Everyone loves Abundance. It’s the buzzword these days, at least since Rhonda Byrne shared The Secret and the likes of Deepak Chopra (rhymes with Oprah, on whose show Bynre’s book made it’s big American impact) began pointing out things like that “Expressing your talents to fulfill needs creates unlimited wealth and abundance.”
There’s nothing wrong with abundance of course. Or is there? We all want abunance in our lives. And no one can claim a scarcity MINDSET is a positive thing. Yet a deep misunderstanding of the shock zone between abundance thinking and living in reality has cultivated a contemporary strengthening of another Creativity Lie.
CREATIVITY LIE #4: The Abundance Lie
If only I had more resources, then I’d be more creative.
Of all the Creativity Lies I address in this series, the Abundance Lie is perhaps the one that has gained the most traction in recent years, due in no small part to the popularity of Chopra and other abundance advocates.
Over the past twenty years or so, thinkers like Mihaly Czikcsentmihaly and Steven Kotler have aggressively researched and pursued the concept of engineering Flow. Kotler’s Flow Consciousness Institute (https://www.flowconsciousnessinstitute.com/about-us/)
focusses on developing the practice of generating Abundance as a set of techniques and values. And that’s great. I mean, we all want to get into flow right? We all want to be prolific, cranking out Edison’s 1000 plus patents, or Yoshiro Nakamatsu’s more than 3000, or Steven King’s century of books, or Brian Eno’s uncountable musical output.
But there is a reason I save Flow for my Advanced Creativity Workshops. It’s easy for people to misunderstand Abundance. As a mindset, it’s great. Edison’s favored approach was for his team to generate as many ideas as possible, figuring they were more likely to get a good result if they had more to choose from. If something didn’t work, Edison just tried the next thing, famously stating that he didn’t ever fail, he simply discovered thousands of incorrect designs for the light bulb. An abundance mindset, though, is not what I’m getting at.
The Lie here is the one that’s at play when we worry that our full-time job is getting in the way of our creativity, or that we can’t be creative within that job because our boss makes us focus on too many hours of nonsense. It’s the Lie that we tell ourselves because our department is radically underfunded, or we don’t have the money to buy Facebook ads to market ourselves enough. It’s the Lie that states if we only had more time, or more money, or more whatever resources, we would be able to be more creative.
And yet increasingly evidence shows that the opposite is true, that scarcity is a better source of creativity. In a study published last year by Oxford University Press, Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu set out to determine how creativity varies under conditions of scarcity. They placed undergrads at the University of Illinois into three condition groups — abundance, scarcity and a control group of what we could call “sufficiency.” Mehta and Meng then conducted six separate experiments, ranging from the effect of just writing about scarcity then building toys from Krinkles blocks, to full-on riddle-style puzzles like this one (you can read more about the details of the test here):
The participants were shown a picture containing several products on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks, all of which were next to a wall. Participants’ task was to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall by using only the objects on the table, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor.
In all six experiments, the participants proved more creative when forced to make the best of a tight situation, or to come up with alternative uses for objects that weren’t designed for that. The study also found that abundance inhibited creativity more than “sufficiency” did. Subjects in the control group, with less resources than the abundant” group, still scored better than the Abundant group.
Just over ten years ago, an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review (“In Praise of Resource Constraints”) addressed the issue: “Limitless material resources are not only unavailable most of the time, they may actually be a hindrance. And remaining lean and mean can often be a blessing.”
In a follow-up article in the same publication the same authors added: “In times when you may not be able to afford the tool or service that was designed for the purpose you have in mind, look into other assets that you already have at hand. Engage in (playful) bricolage — tinkering with and reusing whatever assets are available. Remember, as a child, using mere wooden sticks as perfectly good dolls or soldiers?”
The realization that scarcity can be a key driver of creativity goes back much further than any of the above. In the period just after World War I, the Bauhaus, in a Germany that was in the ongoing crisis that led to Hitler, decided to focus on efficiency over all else. Josef Albers said it plainly: “We are poor, not rich. We cannot afford to waste material or time.”
Today there are at least a couple of cutting-edge organizations who are so focused on scarcity as a benefit that it is in their name. The Scarcity and Creativity Studio in Oslo is a design and build studio that seeks out challenging contexts in which local conditions and creativity are employed to make the most of scarce resources. And the website of Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment (SCIBE) is stuffed with papers analyzing the impact of scarcity on creative work. “SCIBE explores the relationship between scarcity and creativity in the context of the built environment by investigating how conditions of scarcity might affect the creativity of the different actors.” The bulk of Scibe’s work spans four major European cities (London, Oslo, Reykjavik, and Vienna), finding new paradigms to approach conditions of scarce resources with a creative slant.
None of this is very surprising when you think about it. The history of creativity is littered with stories of innovators in all fields who were forced to produce under tough conditions. Any decent entrepreneur can tell you very clearly that their best business ideas usually come from scarcity. The best question when setting out to create a new venture is usually something like: “What is the market missing? What’s an uncrowded category? What isn’t a category at all? Yet.”
It’s empirically obvious really. Can’t you, yourself, when you’re honest about it, recall examples from your own life where being forced into a tight spot caused you to get super creative? Probably more times than you think. Make a list!
I mean, there’s never enough resources. When I was in my early twenties, I quit everything to live in Prague and write. I had literally twenty-four hours a day available to me. And yet I am a far more successful creative professional today, with much higher demands on my time and finances. Plenty of artists have quit their day jobs hoping to make their art better, and discovered that all the time in the world doesn’t make their creativity richer.
Writer Colin Robinson has an interesting take on this topic. He temporarily lost the use of one of his hands in an accident. Dealing with this problem made him a much better writer, according to him. Looking back, he offers: “It’s amazing what the human mind is capable of when you force it to come up with a solution. When you remove resources, time, or options, you can see things with a new level of creativity and problem-solving ability. Whether you’re out of ideas, overworked, or stuck on a decision, see if creating scarcity can help you fight through the frustration and perhaps even take you to the next level.”
Or as in the old joke about the man at retirement who decides to take up his passion, piano, but doesn’t embrace practicing. “What’s the point?” he whines to his teacher. “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I’m any good at this?” A form of age scarcity right? “Not exactly,” the teacher says. “But definitely younger than you’ll be if you don’t practice.”
In other words, like with every lie that impedes your creativity, it’s all just another excuse. The bottom line is simple: get OFF your bottom and get into action.