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The lunch was to celebrate the completion of a project at a company I recently joined. The restaurant is a buffet where every one of our celebratory meals traditionally takes place. Upon entering the restaurant, the interior looked like any average Korean buffet, with greasy stir-fries, thin-cut sushi draped over big lumps of rice, noodles, and kimchee. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. But heeding the words of precaution from my coworker, I made a point of taking small samples of dishes that I normally like. I bit into the sushi; the rice smelled like it was days old. Not just one day old - I distinctly remember the thought of "two to three days old" flashing across my mind at that moment. I took one bite of the pan-fried dumpling. The meat was so stale that I had to spit it right out. Feeling a little exasperated, I tried the rice wrapped in sweet bean-curb, without the rice, of course, after my misadventure with the sushi rice. This is something that I'd be satisfied with even supermarket pre-packaged quality. And to my disgust, the bean curb tasted rotten. The thing literally felt like it was disintegrating. After a few more disappointments with the beef and the shrimp, I ended up gulping down on Diet Coke and nibbling on some pickles for the rest of the meal. Feeling a little dissatisfied, I turned to a co-worker sitting next to me and asked him how his food was. Staring down at a pan-fried fish on his place, he hesitated and said, "The first bite was okay," then hastened to add, "but I don't think I'm having any more." The co-worker who had originally warned me eyed me with pity. "That's how it is. I guess I didn't make it sound bad enough."
On our way back, the topic naturally stayed on the food. I found out that the company didn't always go to this crappy buffet. Years ago, as the old-timers recount, they used to go to nice restaurants for celebrations. Until one day, one of the guys ordered a 3-lb lobster at a seafood restaurant. The waiter came out with a cutting board, performed a whole show with the lobster, and it ended up costing the company a lot. Since that time, that crappy buffet became the designated venue for every one of our celebrations.
Why would someone do something so shortsighted and condemn himself along with everyone else to a lifetime of crappy food? I believe the reason is due to a zero-sum view of the world: that one man's loss is necessarily another's gain. If consuming the free food would cost the company, then the individual must be gaining as a result. Conversely, by letting the free food opportunity pass by, he must be losing because the company ends up saving. He has to do it! That's the only way to win. Such is the nature of the zero-sum world. The only way to improve one's own standard of life is by hurting another. That's why it's important to get the most of each opportunity.
An extension to this zero-sum view is the others-oriented notion that one's value judgment is based on the cost incurred on others. That to the degree others are hurt is to the degree that one gains. That's what zero-sum is, right? It all adds up at the end. The gain you get is equal to the cost inflicted on the others. If they lost, you must have gained.
Examples? You need look no further than our company cafeteria. Whenever we have free food, there is this one guy who complains about the bad food quality while downing his third serving. He knows it's bad, he talks about how bad it is, yet he unfailingly gets back in line for refills. One woman routinely walks away with three full plates of food, probably one plate for her husband and another for her kid. Now you might wonder, with only two hands, how would someone hold three full plates of food? Imagine this: take one paper plate, pile on food, then cover it with another plate. Stack on the third plate, and repeat with the food. The ingenuity is really quite eye-opening. On weekends, when the company provides free food for those who come in to work extra hours, some employees, actually the same employees, bring their entire family, husband and kids, just to wait in line for the free food, weekend after weekend.
Zero-sum is a worldview by which these people interpret their ethics. They determine what they should do based on this outlook of the world. It's not that they really enjoy what they get. But they feel they have to do it. That's how the world works. Instead of focusing their energy on production of values, they focus on taking advantage of others' naiveté or generosity. That's the only way to get ahead in a zero-sum world.
I want to ask these people what they enjoy about their lives. Are these free-food moments really the high points that they are proud of and look forward to? Sadly, these are people I work with. And unless their mentality changes, we are doomed to continue having our celebrations at the crappy buffet.
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