Why Are We So Obsessed With Having More and Being The Best?

You can never be too rich or too thin. You can never have too many friends (especially on Facebook). America, as a nation, functions as though the growth curve is infinite, as though the bubble will never burst.
Publish date:
March 28, 2013
happiness, satisfaction, competition, stability, enough, capitalism, anticapitalism

My first "real" job out of college (how come retail never counts?) was as a teacher. I worked for an alternative school -- I taught multiple subjects to multiple grade-levels of kids who had been expelled for various reasons from the regular school system.

The kids came to school in business wear (and, man, did I struggle with the business-casual even then) and there was a check-based economy for behavior. I left that school (and teaching) because the set-up and the administration weren''t supporting the kids or the teachers very well.But I've never forgotten the school's motto: Where good enough never is.

Talk about a perpetual mind fuck.

But it's an accurate reflection of our culture, where nothing -- and no one -- is ever good enough. You can never be too rich or too thin. You can never have too many friends (especially on Facebook). America, as a nation, functions as though the growth curve is infinite, as though the bubble will never burst.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. One of the things motivating me to get freaking organized is that I feel tremendous pressure to take advantage of the opportunities that luck and hard work have presented to me. When my shit is not together, it's really easy to let those opportunities slip away -- and then I'm buried under a metric fuckload of guilt about it. Every unanswered email is like plucking individual hairs from my legs instead of just waxing them all off at once.

While that simile got away from me a little bit, the fact remains: Somehow I figure that if I don't take advantage of every opportunity to Do All The Things, I am somehow a bad person and/or a professional failure.

Y'all, that's kind of effed up. I walk around most secure in the knowledge that I am never good enough because there is always more to be done.

Don't get me wrong -- there IS always more that can be done. But I'm realizing more and more powerfully these past few years that we just don't live in a culture that encourages people to be happy with what they have. Maybe it's a natural consequence of the American Dream (your children living a better life than you, bootstrapping it up despite the odds); it's definitely a particularly insidious side effect of capitalism and advertising.

The last time I had jury duty, it was a personal injury case. The plaintiff had lost his leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident with a city utility van. It was kind of brutal in the jury chambers, and we spent six week days hearing the case and debating it before everything ended in a mistrial. But one of the witnesses called by the defense was a man with a particularly interesting job.

See, in a personal injury case, one of the things that must be determined is how much money from future earning the plaintiff has effectively lost due to the injury. They don't just make up that number. There are people who look at population averages and then apply them to individuals based on that individual's history.

At the time, I thought it was kind of terrible that people's potential could be reduced to population averages that way. But it's also interesting that these trends exist. I would never apply population statistics to an individual myself, because individuals are hardly as predictable as populations, but the existence does point out that, as much as American culture tells us we should all be rock stars, a lot of people remain on the clean-up crew.

And why is that such a bad thing, really? I don't think it is. We should be "more" according to society -- but we're never told what more means, other than rich. And we're never told to be happy.

I'm not saying ambition is bad or that people should be happy with what they've got, especially when so many people don't even have enough to live without constant anxiety and straight-up fear. But I'm curious about the how and why of the way we're always supposed to be grasping for more more more.

Even when we don't really NEED any more.

It's like we're CULTURALLY acting on a scarcity model, even the people who have the most. Maybe it's because our money culture is founded on fundamentally unstable concepts. I mean, there are parts of capitalism that I enjoy (buying shoes, obvy) but it's definitely a system with some issues (understatement).

Or do you think it's because we're afraid of death, culturally speaking? I feel like we're all running around, holding on to as much as possible to distract us from the idea that one day we aren't going to exist anymore.

The usual white Western response to this kind of thinking about consumerism and capitalism is to run off to India and appropriate another country's spiritual tradition -- because there are cultures that exist with other models. But that's actually really gross when it happens (the appropriation). And I think we need to talk about being less involved in the rat race, about creating an alternative to life being a competition based on money and acquisitions, in a secular sense anyway.

There was a point, several years back, where I woke up and had a pretty significant realization: enough people like me.

As in, it no longer really bothers me if people DON'T like me for some reason. Because new friends are AWESOME. But I don't have to be everyone's friend. And if you don't like me, that's actually not much of a statement about either of us beyond our incompatibility.

Don't take this as me not caring about hurting other people or not wanting to make new friends. Because it isn't that. I just don't need more people to like me for purposes of validation. I'm pretty secure in my identity at this point, even when I doubt myself in other ways.

Part of me clenches up to write that, just because it seems arrogant. But I think that's more cultural conditioning on my part -- more of the "good enough never is" message.

I also struggle with this because I AM a horribly, sometimes nastily competitive person, as anyone who has ever played Soul Calibur or gin rummy with me can probably attest. But I want to do my own best; I'm tired of comparing myself to other people and coming up short -- no one actually wins in that style of competition because there is always someone who is more whatever in some other category.

There's no actual finish line is what I'm trying to say.

But that still leaves the question of what stepping outside of the usual capitalist/competitive model would look like. I don't know entirely. I think we're going to have to put some work into figuring it out though if we want to be happy with our lives instead of just focused on beating other people according to arbitrary standards.

Maybe it really does come down to people in communities figuring out a new way to make things happen for themselves. I wonder if sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo aren't part of that, too -- I recently donated to a campaign (to relaunch Re/Dress -- the most amazing plus size vintage/used/new clothing store basically ever -- under the ownership of Rachel Kacenjar) so I've been watching fat community come together to make things happen. In the most recent update, Rachel said, "WE MAKE UP OUR OWN RULES AROUND HERE!" and that's stuck with me.

Because we SHOULD be making up our own rules, figuring out ways to serve our own communities -- determining our own definitions of what "success" means to us in our own individual context.

I want to be happy. Whatever that winds up meaning for me. And as I get my shit together (I'll tell you about my experience with Inbox Zero at some point), I need to keep that in mind. I don't have to feel guilty for not grasping at every opportunity because not every opportunity is something I even want to do.

We are actually good enough. We make up our own rules around here.