The Second Installment in a Series of Blogs about Real Wealth
How does it feel to have the good-enough? Not quite as good as having the best. "The Best" is an American icon.
Capitalism, innovation and evolutionary hard-wiring all push us inexorably toward thinking that the goal of life is to have the best of everything. What's the purpose of success if not to own the perfect home, the optimal car and the matchless relationship? The sublime sushi, the consummate backhand, the flawless smile? Just as there are supposedly countless words for snow in Inuit, in Americanese there should be infinite words for perfection, our national obsession.
And everyone knows the counter-argument, which can drone pedantically like any bad mantra: Voltaire's quote that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."
If perfection is the goal, and yet is also enemy of getting anything done at all, where does that leave anyone's life plan?
Presumably, life contests worth winning are #1 wealthiest and #1 oldest. These would be the supreme laurels in a society that values money and time.
Few have ever laid claim to either, but it's worth pausing to hear what Bill Gates once said about being the world's wealthiest man:
"I wish I wasn't...There's nothing good that comes out of that."
Which makes sense when you remember that being the wealthiest often made Bill Gates a high-profile punching bag for the Justice Department and everyone else. And so the top material crown isn't quite what it seemed.
On the other hand, it turns out that being the world's richest was a first-world problem and easy to solve. Bill Gates did so by spending much of his money to address third-world concerns.
In the material world, the quest to have the unequaled of everything can only bring misery. If you are someone who "needs" only the best caviar, the peerless bespoke suit, or the unmarred Porsche, then you are a slave to your own caricature of yourself.
But it bears mention that this weakness is not unique to the material world. Parents who insist on an education beyond compare for their precious offspring are just as trapped by the consequences. They may have better priorities than the investment banker with veneers, but they practice the same "the best deserves only the best" elitism that is short on joy and contentment.
And if you think all this is solely the province of the 1 percent or 1 percent wannabees, know that there's a hipster out there somewhere striving for the most ironic t-shirt and the best, most effortless cool.
Imagine a world where everyone wanted to give their kids an "ok" education, or themselves a mediocre anniversary. Or if someone could be satisfied with the middling golf course, a decent omelette or a third-rate mani-pedi. It sounds ridiculous -- and to the hard-charging American it reeks of the complacent and the mediocre. After all, spoils go to the winner, and "second best" in the Super Bowl is just another phrase for loser. Until you realize that most of life's pursuits do not have binary outcomes. What's second best is often nearly as good as the top. The difference between #1 and #2 is sometimes statistically insignificant, but tell someone they're the runner-up and they'll spin around to see who got first prize.
When trying recently to buy the "safest" car for my family, I bought the Volvo S60 because it was touted tops in crash tests. On the drive home in my impregnable new ride, I had the realization that my obsession with the unassailable auto hadn't necessarily translated into the most careful driving.
The perfect can be the enemy of the good -- or even the red herring for the real.
So here's a plug for the run-of-the-mill burger, the passable vacation, the second-rate hairstyle and the ordinary everywhere. The restaurant called "Good Enough to Eat" on New York's Upper West Side might have the right idea. If it works it's good enough. If you can eat it, so much the better.