moving from owning & selling resources to sharing & donating.
the abundance mindset
What comes after capitalism, and how do we get there?
If you walked into an electronics store and saw a sign that said FREE UNLIMITED iPHONES – how many would you grab?
If you’re the entrepreneurial type, perhaps you stuff your shopping bag with iPhones and dash home, where you resell them online for a nice pocketful of cash.
Maybe you’re the Robinhood type. You fill your arms with as many devices as you can carry, and promptly donate them to a nearby community center.
Or you grab a single iPhone. That’s all you need.
The point here is that while there’s “no right answer” as to how many iPhones one should grab, you probably went through a specific thought process while considering your choice:
First, you felt like this was a valuable, exciting opportunity to collect some iPhones! This isn’t something that happens to you every day.
You then imagined yourself grabbing iPhones and putting them in a bag or shopping cart, feeling a thrill as these hypothetical devices passed into your ownership – a sense of conviction that by placing them in your cart, they now belonged to you. You may have even felt a surge of adrenaline, knowing you could now do whatever you pleased with them).
And chances are, you only considered donating some or all of the iPhones as an afterthought, after first feeling excited that they were 100% yours to enjoy.
I’m not trying to say that we as humans are selfish, or greedy, or anything of that sort. Instead, this quick exercise is intended to illustrate that America has wired us to believe in three concepts, which form the basis of our capitalist economy:
Scarcity. Free iPhones are a precious, valuable, limited resource.
Ownership. These iPhones belong to me and I have every right to protect them from others and/or do as I please with them, provided I do not infringe on others’ sense of safety or self.
Independent mindset / “American Dream”. This is my life, and if I play my cards right & seize the right opportunities, I can gain valuable resources and work my way up the “ranks of society.”
The “American Dream” is a narrative that was written to defend capitalism as the best way to elevate a nation’s standard of living. But there are more than enough differing perspectives and concerning cracks in the system – it’s obvious that capitalism is far from perfect.
For a start, each of the above three concepts is a double-edged sword. Scarcity breeds competition and reinforces inequality, ownership undermines generosity, and the independent mindset destroys empathy.
So what would it look like for our economy to not center around the idea of owning and selling resources, but instead – sharing and donating? Is there a version of our economy that could center around a “mindset of abundance”, and what implementation would make it the right combination of desirable-feasible-viable?
Fascinatingly, economies of abundance are already being prototyped on a micro-scale: check out the Buy Nothing Project, if you’re curious.
And before we can even think about providing unlimited iPhones for everyone, we have very urgent problems (climate change, for one) that need immediate addressing.
As I dive deeper into an effort to eventually articulate a plan that will empower our society to consider adopting a mindset of abundance, I want to make it clear that there are many prerequisites before a plan could ever take action. Here’s two of them:
We need to get the world’s “donut” under control. See Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics.
We need a fundamental shift in the cultural values and narratives that define the “American spirit.” Stop glorifying billionaires, decolonize nationalism, and teach empathy in schools. Bring other philosophies of life (such as Frugal Hedonism) into the mainstream media. Lots more to come here.
My self-declared mission is to spend the next two years grappling with the “Abundance Mindset”, and seeing if it’s possible to craft an implementation plan that is realistic. I plan to talk to experts and thought leaders across the spectrum of human existence, and dance between abstraction layers of society to find insights and proposals that are actually actionable. If all goes well, I hope to turn this extended study into some kind of artifact – a design report, series of essays, a podcast – something useful. In whatever form will be best, based on what I learn.
I can’t wait to get started.
In case you’re wondering – why do I care?
I was so privileged to attend Stanford University as an undergraduate in the design program. Stanford’s a place that pushes students to consider that there are “many different ways to live life correctly,” and that we all have some kind of narrative worth crafting throughout our lives. I like to say that we all have a story worth telling, and the privilege of a college education is learning how to tell your story. Stanford also wires you to believe that change is inherently a good thing, and that the world needs change to keep it spinning.
I faithfully believed all of those assertions until my mom was diagnosed with cancer halfway through my junior year. My experience over the following two years as a caregiver, and then a son grieving the loss of a loved one, shaped me to reconsider "the story" I was writing with my life.
There are two modes of living – “enabling” and “existing.” Enablers are changemakers, providers, visionaries, superheroes. Existers are partiers, consumers, enjoyers. We’re all a little bit of both, based on the time of day and era of our lives.
I used to think that it might be possible to exclusively be an enabler. I believed that by taking on a role as a “superhero” or “savior” for the world, I would somehow get more out of life than others who settled for existing. So I focused on creating a version of myself that was primarily driven by ambition, self-improvement, change, and moving the world forward.
Losing my mom to cancer made me realize that there was beauty & importance in being an exister, too. At first, I was frustrated & annoyed when I felt like I was putting my career and ambitions on hold, when my mom would interrupt my workflow in the middle of the day to ask if I could help her do rehab exercises, when chemotherapy began paralyzing her from the waist down.
Now, I feel grateful that during that time, I was able to re-wire myself to appreciate the important distinction between being there with someone, as opposed to being there for them. In the situations where we have no power to change nature’s will, it’s more meaningful to exist with someone rather than to fruitlessly (and often nonconsensually) try to “fix them” or “save them”. I learned that the hard way.
I’ve come to believe that capitalism breeds a toxic, dangerously contagious belief that in order to live a “successful life”, you have to be an enabler, and kill “the exister” inside of you.
Not only is this unsustainable, it brings out the worst qualities of being human. This results in a small number of ruthlessly ambitious, privileged humans nonconsensually shaping the future of humanity – and more often than not, this has led to mass chaos and destruction, even when these individuals think they’re “saving” humankind. The destructive ripple effect of their actions results in a large chunk of society not even having the choice to even enable or exist – rather, just attempt to survive.
And I want to know if there’s another option.