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.
If this article (or any of the others in this blog) has helped you, why not spread the word? A heart or a like or a tweet or a share, every little bit helps.
It’s kind of scary how many of my posts begin with this phrase…
I have a friend, who…
But I do have a lot of friends, and I enjoy both interacting with them and observing them as they deal with the various challenges of life. It’s that old idea that everybody can either show you how to do something better…or show you how to avoid making things worse.
This particular friend is the former – making things better for herself, and (by example) for others who have the same problem she does:
For some, it’s too much consumption of things that are unhealthy. For others, it’s too much keeping of things they don’t need. Some have the TooMuchitis of buying, or watching TV, or the ever-present Social Media. But this friend in particular (along with, now that I think of it, a large percentage of the rest of my friends) has the variety of TooMuchitis in terms of doing.
That is to say: she does a lot. And on any given day, in addition to the things that she already wants to do, she will often find new things she wants to do. Thanks to the illusion of Google Calendar it looks like we can subdivide and rearrange our hours in the day with absolute precision; however, as she (and many others) find to their frustration, reality isn’t shaped like that.
Yet. There may come a time when you put an event on your calendar and there’s a pop up that says “Sorry, you won’t have enough energy for that. Maybe schedule a nap instead?”
Until that happy (and scary) day, though, she has to deal with the case of TooMuchitis in a different way.
Sometimes You Have to Give Something Up
Believe me, I know, it’s hard. This blog in particular is something that I’ve considered giving up more than once – and there’s still a voice that tells me I should. More than once I’ve sat down with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, determined to finally focus and “kill my darlings” and give up on some of the things so that I can do some of the other things better. In fact, I even enlisted the help of my Mastermind partner one week, and she asked me, every day, what can you give up today to make other things better?
The answer, day after day, was nothing. It’s a problem, I tell you, the malady of DoingTooMuchitis.
Back to my friend, though. She was smarter than me, and found a way to change the drudgery that was creeping in on one of her projects (anatomical embroidery, believe it or not). She had found that in her desire to do it “more, better” she’d started thinking of it as a business…and that meant that the joy got sucked right out of it. It’s a common refrain from the “follow your passion” crowd, but she figured out how to beat it.
What she does is limit her access to it. Rather than making it a daily habit, or creating an easy environment for it, she makes it a special occasion. The act of taking things out, of setting aside the tools and making the space and prioritizing the time lends a sacred kind of joy to the ritual. And by doing it less often, she gives herself the opportunity to miss it.
It’s not quite scarcity – because she knows that there will come a time when she can take out these projects and work on them. “Though it be not now, yet it will be. Which not only increases the joy of the doing, but also leaves space for the doing of the other stuff.
Which, like all of us, she still has too much of. One step at a time, though, right?
If you liked this post, how about clicking that sweet little heart down below and maybe sharing it with friends? Do you suffer from DoingTooMuchitis? Tell us about your symptoms in the comments.
“Why don’t you like grocery stores?” she asked.
“I think it’s a scarcity thing. Too many memories of being here with the girls without enough of…anything.”
It’s enough to make me uncomfortable just writing about those days, trying to stretch too little money into just enough food to taste almost yummy enough that my daughters would eat it; trying to get it fast enough to catch the bus in time to get home soon enough to have enough time to make the meal so they got to bed in time, and all the while knowing that I’ll feel bad for spending the little time I had with them rushing around a grocery store until I’m too tired to read them a story, much less play with them or help them with homework.
Thank goodness for Disney VHS, so that the Little Mermaid could keep them company while I made another pot of tuna mac-n-cheese…yet even as I write this, I feel the pang of guilt because I wish I’d given them more attention.
If you look linguistically at the previous paragraphs, there’s a particular word that keeps coming up: enough. It’s always with the connotation of scarcity. There is not enough.
The problem lies in that we make the mistake in thinking that the opposite of “scarcity” is “more”. People love more: super-size this and incentivize that and would you like the Magnum Executive Overclocked version?
It’s just silly, when you give it a little thought; “more” can’t be a goal that is ever reached because it is a constantly relative term. You may have more than someone else, but you will never have more than you have – so if what you need is “more”, then by definition you will never have “enough”.
What’s the answer to scarcity, then? In retrospect, it seems kind of obvious: the opposite of “not enough” is “enough.” Plain and simple.
The author of The Soul of Money, Lynn Twist, defines it more eloquently as “sufficiency:”
By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.”
The Slippery Slope
I lied earlier, though, when I said it was “plain and simple.” The part that Ms. Twist (and many others) leave out is that even if we are lucky enough to have that “experience” of knowing that there is enough, it’s often followed by a bill from the orthodontist or a rattle of a muffler falling off your car and the realization that “Oh, I thought I had enough…but now I have to scramble again.”
That’s when the shame weasels come out with glee: You really should be better at sufficiency, especially with all the research and writing you do about it. Why should anyone read your blog or even talk to you when you can’t even handle a simple thing like ‘enough’?” And you have that to deal with, too.
Or maybe it’s just me.
What helps me is to think of that experience of sufficiency less as a destination and more as a waypoint; kind of like a ledge where you can stop and catch your breath in the middle of rock climbing. It’s not that you’re not going to continue to struggle towards the top; it’s just that once in a while you can rest for a bit, relax your muscles, and gather the resources to continue the climb. Maybe, to take the metaphor a little further, you get better at spotting those places where you can rest, figuring out how to reach them more easily.
No, I haven’t taken the metaphor far enough to be able to tell you what is at the top of that metaphorical rock climb of scarcity & sufficiency. I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s not “more money” or ”more time”.
I think rather it’s learning to love the idea of “enough” and embrace it wherever you can find it. It’s trying to find those parts of your life where you can see the enough-ness of it, and appreciating those parts.
I think maybe one of the most important things we can do for ourselves is to stop loving more and start loving enough.
“I realized during meditation this morning that a huge part of my stress lied in a perceived scarcity of time. I am so concerned with ‘not wasting time’ – with ‘living up to my potential’ – that any moment that is not propelling me towards some goal is felt to be a waste, a luxury, a sin.
– Personal Journal of Gray Miller, February 10, 2017
I’ve talked before about not so much wanting to “manage” my time as much as wanting to be a “Time Lord” (and that’s only partially because I’m in love with a Dr. Who fan). I fell completely in the whole “Inbox Zero”/“Four Hour Work Week”/“Getting Things Done” seduction scheme, with the pornographic dream of a world where I could do everything and anything if only I could manage my time more efficiently.
Actually, come to think of it, I fell for it long before any of those concepts. My mother created a fictional hero called “the File” who was sort of a cross between Jason Bourne and Encyclopedia Brown. He fought crime while writing volumes of literary and scientific research, spoke multiple languages, practiced martial arts, and, of course, didn’t sleep.
I don’t remember any actual stories about the File, but I remember the character sketch. It fed into my later identification with other hyper-efficient characters: James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. “Slippery Jim” DiGriz. Tony Stark. Tim Ferriss. Jubal Harshaw. Even Heinlein’s Lazarus Long became a model, which really wasn’t fair since he was a man who lived forever. Of course he had time to do everything!
The Fallacy of Enough Time
Time is what keeps everything from happening at once. – Ray Cummings, “The Time Professor”
It’s really kind of silly to feel a “scarcity” of time – because it’s the one thing that everyone has exactly the same amount of. No one can get more, no one can take any away from you. You have it, it’s yours, and you know exactly when it started being yours (in fact, I celebrate the 48th anniversary of my own Gift of Time today). As for when you “run out of time” – well, that’s something you can hope for, and make educated guesses and plans about, but the fact is nobody knows. Which again is a kind of “great equalizer.”
Why, then, do I feel like time is scarce, when it’s the one constant? The answer, of course, is that time doesn’t exist apart from other things. Here’s some of the fun flavors we add to time:
- Activities to do, that
- Result in measurable accomplishments, such as
- Materials produced at a
- High quality within a
- Set “Due Date” (usually arbitrary)
That’s a heady mix to stir into our allotment of time! And if, like me, that “usually arbitrary” evokes a “No, I really need it done by a certain date!” I would ask that you really ask yourself: Why?
For example: why am I writing this blog post on a Tuesday?
Because I want to have it ready to post by Wednesday at 9am.
Because Wednesday is the day I put out Life Posts, and that’s a good time for people to read blogs.
Who decided Wednesday was the day you put out Life Posts?
Um…that was me.
Why did you pick that day?
Um…because Wednesday is hump day? And because “Life” comes in the middle of “Love Life Practice. And…well, it just seemed to be a good time to do it.
Basically, while there are a few (pretty weak) rationalizations, the reality is just “because I felt like it. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Preference is a great justification. Often it’s the “preference” of someone who has some other power over you, and that’s motivation enough (I don’t think the “why” game would work so well with my landlord).
The point, though, is that while Time is a constant, everything else – Activities, Results, Materials, Quality, and Due Dates – are variables. But for some reason we treat it as if the opposite were true – as if we can “make more”, “find”, “waste” or “kill” time. Meanwhile we tell people “being late is not an option”, or “here’s what I have to do today”, or reach “peak productivity” – every day.
Think about that. “Peak” is a metaphor for a mountain climb, a long journey with a beginning, long journey, a climactic “peak” moment, followed by a long journey back and a rest and reflection on the experience (such as “The Hobbit”).
You know what happens when everything is a peak? It’s called a plateau. I’m not saying that having a goal for excellent performance is a bad thing – that’s great! But expecting constant peak performance is not only unrealistic but destructive.
The Solution to Time Scarcity
Ha! Gotcha! I don’t actually have a solution here – I mean, I could make one up, cobbled together from the plethora of other time management systems out there, but I like being honest with you, dear reader. I can tell you that since that journal entry, I’ve been paying more attention to some of the things that make me feel time is less scarce:
- Natasha and I had planned a business trip to Minneapolis last weekend, which was cancelled last-minute. Suddenly we had an entire weekend that was unplanned – and the result was some beautiful together time as well as getting further ahead on some personal projects.
- I had a day with several projects scheduled including writing, business planning, meetings, and a workout. The day was supposed to start with a breakfast meeting with my soon-to-be-wed Middle Daughter, but she cancelled it last minute. At the end of the day, I realized I’d gotten everything I’d planned done in a way that felt relaxed and flowing.
That meant I’d over-planned by at least the amount of time the breakfast would have taken – but it also pointed out something else: sudden gifts of “unscheduling” seem to be one way to make time feel less scarce. It reduces the other variables, at least until your brain comes up with other things you “have to do”.
Maybe we need to hire “Unschedulers” who will jump out at random moments and cancel meetings and tasks? Maybe we need to do something like the old fashion trick, writing out our schedule and glancing at it over our shoulders so that we can eliminate the first thing that catches our eye? Maybe what we need is to follow Chris Brogan’s idea of only scheduling to 40% capacity.
Yeah, you read that right. Forty percent. It’s a scary thought. But please let me know if you have any better ideas – because something tells me our lives might depend on it.
The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.” – Oliver Burkeman, Why time management is ruining our lives
“My dad took away my first paycheck,” she said. “He deposited it into an account he created for me, and then gave me this.” She held up a small wooden frame. Inside was a faded dollar bill. “This is literally the first dollar I ever had.”
“Huh,” I said, and mentally added another mark to the list of ways I wished I had been a better Father. What a great symbol! To celebrate the first mark of independence, of the currency that our culture (unfortunately) uses as the primary measure of a person’s value. “That’s neat.”
“No!” she said. “It was awful! It was about control. He took it, and I never felt like I had any say in my own finances.”
I almost blurted out: But I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way… but thankfully I stopped myself. Because first, I don’t know her father that well; it’s entirely possible that it was simply a way for him to retain control over his daughter.
Second, of course, is that it doesn’t matter if someone means well. Intention is not magic. The effect had been a far-reaching internalization of helplessness in regards to finances, contributing to difficulties she still faces.
For Me, For the Lord, For my Mission
Those were the three labels on each section of the bank that my parents gave me when I was about 12 years old. They were very religious, and it was expected that 1/10th of everything I earned would be paid in “tithing” for the support of the church. They also expected another amount – I don’t remember if it was arbitrary or a percentage – to be put in a section of the bank towards saving for an evangelical mission I was expected to go on when I turned 18. The other section was money “for me”, and I would buy the occasional comic book or way too much ice cream at school lunch.
What I remember was how much I resented those other two sections of the bank; for me, the idea of the “mission” was far too vague (and, honestly, not terribly appealing). The 10% tithe wasn’t quite as egregious to me, but it did reinforce a strange particular work ethic: the money you earn is not yours. Decades later, I learned that this is part of what behavioral economists call “scarcity mindset”, and one of the symptoms is binge spending – basically, when I get money, I turn it into some other kind of “wealth” because I have no sense of it sticking around otherwise.
Money or Marshmallows
This is part of the problem with the way that fabled marshmallow experiment keeps getting brought up. “You can have the marshmallow now, but if you wait, I’ll give you two!” They did a follow up, where they came back to the kids who waited and said “Whups, sorry – turns out we don’t have any more.
Guess what happens when the authority system isn’t reliable? Kids – and grown-ups – grab whatever they can, while they can.
This is not meant to be a post about parenting. Nor is it a post about fiscal health.
This is a post about love
I’m pretty sure my parents – and her father – did what they did out of love. They did it because that’s what they thought loving parents do for their kids. It turns out, it wasn’t. And that’s the point of this post:
When our loving actions have unintended consequences, what are we prepared to do?
At the very least, be prepared to acknowledge that what you did didn’t work out the way you expected. And maybe try to do something to make things better.
That’s the loving thing to do.
Image used courtesy Rafael J M Souza, edited by the author. Want more Love Life Practice? You can get the podcast by signing up as a patron. You might also enjoy the Meditation Manual, a short and practical primer for getting some really effective “ME-time” in your life.
There's another key concept from the Scarcity book I'm listening to that is the second “game changer” in terms of how I look at the overall concept of meeting needs. It's the idea of slack.
The first thing to realize is that this is nothing to do with the term “slacker”; instead, think about having a lot of rope, both the stuff you're using and “slack” – i.e., the extra rope that you have on hand in case you need it.
According to the authors, one of the biggest reasons scarcity causes stress is because there is a lack of slack. Not that you don't actually have enough to meet your needs – rather, you don't have enough in the event that your needs change.
Sure, you could think about this as rich and poor – certainly a flat tire can be a minor annoyance to the wealthy but a possible eviction for the impoverished. But remember that scarcity applies to any resource you have feelings about – so time can have a lack of slack, or energy. The whole concept of “not having enough spoons” comes from the idea that some people have more slack available in terms of interacting with others.
Getting a Bigger Suitcase
The authors do a good job of describing the idea of slack in terms of suitcases. If I'm going on a trip with Natasha, we may be going the same place and doing the same things. She packs her small carry-on, and she's very careful with the choice of shoes, the way the clothes are folded around the toiletries, and whether or not to bring that extra sweater to fight the Baltimore chill.
Meanwhile, I'm packing my bigger suitcase, and while I may have the same items, I don't have to be as careful – I don't have to pay attention to how things are packed, and rather than being forced to choose between shoes I can just say Heck with it, I'll bring both. That's slack.
And it's what I'm working on right now as I fight the scarcity mindset. Where in my life do I feel scarcity? How can I build more slack into that area? Also, where in my everyday practice don't I feel the pressure, and how can I remember those places and be more grateful?
I'd be interested in knowing what kind of slack you have in your life – especially if you only just now realized it, like I did.
“Remember you can't have everything. Where would you put it?” – Stephen Wright
Wow. When I decided, a few weeks ago, that I needed to know more about the general concept of scarcity, I didn’t know where to start. But Scarcity: Why Having So Little Can Mean So Much seemed like a pretty good place. Written by Ivy-League researchers, it promised a broad scope:
Drawing on cutting-edge research from behavioral science and economics, Mullainathan and Shafir show that scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need. Busy people fail to manage their time efficiently for the same reasons the poor and those maxed out on credit cards fail to manage their money. The dynamics of scarcity reveal why dieters find it hard to resist temptation, why students and busy executives mismanage their time, and why sugarcane farmers are smarter after harvest than before. Once we start thinking in terms of scarcity and the strategies it imposes, the problems of modern life come into sharper focus.
Almost right away the book gave me a new insight into the idea of scarcity, and it’s one that I suspect might surprise you, as well. We’re used to thinking of scarcity in purely economic terms, i.e., not having enough resources for your needs. We already know, though, that homo economicus is a myth; even economists don’t behave in a logically economical way. Thus the science of behavioral economics was created, to examine the way humans actually act as they acquire, allocate, and exchange resources. When the authors talk about scarcity, therefore, it’s not about the resources people actually have; instead, scarcity is defined as “the feeling that your resources are not enough for your needs.” The entire book is about what effect that feeling has on everyone.
Does It Help?
I’ve been listening to Scarcity via audiobook, and it’s something like listening to a horror story where you gradually realize that you, the reader, are the protagonist. That initial definition was the first game-changer for me; there’s a huge difference between “There’s never enough!” and “I feel like there’s never enough!” I have a limited capacity to fix the former, but I theoretically have complete control over the latter – assuming I can develop the skills to notice it.
For me, the book is both exquisite and frustrating. Exquisite because it’s helping me give a context to behaviors and habits that I’ve had for decades but never really understood. Unfortunately it’s also put one of the skills I pride myself on – the ability to accomplish a lot with very little – into the framework of yet another symptom of a disease I really was only vaguely aware of. And it’s frustrating because there’s no indication that by the end of the book there will be any strategies for overcoming the challenges presented by a scarcity mindset.
I’ve become a bit of an evangelist on scarcity as I listen to the book – complete with sketchnotes and the like – and while talking with my Middle Daughter about my growing understanding what scarcity does to the mind, she suddenly asked me: “Does it help?”
“What do you mean?”
“Does it help you to know about it?”
It was a good question. My answer at first was no; I’d had a bout with financial scarcity the weekend before, and even understanding concepts like “tunneling” (hyperfocus on the scarce resource) and “diminished executive control” (lack of self-discipline) I still reached a point where I wasn’t good for much more than sitting on the couch watching bad movies and eating ice cream.
However, in the midst of another “Scarcity Squall” right now, I have to revise my answer. It does help, a little. I still feel the hyperfocus, I still get the urge to binge, I still frenetically come up with “ways out of this” – but it’s more distant, like I’m observing myself doing these things. It still sucks, mind you – but yes, I have to say that knowing helps. I’m not falling into the G.I. Joe Fallacy – knowing is nowhere near half the battle – but at least I realize finally where the battle is, and what the enemy looks like.
It’s a start. I recommend the book regardless of whether you have a problem with scarcity or not; it deals with much more than money, and can give you perspective on a lot of the behaviors of your fellow humans.
File this under “unexpected insights through journaling.” Except it wasn’t an insight about my life path or anything like that. Instead, it was a phrase.
I was writing about being rushed and missing out on an opportunity to spend some time with a friend. I wrote, “I wasn’t able to take advantage of…” and stopped. Suddenly those words seemed very predatory. “Take advantage”? What exactly did that mean? It brings to mind articles like “Six Ways to Snap Up Opportunities Your Competitors Might Miss.” It’s a very adversarial position to take, and using it in the context of a friend was making me uncomfortable.
Of course, I wasn’t writing “I wasn’t able to take advantage of my friend…” It was “I wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity…“, falling into the same biz-speak that fills the listicles of the entrepreblogosphere. Looking at that, I realized that it still wasn’t really a healthy way to look at thing. It put me on an adversarial footing with the entire concept of fortune itself, needing to scramble to greedily grasp whatever gems of opportunity were coming my way. It was a scarcity mindset, as if there were a finite number of chances out there being doled out by some gleeful sadistic joker in the sky.
Wishes Are Not Horses
Let’s take a look at that idea. I’ve written before about how we like to take the chaos of the universe and turn it into our own personal narrative. That’s great; it’s a fine survival trait for our species, and recognizing connections and relationships (or the lack of them) is how great innovators have spurred human progress.
But that doesn’t mean that these “opportunities” aren’t constructs we make up, and the business world is littered with people who thought they saw a pattern when one wasn’t there. I’m among them; I’ve had businesses fail and deals fall apart and gigs disappear because I misread the “opportunity.” Part of the problem with that “take advantage” mindset is that it leaves you more prone to things like confirmation bias or just plain old “magical thinking”. I’m sure it’ll all work out is usually said with a silent …the way I want/expect it to which is completely unheard by uncaring reality. Yes, it will work out – just not necessarily the way you want or expect.
Preparing to Receive
Back in my journal, I crossed out “I wasn’t able to take advantage of…” and replaced it with “I wasn’t prepared to receive the opportunity to see my friend.” Suddenly instead of being predatory in a land of scarcity I was instead moving through an abundant landscape. I was taking responsibility for my own lack of planning at the same time, aware of how I could change things so that the next time I recognized the pattern I would be in a place to let it happen.
By changing it from “take” to “receive” I also was removing the sense of time pressure from it, and that helps protect from those biases and fallacies which we are prone to. It has an immediate application to business: instead of jumping at something and figuring I will just “make it work” I could instead examine the “opportunity” and look more clearly at whether I was in a place to really receive it. This is not hypothetical; during the writing of this post I had a brief text negotiation with a community liaison for a group in Rochester, and re-framing the offer as “receiving” as opposed to “taking advantage” led me to negotiate a far more favorable deal than I would have otherwise.
More importantly to a “love” theme, though, I think there is some benefit to not “taking advantage” when it comes to family and friends. I would rather position myself so that when I have an opportunity for love in any of the myriad forms I would be in a frame of mind to receive it completely and joyfully, and give it back with gusto. For example, I moved back to Madison a couple of years ago so that when my daughter says “I’ve got the boys over here tonight – want to come over and say hi?” I can just take an hour and go read them a few Shel Silverstein poems, play catch, and have that be the highlight of my day.
I’ll leave “taking advantage” to those who enjoy the scarcity game. Me, I’m tired of it. I’m going to enjoy this garden of abundance and the gifts it brings my way, because there’s always plenty more.
In his groundbreaking work on the psychological implications of poverty, Sendhil Mullainathan found evidence that many lawmakers and social critics were mixing up cause and effect. Namely, it wasn’t necessarily that people were poor because of bad decisions or a lack of intelligence. No, instead he showed that even the idea of poverty could lower a person’s ability to make good decisions:
“Simply raising monetary concerns for the poor,” they explain, “erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived.” They attribute this result to the maelstrom of problems poor people must suddenly confront in the face of a large unexpected expense: how will I pay the rent, buy food, take care of my kids? This round of mental juggling depletes the amount of mental bandwidth available for everything else.
It highlights what I think is one of the biggest differences between a scarcity and abundance mindset: in an abundance mindset, you expend your resources to get what you need, and there’s no worry about whether or not you’ll have enough. With scarcity, though, every thing you acquire means you have to give up something else. Colloquially it’s “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul“, and it’s part of the reason why check-cashing loan businesses are so successful.
“This type of high-risk borrowing seems ridiculous,” Mullainathan says, but “we wanted to prove that thinking like this doesn’t come from a lack of financial understanding or foolishness—it comes from putting out fires.”
In my opinion, he more than proves it (and thankfully many other organizations such as the U.S. Government and the World Bank think so as well) but you’ll have to read the excellent article over at Harvard Magazine to see what you think. That’s not what I wanted to talk about right now, though.
I had a bit of a eureka moment recently when I was trying to figure out why I have such difficulty creating leisure time for myself. I’m not alone; just recently a friend finished her PhD defense and asked me What does one do when you’ve reached the goal you’ve been focused on for the last six years?
I told her Pretend to rest on your laurels for as long as you can while sneakily looking around for the next goal. I knew better than to tell her to just rest, as she proved with her next message:
R. E. S. T…I don’t understand.
I put on my Personal Development Blogger hat: So, it’s kind of like pretending to be dead. As long as you can.
She, being an overachiever, gave the only reply she could: F*ck. Sounds horrible.
Why horrible? Simply enough, like me, she’s accustomed to the idea that any time spent on relaxing means time not spent doing something else. What is that something? Ah, that’s just it: the list is endless! Things that need to be accomplished, that need to be learned, that need to be fixed, that need to be acquired, or that need to be done to get the money to acquire the thing that will finally help us relax…that’s the drill.
And I can’t help but think that there’s some correlation to what Mullainathan talks about with the way our decision making gets worse the more we feel that time is scarce. It leads to impulse buys and drunk texts and Facebook updates that are regretted later, but that at the time had to be done.
Like many of my posts, this one is not going to end with a “here’s how to solve the problem” section. Not like I’d know! I’m sitting here wondering if I’m spending too long blogging and should instead be doing a yoga workout to stretch my bike-sore muscles while listening to the Japanese for Dummies audiobook. Or maybe I should be finishing up the upcoming LLP Guide to Meditation, or making packing lists for my upcoming trip to L.A. this weekend…no, I’m not one to say how to escape the Poverty of Time.
But I can tell you where I think some positive directions might lie: Meditation – for a half-hour or more. S.T.O.P. definitely helps with that. Cigars and fine port. Also spending time with grandsons making cardboard swords. Pick your remedy, and let me know how it works for you.
And hurry, ok? I’m not sure how long we’ve got…
“…if you don’t want to eat Indian food with me, sweetie. There are plenty of folks who will.”
How do you interpret that statement?
There seems to be two ways people will parse out meaning:
- Emotional Blackmail: This is a coercive and guilt-inducing statement, basically meant to force the partner who doesn’t like Indian food into doing it because otherwise the speaker will just find someone else.
- Emotional Maturity: This is a comforting statement, respecting the boundaries of both partners and honoring both the relationship and the individual desires without forcing them on each other.
What’s surprising is that there really seems to be very little middle ground. It’s like the optical illusion of the vase/two faces – you can see one or the other, but not both at the same time.
Take a moment and examine what kind of narrative you created when you read the sentence. Was it a personal one, where you were either the speaker or being spoken to? Was it a couple? Perhaps just friends? Play around with various scenarios, tones of voice, and see how the meaning changes. In this age of verbal communication (a recent statistic estimated an average of 100,000 words come your way every day) it’s a good idea to be able to interpret a sentence in a variety of ways.
The Opposite of Starvation
For some people, the idea of “others” spending time with their partner, even doing something they don’t enjoy, feels like theft. It feels like something is being taken away – and that’s understandable, especially since we are, in fact, talking about time, an irreplaceable resource. The problem is that it’s not their time they are losing – rather, they are losing their claim on their partner’s time – time to eat Indian food, in fact.
It could be argued that they really don’t have a claim on that time – that it’s somewhat unrealistic to demand that your partner give up their enjoyment of curry simply because it takes them away from you. “I don’t like it, so you shouldn’t either” is never a very fair strategy.
However I believe a more moving argument is the idea that time is in short supply. Irreplaceable, yes, but the hard fact is that we all have exactly the same number of allotted hours in a day. The only difference is the quality of those hours – say, the difference between the way a partner would feel when guilted out of eating the food they love versus how they would feel supported in their desire.
In Amanda Palmer’s amazing book The Art of Asking, she talks about this idea of a “Starvation Mentality.” It’s when you grab and hoard and frantically gather as many resources as you can, because you fear that there will not be enough – for you, for those you care about, it doesn’t matter. It’s also thought of as a “zero-sum” game, and it’s applied to way more things than it needs to be. If you’re eating a cake, yes, there is a finite amount of cake. If you’re a parent, though, there is not a finite amount of love for your children. One, four, seven, you love them all.
Often people will talk about having a “Philosophy of Abundance” as an alternative to the Starvation Mentality, which is the idea that there is plenty. More than you’d ever be able to use! Did you eat all the cake? Make another cake! There’s always more cakes that you can make!
Before I slip into Dr.-Seuss-mode, let me tell you about Ms. Palmer’s view of this: “The opposite of starvation isn’t abundance,” she writes, “It’s enough.” How’s that for a liberating concept? No, it’s not that your partner has an infinite amount of time to spend with you, or that there will always be more – rather, it’s that the quality of the time you spend happily with each other, honoring desire and being what Neruda called “guardians of each other’s solitude“. That time will be precious, and it may even be scarce – but it can be enough. Enough to support and nurture and grow the love between two people.
Enjoy the time with your loved ones – whether you’re present or not. The tighter you grasp, the less you can feel.