, unique characteristics, and brand identity of the product so that it becomes interchangeable with other products of the same type. Making commodities interchangeable allows competition with a basis of price only and not on different characteristics."
But in broader terms, that more is in line with something becoming "fungible" (no NFT bros. I'm not talking about you). Turning something into a commodity effectively just means its something you can buy and sell. It can be a hot commodity, a rare commodity, an abundant commodity. The state of the commodity impacts its price, but something being a commodity doesn’t mean it’s automatically more common or less valuable.
When I talk about ambition being a rare commodity, there are two aspects I want to address: (1) ambition is rare, and (2) ambition is monetizable (or a commodity; something that can be bought and sold, for better or worse.)
Ambition Is Rare
"Most people want to be fit, most people aren’t.
Most people want to build a successful business, most people won’t.
Most people want to be the best version of themselves, most people aren’t.
Most people have dreams they want to fulfill, most people won’t.
Everyone wants to quit something, build something, be something, do something. Most people won’t.
How many things have we wanted? How many opportunities have we craved? How many broken things have we wanted to fix?
And how many of those have we shrunk from. Hid from. Or, excused away.
We’re not alone.
Most people won’t.
But every once in a while someone puts themselves out there. Makes the leap. Faces rejection or failure or worse. And comes out the other side. Better. Changed. Bolder.
Most people won’t. Which means those that do change everything."
Ambition is rare. Increasingly, society has started to kick against this kind of thinking. Even saying ambition is worth having feels demeaning. But the reality is this is yet another example of people's inability to accept and process nuance. It's possible that both can be true. You should give healthy space for your mental health and family life and hobbies. But you can also be incredibly ambitious, driven, and hard-working.
I've written before about this dynamic in a piece called The Renaissance of Rise and Grind. It was a long piece. In it, I talked about a specific equation that I think motivates most people.
I explained it this way:
"While everyone is in pursuit of satisfaction, they're making a decision about how much effort they want to put in based on how capable they feel of maximizing both how meaningful their effort is, and how much they're favored by luck... When you remember the deep sense of dissatisfaction people have with with "the system," you realize that they feel like luck is never in their favor, and a greedy profit-obsessed hierarchy limits their ability to find meaningful work... so why would they put in any effort?"
As people feel increasingly disadvantaged by luck, and incapable of finding meaningful work, they become less inclined towards putting in effort. That's what makes ambition so rare. If you believe luck is completely outside your control, and most things are meaningless, then you've crafted a psychological environment that makes effort almost impossible to muster.
The few who do pursue their ambitions are those that Bryce refers to as someone who "puts themselves out there. Makes the leap. Faces rejection or failure or worse. And comes out the other side. Better. Changed. Bolder." The willingness to accept the concept that "luck favors the prepared mind," and meaning is in the eye of the beholder, those are the people willing to pursue ambition.
Ambition Is Monetizable
The other aspect of ambition that I've written about before is the idea that ambition can become the thing that makes you money. In many cases, its the thing that makes you a lot of money. In a piece called The Rising Generation, I touched on a concept I think about often as a parent: "whatever you are, be a good one."
I don't care if my children grow up to be physicists, entrepreneurs, elementary school teachers, sanitation workers, YouTubers, commercial fisher-people, paleontologists, or freelance graphic designers. What I care about for my children is their capacity to seize opportunity, pursue outputs they're proud of, and form a sense of accomplishment in their work.
Lots of people have said this lots of different ways, but I like the way Jordan Davis put it in his song, "Buy Dirt": "Do what you love but call it work."
People who take that ambition, that willingness to put themselves out there, and identify the way that ambition can get them paid often have strong incentives to accomplish the thing they're working on, regardless of obstacles or setbacks. We call these "mission-driven founders."
Capital as a Zero-Sum Game
In the world of company building, there's an important distinction between ambition and capital. Ambition is non-zero-sum; capital is not. If you were the only startup in the world, you would get all the capital. If you were one of ten startups in the world, you wouldn't necessarily get 10% of the capital. In a capitalist system, the best idea would get the majority of the capital. And every dollar the best idea gets above 10% is a dollar that you're not getting.
Almost two years ago, I wrote about climate tech investing and Lowercarbon Capital. In it, I quoted Bill Gates talking about capital as a zero-sum game:
"At Breakthrough Energy, we fund only technologies that could remove at least 500 million tons a year if they’re successful and fully implemented. That’s roughly 1 percent of global emissions. Technologies that will never exceed 1 percent shouldn’t compete for the limited resources we have for getting to zero. There may be other good reasons to pursue them, but significantly reducing emissions won’t be one of them."
Now, granted. Bill Gates is talking about an even smaller sum to divvy up, which is the smaller subset of capital going towards things fighting to remove emissions. But the principle applies to capital more broadly. There is a finite amount of capital. Even in a world where we constantly feel like there is too much capital, there is still eventually a finite number. And it's zero-sum.
But you having ambition has zero impact on someone else's ability to have ambition. Even if you become direct competitors, its not your ambition that gets limited by competition. It's revenue, its market share, its employees. Non-zero things. But no one can compete away your ambition.
Indications of Ambition
I was recently asked, "if you had to invest in one startups at any stage today, and hold it for the next 30 years, who would they be and why?" OMG such a good question. I really enjoyed thinking about it. After spending a bunch of time on a lot of different companies, I eventually came to this framework:
"I would invest in the companies that have both the ambition to unseat $100B+ incumbents, and the potential capability to do so."
Some examples that came to mind:
Anduril*: Ambitions and a path to replacing defense primes like Raytheon ($120B) and Lockheed ($103B)
Rippling: Less clear, but could see them having the ambition and path to trying to replace HR behemoths like ADP ($102B)
My partner, Will Robbins, articulated really well some of the biggest categories that drive massive enduring companies:
Industrial Conglomerates & Rollups: Koch ($125B of revenue), Danaher ($179B market cap)
Consumer Products (e.g. hardware, ads): Apple, Google, Tesla, Microsoft
Centralized Retail: Amazon, Walmart
Specialized Technologies: Novo Nordisk ($413B), TSMC ($531B)
Consumer & Enterprise Financial Services: JPM Chase ($505B), AmEx ($153B), Visa ($555B)
Does every company need to be a $100B company? No. If a person doesn't want to pursue intense ambition in their life, does that make them worthless? No. But in the pursuit of ambitious things, its important to note these critical concepts.
Ambition is non-zero-sum. Other people being hard-working and successful doesn't have any bearing on whether you can be hard-working and successful.
Ambition is monetizable, and that doesn't make it dirty. It isn't a bad thing to make money doing things that you're both good at, and highly motivated to do well.
Large outcomes ARE attainable. You can articulate how you become a $100B company when you're just a person with a deck. You can dream in centuries and execute in minutes. Both can be true.
*Contrary is an investor in Anduril and Zepto through one or more affiliates.
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