Scarcity thinking is pervasive around the world. No matter our life situation, we’ve all experienced it.
I’ve been a student of scarcity all my life. Firstly as a kid in a family of nine, where money and love seemed in short supply. Then in working to mobilise the funding and leadership to end hunger. And I’ve seen it close up in villages, where it appeared people didn’t have the resources– food, money or capacity, to feed themselves and their family.
One of the big themes of my work is that we are enough – as we are – to live, to love and to lead. Understanding how scarcity thinking undercuts this is something I’m deeply interested in.
What I’ve learned is that scarcity is less linked to the circumstances than we realise. I met a woman in India with 2 goats and 10 chickens who felt so much more wealthy than the Melbourne banker she met who doesn’t have any livestock at all! She, and so many like her have taught me that scarcity is a mindset.
It’s a tricky mindset, because it really feels and seems true that we don’t have enough of whatever we feel lacking in. ‘No money in the bank isn’t a mindset Cathy’, I can hear you say!
Let’s make it personal. Where do you find yourself in this little thought experiment?
You woke up this morning and thought ‘I haven’t had enough sleep’. As you run around to get yourself and others organised to leave the house you think ’I don’t have enough time’. You’re at a meeting and a project is running late. You need to get more people involved but ‘I don’t have the budget’. You lie in bed at night worrying about your financial situation, thinking ‘I don’t have any money’ (or its twin ‘I should have more money’).
All of this is happening in a context of ‘it shouldn’t be this way’. Something is wrong (with me or the situation). This is the mindset of scarcity.
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s fantastic book Scarcity identifies three main behaviours we do that exacerbate our feelings of scarcity – tunnelling, firefighting and borrowing. Whether you live in a village or you run a large organisation, the following behaviours will be familiar.
Tunnelling is when we focus single-mindedly on the scarcity at hand, neglecting other considerations. You might have experienced this in the lead up to an exam, and time feels scarce. You tunnel, studying to the exclusion of eating well, getting sleep, or exercising. Firefighting is being caught up in the urgency that scarcity brings, and the attendant flow on consequences that escalate and worsen your situation. Borrowing is when you take from the future because you have a need in the present. People who juggle credit card debt month to month are literally trying to borrow their way out of scarcity. Tunnelling, firefighting, and borrowing can provide short term relief to an urgent crunch time, but they aren’t solutions for overcoming scarcity.
Mullainathan and Shafir’s research showed that when we are in some form of scarcity, we pay a ‘bandwidth tax’, and this reduced mental bandwidth is one of the reasons we stay in a scarcity trap. Scarcity has us think more about what we are short of, leaving less brain space to focus on other things including the solutions. It’s like running a computer with all the programs opened – things go slower, less efficiently.
Less bandwidth makes all of us less smarter and less capable. Increasing our bandwidth is key to impacting our experience of ‘not enough’.
So how do we break out of the scarcity trap? Mullainathan and Shafir offer the following:
1. Notice when you’re tunnelling, firefighting or borrowing. Stop doing that.
2. Create more bandwidth. The lack of space to think deepens our experience of scarcity.
- Get clear about what you are feeling scarce about.
- Think about an action you can take to give you more space/bandwidth that isn’t tunnelling, firefighting or borrowing.
- Take that action to give yourself more space.
I would add view your situationcompassionately. The narrative of our world frames experiencing scarcity as something that happens to Losers. We then have shame and embarrassment around the things we feel scarce about, which compounds our feelings of inadequacy. Like you, I’ve experienced this. There were times when important projects were falling short, and instead of expanding my bandwidth and regrouping, I tunnelled! The consequences to my family, work and wellbeing wasn’t pretty, and this was compounded by my scarcity thinking that I wasn’t good enough.
So if you’re feeling scarcity at the moment, know you are good enough. Find ways to love yourself, and create some extra bandwidth.