🎧 12: Scarcity mindset
What it means to believe
Framer is a newsletter that uses frameworks to break down big, systemic ideas.
As much as I love a framework to understand what the hell is going on, I’m going to share a reframe this go-around. It’s about a topic I think about a lot: scarcity mindset.
I first witnessed scarcity mindset in my first job out of college. I was working with a partner who was making upwards of $400,000 a year, yet she believed she couldn’t afford a house in Boston. She was married to another partner who made just as much, if not more, than she did. As a twenty-year-old, this was eye-opening. I kept thinking: does it ever feel like enough?
Scarcity mindset is the belief that there will never be enough. Scarcity mindset assumes a finite quantity, a ceiling, and keeps us grasping for what already exists, with the expectation that what already exists is going away. We better get what we can, while we can. This belief exemplifies our fear of the unknown.
As Tupac says, it creates a culture of “gimme gimme gimme.”
We’re so afraid that we won’t have enough that we never feel satisfied. In his book, Maker of Dune, Frank Herbert points out how much Western culture takes comfort in absolutes.
He writes, “we live in a universe dominated by relativity and change, but our intellects keep demanding fixed absolutes. We make our most strident demands for absolutes that contain comforting reassurance. We will misread and/or misunderstand almost anything that challenges our favorite illusions.”
In the West, we fixate on the idea of security as if it were absolute. It begs the question: how do you know when you’re secure enough?
The problem with orienting ourselves around lack is that it’s too easy to look to a savior — a politician, a religion, a cult leader — who promises “security” as an antidote to our fear. But at what cost?
Not every culture orients itself this way. As Tyson Yungaporta writes in Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, security is a myth in aboriginal communities. This philosophy acknowledges chaos: that nothing is predictable, that there is no reassurance. The best you can do is be prepared, and the best way to be prepared is to nurture relationships so that you know who you can rely on. This is the definition of protection. Protection is not guaranteed, it is earned.
This approach incentivizes generosity because generosity is a core tenet of mutual care. It’s also the opposite of scarcity mindset, because when you feel like you don’t have enough, it’s hard to be generous.
Ultimately, scarcity mindset fails to recognize that when we tend to something, it can grow and regenerate. It is a lack of belief in our own agency and resilience. It’s a lack of belief that despite the unknown, we can figure things out.
In an effort to move away from scarcity mindset, I’ll share a few reframes I picked up from a corny personal finance book, because we can start to shift this mindset by first changing how we speak.
The author challenges us to rethink common phrases because of their underlying messages:
When we say “I want” or “I need,” we are noting a lack.
When we say “I’m trying” or “I should,” we signal a lack of commitment or true desire.
When we say “I don’t know,” we shut down and insinuate that we’re not curious to find out.
She offers better replacements:
She warns that we should be careful with the phrase “I know” because it closes the door to any further investigation. It assumes that what we know about any given topic is absolute.
Ultimately, these reframes are anchored in believing in ourselves. These replacements are grounded in desires tended to and choices made.
To be honest, just “believing” doesn’t come naturally to me. Growing up, I never heard the phrase “it’s all gonna be ok.” What do you mean, just “believe”? Where’s the rationale?
It was in an acting class at the Berkeley Repertory Theater that I had to confront my over-reliance on my intellect and my inability to just believe. I had picked a monologue from Orange is the New Black, playing Pensatucky, a bible-thumping meth addict. At her core, Pensatucky believes that she has been chosen by God. To play her well, my teacher kept pushing me to get in touch with something I believed in, unequivocally. That was not easy for me. What do I really, really believe in? I realized that to believe in something, I first have to admit that I really want it. It has nothing to do with my intellect but requires getting in touch with my deepest desires.
As Richard Powers puts it, believing is an act of vulnerability.
He writes, “perhaps the gravest violence we can do to ourselves is to live out our lives believing the world to be a fixity handed down to us by the authorities of history and life to be a matter of taking immutable givens. Daring to believe otherwise — to believe that even our smallest purposeful action alters the monolith of reality in some subtle, meaningful way — is an act of courage and resistance, an act of immense vulnerability to the possibility of disappointment, vulnerability the commonest cowering from which is cynicism.”
And that’s exactly it. Nothing is fixed or guaranteed; there’s no security of any type. The lifelong lesson is how to imagine a beautiful life in spite of ambiguity, and believe it can come true.
I know that I recently wrote to you about questioning free will, which feels a bit contradictory as I write about believing in your own personal agency. I still think there are larger forces at play way beyond our control and that’s ok. It brings me peace to accept that there will always be disorder and chaos, that there are no absolutes. The only thing I can do is approach whatever comes my way with curiosity; believing in myself and my ability to choose my approach to life, no matter how small my choices may seem.