I admit it: there are one or two things I’m not number one in.
More difficult for me to admit is that my lack of number one-ness in these few things is a matter of complete indifference to me, and that I have no particular desire to improve myself. Worse, that this lack of ambition, this ability to not strive for greatness, gives me real pleasure.
Worse still (here I’m closing in on ideological treason), I see this ability to rest easy as a virtue, even a talent. (Quite possibly I’m number one in not caring if I’m number one.) I believe that being good enough, in many cases, is more than good enough; that it may, in fact, be the key to the contentment box, and that properly understood and appropriately applied, it can make us a lot happier and a whole lot less annoying to others.
Let me take a second to throw some tacks under the wheels of my critics.
First, I have no quarrel with the strivers who choose to march – and I mean march – to a different drummer. If going for personal bests is your oyster, I’d be the last one to take it away. I’ve known that oyster – damn-near killed myself on the track and the squash court, for example – and there’s great satisfaction to be found in it.
Second, in praising the virtues of good enough-ness, I’m not suggesting that you apply it with a great, slovenly brush to your entire life. I’m not proselytizing for sloth. By all means, pick a thing, or a couple, if you like, in which "good enough" will never be good enough – I have – and strive for mastery. Knock yourself out.
Then find a place in the shade and consider the benefits of not striving for mastery in badminton, say, of not going for the gold in bird-watching, or barbecuing. Imagine letting the competitor-consumers, the relentless researchers, the worried trend-watchers with their fingers forever on the pulse of the moment sprint grimly ahead, while you take the day to mess around with your kids, or head off into the woods, or burn some chicken. Think of the money you’ll save and the confusion you’ll sow.
I say confusion because the world is filled with things, big things, unsuited to competition and perfect for "good enough"; things that can’t be ranked because there’s no universal yardstick by which to measure them. Because they just don’t measure. Whose #1 in decency? Or joy? Or even – despite a 150-year-old industry devoted to convincing us otherwise – contentment?
What’s interesting is the number of things similarly unsuited – parenting, for example, or leisure – that we’ve somehow been conned into believing are not profoundly individual activities in which one person’s notion of success is different from another’s, but rather activities which – like tennis – will reward our dedication with the brass ring of excellence. Never have so many been suckered so effectively. Barnum would be proud.
In many ways, of course, we Americans were ripe for the fall, culturally predisposed, like fifth-generation alcoholics, to find the rabbit hole and throw ourselves into it. For 350 years, ever since the Puritans began to fudge the Covenant of Grace by suggesting that, hey, maybe there were some things we could do – like working, striving, etc. – to punch our ticket to heaven, we’d been associating virtue with labor and labor with accumulation. On our journey through life, we’d come to understand, our task was to attach stuff to ourselves, and if the logical apotheosis of that Velcro philosophy was the figure of Donald J. Trump, bestriding the New World like a gold-plated colossus and braying ‘"I’m number one!" well, that happy sight was still a ways off in the future.
Back to history. It didn’t take long for the spirit of capitalism to capitalize on the suggestion that our labor could save us; all that had to be done – picture Don Draper of "Mad Men" making the pitch – was to bring the whole business down to earth. In the blink of a banker’s eye, work now pointed to a secular salvation and competition-for-things became the three-word answer to every question, the yellow brick road to every dream, the cure for every fear, and if by some chance you had the presumption not to feel afraid, the sellers would fix you by selling you that, then selling you the stuff to dispel it.
From there on it was one swift ride, made swifter by the breakdown of civil society, the rise of mass media, the increasing atomization of American culture. Selling stuff to David Riesman’s “lonely crowd,” it turned out, was a piece of cake. Miserable people could be made to feel inadequate – society’s losers. Isolated people could be conned into believing that striving for a bigger house or newer car would make everything right simply by showing them pictures of people with bigger houses, newer cars, who looked happy.
Not surprisingly, the sellers found a receptive audience for their Kwik-Fix solution to life’s disappointments; after all, real contentment was hard to find, hard to hold on to – it took years (and something like wisdom) to even recognize it. How much easier to just strive for the corner office, the perfect score, the award-winning kid, the trophy wife. Why climb the stairway to heaven when you could take the escalator, and lay your money down.
Enter social media, on which everyone’s life is always better than yours, on which everyone’s thrilled because they just love their new French marble countertops and Kylie just got into Princeton (or the pre-school certain to get Kylie into Princeton), and they’re leaving on that vacation (which you could never afford) with their adoring husband who just got that promotion and . . . But you’ll show them. You’ll "like" their pics to prove you don’t care, and then post that selfie in which you look so thin so they’ll see it while they’re stuffing themselves in Tuscany.
Here’s the thing: In response to this wonderfully intricate mousetrap we inhabit, I propose, laughably enough, the cultivation of "enough," a concept as elegant in its simplicity as it is revolutionary in its implications. There’s nothing to buy – no salesman will call. It’s not available in any store.
Before proceeding, however, you should be aware that good enough-ness is potentially both infectious and hereditary and that adopting a laissez faire approach to barbequing, for example, may keep your kid out of Harvard, which currently asks its 18-year-old applicants to limit themselves to their top six state- or national-level awards.
You’ve been warned.
Case Study #1: Sex
Let’s start with sex. As an impressionable college freshman I was once wandering past the used bookstores on Amsterdam Avenue when I came across a book on sex. If memory serves – it’s been a while – it was called something like "How to be a Great Lover," or "Twelve Steps to Becoming a Great Lover." Assuming an expression of amused sophistication – How absurd! – I started reading. Though I’d have denied it under torture, when it came to sex I was as ignorant as a turnip. Maybe I’d learn something, pick up some pointers, improve my "technique." There was a technique, right?
The book, which, disturbingly, I remember well, consisted mostly of exercises accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations designed to fast-track my lovemaking prowess. Fingertip push-ups were involved, as were tongue-extension sessions (the men’s room at the office was a good bet for getting in that mid-day workout), and high-speed blinking exercises to minimize fatigue while performing the butterfly flutter on her nipples.
Ten pages in, hope entered my heart: If this was what the competition was up to, I might be all right. If Becoming a Great Lover involved sitting on the can during lunch developing a tongue of steel and indefatigable eyelids, maybe greatness was the wrong goal. Maybe, unless you aspired to join the pro tour, having a good time without worrying about your ranking might be enough.
Of course, the news that success in dating might be predicated on not much more than actually talking to the person you’re with (whether before or after), leaves a lot of clever people scratching their heads trying to figure out how to sell you something. “Don’t be a schmuck and listen to her – or him,” makes for a short book.
And so, happily ignoring the fact that sex – never mind love – is not a competitive sport, the Purveyors of Unnecessary Crap got busy spreading the seeds of anxiety, then selling us the stuff that dispels it. From the Playboy Pad on (I’m picking on men out of chivalry, not because women haven’t matched us in foolishness), to "score" now required equipment, and not just equipment equipment – though the extending, maximizing, prolonging industry is still busily cranking away, proving that idiots, like Christ’s poor, shall always be with us – but equipment: the right car, the right hair, the right phone, and so on and so on unto senility. Sock all this stuff on your Visa, memorize the Five Steps to Drive Her Wild, and you might score an eight, or even a nine. Which makes you the man. Right?
Alternatively, you can shower and shave and put on a clean shirt and talk to somebody. If she likes you, and you like her back, maybe you’ll go to bed. Which might be good enough, no?
But enough about sex.
Case Study #2: Gardening
I don’t doubt that to be a great gardener you probably need to know something about micronutrients and nematodes and NPK ratios, and I kind of do – sort of. But to peruse the how-to sections and the gardening catalogs you’d think that without a five-figure investment in everything from UV-resistant propagation trays to water-driven proportioning injectors – or even, if you become imbued with the spirit and completely misunderstand the point of the whole enterprise, a motion-activated garden drone to scare off marauding deer and hungry children – you might as well not bother.
To garden the way my wife and I do is simpler. You build up your soil, then stick the seed or plant into the dirt and water it. If it lives and prospers you admire yourself and inflict the results – blooms, tomatoes, and so forth – on your neighbors. If it doesn’t live, usually out of stubbornness, or turns brown and crisp, or becomes a moldering feast for velvety black and yellow beetles, you try something else.
Using this method, my wife and I have created a small, disheveled yard full of color and food. It ain’t much – Martha Stewart would be unmoved. But strangers stop and compliment us, which makes us feel good, and in the evenings we sit on our porch with a drink and look over what we’ve wrought and compliment each other. Bees love us. I keep forgetting the names of the flowers, referring to “the gangly yellow ones behind the lettuce,” or “the little blue ones by the fence.” My point is this: By real gardeners’ standards, our smorgasbord would barely get a passing grade. But I challenge anyone to love theirs more.
So having enjoyed this modest success, are we now going to start studying, enrolling in horticulture classes, improving, expanding, diversifying? Maybe, maybe not. If we do, it’ll likely be in a haphazard, incremental, two-steps-forward, two-steps-back kind of way.
If we don’t, which is more likely, it’ll be because we want to protect against too much seriousness of purpose and because we’re wary of falling under the dreary spell of the experts, who will explain to us why, in our ignorance, we can’t possibly have done what we’ve done and why we need to spend a king’s ransom to make everything right and be happy.
Once you get the hang of this, you begin to see its applications everywhere.
I don’t want to give the impression that the philosophy I’m describing is easy to adopt. It can take years to understand that human beings, unlike grasshoppers, don’t have to climb to the top of every jar.
A sense of humor and a nose for bullshit help. So does selective hearing (to block out nonsense), an inclination to swim like a salmon against the current of your time, and an ability to be in your own head for more than three minutes without growing anxious and tweeting about it.
Even with all that, backsliding will always be a risk.
My personal battle is with fly-fishing – something I’ve enjoyed for 40 years and, ironically, happen to know a little bit about. Every now and then a catalog arrives in the mail and, helpless to resist, I start to read about the $900 fly rods and $6,000 trips to exotic fishing locations – airfare not included – through a thickening cloud of inadequacy and gloom. All the talk of "flex indexes" and "performance" makes me feel like I’m reading a quarterly investment report – or a Viagra ad. All those ruggedly handsome men in their ruggedly handsome outfits dead-lifting salmon the size of sailfish make me want to hurt myself. None of these men, I’m pretty sure, has ever hooked their own head, or looped a fly line over their ears, or caught a trout so small it flew over their heads on the back cast – because they’re experts. They look smug, and happy. I want to be smug and happy. I need their stuff.
Now and then, dialing the toll-free number to talk to Brandon about that $900, high-performance 3-weight rod I can’t afford, I recall that I’ve somehow managed to catch a few fish over the years with my 40-year-old Browning fiberglass rod because, well, they’re fish. Next, I remind myself that I actually like fly fishing (despite never having landed a 15-pound brown trout on my high-performance rod while wearing my Matrix-y sunglasses to protect me from the Patagonia sun), and I put down the phone and rest easy.
Something like the Bigger Picture
Once upon a time in America (I need to believe this), we were tinkerers, hobbyists, do-it-yourself-ers; we made do, we improvised, we figured it out. We didn’t run out and buy five grand worth of stuff so we could build a bookshelf or catch a bass. We just did it.
What happened? My best guess is that somewhere along the line, status and stuff met, married, and had a bunch of unpleasant kids. As did satisfaction and money. To have a "hobby," especially an inexpensive one, quickly grew quaint, then ridiculous, then unsettling: “So . . . you’re not going to sell it? You’re just doing this for fun? What the hell is this about, Bob?”
To set everyone at ease, Bob commenced striving. Stuff was key. Stuff said that you’d grasped the chemical bond between acquisition, accomplishment and contentment. Stuff meant you were doing your part to help grow the economy by filling your garage with crap you didn’t have time to use because you were working too hard to pay it off.
The alternative is as simple as letting “the heart rejoice in what it has right now,” as Herodotus figured out while sipping his wine in the shade of his date trees two thousand years ago. Or admiring the Orvis company’s new, $179 wading boot with the Boa™ Closure System featuring “aircraft-grade stainless steel laces” that provide “a truly customized fit,” then opting for your old man’s waders, or even that pair of Converse you saw in the basement the other day, and getting out of the stream when your feet are cold. So what if you’re not the number-one ranked trout fisherman in the United States? What’s bad for the economy (and your ranking) can be good for the soul.
At bottom, it’s about choice. The architects of our insecurity, who’ve been at it a while, need to keep themselves busy, and I respect that. They’re free to crank out their never-ending supply of faster, smaller, bigger, better, and we’re free to buy it and chase the receding grail of contentment to the horizon.