Capitalism harnesses our selfish desires to fuel the growth of society. It rightfully assumes that when freedom is combined with desire, individuals will obey their self-interest and work hard to improve their position.
While I’m a rabid capitalist, the system isn’t without flaws. When most of our focus is on growth, material goods, and financial returns, it’s inevitable that we’ll constantly lack fulfillment and emotional generosity. And that lack has powerful negative implications. Our endless desire for more must be counterbalanced by the cultivated appreciation of what we have, for without that appreciation, the personal fulfillment we all seek isn’t possible. Just think of the multitude of parents obsessed with their children’s future achievements rather than enjoying the pure bliss of their child every day.
This same lack of appreciation is a major barrier for both individuals and organizations looking to manifest their creative potential. Our capitalistic obsession with growth, material goods, and financial returns is in direct opposition to our ability to be emotionally generous and therefore manifest our full potential.
For a simple example of this, look no further than publicly traded companies. These organizations are slaves to growth, because their stock price (and therefore value) is based on future earnings. If they don’t hit their quarterly numbers, their stock goes down and the company is worth less. This often leads to companies making short-term decisions like cutting great people or killing development projects to achieve quarterly results. Does that make the company more likely to achieve greatness long term? Absolutely not.
The likelihood of realizing our potential increases tenfold when appreciation is cultivated, when we are emotionally generous. For example, Tom Brady has four Super Bowl rings and a legitimate claim to the title of greatest quarterback to ever play football, but Forbes recently called him “the biggest bargain in sports.” So what gives? Aren’t the two in complete opposition? While I have little concern for Tom’s overall financial situation, it’s notable that he earns less than almost a dozen other quarterbacks and could easily command significantly more. Why doesn’t he? Well, it seems Tom cares more about pursuing his potential—aka winning Super Bowls—than he does his personal financial growth. Or, simply, he balances his selfish desire for more with a cultivated appreciation of what he already has—in this case his teammates. And that emotional generosity, along with one of the greatest coaches in football history, is what makes the New England Patriots perennial favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Lacking appreciation and emotional generosity is endemic to our society and the human condition. It leads us to believe that satisfying our selfish desires will bring the fulfillment and success we crave. But only when we transcend this impulse and give meaningfully to others can we truly appreciate our gifts and manifest them to their greatest potential.