We Are Not ‘Aʻama Crabs

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Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Trustee, Maui

When I was a young teenager, I would spend summers with my dad, Henry Kaʻiama Aʻi, in Mahukona, Kohala, Hawaiʻi Island. He was a stevedore and would work shifts at the docks unloading the ships that brought household goods to that part of the island.

When he worked the day shift, he would take us crabbing at night. He would blind the crabs with a flashlight and pick them up and throw them in an uncovered bucket.

I remember asking my dad why is it that the crabs don’t climb out of the bucket and escape? What I learned was these were ʻaʻama crabs, acting just like ʻaʻama crabs. When one ʻaʻama crab attempts to crawl out of the bucket it is pulled back down into the bucket by the other crabs, so that in the end, no single crab is able to escape.

I later learned that one crab alone in a bucket easily pulls itself out and escapes back into the ocean.

This “crab mentality” is a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you.”

The analogy for this in human behavior is that members of a group will attempt to thwart and halt the progress of one of their own out of envy, resentment, or spite, and will reduce that individual’s self-confidence and will to achieve in the future.

Observing this should cause us to seek explanations for why it happens and what can we do to prevent it. It should inspire a desire within to understand how we can collectively extinguish that behavior from our lives and help others achieve their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Psychological experts have attributed this behavior to the belief that who we are as individuals is fixed and unchangeable, as opposed to being dynamic and able to evolve and change as we choose.

If one believes that our capabilities are fixed, then logically what we can achieve in our lives is also fixed. Rather than having a horizon of what is possible in our lives based on our perseverance, focus, and hard work, we adopt the mindset that our future is predetermined, set and limited.

These beliefs play upon our insecurities and lead us to compare ourselves to one another, and, if those thoughts take hold, resulting in jealousy and resentment towards those whom we perceive as having more, or being better than we are.

Author Steven Covey, in his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, takes a slightly different approach to this issue, focusing, instead, on scarcity. He writes, “People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win-lose. There is only so much; and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.”

Such a mindset contributes to jealousy and a real sense that if someone else succeeds that our individual chances of succeeding are somehow diminished.

Rather than comparing ourselves to others, we should compare ourselves to where we are relative to where we want to be – and then work hard to develop the skills, capacities, and knowledge to achieve our life goals and become the best version of ourselves possible.

Instead of pulling others down, we should lift others up and celebrate their accomplishments. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we should focus on what we do have and be grateful for it.

And finally, instead of judging others and complaining, we should get busy and take action to build a life consistent with the values we believe in and cherish.