Once again, the big question circulating in corporate offices and around many dining room tables is – how much is enough? While this question is not new, the focus of it changes, in part, with the economy. In good times, the question may arise out of a feeling of unease that we are in danger of being overpowered by our materialistic urges. In uncertain times, our concerns center around fear of being unable to sustain a lifestyle created during periods of greater prosperity.

While some of us simply relish the chase, many others feel over-burdened by the incessant drive for economic security. Yet, even inevitable quality-of-life sacrifices do not seem to change the baseline responses to the initial question. We continue to be tormented by the belief that there is never enough. That we are entitled to abundance and must have it ‘all.’ That we simply want more. When we’re finally ready to tackle the issue of enough, asking and honestly answering questions such as the following will be beneficial: Is my effort to achieve and earn more a personal quest or a response to how I am viewed by others? If money were not an issue, what would I be doing? How much money do I believe I need in order to keep finances from affecting my decisions about my life, career, the number of hours I work? What do I have to do to earn this level of income and is it worth it? What other priorities might I have to sacrifice to maintain or keep improving my income? Does this mean I care more about making money than about my personal time and life? If so, is that okay with me? Here’s a little more on the subject:

1. The Wanting-More Syndrome.

More money. More success. More satisfaction. More material comforts. More time. That’s what most of us think we want and without any trade-offs. Plenty of us also think that it’s smart to work really hard now in order to ‘get somewhere’ in the future. So, we run full out and often sacrifice present resources in order to pursue some imagined future gains. Many of us also believe that having more money would result in greater happiness. In fact, we believe this even though we see evidence that many of the wealthiest people in the world are far from the happiest. Fortunately, somewhere in the collision of hope and hopelessness that our wanting more creates, we have moments of clarity in which we know that something has to give. That more of one thing eventually leads to less of something else. That asking too much of ourselves in the chase for enough may likely result in painful choices, unpleasant compromises and unnecessary hardships. When we allow ourselves to consciously focus on what wanting more really costs, we may become less inclined to sacrifice at too-high levels.

2. In Pursuit.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Sigmund Freud wrote, “It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement. That they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” Certainly as a society, we have come to believe that our income determines our level of success. That wealth is having more than we need. That we must endlessly pursue the material in order to demonstrate our well-off status. But, are these the standards by which we really want to live? Maybe, just maybe, we need to consider the alternative offered by Charles Kingsley, “We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” In a culture that has little interest in humility and great fascination with wealth this might seem beyond simplification to an outright absurdity. But, when we are willing to get clear on our true and underlying values, this concept takes on richer meaning. We get to focus on being what we value and doing what we love instead of relentlessly – sometimes blindly – accomplishing and accumulating. We also have a better chance of enjoying what we have rather than dedicating our lives to getting more of what we intrinsically don’t value.  

3. Money or Time.

In this fully-packed, fast-paced world, many of us strive to increase our earnings so that we can take advantage of every opportunity and pleasure the world has to offer. But, if the effort to produce consumes the majority of our time, we’ll have little left in which to enjoy ourselves. We may also find ourselves facing some unpleasant trade-offs. So, let’s ask ourselves what’s really more important. Do I want more money or more time? More power or more time? More challenge or more time? How much time do I want to devote to family or friends? How much public acclaim will satisfy my ego? How much time do I want for personal reflection that might lead to greater self-understanding? How much stuff is really enough for me? In fact, when we make financial gain our main focus, no matter how much we earn, there’s a good chance that our quest will leave us feeling frustrated and empty. Perhaps even more important is the fact that – as we focus on earning enough to have all we think we want or think we need – we find ourselves in the unenviable position of not having time to enjoy what we’re working so hard to attain. We’re better off to remember while there are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 52 weeks in a year, the number of years in each of our lifetimes is uncertain. In fact, many of the things we deeply want require time not money. Money can not buy the love of our children, the strength of real friendships or the peace of a day spent in the beauty of our environment. Rather, these are the things that require our time. The choice is ours.

4. The Way We Are.

In questioning our standard of enough, it’s helpful to ask if we are living the kind of lifestyle that we really want or the one that society pressures us to pursue. Have we swallowed as whole cloth the popular message – if you want it, you can have it? It certainly appears that affluence is regarded today as an American birthright with few people acknowledging that this is myth that is fed by consumerism. Even more damaging is the fact that most people agree that money makes us what we are – either prosperous or not. Those same people are unwilling to acknowledge the darker side of wealth where it becomes easy to hide our real and human sides behind our prosperity, our money. That it can be applied to overshadow or override what we consider to be our flaws. That it’s easier to use money, over-generosity or gift-giving to control people and make ourselves look better. As writer Irv Thomas said, “The most wonderful thing about money is also the most troublesome thing about it. It tells you who you really are.”

5. The Balance Thing.

It’s been suggested that talk of balance is today’s way of saying life is full. In evidence of our great distance from the real meaning of the word consider the response of a group recently surveyed on the topic. When offered an array of possible strategies for pursuing balance, the majority rejected any that required them to compromise their careers, change the type of work they did, move them toward part-time or freelance work or require them to give up the idea of being a superstar at work. These were all viewed as nonstarters even in the name of balance. “As a nation of strivers, most of us are prepared to embrace this precarious blend of wanting and having, of getting and spending, and to call it ‘balance.’ We believe that at some point, having ‘more’ of something — more money, more self-knowledge – will change the game in a way that yields a new style of work, a new way of life and a new sense of personal freedom. Then, at last, we will have it all.” One more urban myth. Balance is achieved by those who are able to prioritize and manage the demands of both their work and private lives in a responsible and realistic manner around the things they have identified as most valuable to them.

6. Show Me the Money?

When they were asked to indicate factors that would help them achieve their goals in life, 86% of a group surveyed identified making more money as critical. Yet, most people would do things differently if they didn’t feel money-related pressures. In fact, most of us can admit that money is capable of changing a lot – including our consciousness. As important as money is, we would be wise to determine exactly what role it plays in our lives. We need to know how much money will stop us from worrying. How much we require to feel well-compensated at work. To what lengths we’ll go to achieve greater wealth. It’s up to each of us to decide as did former Microsoft executive, John Wood who said “I stopped working for Microsoft in 1998. I left millions on the table by walking away from the job. Most people can’t do that. I left a lot more on the table than I took away. Most of my friends before and after are slacker-artist types who don’t have any money. I’m still comparatively rich and you don’t need that much. I don’t need a villa.”

7. The High Price of Enough.

Over 100 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Sometimes money costs too much.” Indeed, as our income goes up, so do our expenses. In fact, it simply costs more to have more prompting one writer to observe, “A working man can get a good night’s sleep. But the rich man has so much that he stays awake worrying.” We live with anything from a perpetual feeling of never being satisfied to a relentless, gnawing hunger for more. In either state of mind, it’s easy to forget what’s truly important. If we live and work as if we always need more, we can quite simply never get enough. As Chris Copper of put it, “I set a target of what enough money is. Let’s say that target is a million. You get closer and closer to a million dollars, and you start shifting the target. All of a sudden it’s $5 million, then you start thinking $20 million wouldn’t be so bad. It’s very easy to be at a point where it’s never enough.” The perfect platform for chronic discontent.

8. Your Money or Your Life?

It’s safe to say – if someone thrust a gun in our ribs and asked that question – most of us would quickly turn over our wallets. Such a blatant threat makes apparent the value of our lives versus our money. But, when it comes to less menacing choices, things get a little more confusing, our thinking a little murkier. For instance, we seldom view the compromise of family and personal time in favor of business in such dire terms. This point was clearly demonstrated by a group of 1,096 college-educated, employee adults that was given an in-your-face choice via a Fast Company-Roper Starch Worldwide online survey to test the priority of money. Each respondent was asked – which would you rather have – a $10,000-a-year raise or an extra hour per day to spend at home with your family? No less than 83% of respondents opted for the cash even though 91% of respondents had indicated earlier that making their personal lives more of a priority was important to them. It would appear that money, indeed, carries the highest of priorities. That we easily obsess about raises, bonuses or promotions and create a lifestyle based, primarily, on what money can buy. That we often view money as the most powerful factor in our success, our life satisfaction and in our ability to determine the structure and substance of our lives. All told, it appears that when it comes to ‘your money or your life’ – most of us have not quite decided. No so with Senator Paul Tsongas who said – after deciding not to run for re-election after being diagnosed with cancer, “No man ever said on his deathbed – I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

9. Success vs. Excess.

Another fascinating aspect of enough is what we can describe as the rewards of success versus the beginnings of excess. Many people are of the opinion that too much is not good. That there’s some reason to question the prevalent belief that it is only having more money that paves the way to improved quality of life and better work/life balance. In fact, there are plenty of people who are not entirely comfortable with their own acquisitiveness and accelerated drive to make more money. Yet, we live in a society of contradictions which was clearly visible in the results of that Fast Company-Roper Starch Worldwide survey. They tested the limits of “enoughness” by offering the following scenario: Pat is offered a job opportunity at a hot startup. There’s a clear trade-off: long hours in exchange for the chance to cash in big when the company goes public. When the choice was framed simply as one involving two alternative paths, 59% of respondents said that Pat should take the high-risk, high-reward road. But when they gave Pat a working spouse and kids and posed the question again, 43% of respondents said that taking the new job would amount to “losing sight of what’s important.” In other words, studies show that it’s easier to establish the line between success and excess when other people’s lives are under scrutiny. Given the courage, it might be quite illuminating to take a look at our own lives as if they belonged to our neighbors. Quite possibly we’d get a more honest view of our own distinctions between success and excess.

10. Back To the Beginning.

So, here we are still wondering how much is enough. The answer might appear to be that there really is no such thing. That, typically speaking, the more people have, the more they want. As Harvard professor, Dr. Shoshana Zuboff observed, “Enoughness is a moving target. The rich are no more able to achieve it than those who are less well-off.” No matter what category we fit, the fact is that our true lives are not made up of the things we own. That acquisition for its own sake does not serve us well. And, that more of something that fails to feed our inner yearnings is useless to pursue. Instead, having enough means we do work that we love not because we need the money. That we are not drained by our daily lives because they are over full with less than meaningful things. That we have protected the personal part of our lives so that we enter it with energy and interest. That we have money put away to see us through a reasonable number of months of normal expenses. That our lives do not hinge on any one job. That we know who and what we love and make plenty of time for both. That we spend generous time with our families and friends. And, that we are truly satisfied with the contributions we make to the bigger world. In getting to our ‘enough – we can invite ourselves to determine what will have been of value at the end of our days. And, in the present, to clearly understand that ‘enough’ is largely a state of mind. As film producer Mike Todd put it, “I’ve been broke, but I’ve never been poor.”

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