Adam McNamara

@adammcnamara

Today was Supposed to be The Happiest Day of My Life

My journey to create happiness by changing my beliefs

When Shopify went public in 2015, I made more money than I can spend in my lifetime. It was also one of the scariest days of my life.

My friends and I had created an enormous amount value for the world, and the world had rewarded us for it. A hundred or so people became millionaires overnight. For many of them, achieving financial freedom was one of the happiest days of their life. For me, it was one of the scariest. I feared that my biggest accomplishments were behind me, and my future now looked worse than my past.

It took me a year to realize that I didn’t feel joy in that moment because I had a scarcity mindset.

A scarcity mindset is when you see resources like opportunities, wealth, and love as limited, with more demand than there will ever be supply to satisfy. If life is a pie, the pie is small with not enough pieces to share. People with a scarcity mindset are always fighting for more pie.

My scarcity mindset affected every aspect of my life. As an individual, I felt that my talents were limited and I lacked the ability achieve great things. As an entrepreneur, I worried more about beating competitors than “making something users love.” As a partner, I was quick to start relationships and too slow to end them for fear of missing out. I lived as if life was a zero-sum game.

Growing up around scarcity shaped my mindset.

I grew up in Pembroke, a stereotypical small town that’s fallen on hard times. Opportunities there have been declining for decades. Downtown shops have closed as big box stores moved in. Local manufacturers, once huge employers of the middle-class, have downsized or went out of business. Many families, including mine, struggled to make ends meet.

In Pembroke, I learned that life gets worse over time, not better. The future brings fewer opportunities for people. If life did improve, like getting one of the few “good” jobs left, it was because of luck, like knowing the person in charge of hiring. Hard work and optimism did little to improve one’s future.

My mindset of scarcity is why, when I became wealthy, I felt more fearful than happy. Luck had helped me beats the odds in my world of scarcity. Luck had connected me with the smartest guys in school as they were starting a company. It was luck that, years later, Tobi and Shopify needed to acquire a company like ours. Shopify has been a once-in-a-decade success. It’s unlikely that I, or anyone I know, will build anything as meaningful. When that opportunity ended, I felt like my luck had finally run out. Life would resume its natural process of getting worse.

I’d become living proof that with a scarcity mindset, no matter how much you have, it will never feel like enough. I decided then and there that this was no way to live. If I wasn’t happy then, I never would be. I had to change.

I’ve spent the last two years on a quest to reprogram my mindset, from one that creates unhappiness in even the best circumstances, to one that creates its own happiness. To do that, I’ve had to unlearn the negative beliefs that have silently shaped my thinking for 30 years. They’ve been replaced with new beliefs that give my life meaning.

I hope that by sharing the insights I’ve found, and the readings that lead to them, I can help others with a scarcity mindset create happiness of their own.

Old Belief: The future will probably be worse than the past.

New Belief: The future is getting better — and at an accelerating rate.

The Rational Optimist, Abundance, and The Lessons of History taught me that life is getting better, and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are rising. Disease, violence, and child mortality are declining. The world is getting better in almost every way.

Think about how much innovation happened in all of human history until the year 1,900. We created foundational things like language, writing, and agriculture. But almost everything we rely on today, from air travel to modern medicine, has existed for less than 100 years. The last 10 years alone has brought superhuman artificial intelligence, gene editing, and free energy. Humans are sharing ideas and building on the best ones. The result has an exponential improvement in prosperity.

I have every reason to believe the future will be better than the past.

Old Belief: I have limited ability.

New Belief: The secret to outstanding ability is not talent but focused persistence.

Evolution — the idea that fitness increases when stress causes adaptation — is the most powerful force in the world. It’s pushed life forward from single-celled organisms to, well, us.

Reading Grit and Principles, I learned that ability isn’t determined by talent. Instead, my ability depends on how much I stress myself, adapt, and evolve.

Programming is a superpower. 10 years ago, I couldn’t write a line of code. Today, I can solve any problem I can think of using only creativity and critical thinking. I used to forget about the 4,000 days of deliberate practice between then and now. Now it’s the first thing I think of when I start learning something new.

Old Belief: Happiness comes from my circumstances.

New Belief: Happiness is something I create for myself.

At the centre of a scarcity mindset is the idea that happiness comes from having things. If only I had more — love, money, status — my life would be better.

Master Life Faster taught me the true sources of happiness. The book, written by my friend Paul Lem, is a manual on how to live the best life, backed up by 413 scientific studies.

Science says that happiness — as measured by psychological well-being — comes from:

  1. Self-acceptance (a positive evaluation of yourself and your past life)
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Environmental mastery (experiencing flow)
  5. Autonomy (freedom to choose your own direction)
  6. Positive relationships with others

In other words, happiness isn’t found in external things like wealth. Happiness is something I create for myself through purpose and practice.

Old Belief: This matters.

New Belief: None of this matters, and that’s beautiful.

For thirty years, I believed that achievements matter most in life, if only so that I’ll be remembered. I became obsessed with outcomes. But, this obsession had the opposite effects. Perfection became the enemy of progress and I avoided the risk of failure.

Naval Ravikant shattered this belief in one paragraph. He said:

“You’re going to die one day and none of this is going to matter. So enjoy yourself. Do something positive. Project some love. Make someone happy. Laugh a little bit. Appreciate the moment. And do your work.”

I find Naval’s outlook profoundly beautiful. So much so, I read it every morning to remind myself of its wisdom. None of this is going to matter, so living a good life is the only thing to do.

Four months ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child Ethan. I often reflect, if I could only teach him one thing, what should it be? I think I’d share my own most important life lesson:

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. — Marcus Aurelius
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