The value of enough in a culture of scarcity

Throughout the summer, I went on a cross-country road trip from Wisconsin to Montana. If we’re being totally honest, driving across the country wasn’t my first choice on how I intended to spend my summer. My fiancée was the one who dragged me out to do it. Looking back, I’m glad she did. During my trip, I learned something that will change the way I live the rest of my life. Something I never would have learned in the city.

Our culture of scarcity

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes that we live in a culture of scarcity. It’s ingrained in how we live and most of the time, we aren’t even aware of it. We’re never good enough. Or never perfect enough. Or thin enough. We never have enough money. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Etc. Etc.

Can we blame ourselves for feeling this way? Throughout our daily lives, we are bombarded with constant reminders that we don’t have enough. When I walk outside, I see fancier cars, bigger apartments/condos, shinier gadgets, flashier status symbols. All of it carrying an implied invitation to try and keep up.

Just look at that! Some people are rich enough to own boats. I can’t afford a boat.

God, this building is so much fancier than where I live.

And that car. It’s a real head turner. Not like my car.

Very rarely will someone come up to us and tell us that we don’t have enough. No, that would be too nice. Instead, we see all the finer things that we can’t afford and we’re allowed to come to that conclusion on our own. That we just don’t have enough. So, we do things that we think will ultimately “make us happy”. We think that…

  • If I can just get this job then I’ll finally be okay
  • If I buy this new gadget then I’ll be happy
  • If I get a girlfriend then my life will finally be complete
  • If I can start my own business then I’ll finally have freedom/income/lifestyle that I want

And if we’re lucky enough to finally get that thing we were chasing, we wonder why we’re not suddenly happy.

For me, it was getting a CPA license. I always imagined that once I had my CPA license, I would have it made. Everything would just magically work out then. I’d never have to worry about anything. I’d be okay. I thought that simply being able to put those three letters next to my name would make me happy.

“Steven Zawila, CPA”

So, I studied for the exam. I worked much more diligently than my friends to learn the material and I passed it faster than anyone else I knew. Finally, I could put those three letters next to my name…

…except…I still wasn’t happy. There was no fanfare. No trumpets. No giant flag saying “You did it, Steven!” With the exception of those three letters next to my name, everything else was the same.

Now what?

What it means to have “enough”

Over the summer, my fiancée and her mother dragged me outside on a cross-country road trip. As an introvert, it wasn’t my first choice on how I wanted to spend my summer. If it were up to me, I’d just stay inside with my Netflix and video games.

I’m glad they did, though. Getting away from crowded Milwaukee, Wisconsin and out into the countryside helped me see things from a different perspective. Once I was away from civilization, all of those whispering reminders that I just didn’t have enough faded away in the rear-view mirror. Suddenly, it wasn’t about how much I had sitting in my bank account or how many of those fancy gadgets and status symbols I owned.

No, the only thing it was about was how much I could get out of using only the items I could fit in my car trunk. And that wasn’t a lot. We wouldn’t even have reliable cell phone reception out there. Those few essentials in my car trunk had to keep us alive over the next few weeks. It wasn’t much but it needed to be enough, for better or for worse.

A few dozen hours later we finally stopped in the Montana countryside. We pitched our tent and prepared our cozy sleeping arrangements. When we finished setting up, I looked around and experienced something that I’ll remember forever. Back in Milwaukee—between the floating yachts I didn’t own and the luxury condos I didn’t live in and the fancy car I didn’t drive—I was constantly bombarded with reminders that I did not have enough. That I was not enough. But outdoors in the Montana countryside, all of us were finally able to live simple lives. We left the lap of luxury and survived by living in a tent and prepping simple food using a fire that I built by hand. Suddenly, the paltry few items that we were able to fit in our car trunk were…enough.

I have enough. I was enough.

Potatoes on the fire. It’s not much but it’s enough.

What having “enough” looks like

A few months ago, if you asked me what my dream life looked like then I would not have been able to answer that. However, when I left behind all of my possessions except for what I could fit in my car trunk, I realized how great my life truly is. Today, I have a job that pays me enough to live. I have a wonderful fiancée. And I have this website where I can reach thousands of people and change the world in my own way.

I already am living my dream life. I already do have enough.

But wait! Perhaps you might be wondering…Steve, are you just settling now? Am I just going to stop trying to improve my life anymore? Lose all ambition? Stay put in my life while my peers pass me by?

Well, there’s the thing. Being happy with your life and striving to improve your life is not mutually exclusive. I know that sounds completely bogus so I’ll try to explain it with a simple example. Imagine that an evil deity put a curse on you which would doom you to live the same life that you’re living right now. Forever. Your salary will never increase. Your career will never advance. Your friends will never change. You will never meet any new people. Where you are right now is where you will always be. Given all of that…could you still be happy?

Back then, I never could have said yes to that question. Between now and then I’ve learned that even the paltry few possessions I can fit in the trunk of a car is enough. And if that is enough, then everything else I own is also enough. Today, I’m honestly able to say that I could be happy if my life were suddenly doomed to stay the same forever.

Good thing I’m blessed with no such curse. My life is going to get even better from here on out!

It’s strange. People are strange. We “just want to be happy” and somethings we do a lot of strange things to try and accomplish that. We’ll gaze wistfully upon the things we don’t own. We’ll buy that flashy status symbol. And we’ll travel all over the world searching for something that does not exist. Not on the outside, at least.

If you have the chance then I urge you to spend some time in nature. Get away from all the noise. From the consumerist culture that dominates today’s society. From all the reminders that you do not have enough. That you are not enough. Maybe you’ll learn something new along the way.

As for me, I’ve learned that living a good life comes not from having more stuff to get, but from getting more from the stuff you have.

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