What is Enough?

I’ve known many high achievers (some of whom were clients) who’ve been plagued with incessant self-doubt that they would never accomplish the expectations or lofty standards they’d set for themselves, that there was always more they should or could be doing. In order to determine coherence and find balance between our values and our aspirations, I believe we must impose limits on ourselves and determine the meaning of proportionality in the pursuit of our goals, both personal and professional. In simple terms, we must have a sense of what constitutes “enough.”

Money is important but how much is enough? A mountain of evidence tells us those who win multiple millions in lotteries, lucky as they are, are less happy than those who don’t. A study of five million Americans placed money 14th out of twenty sources of happiness. Since the work I do is largely with professional groups of every stripe, I can advise that these high achievers invariably list money in the top five. And some have a finite number in mind when it comes to defining their desired benchmark of wealth.

A big part of a fulfilling existence is figuring out how our expectations about money, power, status or success fit our definition of a life well lived. Knowing what constitutes enough makes our choices and plans easier. If achievement is equated to being the best – the richest, smartest or most glamorous – then we are destined to live a life of extremes. That is unsustainable. In a world that demands trade-offs, the relentless pursuit of perfection does not work as an operating paradigm. We may seek the perfect stock pick, perfect spouse, perfect job, perfect vacation and a funeral attended by thousands. We just can’t expect it. In the real world, not everyone graduates summa cum laude. That romanticized search for ideals is more than grueling; it’s entirely delusional.

Success is never satisfying when it is focused entirely on achievement in only one aspect of our lives, such as what we do to generate income. Since that determination rests primarily with those who assess our value to the enterprise, it ought not be the sole objective in seeking a meaningful life. Assuming otherwise is fundamentally naive. More likely, it’s selfish. Success is having a bigger framework for growth, one that aligns with our definition of what constitutes contentment, fulfillment and significance.

The intersection of these multi-faceted investments of time and effort is complex. It’s also transformational. Stuff happens to us every day and presents us with new boundaries, limitations and obstacles with which to contend. (This is also the stuff of opportunity.) There’s no such thing as a perfect plan. Since we can never achieve all we seek, we must determine what is enough, what is right, what is necessary and what is emotionally worthwhile. And, because we are notoriously programmed to make poor judgments about what we really need, no one else can answer that question but us.

This decision starts by discovering the difference, then finding the balance, between (what psychologists call) maximizing and satisficing. Maximizing requires an exploration of all available options in pursuit of determining the best one. This is of course impossible – there are simply too many options worthy of consideration. We live in a world of almost limitless choices. The consequence of always trying to find the best one is the inevitable realization that the effort is largely futile. That’s essentially why Einstein noted that doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It’s perpetuating a treadmill of regret, one that often begins with a question like “Why didn’t I ….”? There is not always something (nor someone) better.

Satisficing, on the other hand, is choosing the first thing that comes closest to being good enough, then moving on to the next pursuit. It’s knowing when (and how) to make a good decision. It means understanding the difference between what you need and what you want. The objective isn’t to achieve the best of everything; it’s to think larger, grander or better. Enduring achievement isn’t about shooting for the moon; it’s about stretching ourselves beyond what we thought possible. It’s the satisfaction of improving in the domains of life we believe important, whether these be family, work, community, spirituality, leisure interests or something else. While stretch is good for mental and physical muscles; reachable is more fulfilling.

What constitutes enough changes over time. In our youth, it’s mostly about seeking pleasure. In middle age, it’s a combination of accomplishment and the recognition that comes with it. As we near life’s end, we think more about legacy. If we knew we only had nine months to live, our definition of enough, and the plan to achieve it, would be quite different. As we travel along the biways of life, we need different road maps to guide us on how best to reach different destinations. These maps enable us to establish our bearings and embrace the concept of adventure. The trick is to sustain our momentum forward – that is the holy grail of discovering the meaning of enough.

Our unique maps are ever changing. We neither have nor want the same things at 45 as we did at 25. During adolescence, we shaped our maps to better align with our peer groups. Those plans, as well as our identities, changed as we adjusted to new realities. As time moves forward, our work can become mechanical and soulless and our relationships can lose their attraction and energy. Career shifts are now the norm. Risks and conflicts are inevitable and alter life trajectories in significant ways. This suggests the wisdom of both short and longer-term plans that reflect what constitutes enough at 55, 65 or 75.

Enough is not about mediocrity; rather, it’s an expression of acceptance – a process of coming to grips with what fulfils our evolving sense of satisfaction in its myriad forms. It’s reconciling what we want with what we need, what we want now with what we could wait for, what we need as individuals with whether the enterprise that buys our time and talent can give it to us, and what seems genuine to us with what’s necessary or expedient to please others.

Unless or until we can calibrate the balance between our aspirations and our realities, we cannot effectively use our finite resources (like the time we have), adapt to changing circumstances and refine our life maps. Reinhold Niebuhr’s advice often echoes in my brain: “… give (me) the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.” Recognizing, then letting go of, what we cannot change frees up the energy needed to change what we actually can and must.

In layman’s terms, enough is about making critical trade-offs – to find that place in our hearts and minds, in sufficient quality or quantity, that satisfies our evolving wants while sustaining the momentum for continued growth. In determining that place, our hopes must be in sync with our principles. Our values, instilled early in life, will shape the definition of what is important. Our beliefs, which can change dramatically as time passes, will shape how we see the world. And our purpose will provide the fuel for our commitment and perseverance.

Achievement is not the ultimate goal in life. The process of giving creative effort every day to enhancing one’s personal definition of meaning is. Knowing the baselines of what constitutes enough is more important than defining excellence. This determination gives life its richness and its coherence. Like a thermostat, it sets the minimums and maximums of inner contentment – what can pragmatically be expected, tolerated and acted upon. Finding coherence is discovering consistency across significant life events that generate often surprising but also pleasing self-insights. This enables us to worry less but understand more about our choices, pursuits and relationships.

Enough is getting more without wanting it all. If we cannot admit to ourselves that there are limits to what we can accomplish, then we will continually strive to overreach beyond what we are capable of achieving. Therein will lie perpetual frustration, dissatisfaction, despair and remorse. And that is the antithesis of a life well lived.