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Contentment and Purpose (part 2)

The Fulfillment Curve

The Fulfillment Curve is one of the main tenets of a great book called Your Money Or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.  Rather than attempt to explain it myself, I’ve included below a summary that I believe does a great job of making the authors’ main point.

The Fulfillment Curve shows the relationship between the experience of fulfillment (vertical axis) and the amount of money we spend  — usually for more stuff (horizontal axis). In the beginning of our lives, more stuff did indeed mean more fulfillment. Basic needs were met. We were fed. We were warm. We were sheltered. When we were uncomfortable, when we cried, something came from the outside to take care of us. Our needs were filled. We survived. Our minds recorded each such incident and remembered: Look outside yourself and you will be fulfilled.

We then went from bare necessities (food, clothing, shelter) to some amenities (toys, a wardrobe, a bicycle) and the positive relationship between money and fulfillment got even more embedded. Remember your excitement when you got your Captain Midnight Decoder Ring or baseball mitt or Barbie doll? If our parents were being responsible, they soon taught us, “Those things cost money, dear. Money that we go out and earn for you — because we love you.” We got an allowance to learn the value of money. We could select and purchase happiness ourselves! And so it went, year after year.

Eventually we slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries  –and hardly registered the change. A car, for example, is a luxury that 92 percent of the world’s population never gets. For us, however, our first car is the beginning of a life-long love affair with the automobile.

Notice that while each new acquisition may have still been a thrill, it cost more per thrill and the “high” wore off quicker. But by then we  believed that money equals fulfillment, so we barely noticed that the curve had started to level out. On we went into life. House. Job. Family responsibilities. More money brought more worry. More time and energy commitments as we rose up the corporate ladder. More time away from home. More to lose if we are robbed, so more worry about being robbed. More taxes and more tax accountant fees. Therapist bills. Remodeling bills. Justkeeping-the-kids-happy bills.

Until one day we find ourselves sitting, unfulfilled, in our 4,000-square-foot home on 2.5 wooded acres with a hot tub in the back yard and Nautilus equipment in the basement, yearning for the life we had as poor college students who could find joy in a walk in the park. We hit a fulfillment ceiling and never recognized that the formula of money = fulfillment had not only stopped working but had started to work against us. No matter how much we bought, the Fulfillment Curve kept heading down.

There’s a very interesting place on our curve — it’s the peak. Part of the secret to life, it would seem, comes from identifying for oneself that point of maximum fulfillment: ENOUGH. Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little “luxuries.” We have everything we need; there’s nothing extra to weigh us down, distract or distress us, nothing we’ve bought on time, never used and are slaving to pay off.

Enough is appreciating and fully enjoying what money brings into our lives, yet never purchasing anything that isn’t needed and wanted. It’s a powerful and free place  — the launching point for cultivating the kind of fulfillment that money can’t buy.   When personal needs and wants are fulfilled, our locus of interest expands. We seek to address the needs and comforts of family members and friends, then our community, our nation, our world.Our personal freedom allows us the opportunity to be concerned for others, our surroundings, and our affect on the world as a whole. In short, we find the freedom to devote our life energy to participate in the larger circles of life. We call this participation SERVICE.

When we recognize ourselves as part of  a larger whole, the entire picture shifts. We are not “just one person.” We are part of Life  – one thread among millions in this unfolding that is already whole.

When we do, we see opportunities where before there were only obstacles. We find hidden talents and hidden reserves of energy. We begin to know ourselves as sufficiently creative, noble, industrious, wise and wily to get the job done. Through a commitment to service, we learn right relationship with all of life  -how we “fit,” what we’re “fit for” and what choices are “fitting.” Service to others and to the planet provides the perfect tempering environment wherein individuals of real mettle are forged. It is the obvious and essential follow-through for people who have taken the first step of personal lifestyle change.


Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money And Achieving Financial Independence

Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (1992)  (revised and updated 2008)

The New Roadmap Foundation (NRM)  – a 501c3 educationaland charitable organization

The Financial Integrity Program (



One of the best concepts from Your Money or Your Life is that of the fulfillment curve. Basically, the idea argues that there’s a sweet spot for anything that maximizes the fulfillment you  get out of it. If you spend more, your fulfillment starts to actually decrease.

I often reflect on this concept. I see it popping up again and again in my own life and I find that if I put in some effort finding that peak fulfillment, my money just falls into line right behind it. I’ve come to believe that if a person has their basic needs covered, overspending is caused by going over the far end of the fulfillment peak.

The middle portion of the first chapter focuses on the “fulfillment curve,” which basically refers to the idea that once you reach a certain level of luxury in your life, anything beyond that level is merely diminishing returns.

My conclusion was to tie it to consumerism and clutter:

One of the deep problems of consumerism is that the average American tends toward buying more.  They would rather have more stuff that, per item, they have less time to enjoy than less stuff that, per item, they have more time to enjoy.

This is connected directly with the clutter problem.  This tendency to buy extra luxury items gradually fills a home with lots of clutter  – unnecessary stuff that just sits there taking up space when the money invested could be used to help build a more fulfilling life.

Later reflection has led me to believe that it’s not necessarily these factors. It’s more of a matter of finding balance, akin to riding a bicycle.

What does this curve mean in your own life? How can it help you get ahead? Here are some suggestions.

The fulfillment curve applies to everything you spend money on. The basic principle applies to almost everything in your life, from food to clothing to shelter up to hobby-oriented activities. In almost every aspect of life, the point of maximum enjoyment is not the point of maximum spending  – spending too much reduces fulfillment.

Guilt is one of the surest signs of the downside of the curve.If you  feel guilt about your spending in any area, you’re likely spending more than your natural fulfillment peak. It’s likely that if you take the time to seriously look at every area in your life where you feel some guilt about money, it’s a result of spending too much to try to chase fulfillment. Pull back on that spending some and you’ll almost always find that things become more enjoyable as a whole.

Your fulfillment curve peak might actually come with spending no money at all. For example, I almost always find that when I spend much money on extra things for my kids, neither one of us gets much extra fulfillment out of it and a good chunk of the time I feel like I shouldn’t have spent the money. Here’s an example: the best time I’ve spent with my kids recently was last Sunday when we went to the library, went to a free art festival, then went home and read books for an hour. The cost was virtually nil, but it was a peak on that curve. Fulfillment curve peaks don’t have to cost you.

Routine frivolous purchases – like a $5 coffee each morning – are beyond the peak, whether you actively notice it or not. If you do it every day, it’s no longer a treat. It’s not something special to really bring you fulfillment. Try drinking cheap coffee at the office all but one day a week. You’ll find that the one good coffee you do drink brings you far more fulfillment than it used to.

Spend some time understanding what things really fulfill you. I feel much more fulfilled by a well-designed item that will last basically forever than just about anything. Reliability is really a strong fulfillment point for me – I tend to like things that I’ve had for a long time that still work like new. That’s why I often do so much research before a purchase – I know I’ll get more fulfillment out of it if the item just does its job reliably and easily.

Credit: Trent Hamm    (


So, how much is enough?  Whether you’re dealing with your practice or your personal life, this basic question will most likely have to be answered sooner or later.  Have you answered it yet?  Have you even thought about it?  Without an answer to this question and a solid plan detailing how you’re going to get there from wherever you are now, contentment, as least in regards to money, will likely elude you.  If you have already answered this question: Congratulations.  My guess is that you’re probably one of the few who would be able to say you’ve reached a measure of “contentment”.


Since the title of this chapter is “Contentment and Purpose”, I should spend a little time on the topic of “purpose”.  I find this one even more elusive to nail down than contentment.  Obviously, they can both mean different things to different people.  Earlier in the chapter I made reference to Rick Warren and his book The Purpose Driven Church.  Warren states that “nothing precedes purpose”.  He describes purpose as being like the foundation of a building  — it determines both the size and the strength of the finished structure.  The same is true for your practice.  Warren goes on to state that “there is power in having a clearly defined purpose statement.  If it is short enough for everyone to remember, your statement of purpose will yield five wonderful benefits:

  1. A clear purpose builds morale.
  2. A clear purpose reduces frustration.
  3. A clear purpose allows concentration.
  4. A clear purpose attracts cooperation.
  5. A clear purpose assists evaluation.”


So define your purpose.  Then refine it.  Put it in writing.  Summarize it in one sentence.  If you can both say it and write it, then you’ve clearly thought it through.  If you haven’t put your purpose on paper, you haven’t really thought it through.  Your purpose statement should be simple, meaningful, action oriented, and compelling.

If you go to and search the words business + purpose, it returns 2,327 book titles.  Do the same thing on Google and you’ll find 39,400,000 results. That’s right, over 39 million!  Staggering, but obviously there are a lot of people out there that think this is an important topic.  And with these kinds of resources available, there really is no excuse for you to avoid tackling it.

What causes some people to be consistently moving forward versus others who seem to get stuck in the same place for a long time?  People become stuck because their vision and clarity have been lost.  At one time they knew exactly what they wanted and where they were going, but after a period of time they simply slowed down, they lost momentum.  I’ve never seen a dentist go out of business because of a lack of enthusiasm when they began.  However, at the end of their business, if they are failing they have a different attitude.  They get out of bed with fear, wishing they didn’t have to go to work, wishing that their employees were different, wishing they had more money in the bank, wishing they had more patients or blaming their patients for not accepting treatment or paying on time  —just a lot of blame and wishing life were different.

Can this change?  Will it always be that way?  It depends on what you are willing to settle for.  Many times doctors don’t realize that they’ve “settled” until they’re in a rut.  Without ruts life is pretty smooth.  When it stops being smooth, it takes some action or series of actions to change things, to get out of the rut, to not remain trapped there.  Setting goals is wonderful and you should definitely have goals.  But that really isn’t enough.  Sure, the first few times it is exciting.  But eventually most of us lose focus.  Focus is purpose.  Writing down your goals is easy.   It’s like a little kid making a Christmas list.  But if I ask you to write down your purpose, chances are you’re going to have trouble.  But your goals are typically in alignment with something, right?  Consider dental school.  Most dentists tell me that they decided fairly early in life that they wanted to be a dentist.  They then typically take a lot of science courses in high school.  In college they take courses that they believe will give them the best shot at getting into dental school.  Then they endure 4 years of dental school because their purpose through all those years was to graduate and be a “doctor”.  For 10 years or longer, they are moving in a direction – with purpose and on purpose.  Then what?  Where do you go from here?  What’s next?

Most of us are more in touch with negative feelings or those that cause discomfort than we are with positive ones.  We tend to do more to avoid the things we don’t like than to gain the things we do like.  Finding your purpose tends to eliminate many of the uncomfortable feelings that we have.  And having a purpose also sets up our life to attain most if not all of the goals that we really want.  So perhaps purpose is direction.  You must be able to measure whether or not the things you do are in alignment with your purpose  — moving you closer or in the right direction.  It is the alignment to your purpose that is crucial to your contentment and whether or not your goals are in alignment to your direction.  Any time something doesn’t feel right, you’re probably not on purpose, you’ve taken a detour.  It’s OK to change your purpose, but very frustrating to try to live off purpose.

Stephen Covey, in his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states that you should always begin with the end in mind.  You really can’t get to your goals from today forward.  You must be there in your mind first, projecting years into the future and playing the game backwards to today.  We must be there first and come backwards and notice that everything we do is in alignment with that and that being in alignment means that we are on purpose.  Just like the dental school example.

Contentment comes from having the conditions in your life that you want.  You create the condition by not allowing any room for anything less than that.  If you leave room for anything less than that, then that’s exactly what will fill up the space.  Be strong enough to decide what you want and then actively pursue it.  Most people get stuck because they refuse to make that decision.  If people had a license – like going to Wal-Mart to buy a hunting license – which allowed them to have their life be exactly how they wanted it to be, unfortunately not everyone would go buy one.  That is a license we were all born with, but it has someone been suppressed.  But we can take it back by deciding to.  The time is now.

Having purpose, both for your practice and for life in general, will make every decision easier.  How?  Just ask yourself if a “yes” answer will keep you moving in the right direction, closer to your purpose.  Things are either going to move you closer to your purpose or farther away from it.  There really aren’t many things that are neutral, and if they are, then they are likely insignificant.

Michael Gerber, in a series of books that started with The E-Myth way back in 1988, makes the point that most people who start a business are really just creating a job for themselves.  They don’t actually own a business, they just own a job.  Granted, it is a job where you don’t have a traditional “boss” telling you what you can or can’t do, etc.  But very few are really being truly entrepreneurial minded when they start their business.  He argues that there is ultimately only one reason for starting a business, and that is to sell it!  And yet I find many dentists nearing the end of their careers that have never given much serious thought to their exit strategy.  What about you?  Regardless of your age or number of years in practice, you should have a plan.  I watched Mike Abernathy’s plan develop and evolve over a 20 year period.  He decided when he was about 35 years old that he wanted a specific amount of money accumulated by the time he was 55 years old and put a plan in place to accomplish that.  At age 35, he wasn’t sure whether or not he would want to retire at age 55 or not.  But he was sure that he wanted to have choices.  That he would be in a position to do whatever he wanted to do at that point in life, even though it was 20 years into the future.  He had the end in mind.  He had purpose.  You’ll have to ask him yourself about the contentment part.