My grandmother died last month. It was not an unexpected thing – she was 95 years old, and her health had been failing very gradually for the past few years. By itself, the knowledge that a loved one has lived a long life and that “it’s their time” doesn’t do much to help us deal with their passing. These are the kinds of things all of us tell ourselves when we lose someone we care about, and it still hurts.
But what did help, at least for me, is the fact that she was always happy. That’s no exaggeration. I can not remember a single instance of my grandmother holding a grudge against someone or wishing that her life had someone gone differently. She always found something positive regardless of what life did to her, including those final years when age was progressively stealing more and more of her freedom and autonomy. She was categorically the best recipient of gifts that has ever lived; no matter what you gave her, it was always the most precious thing she had ever seen, and she always meant it. At the end of her life my grandmother was essentially bedridden and had been a widow for 20 years, and she was still happier in her day-to-day life than anyone I know, including myself.
I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what her secret was, and ultimately I believe her happiness derived largely from her willingness to accept what she had. My grandmother didn’t want more than she had been given. She had good friends, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who loved her, and a comfortable place to live. She hadn’t been to every country in the world, but she’d seen a few of them. She didn’t do anything with her life that will ever make it into a history book, but she was OK with that.
In other words, my grandmother was complacent. And it afforded her an enviable life.
When we talk about complacency in business, it is almost exclusively a negative thing – the complacent business will get overtaken by its competition, the complacent employee is a drag on your ability to grow and innovate. These things are generally true.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an upside to complacency. Most small businesses, for example, will always be small businesses. Many businesses will experience minimal growth this year. Some won’t grow at all. It’s easy to look at a flat year as a failure. But is it really a failure to start a business that provides you with a decent (if not extravagant) living while also providing a good product or service to your small but stable collection of customers? How do we benefit by working our entire lives with a chip on our shoulder because we should constantly be two levels ahead of wherever we are? Pushing for relentless growth or setting your sights on becoming your company’s CEO are fine goals, but they come at a cost. Some people are OK with the cost, which is why we have CEOs and multi-billion dollar companies. But does it really make sense to be unhappy with our lot in life if we’ve decided the price for greatness is too high to pay?
I don’t mean to suggest that striving for greatness is something we need to avoid in order to be happy. Plenty of very successful people are happy, and plenty of unsuccessful people are not. What I’m trying to say is that it is not necessarily a bad strategy to align our goals to our current reality – or even to decide that our current reality is a satisfactory one and work to maintain it rather than push for more. After all, most of us want “more” without having a solid grasp on what “more” even looks like. Perhaps the best example of this is the way many of us save for retirement, which is to squirrel away as much money as we can in order to cover whatever we might want to do once that time comes. But imagine how much easier this entire process would be if we decided now what we wanted our retirement to look like, convinced ourselves that striving for anything beyond that was unnecessary, and then saved accordingly. We would actually know what we were doing, instead of blindly saving for a future we haven’t taken the time to actually envision.
There are absolutely downsides to complacency – my grandmother, for example, would have never started her own company, because the challenges every entrepreneur needs to overcome in order to get things off the ground would have likely been more than she would have wanted to deal with. But complacency is almost always viewed as a surrender, a giving up of something essential. Sometimes, though, complacency is the way we build something we can look back on with pride and satisfaction, rather than hating ourselves for not having made it bigger.