Does this sound familiar?
You’re swamped at work. S-W-A-M-P-E-D. On top of that, junior people keep stopping by and asking if you have any work for them. You have no time to deal with them. Zero. Your blood pressure rises at these inconsiderate interruptions.
The other day, my friend told me that she was too busy and will probably miss her deadlines. I asked why she couldn’t delegate some of her work to the person they just hired. Her response: “OMG, Maria! I completely forgot that he existed.”
Perception is reality
My friend didn’t see the opportunity to lessen her workload because she was nose-deep in scarcity thinking. She was singularly focused on not having enough time.
She didn’t perceive the entirety of her reality – just a sliver of it. We all know the feeling, when our world narrows with worry and we stop seeing the bigger picture.
The result is that because we can’t see past ourselves at those moments of stress, we also miss the solutions to our worries.
Our lives under the microscope
Perhaps because I spent many hours during grad school staring down a microscope, I find it useful to think about reality and perception in terms of looking at a biological specimen on a slide.
Reality is the entirety of the composite object – slide, specimen, and cover slip protecting the specimen. That’s us and everything around us. But looking into a microscope, you can only focus on a single plane at a time, giving you a very different views of the same object. Turn the knob too much, raise the platform on which the slide with your specimen rests, and all you see is the lint and scratches on the underside of the glass. Turn it too little, and you’ll see the smudges on the top of the glass cover. But get it just right, and you’re finally in the useful plane, seeing the results of your experiment.
The reality of my friend’s situation was that she had competent resources to help her deal with the crush of assignments. But her attention was focused on the plane where no help was available. The layer of lint and scratches.
It’s easy to focus on scarcity
Being a lawyer, I am subjected to a constant stream of stories about failing law firms, lower firm profits, and over-abundance of lawyers.
On the other hand, it is also true that clients need legal help and that there are lawyers who have both happy clients and growing practices. So the right question to ask is “how do I become a lawyer with satisfied clients and a growing practice.” It is not very productive to ask, “how am I supposed to survive when the whole industry is hitting the fan?” But the panicked perspective of the survival question often overpowers us, keeping us in a loop of scarcity thinking.
In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir describe the problem of scarcity thinking as follows: “When we think of the poor, we naturally think of a shortage of money. When we think of the busy, or the lonely, we think of a shortage of time, or of friends. But our results suggest that scarcity of all varieties also leads to a shortage of [mental] bandwidth.”
It is this shortage of mental bandwidth that causes seemingly irrational behaviors in people stressed by deprivation. Lonely people avoid friends; people in debt go on spending sprees; overwhelmed colleagues are too busy to delegate any of their work. But these behaviors are rational choices from the perspective induced by scarcity.
Remembering the focusing knob
Changing our perspective from the tunnel vision of deprivation to seeing opportunity requires vigilance and practice. It requires deliberately focusing away from the very slice of reality that our survival instincts present to us as our whole reality. This is not easy to do.
When I first started noticing my own scarcity thinking and working on changing my perspective, I needed the help of trusted friends and coaches to turn the focusing knob of my attention until it showed me an entirely different view of the same situation.
A good sign of scarcity mentality is the inability to see all of our options. If you catch yourself thinking that a particular situation is hopeless and there’s no getting out of it, ask for a second opinion. It might be that your focusing knob is just stuck on the wrong plane.
The original version of this article first appeared in the Ladders.