Fear of a Winner-Takes-All World

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What do stressed students and out-of-work professionals behind on their mortgages have in common? Beyond a mountain of stress, they both fear the emergence of a more cut-throat world where scarcity is the rule, not the exception.

Connecting the Dots

Lately I’ve written about two major movements. The first is the backlash against the intense pressure on students to achieve academically, as portrayed in the films Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere. The second is the economic unrest as typified by the “99 percent” and the world-wide “Occupy” movement. It didn’t occur to me until recently that perhaps I was telling essentially the same story twice.

Waiting for Superman tells the tale of youth and their families’ attempts to get them a decent education. The movie casts “regular” public schools in the area as unacceptable “failure factories” and follows families on their journey to struggle for something better. Charter schools exist, but with room for only a few students. Competition ensues, including high-stakes lotteries. Other families stretch their budgets to the breaking point to afford private schooling for their children.

Meanwhile, Race to Nowhere is the story of another struggle: the struggle for admission to first-choice universities. In this rat-race, students slog through hours of homework and pile on AP credits and extra-curriculars, because if they don’t the ones that do will grab those coveted seats in Ivy-league schools.

For those students “lucky” enough to graduate from college and go on to look for work, many will run head-on into the 99 percent blues. Despite getting into prestigious universities, working hard, and taking on record levels of student loan debt, jobs are scarce to say the least. And as recent graduates struggle the hardest, the banks, that engineered the whole meltdown since 2008, are doing better than ever. Clearly, this is a game with a few big winners and more and more losers every day. Worse still, there seems to be no reliable path from failure to even “getting by,” let alone “winning.”

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Any way you slice it, the message remains essentially the same. It is a winner-takes-all world that we live in. There is not enough for everybody and people are scrambling to make sure they get their slice of the pie before that pie is gone. Often the competitors are sharks and the game is rigged.

Where is your “Manifesting” Now?

I’ve used the phrase “winner-takes-all” to describe the mindset that afflicts both harried students and economically stressed adults. This mindset is a subset of scarcity thinking. Scarcity thinking is simply the belief that there’s not enough for everybody, especially the thinker. Winner-takes-all goes further by adding the complication that only a few will win big and everyone else will lose.

Recognizing scarcity thinking is important because such thoughts are corrosive to motivation and thus sustained, productive action. A slew of psychological and spiritual self-help material has sprung up around the opposite of scarcity: abundance. Perhaps the archetypal abundance gospel is The Secret. Stripped of the details, abundance spirituality and psychology both assert that imagining, visualizing, and expecting abundance in your mind results in greater abundance in the real world. This process is termed “manifesting.” From a hard-headed psychological perspective, manifesting is at least useful for raising motivation in the short term. However the best manifesting in the world isn’t going to undo double-digit unemployment in the United States all by itself.

Perception and Reality

The winner-takes-all mindset lives in our heads, but it exists because of real events in the real world. We delude ourselves if we try to wish those facts away. At the same time, we are prone to let our fears run away with us and focus our attention on the story of a few students or workers or bankers, confusing one story for the whole of reality. Schools are bad in some neighborhoods, but not all neighborhoods. Jobs are scarce in many sectors, but not all of them. Even statistics need not dictate an individual’s reality. Perhaps the U.S. economy “only” generated 143,000 jobs per month. But for the person who recognizes that he or she only needs one job, this may be more than enough.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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