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Enough already

We're not so good at knowing when to say when, but maybe it's time we learned.

November 29, 2009|By Barry Goldman

Some years ago, I heard an arbitration case involving the mistreatment of a patient in a mental hospital. The patient had an uncontrollable desire to drink water, a condition called polydipsia. The switch in the brain that was supposed to trip when he'd had enough liquid was stuck in the "on" position. He would drink water from any source -- a toilet was as good as a sink -- and if no one stopped him, he would keep drinking until his body fluids were so diluted he passed out.

As I attempt to digest my Thanksgiving dinner, I've been thinking about that guy and how he is a metaphor for all of us: Our "enoughness" switch is broken.

The most recent example from Wall Street is the case of Raj Rajaratnam. He's the hedge-fund billionaire who was arrested and charged with insider trading. Brokers have always enjoyed having a little edge over the competition. Or, as Roy Blount Jr. put it, "If it ain't fixed, don't broke it." But a billionaire is a person with a thousand million dollars. Why would a person with a thousand million dollars risk going to prison for a chance to make more money?

Rich people have never had a sense of enoughness. A visit to any palace or castle anywhere in the world tells the same story. "Should I build another room full of gold spittoons and gem-encrusted chamber pots, or should I dig a well in the village for the people who don't have any water? What's the question?"

But the failure of enoughness isn't just a problem for rich people. Look around your own house. Look in your closets. Closets in a modern house are dramatically larger than they were 50 years ago. But they're still not big enough to hold all of our stuff. We had to invent the personal storage business so we could rent space to hold the stuff that won't fit in our houses. And we keep buying more.

Part of the explanation for this has to do with our evolution. Our species never developed a sense of enoughness because the problem of too much stuff didn't used to exist. In the ancestral environment, stuff was scarce. You never knew when you'd have another opportunity to get some. It was an adaptive strategy, for example, to eat as much as you could whenever you got a chance. People who took advantage of those opportunities carried around a little extra fat and were better able to survive when lean times came, as they inevitably did.

In the developed world today, for the first time in human history, scarcity is not a problem for most of us. But the tendency to grab stuff persists. And waiting for a sense of enoughness to evolve is likely to be a long wait.

Avarice and conspicuous consumption are part of the problem, but the failure of enoughness is larger than that. There is also the delusional sense of power over the world. Anorexics have it. 'Roid heads have it. "There are no limits to how big (or little) I can get. I am in charge." The United States military has it. "There are no physical, logistical, political, financial or historical facts that can stop us. We can defeat evil."

Delusional overconfidence also has a long history in our evolutionary psychology. Our ancestors used it to puff themselves up before a fight. Sometimes it worked. A warrior who believes he is invincible fights more bravely than one who is not so sure.

But perhaps the time has come for us to assert some control over our desire to acquire ever more stuff. Perhaps the time has come at last for a more modest, more humble, less audacious foreign policy. Perhaps it's time to bring a sense of enoughness to our personal lives and to our nation's military undertakings.

It is not fashionable to be modest or humble in our aspirations, either personal or political. The more popular view is that you can accomplish anything at all if you want it bad enough and you try your hardest. Cure your cancer, correct your slice, build a pluralist democracy in Afghanistan. It's just a matter of getting rid of negative thoughts. The problem, of course, is that this is delusional, puerile nonsense. Adults know this. But it has been a long time since the adults were in charge.

I understand that desire is the mother of achievement. You don't get to be Michael Phelps or Barack Obama by settling for good enough. You don't even get to be Britney Spears. Achievement comes from the overpowering drive to be better, faster, stronger, bigger, richer -- and from the indomitable conviction that greatness is your destiny. All that is true, but it is not the whole truth.

A sense of enoughness means considering that perhaps you might want to stop drinking from that urinal, or maybe you can do without another pair of shoes, or perhaps we would all be better off if we didn't throw another 40,000 young lives into the Graveyard of Empires. While it may not be the path to great achievement, this may be the beginning of the path to wisdom.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

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