Why having “enough” feels so elusive

Two icons of American literature were once partying at a billionaire’s lavish mansion on Shelter Island.

Kurt (Vonnegut) turns to his friend Joseph (Heller) and says:

“Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel Catch-22 has earned in his entire history?”

Joseph responded, “I’ve got something he can never have.”

Kurt said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

Vonnegut wrote this zinger as a poem to his late friend, published in the New Yorker in 2005. It’s tempting to write this off as literary lore about billionaires who are nothing like us.

But let’s look at another story. This one, a touch more familiar, comes from the financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache (“MMM”). In his post The Sweet Spot, he describes “Diana” a hard-charging director of engineering at a Silicon Valley tech startup.

[Her] work is intense, but they are almost over the hump – the company went public last month, and she owns shares that are worth over $10 million at today’s share price.

Diana’s equity will vest over the next five years and MMM describes how “she just needs to grind this out and then she will be set for life.”

But there’s a catch. This is Diana’s third successful company. Her previous company was acquired, and even prior to that she was “a rising star at a large company had already left her with over $2 million of investments and a paid-off house in hella expensive Cupertino, California.”

So is Diana’s 5 year sprint to vest her equity worth it?

Diana is now 52 years old, with a collection of increasingly severe back and neck problems and a few medical prescriptions piling up. She has two grown children in their twenties, but wishes she had been able to spend more time with them as they grew up. She has all the money in the world, but still almost no free time, and this next five years is starting to look like an eternity.

RadReaders are an ambitious bunch of doers and strivers. They are resourceful, agile and take agency over their own lives. (And after much prodding, they even know that The Number is BS).

Yet like Diana, enough is elusive.

Enough… already

Enough is both exciting and terrifying. For the same reason.

No one can tell you what’s enough. There’s no formula, no framework nor book to read to get you there. And that can be daunting.

But that also means that the definition of enough is not purely a function of money. It’s why there are plenty of very happy people who are time rich yet asset poor. (And also why there are Dianas who are asset rich but time poor.)

In the New York Times article how to do better than just merely getting ahead RadReader Carl Richards describes an exercise to find your enough amount. It starts with a visualization:

So just for a minute, imagine what it might feel like to be satisfied with simply having enough. Can you write down how that might change your priorities? Your daily schedule? Or is there some other way to connect with that feeling?

Richards encourages you to talk this through with anyone who relies on you, be it your spouse, kids or business partner. If you were simply satisfied with having enough Richards asks, what shifts might you make?

Would you work less? Would you spend less? Would you sleep more? Would you quit your job and start something new? Would you give more to charity?

And while the daily financial realities of paying a mortgage, student loans, and saving for college might persist – these questions could catalyze incremental shifts in your behavior. Today.

Mr. Money Mustache also takes a reflective approach to “enough” across his all the dimensions of his life. MMM offers up a diagnostic (or checklist) to see how he tracks across six distinct categories:

  • Money
  • Career Success
  • Parenting
  • Friendships
  • Health and Fitness
  • Hobbies and Personal Projects

MMM scores well in the money category, giving himself a grade of “enough:”

Additional windfalls don’t seem to bring me any lasting joy, but I also don’t have so much money that it makes me nervous. It’s enough to feel safe and empowered, and that’s all I need. Meanwhile, giving away money has brought me lasting happiness, without creating a feeling of shortage or regret.

In his career category, he grades himself as “it varies” really demonstrating how enough is a moving target:

In the mid-2010s, [my blog] started to take over too much of my life. Emails, opportunities, travel and public attention all reached levels where I actually started to have less fun. So I tried dialing it back, as any long-term readers will have noticed. And sure enough, life improved. But then I went too far and started feeling a loss from letting this valued hobby slip away. I’ve been trying to get back into the groove, which revealed another problem – detailed at the end of this list.

Can constraints help you find enough?

During the second week of the pandemic, many of us felt that in that moment we had enough. Many RadReaders were still employed, had the flexibility to work remotely, while (haphazardly) starting a home school from scratch.

In my post the silver lining of discovering just enough (dated April 1, 2020), I wrote how:

Families are strolling the neighborhood at dusk waving to their (socially distant) neighbors.

We are cutting our loved ones’ hair.

Board games are making a comeback.

We’re discovering new spaces in our own homes.

And while April wasn’t that long ago, being freaked out about toilet paper and food supply chains feels like a completely different lifetime.

Now without getting graphic, I suspect that you’re quite meticulous in using just enough with each bathroom trip.

I also suspect that you’re licking the plate clean on your leftovers. No food is ending up in the trash.

For a couple months, we were homing in on what was enough. And surprising ourselves with the answer:

A lot less than you think.

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