Contribution and abundance

Ben Horowitz gave this remarkable response to a question about joy and happiness on Time Well Spent:

In my experience there are really two things that lead to happiness and everything else is mostly noise. The two things are contribution and abundance.

Contribution is basically exactly as it sounds. If you can align your life with where you have the talent to make a large, meaningful, and real contribution to the world, your circle, or your family, then you can be very happy. As an aside, doing so often leads to making money because when you create great value like Elon Musk, you get a lot in return. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be a business person to be happy, because happiness comes from the knowledge and impact of the contribution rather than the reward. However, this doesn’t quite work by itself, which brings me to the second point: abundance.

An easy way to think of abundance is that it’s the anti-hater/anti-jealous mindset. If you believe there is plenty in the world for everyone and you are always happy to see people who contribute succeed, then you become part of “team contribution.” You don’t worry that someone is getting ahead of you at work or that someone made a lot of money or that someone is better looking than you, because you believe in abundance over scarcity and you can focus on maximizing your contribution. In fact, their joy can become your joy (then you have an abundance of joy :-)). The good news is that abundance is actually true. There is plenty in the world for everyone and once you see that, there are so many ways to contribute. I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan a few years ago. On the way to the camp, there were a few refugee families not even in the camp but in some tents on the way. The area was completely barren. No plants, no trees, no grass… just rocks. So here’s this extended family of about 20 living in this tent on rocks, because their farm was destroyed by the war and they had to flee to Jordan. They were all living in this tiny tent. If anyone should have had a scarcity mindset, it was them. But I experienced the opposite. They immediately offered me a cup of coffee and some rice pudding (as if they had enough to share) and told me the whole story of their journey. What struck me the most was that they were genuinely happy despite what they went through. They were less incensed by getting bombed out of their homes than people in the U.S. are if you accidentally interrupt them. I’ve seen this kind of happiness through abundance in many countries: Cambodia, Haiti, Uganda… Those refugees were happier than some billionaires I know. That’s not to say that money doesn’t help… it does, but without an abundance mindset, it’s not enough.

If, on the other hand, you have a scarcity mindset, it’s really hard to be happy no matter what you get or how rich you are or how good looking you are, because there’s always somebody richer or better looking or whatever. You become part of team “hate.” This is why you see so many deeply unhappy political activists. In theory, they should be making a massive contribution, but often they are just expressing hate for the other side. Hitler and Lenin are famous cases, but there are many, many more, because there’s a fine line between advocating for one group and hating the other group. If you’re doing the former like Martin Luther King Jr., you have an abundant view and will find joy in the work, but if you are doing the latter, you have a scarcity view. People with scarcity mindsets are always unhappy in my experience. Scarcity is not just in politics. You see it in business all the time. You see somebody stealing credit for someone else’s work or being deeply jealous about someone else’s promotion — these people are almost never happy. You even see it in the music industry or in sports. The quest to be the best turns into you not wanting anyone else to be the best. In these cases, even if you reach the pinnacle, there is no joy.

Ben Horowitz

The interview is worth reading in its entirety: The Architecture of Tomorrow.


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