We live in times of abundance and surplus, when standards of living are objectively higher for more people than they have ever been. How puzzling then that so many people are unhappy with their lot. I think you can lay the blame at the feet of our ambitions. Although striving for material progress served humanity well for centuries by raising us out of widespread poverty into wealth, today it may be causing more harm than good. Let's explore why.
When everyone around you measures their success in material goods, it is no surprise that many young people dream of accumulating wealth. There are so many things to buy, it's clear that you need to have a certain amount of money to be able to navigate modern society. I see stories every week, however, of consumerism gone amok.
- For a subset of the one-percenters in the know, you can display your savvy with a plain $625 Loro Piana baseball cap, or perhaps their $1,050 Open Walk ankle boots.
- Watch afficionados long delighted in five- and six-figure wristwatches little distinguishable from their three-figure cousins to all but the similarly well-informed.
- You may have noticed the annual reporting of investment bank CEO pay, where Jamie Dimon, James Gorman, and David Solomon get out their tape measures to see who has the largest package. Pay package, I mean! Get your mind out of the gutter.
- Or how about the spectacle of billionaires airing their grievances in public, as is currently happening among hedge fund Apollo co-founders Leon Black and Josh Harris. If having $10 billion and $6 billion, respectively, in the bank does not bring you peace, then I think it's safe to say no amount of money alone can do the trick.
I explore the concept of "more is better" in two unrelated posts this week. The next installment in the ongoing Paradise Found series is What Our Roads Say About Us. I examine what you can tell about a society by their roads. Our review takes us from ancient Rome, through China and India, and on to the American South.
My latest Career Paths article in the ACC Docket is called Can You Succeed at Work Without Working Hard? The typical lawyer answer of "it depends" still comes down heavily on one side, which is that working more increases your chances of career success. But doing so means you'll likely finding out that your ambitions come with a price.
We are ambitious because humans at heart are driven by relative status. We live in hierarchies, which are a fundamental facet of every society. For a long time, accumulating material wealth was a way to show you were successful. And the more wealth, the more successful, apparently without any rational upper limit.
Thanks to both normal distributions of ability and the pareto principle, a small percentage of people will be disproportionately successful in whatever dimension you measure, including earnings and wealth. In the last few generations, and largely because most people no longer lack for basic material goods, we've seen some interesting tweaks to the game of jockeying for status.
Today a person can demonstrate high social status by their commitment to a cause, for example climate change. You may not be a millionaire, but look, you drive a Prius, so you care about the environment. Or you may be frustrated in your career ambitions, but you care about helping people in third world countries, so that makes you a better person. You can fill in the blanks with a long list of similar topics that allow in-group members to lay claim to moral high ground: political party or religion; diversity, inclusion, and equity; or anti-racism and critical race theory.
What these all have in common is that they do not require anything other than passion and self-identification to have the desired signaling effect. Peoples' ultimate aim for some of these causes may be to gain power and redistribute resources in different ways. But in the short-term, the social signaling aspect is a powerful reward in itself.
The problem with social virtue signaling as a status symbol is similar to that of accumulating wealth: "more" is better, and there is no logical stopping point at which one can say enough is enough. Hence you see people taking ever more radical positions to demonstrate they care more than others. Our current polarized politics are one manifestation, as are the fights you see in schools over anti-racist training, and in companies over unconscious bias and diversity training.
My point is not to criticize any particular cause or social group – they almost all have basic validity at some level. Rather, I want to draw attention to the idea that if you seek your relative value or worth in comparisons with others, you are demonstrating a "more" mindset: If only I had more _______, I would be happy.
Is there another way? In this week's Moral Letter 061 On Living A Full Life, we explore what it means to live fully in the moment. When we do not dwell in the past or daydream about the future, we open ourselves to the possibility of finding tranquility and joy in what we are doing right now.
I recently came across an example of a person who was successful at almost everything he tried, including things that appeared quite impossible before he came along and did them. The genius mathematician Edward O. Thorp demonstrated that it was possible to beat the house playing blackjack, and then went on to spearhead the quantitative trading movement in financial markets, becoming wealthy in the process. His book A Man For All Markets makes for fantastic reading.
More impressive than his many intellectual and financial accomplishments, at least to me, were his decisions to stop playing the game. Mr. Thorp recognized that a "more" mindset could never be satisfied, and so thought about what was important to him in life. In his own words:
To preserve the quality of my life and to spend more of it in the company of people I value and in the exploration of ideas I enjoy, I chose not to follow up on a number of business ventures, although I believed that they were nearly certain to become extremely profitable.
Seneca would celebrate Edward Thorp, not for his many material accomplishments, but for having identified what was important to him and behaving accordingly. If that meant leaving money and accolades on the table, so be it. In this way, Mr. Thorp serves as one of the good examples that lie exposed before us described in Moral Letters 062 On Good Examples.
We do not lack for knowledge of what to do, we lack the will to do it.
The only thing I would wish you to seek more of is satisfaction. Your happiness will come from paying attention to what you are doing, in the moment you are doing it.
We do not need to be geniuses to follow in the footsteps of geniuses. They have blazed a path for us, and all we need to do is follow. It is up to us to choose our paths accordingly.