When you put a load of crabs in a bucket together, any crab near the top that tries to escape the bucket is pulled back into the bucket by the other crabs. This is known as crab mentality.
Crab mentality is often invoked to demonstrate the mindset of “if I can’t get what I want then I won’t let you have it either”. Of course, we have precious little insight into what’s going through the minds of those crabs, but let’s assume they are indeed playing zero-sum games.
The image is compelling because it’s something we see frequently in day to day life. It can be found within the English class system, where the expression “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you” can lead families to hinder their own social mobility. It can also be seen in the managers who overwork their teams because they themselves were once overworked.
It won’t surprise you to learn that I find this way of being in the world deeply unhelpful. At the end of the day, all the crabs remain in the bucket and people continue to overwork, whether through external or internal authoritarianism.
But what if we lived in a world where the crabs helped each other out of the bucket? What would that be like?
The words that come to mind for me are nourishing, earnest and trusting. Nourishing, because this would be a world that validates our desires and helps us to meet them, should their pursuit not bring harm to others. Earnest, because we would feel free to explore and express those things that most bring us to life. Trusting, because to do all this means we could reasonably be our true authentic selves without fear of judgement or attack.
Worlds like this often seem like naive utopias doomed to fail the moment a hostile agent enters them. And, indeed, it seems likely that a perfect utopia such as this can’t exist, but that doesn’t imply that a world more like this than not can’t exist in a stable equilibrium. It can be true that most crabs help each other out of the bucket most of the time.
To stretch the metaphor even further, I sometimes find myself reflecting on how I might behave to help the other crabs out of the bucket. Here are three things I’ve settled on as being good things.
First, I reward earnestness with validation, support and my own earnestness. Earnestness is a precious expression of our authentic selves, the person we are when we’re not trying to be anyone in particular. I believe we are at our best when we are in that mode, so I want to see a world that encourages this.
Second, I support people on their creative journeys. When someone is taking their first tentative steps into making something that I might like or pursuing an independent life, I lean towards giving them money for that thing. Where possible I tend to give generously, should it feel appropriate to do so. By doing this I am not only helping this particular crab out of the bucket, but improving their capacity to do the same for other crabs down the line.
And finally, for this note anyway, I try to connect people who share this perspective to each other. I’m not great at this at the moment as it’s not a longstanding habit, but I’m getting better and better at it. If there is a community of people, or crabs, that have a culture of helping each other out, then each new member of that community increases the capacity of that community to effect change and help more people, or crabs.
We’ll never reach a perfect utopia, and that’s probably a good thing, but we can create a cultural pressure that creates ever larger communities that are nourishing, earnest and trusting. And all it takes is for each of us, individually, to make choices, over and over, to help the other crabs out of the bucket rather than to pull them back into it.
Who knows, maybe once they escape they’ll give us a hand, or claw, as well.
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