Should You Use Scarcity Thinking When Making Big Life Decisions?

Is balance a myth?

Few clichés in self-help are as popular as hatred for so-called “scarcity thinking.” Scarcity thinking being the evil mentality that assumes somewhere life has trade-offs.

Steven Covey told us that synergy was one of the 7 Habits, the opposite of scarcity thinking. Entire books have been written about having an abundance mindset, and avoiding a “zero-sum” mentality.

Recently, I was in a negotiations class where the scarcity/abundance dilemma was made the first topic. The two approaches were simplified into two graphs. One where participants fight over pieces of a pie, the other where they focus on growing the pie and each having larger shares. The metaphor was an interesting choice, because I’ve personally never witnessed a pie grow in response to demand for more of it.

Even if the abundance mindset is a good strategy much of the time, it’s wrong often enough to warrant skepticism. Which is why I loved the recent article by Chris Guillebeau:

“I like this quote from a David Sedaris article. Sort of an adapted ‘carpenter’s triangle’:

‘One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.’

The gist is that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

We’d all like to think we can be successful without cutting off one of the burners. But when you start deconstructing it, I’m not so sure.

The real flaw of the abundance obsession is that it makes us forget life has tradeoffs. As David Sedaris suggests, it might be impossible to glow brightly with one of life’s burners without having to turn another off.

Good Enough or World Class?

Abundance thinking works well if your aim is to be “good enough”. With the areas of your life, if you narrow down your categories enough, you can probably beat the average on all of them. You could be in decent shape, have an alright social life and okay professional success. It might take a lot of work, but it doesn’t need extreme sacrifices.

But to me, this thinking breaks down when you want to move from “good enough” to “world class.”

Getting into better-than-average shape isn’t too hard considering most people don’t even exercise regularly. But getting into world-class shape is a full-time job.

The reason good enough doesn’t need extreme sacrifice is that your competition isn’t trying very hard. When your aim is moderate success, you’re mostly competing against the millions of people who put in almost zero effort. The solution to good enough is often just to work hard enough.

But becoming world class changes the competition from the hoards of slackers to the elite individuals who are already trying their hardest. Getting more here often means giving something else up. Whether that comes from your personal life, as Sedaris suggests, or from your professional life as you sacrifice other skills to become the ruthless master of one.

Success may not be a direct function of how much you sacrifice for it. Some people will have more talent. Others will stumble upon creative strategies that accomplish more. But if your arena is filled with the self-selected best and they are already trying their hardest, it seems stupid to assume you can get away with anything more than lip-service to fuzzy notions like life balance.

Big Pond or Little Pond

The degree of life imbalance necessary, would seem to depend on two things:

  1. Just how “world class” you want to become
  2. How big is the competition

In other words, how big a fish do you want to be and how big is the pond you’re swimming in? If you want to be in the NBA, you need to be a huge fish (there are only about 360 players in the NBA) and you’re in a pretty big pond (just think of how many people love to play basketball).

A good example of selecting different ponds is the contrast between two of my favorite bloggers, Ramit Sethi and Cal Newport. Both original thinkers and great writers. The difference is simply that they’ve both opted to swim in different ponds.

Cal, in addition to running his blog, is also a post-doc at MIT. He blogs less frequently, doesn’t have a Twitter account and does little in the way of monetizing his online efforts, aside from furthering his side-career as an author.

Ramit, by contrast, works at his blog and the associated business full-time. He blogs more often, sometimes investing 15+ hours into a single article, he’s active on Twitter, constantly optimizes his website and recently moved to New York to grow his brand and increase his television exposure.

Both are successful and, I would argue, big fish in their respective ponds. But while Cal’s pond consists of having a loyal audience and a platform for his ideas, Ramit’s also includes television appearances and a six-figure business.

The bigger the pond you decide to swim in, the greater the chance you’ll drown. Sacrifices might be necessary, but they certainly aren’t sufficient. You need talent, luck and all those things self-help clichés usually say are unnecessary for success.

The bigger fish you want to become, the more you’ll need to consume from every other area of your life. Again, sacrifices won’t be sufficient, but if you want to be the best you probably can’t do it as a part-time hobby.

Scarcity Thinking and Choosing Ponds

The value of scarcity thinking is that it helps you choose ponds. If you prevent yourself for one minute from seeing the world as an ever-expanding pie, but as one of stricter tradeoffs, you can pick the life you want to live, and what pond would be comfortable for you.

One example for me is travel and language learning. Having recently lived abroad in France, learning French, this is something that interests me. I’d love to be able to visit every country on earth, or learn several languages fluently while living in dozens of countries.

But the demands needed for full-time travel or nomadic polyglotting are high too. Picking a pond of traveling-when-I-get-the-chance, or becoming fluent in 2-3 languages in my lifetime, may not be as exciting, but it lets me focus on building other elements of my life I feel are more important.

Another example is entrepreneurship. I’m building a small business which may eventually have a few employees and make me well-off by most living standards. It’s not an easy pond to swim in (there will still be thousands of people trying hard who don’t make it), but it’s a considerably smaller pond than trying to build a VC-funded company with an army of employees and hundreds of millions in revenue.

I’ve had a chance to meet people who have become successful in both of those ponds, and the latter, unsurprisingly, requires considerably more personal sacrifice.

Lifestyle First, Pond Second

My feeling is that it’s better to think about the lifestyle you want first, before picking which pond you should swim in. Most pundits suggest the opposite, Bunker Hunt was quoted as saying:

“There are only two choices to make in life: First, figure out what you really want and the price you’ll need to pay to get it. Second, resolve to pay that price.”

I’d argue that, instead, you should think seriously about how you want to live. Not just widespread fantasies about what ideal living is (endless world travel and minimal working hours), but what mode of living actually makes you fulfilled. Then spend some time thinking about what pond your ambitions could swim in that allows for that life.

The point isn’t that you should water down all your goals, and strive to live in the lukewarm state of “life balance.” Rather, it’s to accept trade-offs exist when deciding where to swim.

Image thanks to star5112

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  • Thomas

    Knowing that you have to make sacrifices in order to achieve certain desired results is one thing, but a scarcity mindset is a little different if you ask me.

    The scarcity mindset isn’t so much a mindset of ignoring all the possible bad things in life as it is about focusing on those bad things instead of the good. There are some who take it to the extreme in both directions.

    Some focus only on the good and run into the problem you’ve pointed out in this post; they don’t realize that in order to become a world class professional at their chosen field that they are going to have to give some things up so that they can apply that time towards their passion.

    The scarcity mindset is the inverse: Those who focus completely on the negative. There are a LOT of people who do this. I would know, I used to be one of them. Whenever something has a variable outcome, that person assumes the worse. They assume that they will fail, they lack any sort of confidence in their abilities and regardless of what semantics you want to tack onto that attitude and their results (The subconscious, The Law of Attraction, The Universe, whatever.), the truth is that they usually do fail.

    It’s certainly possible to look at your goals objectively and realize that yes, you are going to have to make sacrifices to get what you want. But I think that’s more of a case of deciding what it is that you really want rather than taking scarcity into account. You can still have an overwhelmingly positive mindset and be ‘realistic’. Turning off those burners doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

  • Zack

    To channel Mr. 4HourWorkWeek,

    EVERYBODY aims for doing something pretty good, and soon enough find themselves tripping over each other.

    FEW aim for doing something truly remarkable, and soon enough they find that with everybody else out of there way, they can accomplish anything.

    Being pretty good is much harder than being remarkable.

    Just look at Cal’s writing on Zen High School Stars. They are filled with stories of kids finding out that doing something remarkable is much much easier than trying to do what they are SUPPOSED to do to get into college.

  • Uzma

    Hi. This is exactly what my mom thought when she choose a school for us. Big pond or small pond . She choose the small pond, where we were taught excellence and determination. The small pond grew to become a really big school and we grew with courage to take on the world.. I think having a goal helps. Somewhere after this, i choose of the goal of always learning, a simplicity and finding wisdom in everything. Then I learnt, small steps help. Great beginning, great way to keep focussed and most importantly be happy. Thanks for a great post

  • Harris

    First time here.

    This is just one of the sanest blog posts I’ve recently read. Very lucid, free from the usual “just think you can do it and you will” positive-self-help mumbo jumbo.

    Made me want to check more of your articles.

    Keep lucid.

  • Wendy Irene

    Making calculated decisions about which pond to swim in based on the lifestyle you want is a great idea! Oddly enough though, sometimes the pond actually finds you, and you never expected or planned it. Other times in the process you may find yourself creating a new pond of your own to which others hop in to swim. It keeps life exciting!

  • Allison Alexander

    Brilliant post! Thank you!!

  • Matt

    I agree with a lot of what you say here– many people have the unrealistic notion that they’ll be able to master every skill they apply themselves to, that they’ll become excellent at everything. That’s obviously not true. People don’t have the time and the energy.

    I believe, however, that these “synergy” guys have a point. Success definitely breeds success up to a certain threshold. Getting in good shape will give you more energy to tackle all the other stuff you have to deal with, and it will give you a body-type that will command more respect from people. That’s a case where one burner makes others burn more brightly. I agree with you, though, that this synergy eventually stops. At some point you have to choose where you will excel. An NBA star is unlikely to be an involved father and run a Fortune 500 company.

    But even more ‘synergistic’ than success is failure.

    It’s not an exaggeration to say that poor health will be a detriment in every arena of life. An unhealthy lifestyle usually leads to a lack of energy, or to a body-type that others don’t respect as much, or else to more serious problems that will impede your progress forever. Likewise, shitty job performance could lead to unemployment, which puts tremendous stress on families.

    So in the end I believe you’re right. People should know that they can’t excel in everything. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that your development needs to be at least minimally well-rounded.

  • shreevidya

    this is one of the current issue in my life.choosing what i want to be.

    finance is the field i have chosen, it is so vast. just exploring the best. but, as you highlighted, the sacrifice we need to make to be the world class is what i am finding very hard to do.
    I have a friend at work place who is best at his work(finance). but he hardly talks to us(rest of the staff). he hardly enjoys the time which we enjoy. he just bees’ on his own. he will replies only to the question to which he wants to.
    he is really different. we all admire him because he is world class at his work. he currently secured 5th rank in Chartered Accountant final exam(2010). he didn’t showed his excitement after achieving such a feat.

    i really wonder how he manages all his ‘burners’ by just focusing on his goal.
    if you have any financial related problem he is there to provide a solution. but he never shows out the effort he puts in.
    very difficult to understand his way of life.

    i just wanted to share this.


  • Louche

    Dude… I agree, and I’m sick of hearing about this abundance mindset crap. Even if it’s kind of true, the way most of the people out of whose mouth it comes is partially absurd. “I don’t have enough money.” “Maybe if you stopped thinking with that scarcity mindset…” “Thanks, but unfortunately, Mr. Abundance, I have dreams and things that need to be done other than adopting your belief system, and even if I adopt your so-called abundance mindset, I am still not going to have enough money for at least several years.”

  • Jonny Gibaud

    Hi Scott,

    “Give up the good, to go for the great”

    Great analogy about the risk of drowning by being in a bigger pond and the personal sacrifice needed to be a “bigger fish”

    Largely success does have it’s sacrifices and as you suggest, focus on how much of your lifestyle you are willing to sacrifice to achieve that success.

  • Andrew

    One argument for Scarcity thinking is that there are only 24 hours everyday.

    All over the world, each human being only has 24 hours allotted to them, no more, no less.

    What we do with those 24 hours decides how our life turns out. You can spend your time building a business, working at a job, hanging out with friends, reconnecting with family, exercising, fostering a relationship, meditating, sleeping, eating, etc.

    To be truly successful as you mentioned, you’ve got to sacrifice one thing to have more time for another. (I love the burner analogy.)

  • Haider

    Hi Scott,

    A great post!

    I read Chris’s post with interest, and you’ve explored several more ideas here.

    I’m a huge fan of life balance, and don’t see it getting in the way of becoming world class. In fact, it’s an extremely useful approach to achieving professional success, and can help in overcoming (or completely avoiding) obstacles that we would commonly confront.

    Would you say that eating nutritious food, and going for a morning run compromises your professional success, or contributes to it? In other words, doesn’t your physical health assist you in tackling your work tasks, or is it a completely separate, mutually exclusive pursuit?

    I would say that your physical health impacts your professional success, and your professional struggles impact your physical health.

    The same goes with relationships. Your social relationships can assist you in your work life, or they can distract you from them.

    Proper, healthy life balance takes all your needs into consideration, and allows you to satisfy all your needs, so that you can make the greatest progress in every life area.

    You won’t be (and don’t think you want to, or need to be) world class in every life area. You don’t have to be a world class father to be a world class professional speaker. But you don’t want to neglect your role as father in the pursuit of becoming a world class speaker.

    My blog deals primarily with life balance and holistic growth. You might find some of my posts on the subject interesting. 🙂

  • AH

    one way is : choose lifestyle and then choose pond.
    another way is : aware of pond choice and then choose lifestyle to fit in.

    is it a matter of value of which is more important, lifestyle or pond……

    also, some might know lack of certain level of talent, so cannot choose certain pond no matter how much effort to put in. so, it better save time and energy & better go choose lifestyle instead.

  • Scott Young


    I think we’re confusing pessimism/optimism versus scarcity/abundance.

    An abundance mentality is generally used to refer to a mindset which views the world in non-zero-sum terms. It’s sometimes used to mean you can get more without taking it from someone else, you can get more of one part of your life without sacrificing another or more broadly to mean that there is a lot of opportunity/wealth out there in the world generally.

    I’m not really talking here about pessimism/optimism which is assuming bad/good things are going to happen.

    Although the mindsets are related, you could be an optimistic scarcity-thinker (believing good things will happen, but they will require tradeoffs) or a pessimistic abundance thinker (believing you could have it all, but will probably fail).


  • Tassia

    Is impatience driving this?

    Say you need the (now-) classic 10,000 hours to become exemplary in a specific field. If you spend 60 hours a week pursuing that, you have little time for other areas in your life but achieve the goal in less time.

    If you spend 40 hours a week, it takes longer, but the same number of total hours eventually add up.

    So choosing the so-called scarcity take on things gets you there faster (at higher cost), but the less-scarce path still gets you there.

    Or am I missing something?

    There’s also the caveat of just how much actual energy any individual can bring to the ‘deliberate practice’ table in a 24-hour period. One may set aside those 60 hours every week, to the exclusion of all else, but how many of those 60 hours can be realistically considered as progress toward the goal of being exemplary?

  • Zengirl @ Heart and Mind


    I think scarcity works in selling but I do not prefer it, having an abundance ready for you when you need it, creates a mental peaceful-ness I like that. Besides, that way I do not end up with stuff I do not need. Interesting thought to think of it though.

  • Thomas


    I see what you mean. I’ve always viewed the scarcity mindset as a somewhat more negative mindset, but you’re absolutely right when you say that you could have a positive mindset but still know that there are going to have to be tradeoffs.

    In any case, in what you said about how the abundance mindset tends to breed individuals to believe that they can continue watching T.V. for ten hours a day and make it into the NBA was very true, and it’s good to see it written somewhere.

    Thanks for the clarification on your meaning.

  • Melanie McGhee

    Well done. Taking the time to choose lifestyle first and consider the size pond in which you want to play takes you one step closer to living your REAL lif rather than some version of life that is more influenced by cultural norms than your heart’s intent.

  • Scott Young


    I’m arguing the opposite in this article–that a scarcity mindset helps you recognize the ponds that require workaholism and help you avoid them.

    My point is that some fields or degrees of success require an obsessive commitment to them. Becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company isn’t a goal you can reach on 40 hour work weeks. Knowing that in advance can change your goal–to say, wanting to be the CEO of a smaller business that still has an impact but allows you a life outside of work.


    Well I don’t think abundance thinkers necessarily believe they can watch TV all day and achieve their goals. But the assumption underlying that mindset is that they can achieve *all* their goals, whereas a scarcity mindset would recognize some goals may be difficult to hold simultaneously.


  • Jen Gresham


    I love the line “Sacrifices might be necessary, but they certainly aren’t sufficient.” I think that’s such an important message that gets lost on people today, leading to much of the disillusionment we see in the workforce. It ends up as a kind of entitlement, “I sacrificed my family, I lost my health…what do you mean I didn’t get the promotion?!”

    I love the idea of deciding how you want to live your life first and then choosing a pond. It’s important to realize this is a decision you’ll make over and over, if not daily. Do I stay at work a little longer to finish this report, or go home and have dinner with the family? Do I go to the gym at 5 AM and sacrifice sleep, or take time away from the office to get fit? What’s unfortunate is that we often let others decide the answers to those questions for us, instead of figuring out what we really want.

    Thoughtful and incisive, as always, Scott. Thanks.

  • ab

    Point about small ponds-big ponds: it often makes sense strategically to go to a small pond if your goal is a big pond.

    Example: playing on a team that is really good might mean you end up riding the pine most of the season. Joining a team that isn’t as good might mean you have more time playing, where you can develop your skills, get noticed, and so on.

    At some point (when you’re ready), you can then hop to a ‘bigger’ pond, if you so choose.

    I think the devil’s in the details in this – what is the best choice for one’s development depends on the particulars of what one is trying to do and how the small ponds – big ponds work in a given case.

  • A.H.A.

    It’s interesting that you say scarcity mentality == seeing everything as trade-offs. For me, abundance mentality == combinatorics. There is always opportunities to mash and combine things and use things for new uses. There is always a use for everything you encounter, everything is a lessn. That’s abundance to me, but then again I strive to be a bit of a Renaissance man. If I wanted to be world class in a field, then of course I would have to dedicate my life full-time to do that. I get that. But with me, what I want to do is create a one-man pond by creating a unique mix of components.

    Not to be critical, but I think a lot of your posts are done, at least partially, to be contrarian with more far-out personal development bloggers (eg Pavlina). Relax, those hippies are right sometimes too 🙂

  • paurullan

    Thanks Scott for the post, it has helped quite a bit for today.

  • Peter

    Tatus ma wazny projekt – przejmijcie obowiazki tatusia, trening troche mniej efektywny

    Hey Scott,

    A nice article that forces one to think deeper about life balance, energy management in time and related issues.

    I had a long discussion with my fiance about all those things you mentioned, and we came to a intresting conclusions.

    1. We dont agree that to be a world class at more than one (or all of them) u need to sacrifice others. There are a lot of people who can do this. Martha Steward came to my fiance’s mind. We also know a businessman who has a way to have it all and still not do it by sacrificing other areas.
    The key here is not only managing your energy in time, but also put energy and force that comes with it at a point in time when it will yeld the biggest results. For example if you want to be succesfull at school and at the same time not sacrifice your workout nor social life you just need to realise that not all moments in time are equally important to fulfill your goals. So when my fiance is learning to pass her japanese exam she doesnt do it at her peak energy usage all the time. Some parts are enough to do it on low level while others require higher attention. Then at the time where she commits to parts that require only low energy she can use remaining for activities from other areas. For instance, socializing with friends with similar intrests in japanese language or telling me some things about japan.
    If you could imagine a line of time wrapped with multiple sinusoidal activities that each have their peak requirements at different moments/points on that timeline. For each sphere in your life you can find a critical moments in time that when you do them at this point instead of another it will bring you greater results. I think most people dont see described above thesis (or hypothesis) because zero-sum thinking style somehow imposes on them that all life calculations are made by summarizing. But in reality lots of them work on mulitiplying scheme. Some ofc do work on a addition/subtraction scheme. But we would have to conduct some research to see when one of them works and when does the other.
    If you see things and do them on a multiplying scheme (where applicable) then its easy to have all burners fed with energy and all burn equally bright and still above mediocre/good enough level. So you can be world class at more than one thing at the same time without tradeoffs or sacrifices. As long as things you do are not within the same area of your life. Thats why your basketball player cant be both good at basketball and ceo of fortune 500. Because both of that goals are in the same area.

    Sorry if any of my thoughts seem unclear, but im not a native english speaker.

    P.s. Scott if you want to have a vagabond like style of life and still not sacrifice other areas of your life, look into how japanese ppl strive to achieve excellence in one thing by mastering other areas first. By mastering all they do and not sacrificing any other areas they actually achieve excellence in that one chosen skill/ability. This is especially seen at older japanese ppl not younger, because younger of them mostyl adopted western style of working. So make a place to visit japan in your journey schedule.

  • K. Jones

    Hmm… Well I’ve been here a few times, and I am not surprised to see many people (especially those far ahead of me) wrestling with the same issues I do in my head every day.

    I disagree with you crucially about the scarcity mindset, where although the definition may not be concrete and open to degrees of interpretation; from my vantage it is a nihilistic belief of “why even bother.” I see it in so many people and like one reader posted, used to see it in myself. That mentality is self defeating and I think the reason so many help yourself gurus zone in on it is because the difference in attitude DOES in fact make a huge difference determining individual success. While having a positive attitude doesn’t guarantee success, it does spur one one to do the things it will take for a chance at success; vs the self defeating demeanor that never even makes the attempt. The attitude seems to be the boiler plate for alot of folks… it was mine.
    The synergy topic posted by other readers seems to be the ideal. While no one would seriously want to destroy their family or their health in pursuit of excellence, it might be that “abundance mentality” is about building enough emotional/networking capital with your friends and family, as well as significantly improving your health so that these burners can serve as reinforcing and assisting forces to one central burner on which you focus the most time.
    It seems ludicrous to think that anything of note can be done without THE GRIND, which is the sacrifice of free time, money and effort, and clearly you and Cal are spot on when it comes to choosing one area to hone in on, a person simply does not have the capacity to be the grandmaster of 12 different subjects (polymath is becoming a bad word).
    ~BUT~ I am not so sure that not being able to do 12 things at once means you cannot master 12 things in sequence… basketball stars who go on to successful businesses/ charities etc.

    Lastly I do like the concept of focusing on the lifestyle prior to the pond, and will definitely take that to heart in my own considerations.
    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to more.

  • AHA

    One level is competitive synergy. There are so many bright people working single fields that some of them are effectively certain to be brighter than you are and able to stay ahead of you now matter how hard you apply yourself. The number of thinkers who are capable of genuinely cross-disciplinary analysis is much lower; by positioning yourself to do that, you greatly increase your chances that you can stay ahead of not just the narrow specialists but the few other polymaths as well.
    But if you are fighting the curse of the gifted, the psychology of this move is more important than the competitive positioning. If you are are gifted (say) at mathematics, but have stopped pushing yourself there because failing would damage your self-image as a genius of mathematical talent, it will help you a lot if you are able to reinvent yourself as a polymath genius who happens to do math. This sideways shift lowers the emotional cost of a failure or setback in math, or any other single field.

  • Gabe

    Great post Scott,

    I like the questions you pose in this post, especially how big a fish do you want to be and how big is the pond you’re swimming in? People don’t really think about this, but really pondering it gives a different outlook on things.

    Everyone can be successful, but also swim in different ponds. It’s what we make of it!

  • Jarrod – Cultivating Heroes

    Excellent analysis.

    Whenever I dream up some goals or desires I always try and go another level deeper which is to ask what the end result of this task is trying to make me feel.

    The I can look at how I can achieve that feeling right now and whenever I want it. At the end if it seems like a fun / enjoyable / satisfies my values thing to pursue then I will still wake it on. At the end of the day I know I can get the end desired feeling regardless of my actual actions.

  • Scott Young


    I think you’re making my point. Extremely narrow success in a highly competitive field (big pond) is difficult–it requires everything from you, not to mention a great deal of talent. However, smaller pond success (such as redefining your niche to include cross disciplinary talents) is easier and requires less sacrifice.