This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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If you ask most people what they want out of their work lives, there are two answers that appear to be tattooed on the inside of their skulls by popular culture:
- Making a difference
The priorities might be switched, but these are the two most common replies. It’s not a surprise that people pick these two, because A) we need money to buy things like food, shelter, and pleasurable experiences, and B) working a job where you feel like you aren’t making any sort of dent in the world is a soul-crushing experience for most non-sociopaths.
Neither of these answers are wrong — they’re just incomplete.
When someone gives these answers, worth asking a follow-up question: What is the common, fundamental thread between the two of them?
A common answer to this question is “meaning.” That’s a little too whimsical for my tastes, as meaning strikes me as an ideologically-charged construct that is borderline impossible to define. Even if meaning is given a quality definition (which I haven’t seen yet, but I’m open-minded), it still misses the target.
Instead, the real answer is (in the vast majority of cases), autonomy. We want to be able to determine how we spend our limited time on this planet. In short, we don’t just want to survive — we want to survive on our terms.
Nothing makes us more miserable than having someone breathing down our necks, telling us what to do every day.
And, unfortunately, that’s what most of us end up doing with the bulk of our lives.
We give up a lot of autonomy in the pursuit of money, which is both sad and ironic given that we’re working for the thing that is enslaving us in many cases. The fantasies about freedom we feed ourselves all seem to revolve around money, and not about autonomy.
This isn’t entirely misguided: within a capitalist framework like the one we live in, money can (at certain amounts) provide a great deal of autonomy.
If you suddenly have 50 million dollars in the bank, you can tell your boss to go fuck himself and proceed to jump into a pool of champagne.
Or you could politely hand in a resignation letter and shake everyone’s hand on the way out of the office. Or you could just never show up, never respond to an email or call, and laugh about leaving your former colleagues in the dark.
That’s the power of autonomy. You get to decide what you do within any given moment, so life becomes a “choose your own adventure” story instead of a constant context switch between what you want to do and what someone else wants you to do.
Making a difference and the search for meaning both fall into the autonomy bucket as well, because both are activities that you judge on a subjective basis. Maybe your definition of making a difference is volunteering at a local animal shelter, or creating a documentary about a local endangered species.
Searching for meaning might involve spending your days reading big, complex books and then going for long walks on the beach. Or maybe it dawns on you that nothing has meaning and you turn into a shameless nihilist.
This is the power of living on your own terms. You get to decide what you want to do. The world is what you make of it.
From this point forward, you should evaluate the different opportunities you have in life based on how they’ll affect your ability to operate autonomously. But, as I’ve been alluding to, this can be a monumental task.
Quite a few people make a trade-off of money for autonomy, and discover that it makes them miserable. Investment banking is a good example of this, as bankers are paid tons of money but often work soul-crushing hours with very little autonomy.
Many of them would likely be much happier making a fraction of their incomes engaging in activities that they actually want to be engaging in.
Working your face off while you’re young in hopes of some autonomy payoff in the distant future is another landmine many people step on. These people look back when they’re older and realize their best years were spent in service of someone else’s desires — and there’s no going back.
I know it’s hard with how competitive the world is now, but try to make an effort to think less about the monetary rewards you might get from doing something. Instead, reorient your thinking towards what you can do that will give you the best chance at living an autonomous life.
You might be surprised how little it costs.
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