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The Overfull Squirrel

I had developed the habit, over many years, of reading several online news sites (in earlier times it was physical newspapers). I do this early in the morning to get a broad feel for what has happened since I went to bed and what I will experience as I begin a new day.

The other day I read a story about what I’m going to call “the overfull squirrel”. A gardener had a bucket of sunflower seeds stored in his garden shed, which he used to fill the various bird feeders he’d positioned around his property. It was a five-gallon bucket with a well-closed lid. But, for those of us who’ve lived with squirrels, this would prove to be a minor challenge. 

The squirrel, unable to open the lid, simply did what my dentist neighbor said you should never do–the squirrel used his teeth as tools, gnawing a hole large enough for the squirrel to get into the bucket of sunflower seeds. The squirrel, I am sure, thought he’d found nirvana. He ate and ate and ate and ate until, gorged on sunflower seeds, the squirrel decided it was time to leave the bucket and get on with his day. And that’s when the problem occurred–and when the gardener caught him and snapped the image that went round the world.

There, completely jammed into the entry he gnawed earlier, was a very full squirrel–stuck. His voracious eating had doubled or trebled the size he’d been on the way in, and now he was in a real fix. Were it not for the kindness of the gardener that could have been his “last meal”? But, after taking the photo, the gardener carefully freed him to go on his way, hopefully wiser of the negative consequences of his gluttony.

Squirrels don’t come upon buckets of sunflower seeds very often. People don’t come upon opportunities of various sorts very often. And humans, like squirrels, when they stumble into a source of “abundance” rarely encountered risk getting stuck in over-consuming whatever it is. At the root of this uncontrolled behavior is a concept called “scarcity mentality”. Scarcity mentality is simply the conscious or unconscious idea that whatever we have in front of us is limited as a resource and we need to get as much of it as we can or others will take it. Scarcity mentality drives “with” or cooperative behavior away. It says, “Wow, I didn’t expect to find half of the birthday cake from yesterday still in the staff fridge.” “It was a really excellent cake, so I’m going to eat as much of what’s remaining as I can before the others find out.” 

Scarcity drives competition, but it can drive it too far. Scarcity says, in the traditional metaphor, “the size of the pie is fixed and every slice others take is a slice not available to me”. Abundance creates “with” and “cooperation” opportunities by proposing that we can “make the pie bigger” so that as many slices as others take, there’ll always be plenty for me.

Growing the pie, the principle of abundance, lends itself beautifully to cooperating and building together, acting in a “with” approach–as we come together to solve, innovate, create, and build a bigger pie for us and for others. If we all decided that a two lens camera on our phones was the end of innovation instead of saying “let’s come up with a three lens one’, then most of our time would be spent trying to carve up the two lens camera market. There’s nothing wrong with competing for market share, but why not innovate a create a whole new market so we can have our piece of both the two lenses and three lens’ opportunities.

People and organizations that live in scarcity are always trying to “squirrel away” just one more sliver of an existing pie. People who think in abundance unleash the power of “with” to innovate, create, disrupt and define a new “pie” or a new camera for our phones–three lenses today–four for tomorrow.