I’ve written a bit in the past about how becoming aware of Scarcity Mentality has changed the way I live my life. The reason why, in a nutshell, is this:
“Scarcity is not just a physical constraint. It is also a mindset. When scarcity captures our attention, it changes how we think—whether it is at the level of milliseconds, hours, or days and weeks. By staying top of mind, it affects what we notice, how we weigh our choices, how we deliberate, and ultimately what we decide and how we behave. When we function under scarcity, we represent, manage, and deal with problems differently.”
― Sendhil Mullainathan, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read (or listened to; I own it in print and audio). When Mr. Mullainathan says “changes the way we think” up there, he’s not talking about “for the better.” No, scarcity robs people of their capacity to make better decisions – or, in some cases, any decisions about the future. It has been shown to measurably decreased a person’s IQ, and to be resistant to “simple” solutions like they’re poor? Give them money! or They’re hungry? Give them a meal? Scarcity is an insidious and pervasive malady – and what’s possibly most frustrating is that so much of it is simply in our minds.
That’s Enough of That!
Got to be more. Better. Sooner. Faster. Harder. Bigger. Failure is not an option! It’s not just a pop song by Daft Punk, it’s the siren call of productivity, entrepreneurship, parenting, and Western capitalist culture in general. Almost everything in Western culture is based around convincing people of two things:
- You don’t have enough, and
- If you buy this thing, you’ll have more
Notice, though, it’s not If you buy this thing, you’ll have enough. No, that’s the insidious part of it – it’s a self-nourishing cycle of compulsion.
For example: I buy calendar and scheduling and task management apps (I’ll be able to get more done!). Meanwhile, I will also get to the end of the day and feel like I didn’t get anything done (note: several people who know me will roll their eyes and/or nod their heads at this). No matter how much I get done, the feeling is that I could get more done – and that’s what the productivity apps promise (and rarely deliver, but that’s another topic).
The trap is not realizing that part one – you don’t have enough – is never satisfied by part two – this thing means you’ll have more.
The only way to actually combat “you don’t have enough” is to come to the realization that you already have enough.
If your response to that is “No I don’t!” then you see the problem. You can’t overcome an entire culture’s worth of conditioning with three simple words. So perhaps it would be better to say: “It’s about entertaining the possibility and taking the risk that you might already have enough.” That’s a little more doable; it’s the kind of thing you can take in small chunks, a little step at a time.
The Search for Slack
And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m still a workaholic, I still have stress dreams about money and schedules and being at a conference unable to find my hotel room.
But every once in a while I find a place where I can give myself a little more slack. It’s moments like:
- Getting the urge to run an extra errand on my way to a meeting – and then deciding to do it later, so I arrive in plenty of time.
- Sharing portions with my partners when I go out, so both of us enjoy the food more while eating less.
- Shutting down work at 5pm or 6pm to enjoy an evening without the siren call of work in my eyes (just in my head).
These are little things. They are not going to cure me of a scarcity mentality. But what they are doing is building what I like to think of as my abundance muscle. I’m learning to both recognize the spots in my life where I already have “enough” and also the places where I can create more space.
In other words, the cure for “I don’t have enough, so I need more!” is “Wow, I have enough – so I can take what I want, and leave the rest for somebody else.”
It’s a very different mindset. It’s tough to get a handle on, especially these days. But it’s worth a try, I promise.
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