Sowing seeds and cultivating abundance mindsets

Figure 1: An abundance of buttercups turning towards the sun in an Edinburgh meadow, reminds us of the many possibilities that arise and flourish during seasons of growth. Photo by Glen Cousquer

In this extra post, Glen Cousquer tells us about the practice of switching from a scarcity to abundance mindset to become more embodied and compassionate learners. Dr Cousquer is a lecturer and coordinator of the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

A radically simple and essential act of nurturing the learner and communities of learning

The students who entrust themselves to us and ask us to take care of their learning and development offer up their fertile minds, as the earth offers itself to seeds. The way our minds and their minds are “set” with regards to future possibilities is, however, of crucial importance to flourishing (Figure1).

We are often unwittingly complicit in buying into and reinforcing a scarcity mindset, where fixed outcomes are assumed. We have a choice, however! We can choose to promote an abundance mindset that believes in and is open to all of life’s possibilities.

This blog will explore the distinctions that can usefully be made between scarcity and abundance thinking and the relevance to learning and wellbeing. In particular, it will highlight how operating from a scarcity mindset can hinder our ability to make meaningful contributions and, for many of us, is a form of unconscious incompetence.  In becoming aware of an alternative and healthier competence – that of abundance thinking – we can spot when we are operating from a scarcity mindset and consider whether this is helpful.  This allows us to shift from being unconsciously incompetent into consciously incompetent and to then start exploring the path to becoming consciously competent in abundance thinking.

The first step in moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is to learn to spot scarcity thinking when it shows up. Once we detect it, we can start becoming aware of how it shows up and influences our thinking.

Scarcity thinking

Scarcity thinking is predicated on viewing resources and capital (including recognition, marks and rankings) as scarce. This has many consequences; in particular it gives rise to competition. Such thinking impacts all areas of life including economics and wellbeing and therefore learning.

Scarcity thinking impacts our wellbeing because it leads us to compete with ourselves and with others. A clear indicator that we are probably engaging in scarcity thinking is if we are feeling anxious and consumed with negative thinking. Our fears impose limitations on how we interpret the reality we think we are seeing before us. In essence, adopting a scarcity mindset colours and limits what we see. It is not hard to appreciate how an assumption that there is not enough to go around easily spills over into self-criticism and even self-hate as well as racism, xenophobia, bullying and other behaviours that are rooted in judgment, fear and hatred. Such patterns of thought drain our physical, emotional and mental reserves, stunt our growth and limit our potential.

Abundance thinking

Whereas scarcity thinking assumes there will be winners and losers, abundance thinking adopts a win-win position. Stephen Covey describes abundance thinking as a “a concept in which a person believes there are enough resources and successes to share with others.”

An abundance mindset impacts on our wellbeing, leaving us with greater levels of physical, emotional and mental energy. We feel more relaxed, socially engaged, alert, flexible and open to possibility and are literally operating in a different social field.

That may sound a little abstract…  For it to make sense, we have to feel the difference in our bodies. This requires us to bring our awareness to bear on how we are feeling and thinking. A regular mindfulness practice (such as meditation, qigong, tai chi or yoga) can be very powerful here. Such practices teach us how to regulate our nervous system, deactivating the sympathetic system and activating the ventral vagal system so that we become more present and are better able to engage socially.

Another practice that is of value here is appreciation. By practising gratitude, we learn to pay attention to what we value and appreciate; that is to say to what we have. This leaves us feeling very different to how we feel when we focus on what we don’t have (or think we don’t have). This in turn allows us to embrace ourselves – our whole selves – in a self-compassionate and wholehearted way. In such states, we often find that generosity arises spontaneously because our sense of abundance overflows and allows giving to feel very natural.

Figure 2: There is abundance in nature especially when we are open to seeing it. Where do you see abundance in this image? Photo by Glen Cousquer

Nurturing the learner and learning communities

There are no end of opportunities to bring abundance mindsets into the classroom and reduce competition over limited resources. A good starting point can involve introducing short grounding practices into our teaching and drawing on these to pay attention to the mindsets that show up and colour our learning experiences. Gratitude practices can also be introduced by emphasising appreciative forms of inquiry and introducing this into our feedback. One of my favourite practices is Benjamin Zander’s “Give Yourself an A” which I introduce at the start of the academic year so that students are encouraged to bring an abundance mindset to their learning and growth and to step into their possibility.


This overview of scarcity and abundance thinking has highlighted the distinction between these two mindsets and the importance of noticing them when they arise. It then becomes possible to become conscious of scarcity thinking which I suggest is a form of incompetence and to then draw on mindfulness and gratitude practices to encourage abundance thinking. As we become conscious of this new competence (consciously competent) we can start making it habitual until, eventually we become unconsciously competent abundance thinkers.

Further reading:

  • Stephen Covey is widely credited as the person to have drawn our attention to this important distinction between scarcity and abundance thinking, in his 1989 best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
  • Benjamin Zander: How to give an A.
  • The University’s Chaplaincy “Abundant Academy” draws on these principles and seeks to enhance our perspective, and train us in habits of replenishment, reflection and collaboration, so that we can move from overwhelm, freneticism, and feeling stuck, to refreshed and thoughtful momentum and fruitfulness.

picture of editor/producerGlen Cousquer

Glen is a recipient of this year’s EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals.

Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory and practice for sustainability as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

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