I’ve been thinking about the nature of scarcity and abundance quite a bit lately.
A couple of months ago, I listened to a podcast that suggested we often mistake which side of the equation scarcity is really on. The conversation was about economy-level scarcity, but I’ve been wondering how this applies at the individual and small business levels ever since.
Economist Adam Tooze explained that we, as a society, often assume we have financial scarcity when really, we have operational or creative scarcity. For example, we worry about how we’ll pay for universal healthcare instead of noticing that we don’t have the capacity in our healthcare system to service everyone. He used the last years’ financial relief packages as examples. When pressed, the money is available—but how much of that money has gone unused because we didn’t have the capacity, infrastructure, or creative will to use it?
Like I said, I think this is interesting on a macroeconomic level but, my personal and professional interests are more in the microeconomic realm. When in our lives and our businesses do we put scarcity on the wrong side of the equation? Why? And what happens when we account for our resources differently?
Scarcity—real or imagined—obfuscates our sense of value.
When we believe there is less of something, we’re willing to pay more for it. If we can pay up, we end up in the class of “haves.” If we don’t, we’re relegated to the class of “have nots.” The dominant cultural, political, and economic narratives hinge on the threat of falling into the “have not” class. In this way, both money and the goods or services we consume have an air of scarcity. It feels like there’s never quite enough to be comfortable in the “have” class. Scarcity and precarity go hand in hand.
We shift around different forms of debt to continue to climb toward stability. We run ourselves ragged, squeezing more into our schedules. We browse around the genre of websites that have popped up to tell us the 30 best widgets for simple everyday tasks. This game of musical chairs, as Umair Haque has called it, affects every corner of the economy. More, more, more seems to leave us with less, less, less.
Michael Maiello writes in Forbes, “The argument for capitalism is that nimble, clever and brave entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest will lead humanity away from want and scarcity.” This has yet to play out. In some ways, many of us live lives that are full—full of stuff, full of responsibilities, and full of counter-productive anxiety. This is precisely the opposite of what many early capitalist thinkers envisioned! John Maynard Keynes imagined a society that labored 15 hours per week and used the rest of the time to further humanity.
So what happened?
Why do we find ourselves mired in scarcity instead of luxuriating in collective abundance? The story of our economic time is one of scarcity. For individuals, scarcity can be very real. Wealth inequality continues to expand at a breakneck pace. The number of people who couldn’t pay rent or make a mortgage payment skyrocketed throughout the pandemic. People are denied essential services like healthcare and access to fresh food. But at the same time, marketers and politicians prey on our perception of scarcity—our fear of becoming a “have not.”
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes, “The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default becomes a state of scarcity. We’re called to ‘dare greatly’ every time we make choices that challenge the social climate of scarcity.” She calls our anxiety about not having enough “our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress.” Scarcity convinces us to close ranks, hoard whatever we do have, and aggressively protect ourselves. And from that posture, we feel the fear of “not enough” even more viscerally.
So I return to my original question: what if we’ve got the location of scarcity wrong? What if the default is not a state of scarcity? Who then holds power? How then shall we behave?
Brown suggests that the opposite of scarcity isn’t abundance but a state of “enough.” Personally, I think the best definition of abundance is the experience of enough, rather than conflating abundance with over-abundance. So what then is enough? In our climate of instability and uncertainty, enough doesn’t ever seem to become a material condition. The moment you have enough, something happens that throws you into “not enough” again. Therefore, enough needs to be a strategy, an orientation that encourages abundant action.
I think we have a better word for the strategy of enough: resourcefulness.
Cultivating resourcefulness gives us the power to disrupt entrenched systems, creatively meet needs, and solve problems big and small. Meditation teacher and thinker Sharon Salzberg defines resourcefulness and its companion, inner abundance, as “the wellspring of energy within that allows us to serve, offer, create.” Resourcefulness is the open hand to scarcity’s closed fist.
Resourcefulness shouldn’t be confused with “making do.” While that can certainly be a flavor of resourcefulness, it’s one that tastes like scarcity. In researching this piece, I learned a new word, “bricolage.” Bricolage is this type of resourcefulness, the kind that figures out how to get by with the resources currently available. There’s certainly nothing wrong with making do, but it doesn’t often create leaps forward or break cycles of scarcity. Bricolage tends to perpetuate the status quo.
True resourcefulness is generative.
Researchers in the Journal of Business Venturing (who knew there was such a thing? I’m obsessed!) define entrepreneurial resourcefulness like this, “A boundary-breaking behavior of creatively bringing resources to bear and deploying them to generate and capture new or unexpected sources of value in the process of entrepreneurship.” New and unexpected sources of value—I think that might be what we’re really looking for from an abundance mindset. It’s not simply operating as if there was enough, but recognizing that the question of value is open-ended and how we choose to answer it helps to reimagine what’s possible.
Jill Filipovic asks just such an open-ended question:
“What would we make if we had all the tools?”
I like this question because it emphasizes the creative act rather than the act of resourcing. After all, you don’t know what resources you need until you have an idea of what you’re making. The promise of entrepreneurship is to imagine solutions without being constrained by a lack of resources that don’t yet exist. There isn’t a scarcity of resources—as we so often default to believing. But there can be a scarcity of imagination and ideas if we always wait until we have everything we need to dream bigger.
If you’re interested in more “beautiful, gnarly, confounding” questions to inspire your entrepreneurial imagination, I suggest this list from Kate Strathmann.
Entrepreneurial resourcefulness also gives us a way to channel our imagination and ideas—toward “boundary-breaking behavior.” Or, as Philip Auerswald suggested in The Coming Prosperity, “Productive entrepreneurs create a space for the future by innovating new combinations of economic activity and pushing back against entrenched interests.” Maybe an even better way to put it is: what rules would you love to break? What systems would you love to disrupt? What message would you love to send? How would you love to shake up the status quo?
And what would you make if you had all the tools to do just that?
The Journal of Business Venturing identified six ways that entrepreneurial resourcefulness manifests, and I think each is instructive for how we can gather the tools we need once we’ve let our imaginations run wild.
- Bricolage: Making do with what we already have
- Narratives, identity, and storytelling: Moving others to action through messaging and meaning-making
- Cognitive creativity: Finding ways to reimagine and repurpose to create unexpected solutions
- Psychological & social adaptation: Leveraging individual and community power to create opportunity
- Orchestration & mobilization: Structuring and organizing resources to achieve new outcomes
- Social resilience: Tapping into cultural factors that support change across groups, communities, or nations
While entrepreneurial bricolage may inadvertently reinforce a scarcity mindset or even an individualist position, the other forms of resourcefulness find ways to do more and better by creatively leveraging resources rather than making do. Each also encourages interdependence—recognizing that the resources we already possess come from the community and that the community has many more resources we can tap into.
Far from a neoliberal bootstraps narrative, we can understand resourcefulness as a way to tap into the generosity of the larger group and sustain our mutual flourishing.
Or, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.” Resourcefulness creates its own network effect. We improve the value of what we create in unexpected ways when we engage more people and their resources in the project. Nurturing the connections within this network ensures that there is always enough to create new solutions and opportunities.
Finally, I return to the question of where scarcity is actually located. Assuming basic needs are met (which, granted, can be a big assumption), we might have a scarcity of network connections and mutually beneficial relationships rather than a scarcity of material resources. Perhaps our best bet for practicing abundance is by practicing interdependence and mutuality.
As entrepreneurs, we can be in the business of contributing to the health of the whole rather than simply individual benefit. And in doing so, we gain access to an abundance of resources for creating real value and making real change through our work.