The Scarcity Trap

One of my favorite techniques as a communication coach was given to me (albeit indirectly) by my daughter when she was barely 2 months old.

It was 2006, I had just had Stella, and was back to work with almost no childcare whatsoever. I was a train wreck. My identity was wobbly, none of the time management techniques that had worked for me in the past made any sense, and I was chronically exhausted from trying to front like I had it all under control. I went online one night to seek out advice on mindfulness, positive thinking, coping techniques for overwhelm… anything to help me survive the next 24 hours.

I came across one piece of advice that made me literally laugh out loud:

Tell yourself a story of abundance... No matter what your schedule says, repeat this phrase to yourself:

‘I have plenty of time, and all is well.'

I wanted to punch that writer in the neck. I wanted her to trip on her Birkenstock and break her nose. Plenty of time? An abundance of TIME? Had she held down a job while tending a newborn who is hungry every 45 minutes ALL NIGHT LONG? Had this writer experienced grizzly boob infections from not pumping breast milk often enough while working on site with a client? What a joke. What an unrealistic, idiotic phrase to give someone who feels overwhelmed and unsupported.

But for some bizarre reason, I started saying exactly those words when I was feeling the most amount of stress. It became my gallows humor, my dark way of coping. I would grit my teeth and say “I have plenty of time, and all is well.” I figured at least I would get myself laughing.

But something started to happen. I noticed that this phrase actually made me feel a momentary sense of calm. I started saying the phrase even more frequently, and suddenly tasks that would normally take me 20 minutes to complete, started taking me 10 minutes. I noticed there were more pockets of down time in my day than I had thought, and I was able to take mini-vacations with a cup of coffee and silence for 5 minutes.

That one little phrase—I have plenty of time and all is well— became a salve to my aching, frantic heart, and I began to relax into my weird working mother transition period, and I found my footing again. My voice and ability to communicate and lead with confidence, humor and joy returned in full force. And I became a hell of a lot more appreciative of the experience I was actually having: I was a mother for the first time. I was experiencing parenthood with a loving partner. I had the resources to provide ample food, shelter, clothing and love to this tiny human. And that tiny human had eyelashes that were, like, 7 feet long. She was amazing! She was beautiful! She was MINE! There was an embarrassment of riches happening all around me, I just didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Mind Games

This two month old became my Guru in that moment, because she taught me (the hard way) something very profound: When we operate from a place of scarcity, it affects how we communicate and operate in the world. (I guess the Birkenstock-shod writer should get some credit too, here. But I'm still annoyed with her. I say this as I write to you wearing my Birkenstocks. Oh GOD the irony.)

As I began to look at my clients and the bad communication habits we were trying to correct, I saw that same scarcity pattern everywhere.

For example, Paul, who struggled with speed talking, was actually locked in a belief that he was always about to be interrupted, and that he had to speak as quickly as possible before someone stopped him. Paul was perceiving scarcity of air-time during his meetings. And as a result, he was considered a poor presenter, and an awkward communicator.

Jean had reluctantly agreed to work with me after she was told she was “keeping other women on her team down.” We discovered that the belief driving Jean’s bullying communication style was: “There’s only room for one high powered female executive at this company, and I intend to hold that position.” Jean was perceiving a scarcity of opportunity for women.

As we began to work with mantras and phrases that reprogrammed their thinking, change became possible.

Before new business pitches, Paul began to say to himself:

“There is plenty of time. If I get interrupted, I’ll just finish my thought at the right moment. If the meeting ends before I can finish my thought, I’ll follow up with a concise email if it is truly that important.”

Jean began saying to herself:

“There is plenty of room for all of us. I lift as I climb.”

This shift in mental storytelling—from perceived scarcity to perceived abundance—made all the difference.

“How Might We…?”

A scarcity mentality asks, “Is X even possible given how little Y is available to me?”

With very few exceptions, every speaker I have prepped for a TED, TED Global or TEDx talk has said some variation of:

“Is it even possible to convey this idea in 12-18 minutes when I usually have 45 minutes??”

Notice that the question itself isn’t wrong, or unfair, or unrealistic, per se. But that question leads to constricted thinking, which leads to a sub-par TED Talk.

Watch what happens when we shift the question away from scarcity and towards abundance:

How might I convey this idea in 12-18 minutes?”

This question drops us into full brainstorm mode. We can then talk about efficient ways to grab the audience’s attention, establish what’s at stake, and we begin to map out the narrative journey the audience will take during those 18 minutes.

Scarcity asks “is this even possible?”

Abundance asks, “How might we do it?”

Scarcity thinking brings tightness, worry lines and panic. Abundance puts a twinkle in the eye, unleashes mischief and invention. Abundance is a good time.

The next time you hear yourself trapped in the mental cage of scarcity, remember: there is always a way out. Even if you have to grit your teeth as you speak the words:There is plenty of time, and all is well.