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Is it ever enough?

May 19, 2024 Success, Sunday Nation

I never thought I would resonate with a book about money. All my life I have had a sceptical mistrust of matters mammon. I have observed the derangement it causes in many: individuals, corporations, even entire cultures. And as I have written here many a time, a manic obsession with money leads to nothing good at all.

I came across many people reading Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money, and looked away, thinking it would be another bestseller about how to make more. How wrong I was. It is certainly a bestseller (three million copies sold, says my copy), but for very different reasons. This is a profound work with very good insights on how money is made, managed, mistreated, and lost. And it is about time someone connected this important feature of our lives to what happens in our minds when we deal with it. So I shall refer to this book often in the coming months.

Let’s begin with this anecdote, contained in the book. Authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were at a party hosted by a billionaire, a hedge fund manager. Vonnegut informed his friend that their host made more money in a single day than Heller had made from his very successful book, Catch-22, over its entire history.

Heller’s response? “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”

What a powerful word that is. Enough. And how little it is used. How many of us actually think about how much is enough for us? Most are completely occupied in the race for more. The first segment of the race is to escape poverty. The next phase is to become financially comfortable. Then, people want to use money to gain some independence and security. So far, so good. Money is a good and necessary weapon when you are aiming it at those targets. Blast your way out of poverty, discomfort and dependence by all means. Use it to treat yourself and enjoy some luxuries and quality products and experiences. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem comes when the race continues. Even when we have achieved some ease and some self-reliance, the heat is still on. In the next lap we feel we must have more, simply because others do. Comparison and envy kick in, and that’s the beginning of insanity around possessions. Your very nice home suddenly feels small and modest when you attend your friend’s housewarming party. You look at the array of sleek cars in the parking lot and want to hide your own vehicle, the very same one you felt so much pride in acquiring only recently. Your best attire, worn to commemorate a milestone at a fine establishment, seems shabby when you look at what everyone else is wearing. You return from your very satisfying family holiday, only to have your contentment vaporise when you look at your friend’s Instagram pics. Your business gives you a very nice income, but when you sit at the bar with some random strangers and hear what revenues they rock, you shrink into your seat.

Now you need more.

The problem, as Morgan Housel confirms, is twofold. One, that we will take more and more risks to get more. And second, when we need more, we tend to keep needing more—it never ends. In Warren Buffet’s words, when describing those who go down this path: “To make money they didn’t have and didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need. And that’s foolish.”

Modern capitalism, Housel tells us, is good at two things: generating wealth and generating envy. If we don’t impose any limits on these forces, they will consume us to our dying days. You will never, ever win a social comparisons battle. There will always be people to be envious of, no matter how high you get in the rich list. The trick is to manage the mind.

How much is enough? If we eat too much, our body makes us regret it. There will be similar consequences in overdoing the race for more money. We will take one risk too many, and lose even what was once secure. We will put in too much depraved effort into the chase, and lose our health and wellbeing. We will skirt the law, and find it catches up with us. And we will often lose the relationships that matter the most to us.

Morgan Housel gives us an equation. Happiness = Results minus Expectations. Your results, no matter how spectacular, will not matter a jot if your expectations always exceed them. Record-breaking profits mean very little when the expectation is that more is possible and desirable.

My own advice to anyone who has found a degree of material comfort: pause to enjoy the achievement, before getting up to speed to the next destination. Consider “the far you have come” (as we say in these parts) before racing off. Be grateful for all the luck and support you have undoubtedly had to get where you are. Stop comparing, and stop hanging out with those who will make you envious. 

Say “enough” at the right place. Because in the end, you will be a small pile of dust like everyone else, no matter how much you accumulated.

(Sunday Nation, 19 May 2024)

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