Too Preoccupied To Weed Your Fields

So I saw the recent Dr. Strange movie this weekend and one of the biggest takeaways I had (no spoilers) was that classical music is powerful no matter what universe you are in. Though, like anything the benefit or detriment depends on whose hands are wielding it.

While that isn’t the main thrust of my post today, the movie is somewhat pertinent. I wanted to direct readers over to Drew McManus’ Adaptistration post today where he reflects on an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast on scarcity mindset.

Since I was processing our end of fiscal year appeal letters this past week, I had some time to listen to the podcast. I recognized how a lot of the problems discussed manifest in the arts, which is always beset by a scarcity mindset. One problematic product of a scarcity mindset is tunnel vision which inhibits long term planning, rationale decision making, and awareness of repercussions.

If you have seen the Dr. Strange movie, a tunnel vision approach to problem solving is basically the central driver of the entire conflict. I felt like Drew knew about my weekend plans when he wrote the post.

However, in the less supernatural, non-fiction of our daily existence, it can also be a core problem degrading the lives of individuals and organizations.

As Drew writes:

While there are numerous examples related to the ways scarcity of resources impacts decision making, I found one of the most applicable chapters is how scarcity of time impacts professionals.

Given that the orchestra sector has a long history of staffers and managers being overworked, it’s good to have examples from Mullainathan and Shafir that quantify the dynamic impact of making this environment the norm.

Listening to the podcast episode, they made some compelling arguments about people how people living near the poverty line don’t necessarily need classes on time and money management to set them on the right track, they need support systems that recognize the impact scarcity has on people’s mindsets.

They provide some interesting examples of studies that have been conducted on the topic. I was especially struck by the observations of the change in the cognitive capacity of Indian sugarcane farmers, who go through cycles of plenty and scarcity due to when they are paid for their crops.

MULLAINATHAN: We found a huge difference. So we found that post-harvest, when they’re well-off, they have much more impulse control.

VEDANTAM: Farmers who were rich tended to think about things that would help them over the long term. This matched other research that shows, for example, that farmers who are well-off tend to weed their fields more regularly than farmers who are poor. Farmers who were poor mostly focused on how to make it to next week, short-term thinking. To be clear, it’s not that poor people focus on immediate needs because that’s all they want to think about. It’s all they can think about. Scarcity captures the mind, like it did with those starving men in Minnesota. In fact, scarcity can actually lower how you perform on an IQ test.

There is a book written on the subject which Drew links to.

All this bears thinking about because careers in the arts have always been beset by a scarcity of time, resources and money. The overall internal cultural expectation is that you soldier through and pay your dues. In the context of this book and podcast, that is the very approach which inhibits the ability to think clearly and carefully about ensuring the long term survival of our individual and collective arts organizations.

It may be why, despite the stress Covid brought to our lives, greater availability of time set into motion new ideas and practices related to programming, relationship with community, and business models.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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