Disclaimer. Yet again, there’s no talk of finances in this one. Instead I’m discussing some of my post-working life in a very casual, journal-y way. Additional warning: It’s intensely personal. If that doesn’t sound interesting to you, well then, absolutely no worries. That’s what the back button on your browser is for.
My mom called last Sunday night.
She’s sixty eight, and kind of an old sixty eight, a purple-wearing, hippie-type who hasn’t had a job in seven years. Her list of likes includes singing folk music spontaneously in public and making her own jewelry and not thinking too carefully about what time it is.
I’ve always considered myself to be more the boring rational sort, at least by externally measurable attributes. I’m reliable, conscientious, and steady. Being retired for three quarters of a year hasn’t done much to change my fundamental nature.
So it’s safe to say we’re very different.
I typically don’t share much with her during these weekly conversations. Like most older people, she’s very opinionated and has absolutely no intention of keeping her thoughts to herself. I guess when you reach that age, you think: Oh hell. The world might as well know what I really believe. No sense holding it all in.
I’ve learned that it’s generally easier to listen, letting her talk herself out without revealing much about my own life. This seems to make her happy. After a few Rants, she typically transitions to Aches ‘N Pains, then, finally, concludes our conversations with Deaths in the family, some pending, some actualized. Then we’re all good.
Extremely Abbreviated Example: Trump is an asshole, my knees are feeling a little better with the physical therapy, and Great Uncle Alloys flatlined last Tuesday.
So when I picked up the phone, I steeled myself for some totally R.A.D. monologuing on the other end.
But this night, she surprised me. She does that sometimes. (This is why I keep her around.)
I was sorting through old boxes and came upon a whole bunch of your stuff from college. Do you want it?
Not really, I said. That was an awfully long time ago.
Oh, well — I just thought you might. I went through it and some of it’s neat.
Oh yeah? Like what?
Papers, mostly. History papers, a couple from theology, and a large stack from your English classes.
It’s probably time to drop it all into the recycle bin.
I think you should read them. You know, it’s good for older people to remember who they were when they were younger, sometimes. I keep all my stuff from back when I was in nursing school myself. Exams, class photos, nice notes from a patient.
Mom, I know you’re just trying to be thoughtful but we don’t have the space. It’s not as though we live in a full sized home anymore — we’re in an apartment. Plus, on a like ideological-type level you know I don’t believe in having a lot of junk around.
This isn’t *JUNK*, Doom. This is part of your history! Stop being so practical. You know when you were younger you weren’t this rigid. Sometimes I think I liked you better back then. You were a lot sweeter.
Okay, okay. There’s no need for the personal attacks. Just drop it all off the next time you come visit. I’ll take a peek.
And when’s that going to be? I haven’t seen you in a week!
Tomorrow. You can come tomorrow, all right? I’ll check with [Mrs._Doom’s_Name] and let you know if it’s not OK. Like usual: No news is good news. See you soon.
Great. Love you very much Doomie.
Love you too, mom.
The next day, my mom came over and I found myself sorting through things that I barely remember, papers that have long since ceased to take up storage space in my brain, the contents completely zeroed out. I skimmed part of an essay I wrote about modernity, and it was like reading something written by a stranger, a dusky silhouette of myself set so far in the past that it was impossible to properly illuminate him.
Buried in the pile was a copy of my college transcript, still sealed.
I broke it, examining the list of courses I’d taken over my four years.
My mom leaned in next to me.
See, she said with a triumphant grin on her face. I told you that you’d be curious!
Okay, okay — no need to get too excited, mom. It’s just a transcript. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve heard that they’re issued to people who attend schools.
I immediately noticed my C in General Chem Lab II. And the accompanying B in Chemistry II. I wondered aloud why I didn’t do better.
That’s the trouble with you, Doomie. You’re just like your dad. All you care about is performance. I never cared how you did. I cared about how happy you were. I remember you didn’t like chemistry much.
How about my major, then? How about Computer Science — what did I think of that?
You liked it okay. I remember you showed me a video game you made that was like Pac-Man that took you two straight weeks to make. I was proud of you for sticking with it. You said it gave you a lot of trouble.
Now this thing I remembered just fine. I’d ported an old Macintosh game called Happy Weed to Java to satisfy an end-of-semester large project requirement. You play an anthropomorphized cannabis leaf, running around a maze picking up various types of drugs (instead of dots), all the while avoiding cops (rather than ghosts). I thought it would be a noble goal to get this sucker running on any hardware that could launch a java virtual machine so practically everyone could enjoy this absurd waste of human talent. The Java slogan is write once, run anywhere. I was determined to change that to write once, get high anywhere.
Even though you liked computer science, you know what I think you enjoyed most?
No, what, mom?
Writing. You always did.
That’s not true. This is something you’ve made up, a fantasy of yours. You wanted me to be artsy or something because you never appreciated the sciences.
It is SO true. Here, read this paper you wrote for your writing seminar class.
Not right now, mom. I’m not in the mood for this.
Fine, fine. But I remember when you first got that paper back, you called me and read your teacher’s comments aloud over the phone. You were more excited than I’d ever heard you.
More excited than that time I told you I’d successfully overclocked my 486 DX chip by a factor of 3?
I don’t even know what you’re talking about, sweetie.
Okay. I’ll just have to take your word for it.
So we had that meal. My mom used the opportunity to give us that R.A.D. update that she’d been holding back for at least a couple of days. While she was going on like this (and my wife was doing her best to be polite and attentive), I involuntarily tuned out the present.
And in my space-cadet mental cocoon, what I found myself thinking about was why most older people look back so fondly on college.
It has a lot to do with variety, creativity, and identity.
I conjured up a vision of a fictional transcript of my working life. And instead of looking much like the document my college provided to me — that sucker had theater and chemistry on the very same page — this one looked pretty homogeneous, flavors of the same thing repeated far past the borders.
And all of the training and certifications I’d received after graduation were all concentrated in this narrow silo of knowledge known as software engineering and infrastructure. No doubt about it: I became an expert in my field, but at what cost?
No one was challenging me to learn anything other than subjects that related directly to my job. At a liberal arts college, the admissions people will give you a line about cultivating the whole person, which is why they have core classes. They want every graduating student to know something of history, the arts, sciences, and philosophy.
Your company? Not so much. They want you to keep learning insofar as it helps you stay current and successful in your job function. No more, no less. They encourage this kind of unbalanced growth, where part of your brain becomes very specialized at doing whatever it is you do, while the rest atrophies into a glob of mush.
And many people find the lack of variety suffocating after some number of years. We sleepwalk through days. We find things are easier at work after a time. Boring, even. Our jobs can be stressful due to pace or political pressures but simultaneously retain this fundamental quality of dullness because, well, after a while we’ve seen basically everything, solved similar problems with a slightly different twist, worked closely with all of the different personality types in our field. We’re not challenged anymore. It can be difficult to stay awake.
It is precisely at this point — the point at which we are experts and things come easily to us but we are growing tired of the sameness — that capitalism steps in and Ultra-Rewards us for our tenacity, seniority, and specialization. In most industries, gurus get paid. They are promoted to Uber-Mega-Principal-Backline engineering and architecture positions. Or other leadership roles — manager, director, vice president. Lawyers suddenly see partner — and the insane income that comes along with it — is within shouting distance. In medicine, doctors purchase a share in a lucrative practice. A torrent of benjamins flood your bank account on a bi-weekly basis.
You now feel a multitude of external pressures to keep doing what you’re doing. You also find that your status is increasing – you’ve got a better title and probably a nicer car and a larger home. You go vacationing all over the place and love talking about your experiences when you see other people. You become less concerned about how satisfied you are professionally. Because hey anyway work is work and everyone has to deal with it and do you really have it so bad?
Nossir, you do not.
At this point you are making a transition from questioning what you are doing with your life to just doing the work. You think about work a great deal of the time, and learn how to enjoy your time off for what it is — a break, an opportunity to recharge — and that’s fucking that. You’re no longer conflicted. You’ve accepted the rewards that work has to offer and come to terms with the shortcomings.
Then I realized: Most people no longer really want to go back to that college state of being challenged and unsure of the future or their identities, even though those years of uncertainty, intense questioning, and social exploration remain some of your most fondly remembered years. Because that shit was hard, actually. Harder than cruising through your profession, where you already know what to do, how to do it, and how often it needs to be done.
What you really miss is the excitement and challenge. Obvious: Those things spice life up. But you want those things to come without any risk or fear whatsoever. The thing is, you can’t decouple the two features. A large part of why college is intense and challenging is precisely because of the risk — the unknown, the looming possibility of failure, the hazy clouds settled firmly over your future.
In your current state, as a twenty or thirty or forty something professional, you’re not always happy, but neither are you unhappy. And you’ve internalized the profound benefits that this situation has on your life; you feel safe and secure. So what if you’re bored or frustrated a great deal of the time?
You’re not alone. This is the typical progression for white collar workers. I’m not guessing here. I recently finished reading Stud’s Terkel’s Working, in which the author interviews dozens of people with all sorts of different professions. These themes are depressingly common. Very few people are called into a profession. Most of us stumble into one and find we can manage all right, and goddamn, we need the money, so we trade our time for temporary financial stability, paycheck after paycheck, despite a growing sense of malaise that’s hard to pinpoint as the years pass.
Because you know that things weren’t always like this in your life. Back in school, your schedule changed every four months. You had different courses. Different teachers, different classmates. You were constantly meeting new people and being asked to perform in different ways.
I remember the feeling of excitement that filled me every time I collected supplies for the new sessions. I’d walk around the bookstore and find the required texts for my classes, wondering all the while. Wondering if I was prepared enough, if I’d enjoy the coursework, what the professor would be like. Wondering if I’d already know someone or would need to put myself out there and make some new friends.
This excitement virtually disappeared after a few years in my field. The first four or five years, absolutely, I occasionally became tweaked and ‘into’ some new technology — single sign on infrastructure solutions and performance profiling agents and RESTful APIs.
But within a few short years, I found it all tedious. The majority of so-called new technologies are actually a rehash or repackaging of older stuff. Yes, including the mystical cloud, which is, in reality, Just Another Datacenter. Sorry. These things are definitely not new.
Now that I’ve fixed the so-called money problem in my life, though, by becoming FI, I can return to that state of flexibility and creativity, if I so choose. (This is one of the main reasons people want to achieve FI, actually — it isn’t that they hate their jobs. They just can’t see doing the same thing for the rest of their lives.)
But returning to that state is easier said than done because you probably feel a lot more safe continuing to do whatever it is you’re doing. I should know — I’m speaking for myself here. I’m no longer pushed from both inside and out, told by my parents that I’ve got to find some way to make it through the world, ordered by our culture to discover my purpose with a capital P within the next four years, told by myself that if I don’t learn skills that allow me to make bank that I’m a worthless husk of a human being.
Back then, your very survival was at stake.
If you’re FI, not so much. You may remain interested in exploring new subjects and areas of life, but at the same time, you probably don’t have the same do-it-or-die-tryin’ stubbornness backing up that interest.
Once the urgency is gone, it’s much easier to say screw this and not do anything at all.
People are, at their cores, creative beings. We want to shake things up.
And this drive isn’t limited to the things people most people associate with creativity: Drawing, painting, composing, performing, writing and so on.
It manifests in a variety of other ways. Some of us like to build structures. Others invent new things by taking old stuff apart, analyzing the inner workings, and then making improvements — or combining two things that hadn’t previously been combined.
We can be creative by growing things, by altering the earth underneath us, terraforming, encouraging new life to take root in the plots and fields.
We have children and attempt to shape their personalities, values, and ideals.
We all seem to find outlets. Without the expression of our creativity, most of us feel bottled up.
Scientists like to argue their creative superiority. What we discover benefits all of humankind! We are the ultimate forces in this game. We alter the very foundations of culture and thought. Without us, there’d probably still only be 100,000 people alive, and we’d all be living short, brutish lives in or around Africa.
Artists respond: Maybe so. But you don’t understand the human heart. And the more you alter the natural state of the world, the more you synthesize our existences, the more the world needs us. We help people return to their emotional roots and derive some satisfaction from the sphere of blackened industry that you’ve turned the Earth into. We speak to the soul.
I see both sides. And what I think is most interesting is that many of the so-called Rational Creatives — the scientists, the programmers, your IT geeks, your EEs and MEs and Chem-Es and your accountants (yes, we all know they can be creative too, see: Corporate Inversions) — Well, I think many of them went into their fields and wound up sublimating their more natural artistic creative drives directly into rational professions because hey, it’s much easier to make a living that way.
I suspect a decent percentage of them didn’t originally want to do <sciency-thing> at all.
External Control Over Creativity
Last Saturday I watched my nephews, roughly aged 9 and 11, fuck around all day. It went like this.
8:00 AM: Blew bubbles in milk via straw in an attempt to delay the consumption of Eggs N’ Toast.
9:00 AM: Played an online game called agar.io where you control a planet-eating-planet, harnessing the incredible twin powers of Gravity and Mass to become the largest entity in the galaxy. During this period of time, my nephews learned how to team up to absorb the planet I was controlling, adding my my own mass to theirs. Death to Doom, Every Single Time.
9:45 AM: Drawing. The most important sketch to come out of this session was a sloppily constructed rendering of me suspended in midair by two young boys who can fly. These two dudes — and of course we have no idea who they are, they could be anybody, really — are planning to drop me into a lake to see if I will live.
11:00 AM: Walked through a graveyard located across the street. Commented on how probably lots of zombies were about to rise from the earth to consume us and how we might need to sacrifice one of us to the horde — probably the adult, because our old-assed lives are not worth much — so that the others could escape.
1:00 PM: Wrote portions of short stories and passed them around. The older nephew typed a paragraph to start, and I continued the story with another paragraph, and so on. We ended up creating a spectacular tale of a mind-reading cat that wanted to destroy all of humankind — starting with me, of course — but was so distracted by a persistent need to lick his butthole that he never could take action on his dreams. (At this point I could no longer ignore the repeated themes. These boys want me dead. Like, not as a joke. They really do. Please send help.)
3:00 PM: Lego time. One of the two boys unfolded a set of pictorial instructions and built a motorcycle. The other went in his own direction, ending up with a giant multicolored paperweight. At first I thought this was a positive development, as I’d made it through this activity with zero no references to my death. Then he declared “I made this to brain you with. I think it’s big enough to take you out, don’t you?” Sigh. Yeah, kiddo. It sure is.
You see a pattern here? Hint: The pattern is that there’s no pattern. They do what they want to do, and they’re pretty happy with this arrangement. There are few external controls — I mean, I might have stopped them from, say, wanting to drill holes in the walls just for the fun of it, but for the most part, they can make their own choices regarding what to do with that natural underlying drive to play. They are creative, they create. No one tells them what is OK or not OK to do with that energy.
But as we get older, we find society puts guardrails on our creativity. You are still allowed be creative, but only within strict controls.
Business needs creative people, though. Creative people manufacture all of the images that you see online, in ads, in movies, in video games, everywhere, from the stock photos of people trying to sell you dental cream on yahoo.com sidebars to the Coors Light train that barrels through the Rocky Mountains delivering liquid joy to the hot twentysomethings paid to cover the slopes.
The modern world does not allow artists to do what they want — to be truly creative. Instead your creativity is squeezed out of you into a very specific direction. It is the direction of making money.
If you do not like this and want to forge a path on your own, society has established the punishment for all but a very few of us: Poverty.
If you are a musician, then, you are no longer writing your own songs. No, the song you are creating must be about cars. Specifically, it must be about the Nissan Altima. Or you’re composing for some murder-based television program which demands the same theme, over and over again, dark-and-ominous, then a little more dark-and-ominous, and oh yes, this scene — another murder or dismemberment — well this probably requires dark-and-ominous background music, too.
If you are a computer graphics artist, you’re no longer making your own characters. Instead, you are animating a little green
geico gekko that someone else originally created. You make his lips move to frame the sequence of words “save fifteen percent.” It’s so cute, is what you tell people in the office.
You pretend all day that you find this to be an absolutely terrific use of your time, then you go home and grab a bottle of Wild Turkey and cast Obliviate, Hermoine Granger-style, except on yourself instead of your parents.
Because memories: Don’t want these anymore.
In my own career — even though it’s science-y — we tell ourselves similar lies. This programming job is fulfilling in a creative way.
As Jonathan Coulton sings in Code Monkey, this is a load of crap. (He’s a neat guy, an ex-programmer turned songwriter because he couldn’t stand his job, and wanted to harness his inner creative badass to do genuinely fun things instead of writing web pages for a company.)
The controls stifle and restrict us. We learn business frameworks and manufacture within the boundaries of what is required to make our company more money than what they are paying us so that they can profit off of our efforts. We produce on the company’s terms. What they want. When they want it.
An example of what we do not produce: HappyWeed.
This is, I believe, why most of us feel flat so often at work. We are these massively inventive creatures, and yet all we are allowed to do and invent each day is dictated by others. We get blueprints — specs, i.e. requirements — and fill in the blanks, like filling empty spaces in paint-by-number outlines. If you are great at what you do, someday you are invited to make the stencils for other painters to blot in. If not, you may be invited instead to set quotas and give orders to the peons with the brushes and ink, because hey, you don’t have to be good at painting to do that. (You don’t have to be good at much at all.)
Worse, if we are doing paint-by-numbers as a profession, we are no longer allowed to write essays or design an entirely new type of continent-hopping rollercoaster or make the world’s first ever Purse-Hat combo, the multipurpose Hurse, not to be confused with the type of vehicle that will carry me to my final destination once my nephews follow through and finish the job of ending my life. It’s official. You are pigeon-holed.
Somewhere along the way in the development of our society, the quote serious people amongst us decided that the best use of our creativity is in the name of production. And, in most cases, production for a company. Our creativity is sublimated into new iPhone apps and how to circumvent those pesky EPA laws and, most importantly — always most importantly! — to sell people products they don’t need.
The only way we — and I mean the collective we, the Western World we, the serious adult we — value creativity is, apparently, if we’re getting paid for our efforts.
And we certainly don’t pay others for the same.
Why do that when you can buy a new tablet instead?
By the time I’ve finished this fantastic voyage into human proclivities and the modern day restrictions imposed on them, dinner’s over. I’ve returned from that brain-warp state that we sometimes fall into when we’re with other people but lost in our thoughts.
It feels like I’m waking up. My mom’s talking and I’m tuning in again.
Doomie, don’t just think I’m going to let it go. Read that paper I wanted you to read from your writing seminar class. There are a couple of others, but read that one first.
I absorb the text on the couch while my wife cleans up the kitchen. (I’d offered to do it but she was insistent: Do what your mom wants, dude. She came down here to see you.)
On the surface, it appears I’m reading fiction, but as I get into it, I recognize that it’s really a thinly veiled autobiographical story about my experience playing baseball in my early teens. I had a miserable time — I’m uncoordinated and have bad reflexes and I was ribbed constantly, mostly for my batting average, which was a total o-fer, a .three-egged .000 line even at the very end of the season, not a single, solitary hit to nudge that line of zeroes off the mat — but it’s about more than that. It’s about how, despite the overall shittiness of it all, I enjoyed having the excuse to not be home with my parents, who were in the middle of a divorce and fighting all the time.
There was red ink all over the place from where my professor penned her comments.
is it absolutely necessary to swear here? (Fuck yes it was.)
style reminds me of Dahl’s adult fiction, raw but controlled
skillful combination of themes
And at the end, a few sentences, all in a row.
Doom, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but there’s talent here. You should nurture it. I hope your major is English. You need to write.
I read it. Then I read it again.
Then I remembered.
I remembered the joy of writing whatever I wanted back then. The possibility of it all. The incredibly satisfying feeling of getting the right sequence of words in place to convey a thought.
And then I remembered my Dad.
I was seventeen when my Dad told me that I shouldn’t write.
I’d been working through the college application process in the beginning on my senior year.
Part of this process involved selecting a major.
I talked it over with him. And it had come down to a battle between English, Computer Science, and Math.
Go into science and engineering. You won’t make a dime in anything else. Life will be hard.
I don’t know if I’ve come right out and said it in this blog — I’m not sure why I would have, given that this is ostensibly a place to talk about the intersection of work and finance — but my Dad is kind of a dick. At the very least, he has a lot of dick-like qualities. (I should know. Many of them are now a part of me.)
And on this subject, he knew a little something.
I wanted to teach English myself. I loved it. Wanted to live on a farm and work outside and read in the summers, then teach kids in the winters. Maybe write a book. In my twenties, that was my dream.
Let me tell you: There are no jobs. Even if you’re lucky enough to get one, they don’t pay enough. Then, if by some miracle you find a way to make the money work, the day to day isn’t what you think it is. It’s not fun and exciting and exploratory every day. It’s drudgery like anything else after a while. I know that life seems romantic now, but when you’re living it, it’s just hard. I should know, I tried it, and I have nothing but regrets.
I didn’t get on track career-wise until my early thirties. Your mom and I wanted to have you kids and we needed money, so I wised up. Got a vocational degree so I could be a mechanical draftsman with Sikorsky Aircraft.
You may look at me and say my work is boring.
But I look at it different. I see work that supported my family. I see that I did something that helped America. Do you know I had a huge role in redesigning major parts of the Blackhawk helicopter? I’m very proud of that work. Engineers are comparatively rare. They’re valued and respected. Hack artists, people who want to write screenplays and stories — a dime a dozen. Go into any advertising agency or newspaper office and ask how many of the employees are secretly working on their own novel. They all are. You’ll be competing with that. Good fucking luck.
I read some of your papers over the years. You’re okay, doom, you’re all right, but you’re nothing special. I’m not saying this to be cruel, but it is true. You don’t have any genuine talent. You’ll end up repeating my story, most likely, unless you come around.
I’m trying to save you that pain. Working an engineering job is a decent way to live that didn’t hurt too much and kept me busy and out of trouble.
And I wish I made that choice earlier. My life would be a lot better now. I shouldn’t have waited until I was so old to make the mature decision.
Don’t wait, Doom. Don’t make the same mistake I did. You’ll have a lot more to overcome later in life.
I could hear his voice in my head, sitting on my couch with my mom. It was like someone had pulled an old cassette tape off the bottom shelf of a rack in my brain, something that sat there, lost for two decades, then threw it in a boombox and pressed play with the volume jacked. My body hummed.
Then another memory, another audio track, nested within the first. It was my Dad again, this time yelling at me for reading fiction instead of going outside to play like so-called normal boys did. why can’t you do what everyone else your age does? why are you always cooped up inside with a book?
I remembered showing him this exact paper my sophomore year of college. Proof that someone believed in me after all. Proof that I could maybe do it. I told him I was considering switching majors.
In response, he threatened to stop contributing to my college education. I stayed the course.
I shuddered and my stomach wrenched. It felt full of snakes, some of which were trying to crawl up my throat. I heard a sound come out of me, something between a gag and a snort, and then shut my mouth tight, hoping whatever was happening to me would be over soon.
It’s really no wonder I’d been suppressing all of this.
My mom was trying to give me another paper to look at when I broke and did what grown-assed men are not supposed to do. Something wet streamed down my face as I struggled for control. I tried to look away, looking down, looking anywhere, trying not to puke up whatever was writhing around inside of me.
In the background I could hear my mom’s voice asking me if I was all right but she seemed very far away. Then suddenly I felt someone else sitting down next to me, a warm arm across my back, fingers wrapped around my shoulder. The paper left my hands, my stomach stopped wriggling, and I breathed.
And we sat there, the three of us on the couch, together.
It wasn’t awkward. I don’t know what it was. It was the opposite of my working life. In business you’re supposed to never feel anything. You’re supposed to be an automoton, a fucking robot, at turns stoic and rational and good-natured no matter what the cost, always with the needs of the company at the forefront of your consciousness.
You’re supposed to pretend you’ve seen everything, felt everything this world has to offer you. You’re supposed to pretend you are the master of everything, the one who’s practical and has it all figured out. You have crushed your inner child, stomped on his ideals, fed that useless shit to the sharks. Now that you are older, you are realistic. You are pragmatic. You do what needs to be done. And this attitude is a huge improvement over the wide-eyed, stupidly naive previous version of yourself. You’ve become cold and cynical. There’s a great deal of power and money available to the most hardened among us.
But this stoniness is all a grand act, staged by people who are playing out their idea of what adults should be.
I contend that deep inside, we’re all much squishier than we let on. Somewhere down there, we’re all still feeling something, still dreaming.
God knows I am, anyway.
My mom wouldn’t let me completely calm down before speaking her mind. That’s just the way she is, thoughts ejected without delay.
I know you’re not working anymore, Doomie.
Despite everything that was happening internally, this registered immediately. I never wanted my mom to know that I’d retired. She’s lousy with money. I’d given her loans in the past and had not been repaid. In my head, she was a risk.
What the fuck? How do you know?
Don’t swear around me, you know I don’t like that. Nobody does. Even your old professor said it.
Right, right, sorry.
It’s obvious. You sold your fancy house. You have a lot of extra time, you see me more often. You’re a lot more relaxed. And you don’t spend money on anything. I read the papers, I know what the googles make.
Why didn’t you say something before today?
Well, I just wasn’t sure how to approach it or why you weren’t telling me. And it doesn’t matter. What I think is: Good for you!
I was surprised. I genuinely thought it’d be a horrible thing if my mom knew. I thought she’d ask for handouts. She was proving me wrong.
Anyway I came over here tonight just because I thought you might need things to do with all of your time and I remembered that you liked writing. That transcript, you know, colleges don’t just give them out. I recalled you asked your school for one because you were thinking about doing something else besides programming or whatever it is that you do. You thought you might go back to school for something else. That’s all.
I didn’t remember that either, and I certainly didn’t know what to say.
Luckily my wife chimed in and told us there was still a lot of cleanup left to be done from dinner, and could we all pitch in?
Turned out, we could.
The Use Of It
It’s been a few days since this whole mess. And what I keep wondering about is meaning and purpose. Do I really think it’s my purpose to write?
These concepts have real weight and tangible heft. I find they make me uncomfortable because I don’t believe that it’s anyone’s purpose to do anything at all.
Most of my adult life, I’ve judged human activity by its fundamental usefulness. I found my job lacking because so much of the things I was tasked to do were seemingly without any real benefit to anyone. They failed to provide me joy or satisfaction or did anything to improve my personal well being.
And even at a higher level, I couldn’t see that they were doing much for aggregate human happiness. See: paperwork, networking, etc. See: The fact that the majority of software which is created is not used at all due to irrelevance or better options from the competition. Or superfluous features. Or <insert_other_reason_here>. These facts render valueless the professional contributions of the majority of software developers to the world. So many hours and professional lives wasted — it boggles the mind. And this is just my field.
I couldn’t convince myself that what I was doing mattered. (What is the point of all of this? I really wish someone could tell me. I simply cannot answer this question. The only technological innovation of the last 15 years that has meant anything significant to me is GPS, because being lost sucks.)
When I apply the usefulness rule to writing, the serious adult that lives in my mind declares this activity to be pretty dumb, too. No one reads anymore! You have nothing important to say! And even if you manage to say something interesting, someone else is probably saying it better! There are no winning scenarios in this game!
And yet, there’s a conflict. Despite it all, I wonder if I might find writing to be of value. If maybe there’s a way to make the act matter again. I haven’t valued writing in a long, long time.
Since then I’ve wondered more than a few times how much different my life might have been if I didn’t listen to my father– if I’d followed my gut instead of going with my Dad’s suggestion to declare for Comp.Sci.
Would I have found some success in the field? Or would I have lived out the mistakes and fears of my father: Would I be 38 and broke instead of done with work?
I’ve firmly decided give it a shot, though. I can’t (won’t!) ignore my old dreams, now that they’ve resurfaced.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider this to be like a total epiphany, like awakening to a newfound sense of full-on purpose or anything similarly profound. I doubt it’ll even change my life all that much.
But I have to admit it’s something.
It’s definitely something.
This is a brilliant post Doom. You know, your dad reminds me of this zen pencil comic: http://zenpencils.com/comic/kevinsmith/
You have earned financial freedom. Now is the time to allow yourself some creative freedom.
Your post made me cry at a point, because I, too, have stopped writing for a “sensible” job. But they’ll always be the artsy bookworm inside me.
BTW, your nephews are awesome!
The nephews are pretty great, I agree. Thanks for the comic.
Excellent post. I found myself mulling over this theme the other day. It had struck me that theoretically this country values work and the capitalist system is designed to encourage and reward work. So how come the admired and exalted people in our society are people who play or create? i.e. sports stars, musicians etc. We don’t say, wow he’s a tycoon. We say, wow he’s a rock star.
I have made a conscious effort to remember the things I enjoyed when I was young. When I could do whatever I wanted to do, what was it that I gravitated to? I now make sure that I include those activities in my adult life. I’m pretty darn happy.
I used to joke about this at work: Nobody says: I want to grow up to be a database administrator. Most American kids nowadays want to grow up to be youtube stars (reviewers, musicians, whatever) creating their own content. Very few people under the age of 20 (I mean, percentage-wise, of course) have a strong interest in business. I think this sort of makes one of my points: Interest in business is generally learned behavior. Interest in playing and creating is innate.
Keep doing that fun stuff outside of work.
Actually, I’ve managed to include the fun stuff in “work” as well. And I don’t work all that much, truth be told. So it’s a good balance.
Fantastic post as always. I’m going to have to go let this one sink in a while. Thank you for sharing.
Unlike you, I got my degrees in English instead of something useful like computer science. And I want you to know that I get a lot of value from your writing. I’m sure many do. In fact, I would bet that humanity benefits more from your writing on this blog than it did from your programming career–even if the latter pays much more than the former ever could.
I want to take a moment to thank everyone for the awesome comments and support. I appreciate every one of them. Usually I respond to all/most comments but I think on this one I will leave things the way they are (although I will answer comments which ask specific questions.)
Again, thanks to everyone for reading.
Your writing may not be useful. There may be no purpose to it. Maybe hardly anyone reads it, and someone else is doing it better.
None of that matters. You’re asking the wrong question when you ask about its purpose, or meaning, or use. The right question (at least now that you’re FI, so don’t have to think about providing for yourself or your family) is: Would I enjoy it?
It’s worth a shot. And if you don’t, you move on. That’s the beauty of FI.
Your writing is fantastic. I’ve enjoyed every blog article you’ve written, and I’m eagerly waiting to read more from Doom, fiction, or non.
Oh gosh. I was so envious looking at that transcript! In the UK, no one gets both ‘theatre’ and ‘chemistry’ in their timetable once they get past the age of 16….and, unbelievably, engineering is not a well paid profession.
Loved the post though, and glad you have a balanced view of your dad’s advice. Your mom’s insight into who you really are is awesome.
Awesome post Dr Doom.
” What will my purpose be post-ER?” is the question that has been preoccupying me of late and it’s great to read someone else’s thoughts on that topic – especially when they are so well written.
Not many people are writing from the other side of FI/ER – please don’t stop!
Doom…I am pretty certain 99.9% sure that you would not be FI now if you were a writer….but maybe you would have been happier in the working years following your dream….
Are you going to post your story from college? I’d love to read it.
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“Well, I think many of them went into their fields and wound up sublimating their more natural artistic creative drives directly into rational professions”. In my experience, this is not true. Most of the scientists I knew had no other creative interests. Some, like me, did enjoy music or English or history, but science was the first love, true love. I’d also argue that being a scientist isn’t a much easier profession than music etc. There are many amateur musicians who can find an audience and whose friends and family will come hear them perform. I could have proved Fermat’s last theorem and my friends and family would not have read my thesis. I don’t just mean because it’s technical and specialized, but US culture places a stigma on it. People will gather to do karaoke, but they don’t gather to be cognizant about science or math. Also, I have plenty of similar stories of being discouraged from science, including my father. The general feeling is that if it isn’t something you ” have to do”, then find something easier.
Great points, especially the note on US culture. I was very careful about using the word choice “many” instead of “most” when I made that statement, so I’ll tediously write out the opposite: Most people who go into rational professions belong there and would not be as satisfied using their creative powers in an ‘artsier’ way. Also: I think the composition of personalities in the workforce in software is somewhat different as opposed to the pure sciences, which may account for the variances in our observations. I meet quite a lot of people in my field who wished they were doing something else. (Musician, writer, photographer — one guy wanted to be a museum curator but that pays only slightly more than a McManager job.) Sorry your Dad discouraged you from science, that sucks. I’m glad you stuck to your guns and pursued what interested you.
This post was exactly what I needed to read, particularly the part about sleepwalking through life and then convincing yourself that the money is enough. Your writing is an inspiration. It strengthens my resolve to jump ship to my lower paying dream job that promises to be incredibly difficult and that I might totally fucking suck at. At least I’ll be awake.
I agree with your writing professor. Your honesty is what I find most captivating about your writing. The neat thing is you have absolutely nothing to lose by giving writing a go. Thanks for the posts!
I know I’m basically echoing what everyone else here has said better than I possibly could, but you have a unique voice and are hitting FI from an angle I haven’t seen anywhere else. You’re dealing with the other side of FI…a side that until I stumbled across this blog I didn’t even consider. It was all rainbows and happy thoughts and “Man, my life is going to be exponentially better on the other side”. You opened my eyes to the reality of such a major life shift…past the numbers and into the humanity of it, the deep, personal, life affirming shit that seems to get glossed over. You let me know there’s a mental preparation involved here, that maybe it’s not as easy and awesome as it sounds, but that there’s a process to rediscovering the “real” you that was consumed and digested by the corporate (or in my case, the military…your experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to my years of fighting wars from a cubicle) world. I’ve been struggling with that loss of myself and haven’t been able to properly convey it to those that care about me…even to myself. However, you put my thoughts and feelings into words (kinda freaky to be honest) and at the very least gave me the ability to point and say “See! I’m not the only one!” So anyway, I love what you write and how you write it. When you shutter this blog if you could leave a trail of crumbs so we could follow to your next adventure it would be most appreciated. Until then, please continue doing what you’re doing. I’m ten months out from FI and your blog has been an essential part of me keeping it together as the date draws near. Thanks for everything!
Great article Mr. Doom. If I may share some truths i have discovered on my own path:
1. Money is a corrupting force in our world. It corrupts all that it touches. If you truly love what you do as a job or hobby, then you would have no problem doing it for NO PAY. Someone who is creative and passionate about something doesn’t need to be paid to do it.
2. Creating something with no intention of monetary gain, frees you from the demands of a paying audience. The paying audience loves mediocrity and will expect you to deliver more of the same. Ignore them.
3. Capitalism does not deliver quality. It delivers the most popular product. Mediocrity. Just look at entertainment(Fast & Furious 8), politics(Trump), and software(Windows). You name it, we got it.
Brilliant post. Thank you for making it. Your writing is captivating.
This section of your post really got me, and I did not fully get it until I read it here: “Most people no longer really want to go back to that college state of being challenged and unsure of the future or their identities, even though those years of uncertainty, intense questioning, and social exploration remain some of your most fondly remembered years. Because that shit was hard, actually.”
I was, as you describe, incredibly bored in my profession. As you note, “new” technologies usually aren’t, but I remember when they were, and it was much more interesting than the Great Technology Re-hash going on now. But I did not realize — until it was gone — that my boredom was comfy, not just financially but in the mentally zoned out way.
Wanting to eradicate boredom seemed obvious and straightforward, but it was not. Because that shit was hard, actually. I had no schedule. Each day stretched open after the next. I had no job identity. After 20 years, my body was accustomed to sitting down in front of a screen (and, though it pains me to admit it, after almost 10 months of FIRE, that is STILL the easiest thing for it to do, and I have to fight to not do it on auto pilot).
I am also ashamed to admit that I am still not used to not being fake-busy all the time, and that I feel guilty about it (“I’ve been so fortunate, I should now spend every waking moment on some crusade to help others”). This shit is still hard, mentally speaking.
I thank you for your bravery in sharing your story about repressed shit coming up, too. The other day, former colleagues of mine were posting group dinner and conference floor photos from Mobile World Congress. I nearly vomited when I saw them. I was so viscerally upset, so quickly. I killed myself preparing whatever ephemeral software release for that event every year, for so many years, and was forced to travel there for no discernible purpose a few times, and photos of it almost made me vomit and pass out. I will probably never be able to set foot in Barcelona again. It felt like something horrible was about to come out of me. It sounds crazy, and the only person who saw it was my husband, but man, I wish you the best in your healing and freedom and beautiful new life. Because this transition stuff is pretty wild sometimes.
I also cried reading this. Many comments above are about writing on FI-related topics, but this post was brilliant and not about FI.
I want to confirm your observations, add to them and encourage you.
I dreamt about being a software engineer since I was 13. Self-education on that topic was a lot of fun and play. Yet, it took me less than one working year to see that I don’t want to write code for someone else my whole life, and that I want to be back to the past “fun and play” state of mind. (I did suspect that the state won’t be the same even after I reach FI, but it’s okay. There will be something else that excites me.)
Because of the layers and layers of second order effects, it’s hard to judge how useful for society someone’s work is. “What do I enjoy?” is a pretty good guide.
I will the advocate of the devil here and say: good for you, you became a computer science major. Well, rather I will say good for me since I chose the same thing. I have no reason to regret this fact, even if I liked writing poetry in highschool.
Money is glorious! Making enough money so that you don’t have to worry and you can sleep well at night is possibly the best thing a human adult can do at this point in our history and I have hear another person talk about passion, I will probably brain them. With a paperweigth.
I was 24 when I learned that passion will not help somebody pay for cancer medicine, passion will not hire a nurse to help with a terminal cancer patient and passion will not keep you warm when you have to support two young adults through school when their mother passes away. Passion is for rich people. Passion is for those who have a safety net. For me, cold hard cash in exchange for my time at work will do, and my dark hart will sing with joy when I get another check to add to my evergrowing pile of “never be hungry again” money. Passion can go fuck itself for all I care.
Of course if society would be even a tiny little bit geared versus fairness, we wouldn’t *have* to choose. After all, I’m pretty sure there are enough robots in the world at the moment to keep all of us fed and clothed without having to work and if they aren’t, we could build them.
Of course I rather spend my days being creative than coding “yet another login page”, but if I have to chose between the thousands indignities that come with being poor and 8 hours a day of boring work, well, boring wins everytime.
I somehow made it through the entire post without using the word ‘passion.’ Hopefully that means I’m exempt from said braining.
I intentionally left most conclusions sort of ambiguous within the post itself. My Dad had great points. I do not regret my decision and in fact, I’m more grateful than ever to be where I am right now: Free. I am no longer beholden to anyone. I can do exactly what I want to do. I can write whatever the heck I want to write, and if I fail, I can try again. If I don’t earn a dime? Well, that doesn’t matter either.
And yet, there are a lot of people out there that do follow their passion and seem to enjoy life in a way that I’m only now just learning to. There’s something to be said for it. But the stories of people who fail are uncountable and heartbreaking. If you don’t have a safety net and you fail, your life will be – as my Dad correctly stated – very, very difficult.
>>Passion is for those who have a safety net.
Incredibly strong point. I knew that I had zero safety net. Mom very poor, Dad getting by all right but by no means rich. There will be no inheritance for me, nothing that will bail me out. This knowledge certainly provided some of the drive propelling me toward a practical path. Instead of “What do I want to do with my life?” — a completely open-ended question — I asked myself “What can I do with my own skills that will earn me decent money, and won’t be something I can’t stand?” Technology jobs have satisfied that modified criteria pretty well.
One of my best high school friends went into English and has had a pretty rough go of it professionally until just very recently (he’s gotten a couple of big breaks and income suddenly jumped from 50K to 100+, so happy for him…)
But he had rich parents. One night in our late 20s we were out getting hammered at some Boston bar and I asked him outright: Would you have chosen English if your parents were poor? If you knew that the buck stopped at you and there was no one to turn to if things got rough? Answer: Maybe. But maybe not.
He took subsidies from his parents all through his 20s just to make rent, and had a great deal of difficulty affording even simple things.
If that were me, I’m not sure what I would have done to make ends meet. I would have had nowhere to turn. And I concluded: I’m glad that wasn’t me.
I’ll also add that his writing skills ended up being used to create Action News 7 underwriting for $13 an hour at all sorts of odd times of the week because: There is a constant need to produce the news.
Not exactly creative or super fulfilling. And definitely very exhausting. If it bleeds, it leads, baby. Same friend saw the movie “Anchorman” and said: That wasn’t funny at all. It was basically a documentary of my industry. Asshole news anchors, trivial, transient stories, stupidity all around.
Thanks for the comment.
Mother knows best!
You happen to be an awesome writer. When I start reading this blog, I have trouble stopping to do something else. If you ever write anything other than here, I hope you’ll mention it on this blog, so we can read it, too.
Secretary/Artist (yeah, I know…)
21 more weeks to semi-FI (will have to work one day a week after that, but that’s OK)
Found a link to here at some FI Forum a week ago and due to flu been able to razzle through the lot already. Best flu ever! Agree with all positive feedback given – Doom is a genius in so many levels and his language so smart I repeatedy needed to consult Thesaurus.com (ok English is not my mother tongue but I rarely need to look words up in blogs). I now have so many additional tools on my eight year path to FIRE (not the least- for the transit, not something you reflect on when in year two). Chapeau for the Managerial Portraits, evoking these during Management Team Meetings from now on will help my mental well being for sure, haha. Also thanks for all comments posted, feels fantastic to validate that you’re not alone in thinking the world is utterly crazy.
Only problem now is this feeling of emptiness when I’ve gone through all of the historical and excellent posts…(human being never satisfied). A possible new sub category of FI Forums? “How to handle abstinence when reaching the end post of an incredible FI blog?”. Please don’t stop posting Doom, at least not in 2016!
I’ve never commented before, but just wanted to say this post is beautifully written and proof enough that you have a lot to offer with your writing
I absolutely think you’re a talented writer and hope you continue to share your stories here. It is a shame you buried that part of yourself for so long. Finding your way to blogging and writing was kind of inevitable for you I believe; your need to write and be creative was too strong to stay buried forever. Lucky us. 🙂
Absolutely awesome post Doom. I had a Dad with similar qualities,and the post really got me choked up, but mainly was inspiring. You are a lucky man….some people go their whole life without having this kind of insight. Thanks for sharing.
While reading this post I laughed, I cried and then, in fear, I realized you had to be stopped. If you continue to create such entertaining stories and inspire others into early retirement who will be left to consume and prop-up the stock market? Luckily I received an email today from a Definitely Not Questionable Company that is close to a break-thru technology that will allow time travel. I’ll be forwarding funds post haste to help with final testing. The plan is to convince your father to go back in time and support your decision to switch to a writing concentration in college thus averting the future you from attaining FIRE. If this option fails, we’ll send your nephews back in time to take you out. Oddly, they don’t seem to need much convincing…
Thank you so much for this post! As someone who hasn’t been out of college long enough to forget it all yet, I 100% agree with your assessment. Things were better when you got a whole new “life” every semester. This has been one of the hardest things to adjust to personally in the working world, as I search my Outlook inbox for information on some IT infrastructure project that has not progressed a bit in three years (that, and the sitting way too much).
You are making a difference! If you weren’t, I wouldn’t have checked your site every day for the next installment of your working life posts. If you weren’t, I would not have had any reason to tear up while reading the above page on a WordPress blog by someone I’ve never met.
Keep the knowledge coming!