My wife is from Spain, and ever since I met her I have been fond of saying that the best way to live is somewhere between the American way and Spanish way. I’m pretty sure that statement could be applied more broadly as well – somewhere between my way and your way is the best path. In other words, nobody has figured everything out, and we can all stand to learn from people who think and act differently than we do.
There are several ways that my wife and her Spanish family have had a positive influence on me, but one in particular stands out. They are not constantly trying to get more. That doesn’t mean they don’t work or want things. However, they don’t have the same overwhelming drive to accumulate and grow that typifies the American approach to life. They generally don’t drive expensive cars, and none of the families I’ve met have more than two; they go on vacation like everyone else but never seem to talk about buying a vacation home (or two, or three); and if this year was a good one, they don’t seem to feel the need to make next year the Best Year Ever.
These are generalizations, of course, and there are exceptions to every rule. But over the past few years I’ve realized that most of the Americans I know are obsessed with growth without exactly knowing what they’re trying to gain. Whenever I get into conversations about retirement with anybody here, I’m struck by the fact that nobody seems to know what their goal is. Very generically, everyone just wants a little bit more. I’ve attended hundreds of conferences and listened to dozens of CEOs talk about their plans for the future – and invariably, the plan is for things to be bigger and better. Even if this year was a blowout success, next year should be an even bigger blowout success. What other goal could you possibly have?
The problem with an obsession with growth, though, is that you’re never where you want to be. Things could always be a little better; you could always be a little richer; and it’s hard to be satisfied with your life when you constantly feel like you’re falling a little short. There was an interesting study in which hundreds of people from different economic backgrounds were surveyed and asked how much money would make them feel comfortable and happy. In general, regardless of income level, respondents said they wanted about 30% more than whatever they currently had. Which means if they got that 30% increase, guess what? They would be happy for a moment, then immediately want 30% more than that. At least, that’s what would happen if they were me, because I’ve absolutely felt that way myself.
I’m not saying that growth is a bad thing – far from it. I am saying, however, that growth for growth’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. The only things that grow blindly and indefinitely are bad things – think viruses or cancer. So what about the idea of maintaining ourselves in a good place for a while? Would it really be so awful for a CEO to say, “Hey everyone, we had a good year last year, and I’d be quite happy if we did the exact same thing again this year.”
If your goal is to be the richest and most powerful person in history, then there’s no reason for you to ever stop accumulating. (Spoiler alert – you will invariably fall short, and so your life will be an unfulfilling one.) But if your goal is a little less dictatorial, then knowing what you’re aiming for is probably a good place to start. Success should be achievable, not always a little ways over the horizon.
There is a story about Kurt Vonnegut that I’ve remembered for years. He was at a party hosted by a billionaire and railing about the extravagant excess of everything to his friend. His friend listened to the rant, then said, “Well I have something this guy will never have.” Vonnegut replied: “What? What could you possibly have that this man doesn’t?”
His friend’s answer? “I have enough.”