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The “Never Enough” Neon Sign and Borrowed Goals

roadtrip norbert toth the concept of enough

Years ago on Tumblr, I saw a photo of a neon sign, the outline of a heart shape, inscribed with the words Never Enough. Never Enough.

Uri Dowbenko - Never Enough neon sign

It stuck with me.

It’s up for interpretation, but I never considered the neon sign a token of not feeling enough or not having enough. Au contraire, to me, it was about that hazy, joyous, delightful hunger for life.

“The Sunday Dispatches is coming to an end today”

That was the subject of the latest email Paul Jarvis, one of my favorite writers/people, recently sent to me and all the thousands of other people subscribed to his weekly newsletter.

Sunday Dispatches is the signature email that he’s been sending out every Sunday for the past eight years, covering subjects like technology, working online, privacy, ethical business, purposely staying small and not chasing growth as a company, being a company of one.

Why did Paul Jarvis decide to bring his beautiful, change-making, successful endeavor to an end? 

I read the email and listened to his live Q&A call, where he explained further. Because he’d written it for eight years. He was running out of topics that he felt needed to be said in a Sunday Dispatch email. Because he wanted to focus on his privacy-focused analytics company Fathom, because it was enough. 

Because it was enough.

Enough doesn’t get talked about enough in our growth-focused culture.

Everything directs us towards more.

Most actions, most conversations, most decisions are made or seen as a means to an end that provides growth.

  • You finish university. For the next two years, everyone asks when you’re getting your Master’s degree.
  • You meet up with your cousin and spend an hour discussing getting a better job.
  • On your wedding day, everyone asks the two of you, “When are you planning to have kids?”
  • Your new house is nice, but you need a bigger one. At the end of the day, what are you working for, if not for a better life?

But when did a bigger house become equivalent to a better life?

The professor asked about suicide rates

Before worrying about enough, or growth, or a bigger house, everyone should achieve objective enough-ness.

In 1943, Maslow presented the pyramid of human needs in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Image from Quartz, “Maslow’s pyramid” is based on an elitist misreading of the psychologist’s work

Thinking about enough is a privilege not allowed to people who are worried about surviving and about their physiological needs.

When I was in university, our social psychology professor told us to guess which countries had the lowest and the highest suicide rates.*

Who do you think commits suicide more often, people who are concerned about whether they’ll live to see another day or those who can check off everything on Maslow’s pyramid of needs and are worried about achieving their full potential instead?

Well, Sweden (or Belgium, or a similar European country already ten steps ahead of the world as far as living standards are concerned) had the highest suicide rate. An African country (I apologize for not remembering the name) which suffered from famine and poverty and other unfulfilled physiological needs had the lowest suicide rate.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the most troubled nations in the world have comparatively low suicide rates. Afghanistan has 4.7 suicides per 100k; Iraq has three, and Syria has just 1.9.

World Population Review, Suicide Rate by Country 2020**

People tend to get philosophical and maybe even depressed if they have more than enough, if they have it all. Whatever that means. Whereas people in poverty are seemingly more joyous to live rather than preoccupied with feelings of self-hatred or self-mutilation.

I want you to navigate your desired growth. I want you to make New Year resolutions for things that you deeply care about, that you would care about even if no one was telling you to.

In fear of putting us both into a downward existential spiral, I’d like to ask myself and you: what is something that I was taught my whole life was needed to be enough, but that I never questioned? Maybe we disputed it once in our rebellious teenage phase during a sleepover with our best friend, then carefully put it back in the box in a dusty corner in our brain?

Maybe you thought that as you grew up, you would warm up to the idea of marriage and living with someone your whole life, but you’re 29 and have no desire to get married ever.

Your whole life, you got subliminal messages and not so subtle directions that you would need a hotshot job with lots of responsibility and therefore lots of benefits to make it in life. But maybe entrepreneurship, meeting with clients, or managerial positions seem super unappealing and scare the shit out of you. You thrive when given clear directions. Your dream job doesn’t involve high-pressure environments and long lists of responsibilities. The idea of being responsible for other people and having to hold them accountable if need be makes your skin crawl. But you’re told that you need that kind of job to be wealthy and successful.

Maybe you’ve never questioned your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your career path, your exercise regimen, your negativity, your goals. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a big house, a super well-paid job, or kids, as long as that’s what you wish.

But how do you know it’s what you want if you’ve never questioned it as a goal?

Most of our never_enough_neon_sign feelings stem from our materialistic and capitalist society, where a lot of times what the other person has is a cause of envy rather than an inspiring sight to see.

As we grow up and there’s always more and more at stake, relationships or careers wise, our enough turns into the hazy mirage you see in the desert when you’re dehydrated, the friend you always promise to invite out next weekend but always forget to. 

Enough turns into that fine bottle of wine you’re planning to open for the right occasion, but never do.

How many celebrations and occasions do we miss on the road to enough? Most of them if we’re not paying attention.

In Sanskrit, there’s a term called mudita, and there’s no equivalent in English. Essentially, it means to have sympathetic or unselfish joy for others—regardless of where they’re at in their own lives.

Paul Jarvis, Enough

Each of us should extend unselfish joy, mudita, to others, especially if they’re doing subjectively better than us. Especially if they’re not living life at the speed and direction we believe they should be, but their way.

More importantly, we should extend mudita to ourselves.

You know when you’re on a road trip, and an uncomfortable piece of clothing you’re wearing, or your car sickness, or a burning desire to pee is keeping you from enjoying the conversation, the view, the journey, but you think to yourself, “we’re almost there, I might as well wait”?

That’s us on our quest for more, more, more, but the car never stops, and we remain in the seat, feeling uncomfortable, waiting to arrive at our destination any moment now, as the wheels roll and as we pass all the beautiful sceneries and milestones, waiting for it to feel suddenly enough.

Unless we clearly define what enough looks like for us, we’ll manually send our Sunday Dispatches successful email forever, even though there’s not much left to say and there’s no reason to continue. We’ll never get out of the car and we’ll never crack open that bottle of wine because nothing will ever be enough to rise to the occasion. Unless we make it a point to question what enough truly is for us.

*This was years ago so it isn’t reflected in the Global Health Observatory data repository Suicide rate estimates report.
**Note: to my knowledge, this website does not provide the latest 2020 suicide rates, but everything else seems accurate to my best knowledge.

6 thoughts on “The “Never Enough” Neon Sign and Borrowed Goals”

  1. Thank you once again Delfina for another great intelligent post. Your words always have a way that gracefully puts me in a state of “now”. Yet simultaneously feeling in a trance of deep peaceful thought and understanding. This topic is so “up my alley” of philosophy. It was the perfect Sunday read for me!

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