Navigating the Tension Between Scarcity Mindset and Abundant Mindset

What is Scarcity Mindset? What is Abundant Mindset? Is a life well lived abundant and not scarce? Or are there dangers in over-abundance? How best can we embrace the best of both abundance and scarcity? In this blog I try to tease out these issues and see how best to approach every day.

By Shane Breslin

Scarcity Mindset vs Abundant Mindset

Let me tell you a few things about me.

Even if you know me well, you won’t have known these things before, because I’ve only just listed and expressed them to myself right before I sat down to write this blog.

  1. Remember before the coronavirus pandemic when sitting in restaurants was a thing for a lot of people? Whenever I sat down at a café or restaurant, I automatically did a little mental arithmetic to tot up the cost of all the food on the plate, and subtract that from the price of the lunch to determine the value of the meal
  2. Sticking with restaurants, I used to read menu cards differently than I read any other printed material. Everything else, like you reading this sentence, I read left to right. Menu cards, I always read right to left, starting with the price and then settling on the dish.
  3. When I filled my car with fuel for a journey anywhere, I unconsciously did some more mental arithmetic to work out the fuel cost of that journey, and compared that to the cost of a trip by bus or train
  4. When I checked my bank balance, I found my mind unconsciously thinking of ways to preserve that balance, to prevent it from being eroded away, instead of thinking actively of ways to boost that bank balance, to take the figure above and away from the breakeven line. 
  5. In the shower (this isn’t too much information?), I sometimes switch off the water for the shampoo and shower gel bit, then switch it back on to rinse off
  6. I’ve long reflected on a day-trip my wife and I went on in Tuscany during our honeymoon in the summer of 2008. We were picked up by a jeep / minibus near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence at 7.30am, brought on a tour of three vineyards and one olive oil farm, taken for a long and leisurely authentic Italian lunch at a place deep in the Tuscan hills, and dropped back in Florence at 6pm. We forked out €160 for the day (€80 per person). It was an amazing experience. Unforgettable. And yet later, when I saw similar day-trips advertised, I was always hesitant and tentative. We have not gone on a similar day-trip since that day in 2008.

There are several more where they came from.

These are all clear examples, I think, of my old, deep-in-the-brain scarcity mindset at play.

I’m not too proud to admit that I used to be someone who could be charged with the old Irish insult.

He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

So what exactly is a scarcity mindset?

The website Debt Roundup defines the scarcity mindset as:

…the belief that there will never be enough — whether it’s money, food, emotions or something else entirely — and as a result, your actions and thought stem from a place of lack. Instead of believing that you have enough, and there is plenty to go around, you cling to everything you have out of fear of coming up short.

Stephen Covey, in his seminal book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote:

Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else.

The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit – even with those who help in the production. The also have a very hard time being genuinely happy for the success of other people.

The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.

At the risk of using Google to self-diagnose—as everyone knows, tell Dr Google your symptoms and you will typically get the worst-case-scenario result—I’m pretty sure I’ve held this scarcity mindset through my whole life.

I’ve never been able to embrace anything that might resemble an Abundant Mindset.

However, until recently enough I didn’t realise that such things as Scarcity Mindset and Abundant Mindset existed. If knowing about a problem is halfway towards solving a problem, then I’m surely at least halfway there.

Next thing will be to solve it.

Solving it, though, is not just about leaving “scarcity” behind and embracing “abundance”.

Even if that mind game was easy—and it definitely is not—is it even the right way to approach it?

Two important questions about Scarcity Mindset and Abundant Mindset

1. How can we adopt an Abundant Mindset while staying mindful of the dangers of decadence?

2. How can we forsake a Scarcity Mindset but still leave room for occasional, some much-needed, life-affirming frugality?

How can we embrace abundance?

If, as Stephen Covey writes, the Abundant Mindset holds that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everyone, how can we fully embrace that in a world where for so people—homeless, poor, undernourished—there patently is not enough? 

How can we fully embrace abundance in a world where abundance on one side of the scale threatens scarcity on another—for example, does our abundant, consumerist world not create a situation where our environment is so routinely polluted?

Where we use so much of the earth’s resources that we collectively threaten the icecaps? Where we produce so much plastic that billions of tonnes of the stuff is congealing together in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a part of the ocean now estimated to be three times the size of f***ing France?

Is the Abundant Mindset, so lavishly applied, not the cause of these and other ills? Could the Abundant Mindset actually be to blame for so much inequality?

I’m not sure of the answers to these questions.

But I know this.

The Scarcity Mindset, where there is never enough—not enough money, not enough time, not enough self-worth, not enough willpower, not enough attachment, not enough love—sucks so much of the joy from so many lives. We find ourselves stuck in a rut, and instead of hauling ourselves out of it we force ourselves to adapt to it, because who are we to aim any higher?

This diminishes the self, and is I think an underlying cause of so much unhappiness, so much depression, so much suicide.

Could there be a possibility, too, that instead of the Abundant Mindset being to blame for much of the inequality in the world, that it could actually be a manifestation of the Scarcity Mindset at play?

That people with particular personality traits—disagreeableness, hyperactivity, greed—combined with a Scarcity Mindset, can drive obscene profits with scant regard for the people all along the chain. When the person with the most can still feel like they never have enough, what does that do to the world?

The tension between scarcity mindset and abundant mindset

Scarcity mindset, when it takes hold, usually leads to:

  • feelings of detachment, of low self-esteem, of low energy and unnecessary frugality
  • seeing everything as a cost and nothing as an investment
  • focus on the present at the expense of any planning for the future

Abundant mindset, when left free and unchecked, can lead to:

  • garish consumerism
  • landfills full of perfectly good furniture that someone got a bit bored with
  • bins in apartment blocks, restaurants and even hospital kitchens filled with food while children a few yards down the road are hungry

How we navigate the path between the two—where we can embrace abundance as one of life’s great truths but acknowledge that thinking about scarcity, and how we think about scarcity, is important—could be critical in living a life well lived.

Thanks for reading.

(Main pic by Brooke Lark on Unsplash)

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I write every day. I send a short daily email (to be read in two minutes or less), I send a “Three Things” email on Saturday mornings, and a longer essay the first Friday of every month. (This piece on scarcity and abundant mindset first appeared in the monthly email, so those subscribers received it before anyone else.)

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