If there’s one principle that sums up the show, it’s this: Be generous. That’s it. Give freely, give often, and watch that investment deepen your relationships and create new opportunities.
But built in to this concept of generosity is the idea that you have something to give.
And not just that you have something to give, but that you are able and willing to give it, and to continue giving it freely over time.
That ability and willingness is the concept of abundance. That term might sound a little woo-woo — and, like most important concepts, it has been co-opted by some questionable “experts” — but it’s actually very concrete.
To feel abundant means to feel connected to the assets you possess — knowledge, relationships, empathy, listening, love — and to know that those assets are not finite in the bigger picture. The term “abundance” comes from the Latin abundantia, which means “overflowing” — a nice metaphor for that feeling of limitless service.
The benefit of abundance, of course, is to be able to offer value to other people. In the process, we realize just how much we actually have to give, and our sense of abundance grows deeper.
But that creates a puzzling catch-22.
On one hand, it seems like being generous requires an abundance mindset. On the other, it seems like the only way to discover that abundance is to be generous.
So which one comes first? How do we solve that paradox?
The Abundance Dilemma
Abundance is a tricky concept.
I hear from listeners every week who say, “I know I should be generous with my resources, but I can’t seem to give away something that should be mine.”
Or they worry that if they’re too generous, they’ll spend time and energy and connections on other people instead of themselves, reducing their own chances of success.
Or they fear that they can’t be abundant and competitive — that generosity and winning are, at the end of the day, incompatible.
Or they just don’t feel they have much to offer other people at all. They know that abundance is a mindset they should have, but they just can’t seem to access it.
These are all real and legitimate concerns. They get to the heart of our DNA, our culture, and our purpose. Resolving them is the key to embracing generosity, not just as a technique but as a way of life.
So in this piece, we’ll be working through these problems, and exploring the best practical techniques to cultivate abundance in a world where we we might not always feel like we have a lot — or enough — to give.
But first, we have to talk about why abundance can be so hard to cultivate in general.
Why Abundance Is So Hard
Let’s get one thing straight: Abundance isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s usually pretty damn hard. It’s even harder if you’re struggling, which most ambitious people are one point or another.
How do you make introductions to hiring managers when you yourself need a job? How do you advise a friend when you’re the one in need of emotional support? How do you offer someone your time, energy, or resources when you need most of them for yourself?
It almost seems like abundance is a luxury.
If things are going well — if you’re not in debt, if your social life is thriving, if you have a stable career you love — then you probably feel like you have a lot to offer, and you’re probably pretty confident about offering it. After all, you have plenty of value to go around, and when you’ve got a lot of it, it’s easy and fun to share it.
If things aren’t going so well — if you’re trying to keep up with minimum payments, if you’re looking for a partner, if you’re anxious or depressed — then the last thing you’re probably feeling is “abundant.”
In those moments, you probably want to be on the receiving end of someone else’s abundance. And when you’re in need of something, it can feel pretty difficult to turn around and offer it to someone else. In many cases, that might literally be impossible.
So most of us walk around feeling like abundance is a mentality just out of reach. Or that it’s only available to us in certain moments. Or that we haven’t “earned” it quite yet. Or that we’ll achieve that mentality at some point in the future.
One day, we think to ourselves, when we have the job and the partner and the connections and the money, then we’ll be in a position to offer a ton of value to other people. Until then, there just isn’t enough for anyone but us.
We think this way, of course, because we’re wired to think that way.
After all, our species didn’t survive for hundreds of thousands of years by feeling abundant. We survived by feeling a lack. Celebrating that we have a month’s worth of grain stored up might have put us at ease, but it didn’t keep us fed. Fixating on the fact that in a month we’d be hungry again, however, forced us to go out and gather some more.
Our species is not designed to cultivate an abundance mentality. It’s designed to cultivate a scarcity mentality.
Feeling abundant might serve us in certain higher-level ways, once our more basic needs are met. But scarcity is what compels us to survive. And surviving, according to our ancient genes, is more important than appreciating and bonding and loving. Which makes sense: If we don’t survive physically, then those other experiences just aren’t possible.
Given that wiring, it’s perfectly normal that most of us don’t feel abundant on a day to day level.
Our genes and our values are at odds in many ways. One is trying to scrape by, and the other is trying to overflow. It’s like asking a mainframe computer to do machine learning. The technology just isn’t compatible.
It’s important to remember that when you struggle with abundance. Fixating on what you don’t have is not a personal failure. It’s a default setting. You’re not a “bad” person if you don’t feel abundant. You’re a person trying to rise above the limited point of view that is hard-coded into the human genome.
The upside to that wiring, however, is that we can override our default settings. Our machinery might not be pre-programmed to overflow with abundance, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of that feeling. We can choose to cultivate abundance. We can decide to overflow.
And we can do this even when it seems like we’re not.
The One Simple Trick to Cultivating Abundance
Larissa, a longtime listener, recently wrote me a terrific email.
In her letter, she described how she’s
usually a generous spirit, but I find myself consumed with jealousy and competitive ambitions when it comes to competition in my industry with peers of similar credentials.
I work in a unique field where only a handful of us go up against each other in competition for clients and work. I know that there’s enough work for all of us. And I know that I should have more of an abundance mindset …
I get it. In theory.
But, Larissa went on to write, how do I feel that abundance mindset consistently? How do I overcome my instinct to view the world as a zero sum game?
I really appreciated this email. Not only was Larissa super honest about her problems with abundance, but she hit upon the hardest part: intellectually understanding the value of abundance, but struggling to embody it in everyday life.
At this point, most standard advice would go something like this:
- Be grateful.
- Write down all the reasons you’re grateful.
- Catch yourself obsessing about what you don’t have.
- Make it a practice to inventory what you do have.
- Notice other people’s abundance with respect to you.
- Feel the infinite amount of resources available at any given moment.
- Etc. etc. etc.
None of which is bad advice. Some of it might actually help you cultivate abundance. And if it does, more power to you. We all need more gratitude, more self-inventory, more hope.
But in my experience, these techniques only go so far, if they work at all. And they almost always wear off.
The problem is that most of us are trying to rewrite the intellectual belief that we aren’t abundant with an intellectual belief that we are abundant.
These two heady thoughts battle with each other, fighting for dominance. And the default setting — scarcity — usually wins.
And even if we do manage to convince ourselves of our abundance, it doesn’t get us any closer to the actual end game, which is generosity. We’re not just here for good vibes and positive thinking. At the end of the day, we’re here to give and receive value consistently and freely.
Because it’s one thing to feel abundant. It’s another to act abundantly. The feeling is only useful insofar as it motivates the act. The abundance mentality is really just a condition for that generosity to take place.
So if the intellectual approach doesn’t work, then how do we resolve the catch-22?
I recommend a much simpler process.
Rather than trying to rewrite your scarcity mentality into an abundance mentality, simply commit to generous behavior.
Remember: The catch-22 we’re dealing with is that we need abundance to be generous, but that generosity is the only way to feel abundant. If we need one to experience the other, how do we begin?
The answer is that we don’t need abundance to experience generosity.
It just seems like we do. It seems that way because our brains want to believe that we need to feel a certain way in order to act a certain way (one of the many myths peddled by modern self-help). Fortunately for us, we don’t!
Let’s consider the facts.
We all know that generous people are more successful in life. People who invest in their relationships, make introductions, share their knowledge, and show up for their friends experience more wealth, joy, and fulfillment in life. We know this because it’s empirically true. But we can just as easily look around — at other people and at our own lives — to see that generosity is the key to all of the goals and feelings and experiences we aspire to in life.
Knowing that, we can choose to behave generously even when we don’t “feel” like we can.
We can make introductions even if we don’t have a massive network. We can spend time on the phone helping someone through a breakup even if we don’t feel deep wells of empathy. We can offer an hour of our time at an animal shelter even if we don’t feel like we have all the time in the world. We can offer all of this, irrespective of how much we have to give — or how much we think we have to give — right now.
In other words, we can be generous without feeling abundant.
Because abundance is a belief, while generosity is an action. And actions are much more powerful than beliefs, despite what those “experts” tell us.
Actions create beliefs, and sometimes that makes those beliefs quite effective. But beliefs only get their power from what we do with them. And in the absence of a belief, we are still free to act!
That’s how it works with generosity. Even if we don’t have an abundance mindset, we are still free to behave generously. If we do, it simply doesn’t matter whether we “feel” abundant. All we have to do is commit to generosity in practice.
So the catch-22 we’ve been talking about actually isn’t a catch-22 at all. Feeling abundant might help us be generous, and that’s great. But it’s not absolutely necessary. We can commit to the behavior even if we can’t commit to the belief.
In fact, for most of us, that’s how the belief comes to be formed in the first place. Most top performers I’ve met don’t walk around with an innate sense of limitless value. They cultivate that sense by putting their value into practice by offering it deliberately. That’s one of the most important insights I’ve learned from my interviews over the years.
So the real question is: How do we begin that process of acting?
Acting Toward Abundance
Cultivating abundance begins with committing to a handful of small acts of generosity in your everyday life. The key here is to do the work even if you don’t feel like you have a lot to give. I want you to discover that you don’t need to be in touch with any concept of abundance in order to invest in other people.
First, find a handful of small, specific, relatively low-cost investments you can make in other people.
The smaller and easier they are, the better. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Text one friend, colleague, or family member every day and ask how they’re doing
- Send one email every week to someone in your life explaining how they helped you or behaved in a way you appreciate
- Ask one random person (a barista, a security guard, a distant colleague) every day how they’re doing — and really listen
- Choose one minor act of kindness every day (letting someone merge in traffic, offering to press an elevator button, running a package to the mailroom, offering a pair of eyes on a document, etc.)
The key here is to go super small. There doesn’t need to be any grand agenda to the text message to an old friend. You could thank someone in your life for something as small as cracking a joke or offering a ride home. You could take 30 seconds to ask a stranger how they’re doing. You could walk an invoice over to the accounting department. These shouldn’t be grand gestures or massive investments — we’re not trying to change the world at this stage.
Second, notice the effects of these tiny acts of generosity.
After each act — and at the end of each day — take a couple minutes to check in with yourself. Notice what impact these small acts are having in your life. Some helpful questions include:
- How did people respond to your interactions?
- How did being in touch with other people make you feel (about them and about yourself?)
- Have you made any new acquaintances or connections?
- How is your overall mood and outlook on life?
- Did helping make you want to be more or less generous?
Inevitably, these small acts of generosity create positive outcomes. Being kind to one person makes it easier to be kind to a second and a third. Reconnecting with an old friend helps rekindle a sense of connection. Expressing gratitude to someone deepens the relationship. Letting someone merge lanes makes you realize that you’re just like everyone else, and makes you that much more appreciative when someone does the same for you.
But your entire worldview doesn’t need to shift as a result of this exercise. Just be completely honest about the effects. Maybe you find some of the acts tedious. Maybe they feel like an extra burden or an anxiety-provoking exchange. These are all meaningful observations.
Even if this step is challenging, you’re virtually guaranteed to be more in touch with the ways you can help other people with the assets you already have. And chances are your mood, outlook, and philosophy will begin to change, too.
Though it might be subtle, and it might take some time, you are building up the abundance mindset — not by willing yourself to believe it, but by discovering that abundance in action.
Finally, work your way up to larger acts of generosity.
After you commit to the previous step for a few weeks, work your way up to larger acts of service. That’s how you “scale” your newfound abundance.
Again, this can be an incremental process. You can start by saying hello to strangers to having two-minute conversations. You can go from checking in with friends once in a while to having a standing catch-up lunch. You can go from making one introduction a month to making one a week. You can work your way up in volume or in depth, as your interests and the situation require.
The Impact of Abundance in Action
The goal of this exercise is to cultivate abundance by embracing generous behavior. In the process of being generous, you inevitably discover all the assets you can be generous with — your time, your energy, your ideas, your assistance, your kindness, and your network.
All of the people I’ve explored this process with have discovered a surprising snowball effect.
In a matter of weeks — almost by magic — these tiny acts of generosity open doors to larger ones, create, and deepen relationships across their lives, and generate new opportunities they never felt capable of creating. Every single one of them feels more abundant than they did at the start.
The beauty of this approach is that we don’t have to worry about “creating the abundance mindset.”
We don’t have to convince ourselves that we have something to give, that we have more than enough to go around, or that offering our value will only enhance it.
We don’t have to stare at ourselves in the mirror every morning and repeat affirmations of plentitude.
We don’t have to believe anything.
We only have to mimic the actions of people who are generous, and see the benefits for ourselves.
When we do, it’s impossible not to generate results. You can’t behave generously and not feel more abundant. It’s just like working out: If you go to the gym and lift weights, you will get stronger. You don’t have to believe in the concept of strength in order to get stronger. All you have to do is show up and do the reps. It’s as simple as that.
I find that principle incredibly liberating. Because at the end of the day, new ideas are hard to buy into. Actions, on the other hand, are easier. All we have to do is do them, and the ideas will follow. They have to.
For those of us who weren’t raised to behave generously or feel abundant, this should be especially reassuring. It means that we can teach ourselves how to behave in ways that don’t always come naturally.
In fact, I was one of those people, which is why I know it works.
I’m an only child in a family that was kind, sensitive, and attuned to my needs. I shouldn’t feel like I’m lacking for resources or competing for value. But because I never learned to share with other people, I had to learn how to be generous. I literally had to teach myself abundance.
As I grew up, I began to notice that the people who were most successful were also the most generous. I observed the behavior that led to the results I wanted.
So I started to mimic that behavior. I acted as if I were a generous, abundant person, even though I struggled to feel like I had enough to go around (another manifestation of the only-child syndrome).
In those early days, my motivations could not have been more self-interested or results-oriented. I was applying generosity to advance my career in the law. I saw that I had a great deal to offer my colleagues and clients, and the more I offered it, the more they seemed to respond to me. I did this out of selfishness. I wanted the benefits. I found the currency of generosity and relationship-building fascinating.
Only later did I realize the full power of this work across my life.
If acting generously could make me more abundant in my career, what would it do to my personal life? Could leading with abundance be a lens to view the entire world? Could I explore life and work through my generosity?
As I committed more and more to generous behavior across my life, I found that the resulting abundance led to more happiness, connection, and fulfillment for me and for the people in my life. What began as self-interest evolved into other-interest, and then into an entire worldview.
All this, despite the fact that I never “felt abundant” or “believed in abundance.”
And — if I’m being totally honest — I still struggle to feel that abundance from time to time. But when I do, I don’t try to convince myself that I have plenty to go around. I just dive right in to another small act of generosity, and that gets me back on track.
Abundance: An Ongoing Process
Like empathy, hope, and kindness, abundance is one of those qualities that grows the more we use it. The way we “use” our abundance is by applying it, and the way we apply it is by being generous with the people in our lives. The more we give, the more we realize we have to give, and the more we get in return, which only gives us more to offer. It really is that simple.
Unlike those other qualities, however, we don’t need to “feel” abundant before we can start doing the work. We can do the work whether we feel it or not, and that’s the beauty of committing to generous behavior first.
But the other advantage to doing the work is that we can recreate that abundance at any point in our development.
In periods where we don’t feel particularly abundant, we can still make an introduction, pick up the phone or pitch in on a project. When we feel isolated, we can ask for help, invite a friend to dinner or plan a drinks night. We can remind ourselves of the assets we have just by putting those assets to work.
That’s something we can — and should — come back to over and over again throughout our journeys, not just at the beginning.
Because despite what most experts say, abundance isn’t a one-and-done thing, a flash of insight, or a switch to flip in our head — at least not in my experience. We can intellectually grasp its importance in an instant, but in practice, it’s a process. It’s a mindset and a feeling we have to actively cultivate in order to enjoy.
And that turns out to make abundance all the more powerful, and all the more rewarding.