The stock market hits record highs — and generates widespread anxiety about the consequences of a crash. Companies use the Internet to reach millions of customers — and struggle to keep pace with the demands of Internet time. People lead virtual teams and direct global projects — and grow weary of traveling and checking email.
No wonder so many people — even those who are genuinely excited about the new world of business — worry that their lives are dangerously out of control. How much is enough? No wonder, too, that many of these people believe that they are the first ones to struggle with questions of money and power, of pace and pressure.
Tom Morris knows better. He has made a celebrated career out of applying the insights of history’s great thinkers — Seneca, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — to the demands of business today. Morris, 47, spent 15 years as a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His classes were so popular that he sometimes taught 1,200 students a year. In 1996, he left Notre Dame to start the Morris Institute for Human Values, in Wilmington, North Carolina, a think tank that applies the wisdom of the ages to modern business and contemporary life. Morris has worked with organizations such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Merrill Lynch, Motorola, and the U.S. Air Force. He has also authored 13 books, including “True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence” (Putnam, 1994) and “If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business” (Henry Holt, 1997). What can the ancients tell us about the promise and the peril of the new economy? “History is littered with the stories of people who ‘make it’ beyond all expectations, who have more than enough — and who then crash,” Morris says. “It’s a drama that has unfolded in every field of human endeavor since the beginning of time.”
In an interview with Fast Company, Morris offers time-tested wisdom on an urgent question: How much is enough?
Why do so many people lead lives that feel out of control?
The greatest case of mistaken identity in modern society relates to the four marks of public success: money, power, fame, and status. I have no problem with money, power, fame, or status — as long as they’re treated as resources, rather than as goals in themselves. But that’s precisely the problem for most people — and that’s why it’s so hard for people to answer the question “How much is enough?” If acquiring money or fame is your goal, how do you know when you have enough? Everyone I know who has a little wants more. But everyone I know who has a lot also wants more.
The only way most people recognize their limits is by trespassing on them — by going so far in pursuit of money or position that they finally realize that they’ve gone over the line. Aristotle warned that the problem with desire is that it feeds on itself. That’s still true: After you make your first $1 million, your natural impulse is to want $10 million. As an ancient philosopher might have said: Desires make good servants — but bad masters.
How do you guard against the impulse to want more?
The people I know who are satisfied with their income or their position are people who treat those things as resources — not as goals. They know how much is enough because, for them, money or power has instrumental value. Do you have enough money? Enough for what? To maintain a certain lifestyle? To provide security — freedom from worry about the future? Those objectives have price tags, although the prices are different for different people.
Seneca, a Roman orator, lawyer, and Stoic philosopher, lived during one of the periods of greatest excess in human history. Seneca amassed a fortune, and he achieved fame in Rome as an adviser to the young emperor Nero. But he urged anyone who’d listen to him to spend one day a month living on bread and water and sleeping on the floor. Why? Because, by doing those things, you realize how little you need to survive. Most people are pushed into excess by their fears: “How would I survive if I stopped working for this client, or if I didn’t make this trip, or if I turned down this project?” Seneca wanted people to distinguish their needs from their desires. You don’t have to sleep on the floor once a month, but that distinction is crucial for getting at the heart of “enoughness.”
Of course, lots of businesspeople have more than they “need.” Yet they remain dissatisfied — not just because of their out-of-control lives, but because they don’t have even more. How do you make sense of that tendency?
There are two kinds of dissatisfaction in life: One is what I call the “dissatisfaction of acquisition.” The other is the “dissatisfaction of aspiration.” The dissatisfaction of acquisition centers on the drive to have more things. We live in a competitive culture — a culture of more. And in such a culture, it’s hard to set limits. I know people who own so many clothes that they’ve had to build extra closets to store everything they’ve bought. The dissatisfaction of acquisition is an unhealthy dissatisfaction; it’s caused by a void that can never be filled.
The dissatisfaction of aspiration is a healthy dissatisfaction. It’s not about what you want to acquire; it’s about who you want to become. How much wisdom is enough? How many interesting ideas and experiences are enough? These are questions — unlike, say, the question “How much money is enough?” — for which there are no absolute answers. This form of dissatisfaction prompts you to grow, to expand your horizons, to be more loving, to be more effective at what you do. I don’t know many people who can say, “I’ve done enough interesting things. I’ve learned enough. I’ve had enough compelling conversations.” You can never have enough wisdom.
That’s different from trading your Big Bertha golf clubs for a set of Great Big Berthas and then for a set of Biggest Big Berthas. The most elusive key to satisfaction is not getting what you want — it’s wanting what you get.
How can people find that “elusive” key?
One way to figure out what’s worth striving for in the future is to assess your satisfaction with the present. One technique I use is a simple exercise that I call a “satisfaction audit.” I ask people to write a heading on a piece of paper: “What I Do Not Like About My Life Right Now.” And then I have them make a list. I also ask them to write down a second heading: “What I Do Like About My Life Right Now.” Under that heading, they might include something about their friends, or their relationship with their children, or the work they’re doing for a company that they really believe in. Then there’s a third heading: “What I Do Not Like About My Job Right Now.” And a fourth: “What I Do Like About My Job Right Now.”
You can create these kinds of lists for any aspect of your life. They underscore the idea that improvement always involves preserving and enhancing the good while getting rid of, or changing, the bad.
Why do so many of us define success in ways that push us to excess?
Success should never be confused with wealth or power. Rather, success should be linked to excellence and fulfillment. Success is about who you are, not what you have. Successful people work to discover their talents, to develop those talents, and then to use those talents to benefit others as well as themselves.
Cicero, Socrates, and Sophocles would have had a field day with the “success literature” of the 20th century. It’s all about how to get what you want. You want a big house? You want a nice car? You want a promotion? Then memorize the name of every person you meet. Shake hands firmly, and use people’s names in conversation. The goal is to create a good image. But what people really need help with is understanding reality, not inventing an appearance. It was Heraclitus who said, “Character is destiny.” We don’t need to develop our personality. We need to cultivate our character.
Why is this misdefinition of success so widespread?
Our cultural models of success tend to be models of excess — people like Bill Gates and Donald Trump: people with a monomaniacal devotion to one thing, rather than people who pursue excellence in many things. We notice the person who stands out, the person who runs a little faster, who jumps a little higher, who works a little harder than everyone else. And we admire such people: “I want to be like Mike.” It’s an imprinting phenomenon. (Think of the baby duck that walks just like its mother.) We emulate forms of success that look good, without ever asking this very important question: “What did these people sacrifice in the rest of their lives in order to excel at this one thing? Do I want to make that sacrifice?”
One of the most interesting philosophers in the ancient world was the Greek thinker known as Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes uttered some profound pieces of wisdom: “He has the most who is most content with the least,” and “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”
One day, Alexander the Great visited Diogenes. Alexander was Diogenes’s biggest fan and had dropped by to pay his respects. At the end of the visit, Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were. Alexander answered that he planned to conquer and subjugate Greece. Then what? Diogenes asked. Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate Asia Minor. And then? Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate the world.
Diogenes, who was not easily dissuaded from a line of inquiry, posed the question again: What next? Alexander the Great told Diogenes that after all that conquering and subjugating, he planned to relax and enjoy himself. Diogenes responded: Why not save yourself a lot of trouble by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?
Alexander the Great never really got the point. Our lives are made for success — and not just for enjoying it, but for seeking it as well. As a matter of fact, the people who are most likely to enjoy success are those who most enjoy seeking it. Those people are able to find satisfaction in the journey, not just at the end of the road.
Anna Muoio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at Fast Company. Contact Tom Morris by email (email@example.com), or visit the Morris Institute for Human Values on the Web (www.morrisinstitute.com).