Kurt Vonnnegut on "Having Enough": A Reminder From the No Asshole Rule

Yesterday, I was talking to a pair of very smart and very ambitious friends. As I told them, I am all for high performing teams, excellence in performance, and I love the restlessness that drives creative people at places like Apple, Pixar, and Facebook. But there is a negative underbelly to this human drive toward achievement. It can become a disease where, no matter how much some people get, they keep wanting more, and the result is not only chronic unhappiness for themselves and those around them, it is also often propels unethical and otherwise inhuman behavior.

The worst examples are seen in the power poisoning and associated delusions among the worst of political leaders, with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his sons disgusting antics currently playing starring roles on the international stage. But my focus has been on more mundane crimes against humanity. In particular, if the charges are true, the insider trading and other unlawful actions taken by Galleon Group's Raj Rajaratnam, whose trial just started, reflect a similar human flaw. Even more shocking to me is the news this week that Rajat Gupta -- former board member at Procter & Gamble and at Goldman Sachs, and former Managing Director of McKinsey -- was charged with insider trading. Procter & Gamble and McKinsey are two firms I know pretty well, and while there is a strong focus on excellence in both places, I was troubled because -- each in their own way -- they are among the most ethical and non-greedy cultures I have ever encountered.

The fact that such a central player in both places fell victim to such apparent bad judgment and greed means, to me, that no matter how wonderful you may think you are as a human-bring,and no matter how good the people around you might be, we are all at risk of falling prey to own greed, status insecurities, and that feeling that comes with power that "the rules are for the little people." Apparently, part of Gupta's defense will be that, if he did leak inside information to Raj Rajaratnam, he personally did not benefit financially (See this New York Times column). To me, this defense is meaningless -- at least from a moral perspective -- because it simply suggests that Gupta was trying to get more status from Raj Rajaratnam, pay back some old favor, or set the stage for a future one -- all signs of greed (and perhaps some insecurity too -- often a hallmark of very successful people).

The lesson for all of us, as I emphasized in The No Asshole Rule, is that sometimes it can be remarkably useful to tell yourself "I have enough." Here is an excerpt from a longer post I put-up in early 2007 on the official publication day of The No Asshole. Current events suggest that this lesson from the late Kurt Vonnegut is worth bringing it out again (I edited it lightly for clarity):

The process of writing The No Asshole Rule entailed many fun twists and turns. But the very best thing happened when I wrote for permission to reprint a Kurt Vonnegut poem called "Joe Heller," which was published in The New Yorker. I was hoping that Vonnegut would give me permission to print it in the book, both because I love the poem (more on that later), and Vonnegut is one my heroes. His books including Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions had a huge effect on me when I was a teenager-- both the ideas and the writing style.

I wrote some anonymous New Yorker address to ask permission to reprint the poem, and to my amazement, I received a personal reply from Vonnegut about two weeks later (see it here). The postcard he sent me was not only in his handwriting. He gave me permission to use the poem "however you please without compensation or further notice to me." It remains one of my favorite things.

The poem fits well in my chapter on how to avoid catching asshole poisoning. Here is how I set it up in the book:

'If you read or watch TV programs about business or sports, you often see the world framed as place where everyone wants "more more more" for "me me me," every minute in every way. The old bumper sticker sums it up: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." The potent but usually unstated message is that we are all trapped in a life-long contest where people can never get enough money, prestige, victories, cool stuff, beauty, or sex -- and that we do want and should want more goodies than everyone else.

This attitude fuels a quest for constant improvement that has a big upside, leading to everything from more beautiful athletic and artistic performances, to more elegant and functional products, to better surgical procedures and medicines, to more effective and humane organizations. Yet when taken too far, this blend of constant dissatisfaction, unquenchable desires, and overbearing competitiveness can damage your mental health. It can lead you to treat those "below" you as inferior creatures who are worthy of your disdain and people "above" you who have more stuff and status as objects of envy and jealousy.

Again, a bit of framing can help. Tell yourself, "I have enough." Certainly, some people need more than they have, as many people on earth still need a safe place to live, enough good food to eat, and other necessities. But too many of us are never satisfied and feel constantly slighted, even though -- by objective standards -- we have all we need to live a good life. I got this idea from a lovely little poem that Kurt Vonnegut published in The New Yorker called "Joe Heller," which was about the author of the renowned World War II novel Catch 22. As you can see, the poem describes a party that Heller and Vonnegut attended at a billionaire's house. Heller remarks to Vonnegut that he has something that the billionaire can never have, "The knowledge that I've got enough." These wise words provide a frame that can help you be at peace with yourself and to treat those around you with affection and respect:

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!"

--Kurt Vonnegut

The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005

(Reprinted with Kurt Vonnegut's permission)

To return to Rajat Gupta, if the charges against him are true, it might have spared him and his former colleagues much pain if he had repeated "I have enough" to himself over and and over again at key moments. While this lesson may come too late for him, it isn't for many of us.

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  • Charles J Shields

    Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at http://www.writingkurtvonnegut...

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)