We are hearing a "just enough" sentiment more and more. It’s as if we are as a culture working on a new definition of what’s enough. And this marks a change. After World War II, big was it. In those days, nobody wanted to have "some fame." Celebrities like Fey wanted to be the biggest star ever. Winner take all. Frank Sinatra size. Jumbo big.
As I was saying in my PSFK talk, the old model was America the bountiful, land of plenty. In the 1950s, it was one size fit all: gigantic or nothing at all. We wanted groaning buffet tables. We celebrated the "good life:" by consuming heroic quantities of sugar, salt, fat, nicotine, alcohol and sun (and as much carbon as possible). We wanted cars the size of a 1958 Cadillac, block long conveyances, fins and all. We wanted more shoes the Imelda Marcos. We wanted homes the size of a small town. Small town? Dayton, we wanted homes the size of Dayton.
The world used a Denny’s model: all-you-eat plus 3000 calories more. "No one leaves this place with an empty plate." A Martian would wonder at this. Denny’s had given us more food than we could possibly eat. Food was being wasted. There was irrationality here, no? What the Martian did not see was that there was a greater ritual objective to be satisfied. America is about plenty, plenty of plenty and more to come. America was limitless in its ability to inspire needs and satisfy them.
This is still the logic of luxury markets. That car by Maybach, that Birkin bag, that hotel suit by the Four Seasons, the jewelry by [insert name of incredibly high end jeweler here, all I can think of is Tiffany’s]. The idea here is not to meet a minimum standard. The idea is to violate our scale of things and achieve the sublime. The idea of luxury, even quiet luxury, is ever so briefly to take the breath away.
This idea will hold. The rich will be with us always. But there is a new consumer aesthetic struggling to be born. Some consumers, even very rich ones, now want just enough.
When Yale economist Barry Nalebuff invented Honest Tea, he used this approach.
Newman’s Own now makes a line of cereal called "sweet enough."
Just enough is audible even in the start-up world of small business. Old entrepreneurs used to talk about scaling up till they could sell out. We wanted to get as big as possible to sell for as much as possible. New entrepreneurs talk about getting big enough to "get comfortable." And the idea is not to sell out but to sit tight. A small winery, small software company, small consultancy, that’s fine. That’s just enough. In the case of Hollywood, everyone used to want to be Steven Spielberg. Now some of them, Fey included, what to be Christopher Guest. "Just live your life, make hilarious movies with your friends, and then go home."
What are the motives and motors of "just enough?"
Fey has a practical reason. Fame comes with a price tag. If you get too famous, you lose your privacy or as she puts it, you have people wanting to take "a picture of your butt on the beach."
Speaking of butts, there is a second motive for just-enough and it’s the one that inspires us to shift from Coca-Cola as a sugary trophy of the consumer society to Barry’s Honest Tea exercise in marginal utility and diminishing returns. We want as much satisfaction as we can get without having to pay for it with calories and an expanding butt.
In the case of an entrepreneur, "just enough" is about control. Staying small(ish), staying private, supplying your own capital, all these mean calling your own shots. Venture capitalists and Wall Street can drive someone else crazy. The just enough entrepreneur can take his or her own chances. When it comes time to choose between interesting and profitable, you can go with interesting. Just enough in this case is about control.
I wonder if one of the motives is also about freedom and mobility. Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder, has a yacht that is 416 feet long. It cost something like a quarter of a billion dollars. It carries two helicopters. It’s so large it cannot dock anywhere on the French Riviera. (That’s why it needs those helicopters. They are the only way to get to port.) The "Octopus" seems to be a perfect example of way-too-much. Possessions of this kind act like barnacles that slow movement and limit freedom. "Going for a sail" must seem to Allen like something that requires him to mobilize a third-world country, an event so wearying that it must seem better, most of the time, just to leave the thing be. Allen’s Octopus is really an Albatross.
But the biggest motive of just enough is the environmental one, clearly. Now that we can see that reckless quantities actually have a cost beyond our own little domestic world, now we have a motive both personal and public. I saw a man get out of his Hummer on St. Laurent in Montreal. He was strutting a little as if to say, "check out my wheels." In a way I have never seen before, passers by gave off an unmistakable feeling of contempt as it to say, "get the fuck out of here, you self congratulatory prick." And he did. He slunk back to his car and drove ever so meekly away.
This is the week in Connecticut when those little yellow "pesticide applied" rectangles bloomed on my neighbors lawns. I may once have admired their perfect lawns. Now, I could hear myself thinking, "Surely, a "just enough" lawn would be good enough, especially if it protected the Long Island sound from yet another infusion of poison. Or is your lawn more important?"
All the really big trends have carried by lots of little trends in that "perfect storm" construction needs to drive competing trends (and all the noise) in our culture out of the way. There is privacy, control, choice, freedom, mobility, and the environment. And what happens when that happens. Does America become more European, more Japanese. It certainly, in some fundamental way, becomes less American. We are reworking the fundamental terms of the consumer contract, and from this difference many more differences must flow.
Anonymous. 2006. It’s hull to be famous. The Sydney Morning Herald. August 9, 2006.
Baldwin, Kristen. 2008. The Accidental Movie Star. Entertainment Weekly. Issue. 987, April 18, 2008. pp. 20-26, p. 24.
McCracken, Grant. 2008. PSFK talk.