Content or Complacent?

When it comes to contentment, there’s a well-known story about a Mexican fisherman:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The American then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this, I have more than enough to support my family's needs."

The American then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But señor, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15-20 years."

"But what then, señor?"

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!"

"Millions, señor? Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos..."

Everything Changes, Everybody Hurts

I love the story’s reminder that there’s no need to pursue more, for the sake of getting more. Perhaps you already have everything you need today. Even if it’s not perfect, nobody has a perfect life.

At the risk of overcomplicating a simple story though, here’s a thought experiment:

What if things changed at our peaceful coastal village? What if a Harvard-MBA-VC-backed company with tons of boats moved in and competed aggressively for the tuna, making it difficult to fish? Not so much time for siestas now eh amigo?

Things change and the status quo gets disrupted. This is as true of our human existence as our love for our families and friends.

It’s something every corporate executive knows and fights. Far from our coastal village, let’s peek behind the scenes at one of the world’s most valuable companies.

Nvidia’s stock has gone up 17x in the past five years. The company is worth more than $2 trillion, yet, CEO Jensen Huang publicly worries about complacency. (He also wishes you suffering.)

But what would you expect from someone whose corporate motto is: “Our company is 30 days away from going out of business”?

Evolution and the Circle of Life

Perhaps fittingly, it was the CEO of another tech giant, Intel, who reminded us almost 30 years ago: “Only the paranoid survive.”

At that time, Intel was worth north of $100 billion. Nvidia was just a 3-year-old baby. Not that they’re 100% direct competitors, but Nvidia is worth >10x what Intel is today.

You can know that change is coming and fight it. Yet, only the lucky ones thrive. Some survive. Most won’t make it. It’s the circle of life.

The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company today is only 15 years.

It’s tough, because on one hand, we know how evolution works. Companies die. Relationships end. People get old.

On the other hand, you wanna be happy. Adopting a “only the paranoid survive” mindset might be great for a large corporation, but I don’t think it’s best for personal happiness.

What’s a reasonable position to take?

Content vs Complacent

Generally-accepted wisdom says, “Contentment good. Complacency bad.” Be content without being complacent.

But I’ve always struggled with the overlaps between the two.

For examples, I asked ChatGPT for good traits that exist in both content and complacent people:

  • Emotional stability
  • Manageable levels of stress
  • Acceptance of circumstances
  • Feeling satisfied

All good things. So what’s the difference?

Complacency is when you lack, or deny awareness of potential dangers. It prevents growth. For whatever reason, you don’t want to be better. This leads to stagnation (and if we’re being dramatic, death).

Meanwhile, contentment is feeling satisfied — at peace with what you have today. But it doesn’t stop growth. You can be content while still wanting to be better.

Another way of seeing it: Contentment is the antidote to the “I’ll be happy when I have X” slippery slope. Contentment is “I have enough.” “I am enough.” But it doesn’t stop you from working to achieve X.

In fact, feeling content while putting in efforts to improve things is the sustainable way to grow.

Applications of Being Content (But Not Complacent)

Other practical ways to be content, but not complacent:

Relationships: “In an ideal relationship the contributions are 60-40 where both partners are the one trying to give 60%.” (Source)

Self-improvement, whether at work or play: Overachievers often push themselves too hard. Instead, pause to recognize and celebrate every small win along the way. Remember, contentment doesn’t have to stop growth.

The different stages of work: Once you get to a certain age, you find your technical skills outclassed by younger colleagues. One way to evolve: focus on mentoring and teaching the next generation, instead of just pushing your own accomplishments. (Source)

Health: Enjoy dessert tonight — you deserve it. Remember to exercise tomorrow.

Money: Budgeting well to live within your means. While working hard to grow your income.

Investing: Something I worry about: younger investors who make huge crypto gains in a short time might have completely warped expectations about investing. I come from the generation where “just” 10% a year is amazing. I’m content with that. But exploring my curiosity — learning about new asset classes — has also helped grow my wealth a lot more.

Managing expectations: Charlie Munger once said, “The first rule of a happy life is low expectations.” Looking at how successful he was, I suspect he actually maintained high expectations of himself. But probably not of others and circumstances he couldn’t control.

– – –

Are they actually from different parts of the brain? You want the feeling part to be content. But you also want the thinking part to strive for growth.

Perhaps Zig Ziglar said it best:

“Life is about balance. Be kind, but don’t let people abuse you. Trust, but don’t be deceived. Be content, but never stop improving yourself.”

– – –

Pic from Pexels: 정 규송 Nui MALAMA

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  • Bless you again for such a write up. I always get excited when I see my mail and you’ve written something about life/career that stops me for moment to think and evaluate my tracks.

    Fellow Msian who works in crypto here

  • To add to the complexity, my friends and I have different views on what is contentment and what is complacency. What I see as my own contentment, they think it is complacency. What I see as their stress and anxiety, they think it is being ‘non-complacent’.

    It seems to be a character or behavioural trait.

    • Hi Heng, thanks for dropping by!

      Indeed, quite tough to tell the difference between the two. And I think everyone might have their own definition. But writing it out really helped me figure out for myself what it means.

      Hope you’re well!

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