Category Archives: Choices

Everything and Nothing

What you do in life means everything and nothing.

It means everything because as far as we know you only get one life.  That’s it, one bite at the apple and you’re done.  So if you waste it, and you don’t do what you want, you’ll never get a chance to do it again once your time is up.

But on the flip side, what you do in life means nothing because, to paraphrase Hugh’s landlord, one day you’ll be dead and none of this will matter.  That time you peed your pants in 5th grade, or you won the state championship, or you bombed a test, or you got that promotion, or your business failed, none of it will matter because you’ll be gone.  And eventually so will everyone else who remembers that stuff too.  And then you’ll really be gone.

So don’t let your personal myth delude you into inaction.  Don’t waste days and months and years capitulating to fear and doubt.  Very little damage done in life is irreparable, few paths are true dead ends, and nobody is that interested in what you’re doing.  Nobody will remember your big flop or your grand embarrassment in fewer years than you’d probably care to think about.  The only person your time here really matters to is you because we know for a fact that you will run out of it.  Don’t let that happen before you get what you want out of this place.

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What Could Have Been But Never Will

In one of my all-time favorite essays, cartoonist Tim Kreider names and examines The Referendum: the “phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.”

Drawing on personal experience, Kreider explores in precise, poignant prose the cross-cutting tensions (internal and otherwise) and melancholy that comes with trying to figure out if the grass on the other side really is greener, and if so how much.  A few money quotes:

“Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.”

Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”

“Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.”

It’s a fantastic piece and well-worth saving and coming back to periodically.  This is especially true for most of the people reading this blog, as I think that The Referendum tends to come well-before midlife among educated big-coastal-city types by dint of constant exposure to diverse lifestyles and opportunities.

Note that The Referendum is a direct manifestation of the Kundera Principle, and when properly sublimated becomes the basis for much great art.

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Shawshanking Your Great Escape

Many a working stiff dreams of a Great Escape – a way out of the daily grind and into the life he or she spends all day fantasizing and surreptitiously Googling about. But how does one bridge the gap between daydreams and reality? As in all things substantive, Shawshank has the answer.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Sodomy, institutional cruelty, male bonding (unrelated to sodomy), good works, and throat-lump-inducing-old-man-suicides ensue. I refuse to give any more exposition than that because you should have seen Shawshank by now. Which is why I won’t bother with a spoiler alert before telling you that Andy escapes in the end.

And what a glorious escape it is. See, Andy had an Evil Plan. Over the course of two decades, Andy tunnels his way through his cell wall using only a tiny rock hammer. He deposits the debris from his labors in the prison yard every day and hides the hole in his wall behind posters. Using his plum position in the warden’s office, he steals bank account numbers and clothes and everything else he’ll need on the outside. When the time finally comes, Andy doesn’t hesitate – he does exactly as he’s planned, climbs through his tunnel and 500 yards of human waste and finds himself celebrating his freedom under a roaring stormy sky. Behold.

Andy’s escape is informative. Learn from him in planning your own.

1. Andy had a plan. Don’t just sell everything and head out West with the idea that you’ll figure it out when you get there. Winging it in 21st-century America is not the move.  While you’ve got the security of your current job you should be doing as much homework as you can on the career you want to move into: who the players are, how they’ve gotten where they are, how people make money doing what you want to do, all that nitty-gritty stuff. Do as much work in the field as you can squeeze into your schedule to develop the skill set that will let you hit the ground running when you make the transition. If that means doing it for free (which it very well might), then so be it. And you need to network in your soon-to-be-new field. And get your money up. The point here is to have as much infrastructure in place as possible before you make the jump to minimize transition friction.

2. Andy was patient. Andy waited twenty years to make a break for it. Twenty years of hard time. Twenty. Years. Why? Because he wanted to get it right. He knew he only had once chance to get away so he took his time and put all the pieces in place so that when it came time for the actual escape all he had to do was follow through. If fictional Andy Dufresne can do twenty years in a sweaty fictional jail, patiently executing his Evil Plan, then you can handle a few months more of filling out TPS reports for Bill Lumbergh while you get some practice doing whatever your thing is. Because you don’t want to go out half-cocked and end up having to crawl back to the hamster wheel. That’s just soul-crushing. Be patient, do it right the first time, and then never again.

3. Andy was willing to get dirty. The man climbed through 500 yards of convict poop. You ever seen convict poop? All the bad cafeteria food those guys eat? Turds like muddy roadkill. I draw that simile to illustrate for you that, even with the infrastructure in place, things will probably be hard. If you’re starting a business or going back to school or carving some other new life path for yourself, it will be disruptive and difficult in ways both imagined and unforeseeable. You will have to work hard, you will have to adjust your lifestyle, and you might fail a few times. Expect to be surprised. And when you are, stay the course. You planned for it. You prepared for it. Now live it. Find the fortitude to live it. Because the truth is that what often separates the winners from the washouts is nothing more than pain threshold – who’s willing to crawl through the smelliest poop the longest.

I won’t promise you’ll get to Zihuatanejo. You can do everything right and still fall flat on your face. But if you plan well and crawl long enough, even if you do fall flat you might stand up and realize you like where you ended up.

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The Cruelty of Having It All

I find Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship interesting.  They are both high-achievers, and he obviously has a very public calling, and they are both admirably candid about the difficulties this produces, and so they provide a readily-observable model of a couple trying to “have it all.”  And so far, they seem to be doing a good job; they work hard (vast understatement acknowledged) but seem to also be very involved in their children’s lives and with each other.  But they have resources most couples don’t.  What about the people in the world who have callings that don’t come with hired help and security details?  What about when they want families? 

There seems to me to be a moral dilemma before these folks.  A calling, by definition, is an all-consuming, selfish endeavor; it requires as much time and emotional and psychological energy as it can get, and the person giving it generally loves doing so.  But families need those resources too.  Relationships with friends, spouses, and children all require time and energy in order to grow and stay strong.  By nature, those types of relationships – especially the one between parent and child – require selflessness. 

So what happens when a person consumed by a selfish calling puts himself in a position where selflessness is expected or required of him?  In my experience, his loved ones get hurt.  Spouses and children go neglected or not provided for or both.  The person with the calling generally feels bad about the situation but can’t or won’t change, at least not without sinking into a depression that’s just as harmful to the people around him.  No matter how it plays, it’s a mess and people end up damaged.

This leads me to think that, to prevent anyone from being ground up in the gears of their passion, maybe people who have a calling in life should make the difficult decision to only have romantic relationships with people like them and avoid having children. 

This would obviously be hard: even if you have a calling, you can’t control who you love and you were made to reproduce.  But ultimately it seems like the morally righteous thing to do.  Because forming relationships with (or creating) people to satisfy one’s own needs knowing that one is unable or unwilling to fulfill theirs in turn is to treat other people as means to an end, and not ends unto themselves.  And when this causes people emotional or physical pain, to whatever degree, then in my book it’s immoral. 

But I guess then that my book implicitly says that the pain suffered has greater weight than whatever pleasures are enjoyed in the process; that it is better to not be alive at all than to be alive but neglected or impoverished or both; that it is better to not fall in love with someone who is ultimately going to hurt you than to fall and get crushed but to be a crushed thing that experienced that purest, highest emotion.  And I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying any of those things.  So I guess I’ve got some sorting to do.

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Ambition

The word “ambition” is problematic for me.  It’s too imprecise, subsumes too many motives, and using it can warp our perceptions of whatever the underlying concept is supposed to be.  Because generally in our society, ambition is associated with making money or gaining power or somehow changing the world.  And “ambition” is viewed as a positive trait that one should possess, because we’re capitalists and hierarchical social animals and all that good stuff. 

 But what if my goal is to be happy?  Or to raise a well-adjusted child?  If those are my goals, does that mean that I’m not ambitious?  Neither of those things is easy to accomplish, but I’d be willing to bet that most people wouldn’t consider someone pursuing them to be ambitious.  And people feel bad when others think them not ambitious.  So what happens is some people suppress their inborn desires to instead pursue goals that aren’t necessarily their own in order to earn the “Ambition” merit badge that will bring esteem and mating opportunities.  And they become miserable in the process. 

This is all anecdote and intuition, of course.  No data, just life (NDJL).

“Ambition” also allows people to hide from their true motives.  “I’m ambitious” sounds a lot better than “I’m money hungry and crave external validation.”  But that kind of specificity is beneficial in evaluating why you want what you want in life.  It also helps you stay within yourself.  One of the quickest routes to unhappiness that I’ve seen firsthand is allowing your abilities to outstrip your ambitions.  If you’re a bright person who just wants to live a peaceful, happy life, don’t take a high-stress, two-packs-of-Tums-a-day kind of job just to feel like you’re ambitious.  That doesn’t make you ambitious, that makes you gullible.  Because you fell for somebody’s line along the way and now you’re doing something you don’t want to be doing.

The truth about real ambition is that there is no real ambition.  It’s all personal.  Find what matters to you and pursue it to the ends of the earth because you want it, not because you want to be ambitious.  As with everything, do it on the merits.

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On The Merits

If I had to sum this blog up in one sentence, it would be: Do it on the merits.

Take the job because you enjoy the work.  Read the book because you’re interested in the subject.  Be with a lover for love.  Don’t do something to signal, or to fit in, or to stand out, or to get some other secondary benefit.  Do it because it resonates with you in the place that matters.  Do it for the right reasons.  Do it on the merits.

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If It's Just For Keeping Score, Then What's The Game?

I’m always interested in why people want the things they want.  Particularly people who want to make lots of money.  I understand the desire to make enough money to not have to worry about making ends meet, or to provide for a family.  I’m well-acquainted with that set of issues.  But often enough, the struggle to do either comes as much from doing a bad job at defining “means” and “provide” as it does from real economic hardship. 

So aside from making ends meet and providing for a family, what are some other reasons to make a lot of money?

I’ve heard some of my friends say they want to make a lot of money so that they can get into philanthropy.  Sorry, I have to call BS.  Nobody works 80 hours a week at a stressful job they don’t have an equity stake in so that they can make enough money to start a charity.  Philanthropy is, at best, extremely peripheral to whatever the main reason for making lots of money is.  And even then, it still reeks of signaling.

How about buying nice things?  Again, it’s a definitional issue.  If “nice” means expensive name brand things and meals at fancy restaurants, then yes, you need money for nice things.  If you define “nice” as well-made, or having sentimental value, suddenly money isn’t so necessary.    

Travel?  You don’t need that much money to travel.  I’ve traveled plenty and did it before I got this cushy job.  And the thing is, now that I am making money, I don’t have much time to travel.  Most jobs that pay well tend to be that way.  I guess making lots of money and saving it for one or two small trips a year and then lots of trips at retirement is one way to play it, but to me there’s something to be said for seeing the world when you’re young enough to really be active in it.  If travel is your aim, it seems to make more sense to take a pay cut, get better at budgeting and saving, and use the extra free time and the savings to go globetrotting. 

One thing money certainly does buy is insulation.  With enough money you can live in a walled-off fortress and skip lines and have your own private section on the plane and at the club and wherever else you go and generally get to avoid dealing with the great mass of unwashed humanity.  While sometimes nice, the problem with that is that the people you’re cloistered with in the money-bunker tend to be fixated on status and hyper-ambitious – the kind of people that, in my experience, are hard to form meaningful relationships with.  Money might buy insulation, but I’m not sure you can opt out of the isolation package it comes with.   

Money also buys status in our society, no two ways about that.  For better or worse, the wealthy in America are esteemed, and it feels good to be esteemed.  But if your identity is wrapped up in that then you might have problems because wealth is relative, and well, there’s always Bill Gates.  No matter how much money you have, you’re always going to lose to somebody.  Plus, fame trumps wealth in the status game, so even if you’re making money hand over fist, the guy who got eliminated on the first episode of the first season of the Bachelorette could still walk into your favorite bar and steal your spotlight, even if he’s homeless.  Them’s the breaks when your identity is built from the outside in

So with all that said, what’s left?  One thing, as far as I can see: money.  Money buys more money.  Compound interest and stock splits and dividends and complicated investment vehicles and living trusts and all that good stuff that people use to put money to work making more money is out there and it’s very real.  Like rabbits and rednecks, money is damn good at replicating.  But if money is supposed to be a means to an end and not an end unto itself, then that brings us back to the original question: why want to make lots of money in the first place? 

Well?  What did I miss?

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