Another Look at the Fulfillment Curve

Almost five years ago, I posted an article on the idea of the “fulfillment curve.”

For those unfamiliar with it, the “fulfillment curve” is an idea presented in the book Your Money or Your Life which says that there’s a sweet spot for anything that maximizes the fulfillment you get out of it. In fact, if you spend more than that, your fulfillment starts to actually decrease.

I posted an example of a fulfillment curve, which I’m going to share again:

Fulfillment curve

Example: Home Buying
1 – We’re essentially homeless. We live in our car.
2 – We live in an extremely cheap, extremely small old apartment. The rent is extremely cheap, but there’s barely enough room for sleeping space for everyone or room to do anything at all. We’re embarrassed to have guests at all.
3 – We live in a nice apartment or a small house. There’s enough room for everyone to sleep and have meals, but we’re sometimes pinched for space and there’s more clutter than we’d like. We have some of our friends over, but we feel pretty self-conscious about the place and don’t have the dinner parties we’d like.
4 – Our house is just the right size for our family. We feel comfortable having any and all guests over, the housework doesn’t overwhelm us, and the bills are completely manageable.
5 – Our house slightly exceeds what our family needs, but it gives us some room to grow. The bills are slightly painful, but we can manage things. We spend a bit more of our weekends on home cleaning and maintenance than we’d like, but we feel quite proud giving dinner parties and inviting people over.
6 – Our house is a McMansion. We can afford the bills, but just barely, and only if we eat everything at home. The bills make me feel kind of guilty, and there are times where it feels like all we do is upkeep.
7 – We bought a house nine times our annual income on an ARM and it just adjusted. Our house is mind-blowingly awesome, but we’re getting foreclosed tomorrow. We have no equity and we have no idea what we’re going to do. I wish we’d never come here.

Once upon a time, I found that most aspects of my life were between spots five and seven on the curve. I had more than what I needed to be maximally fulfilled. I had unwatched DVDs sitting around. I had piles of unread books. I had electronic devices that didn’t get nearly the use that they warranted for their price. I was jamming almost every day with expensive activities, leaving me not enough time to really relish all of the things in my life.

Over time, I scaled things back, trying to find the “peak” of the fulfillment curve in various areas. My goal was to find the “4″ spot for everything in my life, whether it was at the grocery store, at home, or in any other aspect of my life.

My mind is naturally analytical, so I began to turn my focus on digging out inefficiencies everywhere. I wanted to know what every little thing cost and whether or not there was a better way to ride the peak of that fulfillment curve.

Largely, I succeeded at this. I found the “4″ in an awful lot of areas of my life. Figuring it out took a lot of introspection and serious analysis of how I spent my time and money.

So, you’d think that was the end of the story, right? It turns out that it’s not.

Let’s look at that fulfillment curve again.

Fulfillment curve

Now, let’s look at how I described #3 and #4:

3 – We live in a nice apartment or a small house. There’s enough room for everyone to sleep and have meals, but we’re sometimes pinched for space and there’s more clutter than we’d like. We have some of our friends over, but we feel pretty self-conscious about the place and don’t have the dinner parties we’d like.
4 – Our house is just the right size for our family. We feel comfortable having any and all guests over, the housework doesn’t overwhelm us, and the bills are completely manageable.

When Sarah became pregnant with our third child, I began to seriously view our house as being about a “3.” It was nice, but it was heading down that road of feeling a bit too small for our family. With a three year old and a one year old, it worked fine. Would it work okay with a five year old, a three year old, and a one year old? What about when they began to approach their teen years and sharing the same bedroom became more difficult?

Because of that, Sarah and I started seriously looking for another home in 2010 and 2011, as well as examining the possibility of adding on to our current home. We wanted something slightly bigger than what we have now so that our family would have some space to grow. We both felt we were very much at the “3″ spot on that fulfillment curve.

The interesting part came after that.

Our children came to really enjoy sharing a bedroom together. They have this incredibly tight bond that goes beyond what I’ve seen with other siblings in our area. The three of them have this wonderfully tight network of sibling relationships between them that, in large part, is aided by sharing a bedroom together. Each night, when we close their door for bedtime, we can hear the three of them in there talking to each other about various things. It’s a closeness that would not have happened if they had different bedrooms.

As our children have grown, the volume of space needed for their possessions has shrunk as well. The space for diapering and other such tasks is largely nonexistent. Our oldest is mostly interested in small toys and games at this point, so our space devoted to the children’s possessions is actually shrinking and making the family room seem far less cluttered. We’ve also established more relationships with families in our immediate area.

In short, our home felt like a “3″ on the fulfillment curve a few years ago, but now it feels like a “4.”

The same phenomenon has happened in many other areas of our life. The spot that we originally thought was the peak of the curve isn’t really the peak at all. Almost always, our true peak came with a bit less spending and a smaller number of possessions and perhaps one or two fewer time commitments.

Why? Trimming back on things by cutting away the least important elements sometimes gives room for the most important elements to flourish.

Having our three children share a bedroom felt cluttered at first, but now it feels like the basis for very strong relationships.

I’ve found that there’s a lot of joy in mastering one computer game than there is in buying new ones regularly (and my friends are on board, too, since computer games are kind of like my “Facebook” for keeping up my relationship with some of them).

I’ve discovered the pleasure of re-reading novels and nonfiction books that I read and truly loved a few years earlier, enabling me to find deeper enjoyment in the books I already own rather than finding cheap ways of acquiring new ones.

Stepping back from a community commitment has enabled me to feel much more connected to other commitments I’ve made. They no longer feel like a burden, but instead feel like a pleasure.

Seeking out the peak of the fulfillment curve in every area of your life is a wonderful goal, but it’s not a static one. Often, you’ll find that as you change and grow as a person, the peak of that fulfillment curve begins to shift, and if you hold on to what you thought was the right direction a few years ago, you might find yourself sliding off one end of the curve or another.

For me, I consistently find that what I thought was the peak of fulfillment was actually a bit on the over-fulfillment side.

However, everyone has different lives. Different things fulfill each of us in different ways. The one thing we can all strive for is to find our own fulfillment peaks – and to recognize that, over time, those peaks can shift a little bit.

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