“Enough” is everywhere. We’re told we have it, to leave it alone when we find it, to strive for just that and no more to preserve our sanity, to work so that everyone on the planet has it. In a moment of overwhelm recently I told everyone and no one that I felt like whatever I did it just wouldn't be enough. I wouldn't be good enough. (At what? anything, everything!) But what is “enough”? And who gets to decide?
So I Googled it. There’s a whole genre of literature and industry of seminars set up to tell you how to answer this question. Google itself defines “enough” as “as much or as many as required.” I liked the use of the word “required”. It fed into the sense of obligation that was piling up, and also the suggestion that there was a right answer. Surely I was worried about these things because of some higher imperative, not just because I was making mountains out of molehills or succumbing to yet another vague societal pressure that probably originated in an unholy union of puritanical guilt and modern marketing. Right? Then “required” reminded me of technical requirements - I am still an engineer at heart - and that got me thinking hopefully about scope statements.
A well-written scope statement is a beautiful thing. It goes at the top of the page in crisp black and white, a high-contrast dividing line between what you are and are not going to concern yourself with. As long as the situation remains more or less the same as when that scope statement was written, it’s relatively easy to stay on track and have agreement on what it means to be doing enough. But that’s a pretty big assumption - things change, people change, new problems come up - and sometimes even the most beautiful scope statement ends up having to be stretched or rewritten. And different types of “enough” play off of each other: “enough” time means something different if you also have “enough” money and “enough” people on the team than if you don't... At least as an engineer and entrepreneur, the criteria to redefine the lines can usually be quantified. In real life, this is where it gets really tricky.
Trying to have “enough” in life is in some ways another version of the “having it all” trap, but “enough” has additional implications that make it more subtly dangerous. First, it implies that there is a validating authority that gets to decide what is and isn't sufficient in our lives. Second, it implies that there is a finish line. Now, if we can truly own both of those ourselves - be the only one that gets to set requirements and goals for our lives - then “enough” could be a useful existential scope statement. But my experience suggests we’re trained otherwise.
Growing up, “enough” was set by parents, teachers, and peers telling us how much broccoli we had to eat off our plate, how many questions we had to answer correctly, and how high we had to swing at recess. You were pretty enough only if you could get the popular boy to ask you to the dance, and only so long as he was paying more attention to you than your friend. You were smart enough only if you could get into your first choice college and only so long as you could stay on the dean’s list there. You're good enough only if you could punch the check-boxes of life’s milestones - career, spouse, house, cars, kids - in just the right way and with just the right amount of perceived lack of trying.
As for the finish line, not only does it keep moving - reach one goal and another immediately presents itself - but the whole idea of “being done” is unsettling. In French, je suis finis literally translates as “I am finished” but actually means “I’m dead” (literally or professionally). As the quip goes, life is a journey. Finding periods of rest and respite along the way is good and healthy, but thinking that at some point I’ll have actually and forever done “enough” is troubling - what happens after that? Just waiting around to start pushing up daisies? No thanks.
While reasserting our power to define “enough” for ourselves is certainly better than looking outside for an answer, I believe “what is enough?” is actually the wrong question. “Enough” as we use it in life doesn't really exist. So what is the right question? Mary Oliver, in her poem "The Summer Day", asks "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I like that, but maybe we shouldn't be asking anything. Maybe we should just breathe deep and listen to that quiet voice inside that will tell us what will make us happy, what we want out of life. Maybe we should just keep our knees bent and our feet light and balance our needs for accomplishment and respite as they come. Maybe we should just enjoy each moment and what it brings and trust that in the end, whatever follows will be, by definition, enough.