A while ago, I wrote an email to a friend that included some life/career advice. I stumbled upon it recently and figured that it was one of those pieces of writing that is better shared broadly, than kept buried in an email archive.
I’ve removed personal references and have modified it slightly in places to make it easier to read.
…As for my own personal two cents:
I’d say to take a step back and examine the factors that drive your ambition to make sure that they are guiding you toward a “reward” that is “worth it.”
From some of our earlier conversations, you mentioned not wanting to feel powerless. You said that as far as you could tell (to paraphrase) “people with money and power get listened to and those without it – don’t.”…
I just want to point out that there is a difference between feeling powerless and not having power. One is an emotional, internal mental state. The other deals with our ability to alter the physical world around us.
The trap that many very intelligent or gifted people fall into is this:
“I wish I felt powerful etc…”
“If I achieved/controlled X, then I would have power.”
“If I had power (i.e. control over my life and others) then I would feel powerful.”
The problem with this whole logic is in the third part — the external world doesn’t have the ability to influence our internal mental states.
Most research shows that beyond our basic needs being met, additional income brings little to no benefit with regards to happiness and satisfaction. On the other hand, if we are making sacrifices with regard to time or the content of our work (working on stuff we don’t enjoy), that does have an impact – a detrimental one – on our quality of life. If you are trading something (time and enjoyment of your activities) that lowers your quality of life in exchange for additional income that does not improve your quality of life — well then you are making a bad trade.
There are a lot of rich, miserable people on wall street. They fell into the trap thinking there would be a worthwhile reward at the end of the rainbow. It’s a myth. Now they’ve got the gold and are wondering where the happiness/satisfaction/contentedness that they had been chasing went. Wasn’t this money and power supposed to deliver all of that. Otherwise, what was the point of all that effort and all those sacrifices.
There is a relevant passage from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace about fame, but I’ll attach it since it is analogous to this discussion of power (and powerlessness). This is long, but should give you a few minutes of entertainment during your commute.
To give this context – Lyle is an (odd) guru that listens and gives advice to students at an elite tennis academy.
“LaMont Chu, glabrous and high-gloss in a white towel and wristwatch, haltingly confesses to an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame. He wants to get to the Show so bad it feels like it’s eating him alive. To have his picture in shiny magazines, to be a wunderkind, to have guys in blue I/SPN blazers describe his every on-court move and mood in hushed broadcast clichés. To have little patches with products’ names sewn onto his clothes. To be soft-profiled. To get compared to M. Chang, lately expired; to get called the next Great Yellow U.S. hope. Let’s not even talk about video magazines or the Grid. He confesses it to Lyle: He wants the hype; he wants it. Sometimes he’ll pretend a glowing up-at-net action shot he’s clipping out of a shiny magazine is of him, LaMont Chu. But then he finds he can’t eat or sleep or sometimes even pee, so horribly does he envy the adults in the Show who get to have up-at-net action shots of themselves in magazines. Sometimes, he says, lately, he won’t take risks in tournament matches even when risks are OK or even called for, because he finds he’s too scared of losing and hurting his chances for the Show and hype and fame, down the road. A couple times this year the cold clenched fear of losing has itself made him lose, he believes. He’s starting to fear that rabid ambition has more than one blade, maybe. He’s ashamed of the secret hunger for hype in an academy that regards hype and the seduction of hype as the great Mephistophelean pitfall and hazard of talent. A lot of these are his own terms. He feels himself in a dark world, inside, ashamed, lost, locked in. LaMont Chu is eleven and hits with two hands off both sides…The obsession with future-tense fame makes all else pale.…Lyle:‘You burn to have your photograph in a magazine.’‘I’m afraid so.”‘Why again exactly now?’‘I guess to be felt about as I feel about those players with their pictures in magazines.’‘Why?’‘Why? I guess to give my life some sort of meaning, Lyle.’‘And how would this do this again?’‘Lyle, I don’t know. I do not know. It just does. Would. Why else would I burn like this, clip secret pictures, not take risks, not sleep or pee?’‘You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive intense meaning.’‘I do. They must. I would. Else why do I burn like this to feel as they feel.’‘The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.’‘Lyle, don’t they?’Lyle sucks his cheeks. It’s not like he’s condescending or stringing you along. He’s thinking as hard as you. It’s like he’s you in the top of a clean pond. It’s part of the attention. One side of his cheeks almost caves in, thinking. ‘LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in the magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines.’‘Is this supposed to be good news? This is awful news.’‘LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?‘Okey-Dokey.’‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.’‘Maybe I ought to be getting back.’‘LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely that Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being envied by LaMont Chu. No such animal.’‘Animal?’‘You burn with hunger for food that does not exist.’”This is good news?’‘It is the truth. To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with the envy of fame.’‘The burning doesn’t go away?’‘What fire dies when you feed it? It is not fame itself they wish to deny you here. Trust them. There is much fear in fame. Terrible and heavy fear to be pulled and held, carried. Perhaps they want only to keep it off you until you weigh enough to pull it toward yourself.’‘Would I sound ungrateful if I said this doesn’t make me feel much better at all?’‘LaMont, the truth is that the world is incredibly, incredibly, unbelievably old. You suffer with the stunted desire of one of it’s oldest lies. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage.’‘So I’m stuck in the cage from either side . Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out.’‘You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage.’
That same calculus applies to power, wealth etc. They all play a role in the external role, but have minimal impact on our internal realities. If we are trying to manipulate our internal experience of the world, we are unlikely to do so by altering our external circumstances.
So now that you are at a point in your life where you are going to be able to meet your basic needs from here on out — (let’s use the number that stats geeks tell us is basically the upper bound for income having an effect on our happiness – $70,000) — and for someone with your skills there are a wide range of ways that you could generate that level of income and more — the question you are faced with is this:
How do you want to live?
What do you want to do?
What is going to have a net positive effect on your quality of life (and not just your bank account)?
What life balance is going to thrill you, and engage you and exhilarate you and leave you excited and refreshed and proud and content?
No need to respond to me on this one. I just wanted to throw it out there because I know how important this realization has been to me. Once I figured out what I really wanted, I had no problems saying “no” to opportunities that didn’t fit with that vision. Life got simple. Life got fun.