A healthy awareness of death is good. The back of my house overlooks a cemetery, and I’m grateful for this continual reminder of my eventual resting place.
Death is, of course, inevitable. So too, apparently, are taxes. A handful of men—including Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Defoe—wrote about the permanence and certainty of these two largely unpleasant parts of life a few hundred years ago.
And while reminding myself that I’ll die someday helps me prioritize my remaining life, and while reminding myself that taxes must be paid helps me stay on the right side of the law, there’s another saying that I find even more useful as I grow older.
It’s a phrase that I first heard from Russ Roberts, host of the fascinating podcast EconTalk.
It’s one that should be emblazoned upon MBA diplomas and BMW titles.
Here it is: There’s always fancier mustard.
Another variant is “there’s always a bigger boat.”
The idea is that no matter how successful you become, no matter what you do, there will always be some material possession that exceeds what you have.
Got a house? Well, there’s a bigger one.
Got a new car? Your friend just bought the nicer model.
And so on and so on, for everything from lawnmowers to bespoke suits, ad infinitum.
Now, material possessions can be fun. I once heard Daniel Tosh (yes, the comedian) point out, “Have you ever seen a sad person on a WaveRunner?”
But when we allow material possessions to become an end, when acquisition and ownership become the goals themselves, all of that stuff ceases to become stuff that we own.
Instead, it all starts to own us. It starts slowly, with thoughts about what you want, then decisions, actions, and then ways of living.
Yet for me, simply remembering “there’s always fancier mustard” is a way to take it all less seriously. It’s a way to remember that the race for more or the race “to the top” is a fool’s errand. You’ll never get there, because “there” doesn’t exist.
By all means, work hard, strive for greatness, get an MBA and a BMW, make a ton of money if that’s what you want to do. There’s nothing intrinsically harmful in that. But along the way, remember that it’s all fleeting. What really matters is living a life full of meaning and purpose, one that enriches others through generosity, gratitude, and selfless interaction.
It’s no mistake that I’m thinking about this after having recently moved into my current house—the one with a fabulous view of a cemetery. The house is a little bigger than my prior one, and it has some neat features that the other one didn’t have.
Yet in this life of houses, cars, and careers, I'm finding that it’s increasingly important to remember that there’s always fancier mustard.
At the same time, there’s also very good mustard.
And you know what? Very good mustard is still very good.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.