THE AMERICAN DREAM. Rags to riches. The self-made man—or woman.
Everyone growing up in the U.S. is told of these ideals. We are sharks who must keep moving to survive. The only acceptable direction is up. We do it for ourselves, believing happiness is just over the next hill of “more.” We do it for our family because providing is an act of caring.
If there’s a least-debated rule in economics, however, it’s that everything comes at a cost. This is especially true for the resources needed for production, whether of a thing or our own careers. The scarcest resource of all? Time. No more is being made. It’s the short tablecloth with which we try to cover everything we want done.
In racing to the top, people turn themselves into human capital, another resource to self-exploit. They drive themselves with demands for more productivity. If such demands were made by our boss, we would go on strike. But coming from ourselves, we forgo taking time off, will work when sick and sometimes even sacrifice time with family, all out of fear we’ll fall two steps behind the other guy, who’s also running exhausted and bleary-eyed.
I was waiting for my son to finish Sunday school one morning when another waiting dad, looking at his phone, yelled out an expletive. At 3 a.m. the night before, a competitor for a business account sent an email, so the dad was now saying he’d have to dedicate the rest of the day to responding.
I know this is a problem for the privileged—those lucky enough to be in semi-control—and I know entrepreneurship drives the economy. But at what cost? Isn’t quality of life worth more than stuff? When does “more” become “enough“?
During our three years in Spain, I remember how rush hour was at 2:30 p.m., when parents picked up their children from school and entire families then lunched together. There are few, if any, drive-through gulp-and-go eateries. If an American showed off his spacious house, with its amenities of grand living, chances are Spaniards would wish the American good luck with it, while they happily gathered at a café or park with neighbors who—on average—live in homes half the U.S. size.
We say that this is our choice, but is it? Virtually every executive I know can recount all the times they had no choice but to give up something, and that was usually family or mental-health time. Most retirees will tell you they don’t regret devoting more time to work, but they do regret the time they didn’t give to their family.
I’m not anti-entrepreneurship and certainly not anti-American. I’m pro-balance. My best family memories are not from when my parents were away working, but when we did the smallest things—together. My suggestion: We should all consider doing less for the ones we love and more with the ones we love.