Every hot-take with a headline like “Finding Meaning in Your Meaningless Job” or “Making it Work in a Toxic Work Place” is persuading you to tolerate your misery for the sake of productivity. Our “capitalism” is broken; MBAs focus on maximizing profits by reducing costs. Capitalists are supposed to create wealth, we are in an economic system based on shuffling wealth around while everyday life gets more expensive. We are in a service economy transitioning to an experience based economy (J Pine, J Gilmore) with a 15% - 25% commission. For the first time ever, people no longer think hard work leads to a better life (SPARCC ). The American Dream has become a bit of a nightmare. Household debt is skyrocketing (Marte) as 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck (Friedman); trapped on what psychologists and philosophers call the Hedonic Treadmill (Rosenthal). My guess, this is why half of Americans making $100K annually are struggling (Selyukh).
The moment we make a bit more we spend a bit more, slightly increasing the speed of the treadmills we tied ourselves to. How long can we keep running?
I know a fair amount of people who all work very hard and all make a very good living, they’re all pretty miserable. Catching up with them is mired in discussion about their latest expenditure not living up to expectations. All that time, energy and money spent; meh. The fleeting happiness is what keeps us on the treadmill. Affording expensive things is an addiction like any other, it consumes our thoughts and becomes the North Star in our decision making process. We want that dopamine release! I say; “we” because I’ve been there, my job title was how I defined myself. My treadmill got faster with every forward advancement. I earned it, in my otherwise privileged life. What does monetary wealth even get us? Security, pending we continue making above a certain income level. Ample luxuries, but only as long as we continue feeding our monetary addiction. Realistically, this comfort and security comes with the constant stress of maintaining the status quo. Seems pretty costly. Is it worth the ROI?
During lockdown I got really into philosophy. I reread all the books I barely understood when they were homework. I went through a hardcore Aristotle phase. In his book on Ethics; Aristotle looks at ethics as a spectrum and sees the potentially best way to live as being magnificent. A life of Aristotelian Magnificence sees time and effort as your two biggest assets. They’re the only things you can never get back once spent. A magnificent person, to Aristotle, was a person who used their time wisely and didn’t put a premium on their income. A well lived life is a life of time well spent, not money made; often, money well spent isn’t worth the time/effort spent making it. Is your time and/or energy spent wisely? As my study of Western Philosophy continued this theme persisted. Seneca’s takes were especially interesting because he was rich before he was exiled. If losing something changes who you are you shouldn’t have it in the first place; Tony Stark says to Spider-Man as Seneca says to Lucilius.
Get rich or die trying is an axiom I can’t find the origin of, most recently it was popularized by 50 Cent. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, a guy who got shot a bunch of times before becoming a famous rapper and getting in trouble with the IRS. I’m good with poverty, thanks. None of that sounds worth some added luxuries. As a less extreme example, we all know a guy with a nice home and beautiful family he never sees. We all know a woman working twice as hard as her male counterparts for the same income or recognition. We all have a friend who incessantly complains about their job, or their bills, or their fancy car. All self inflicted problems that distract from the joys of every day life. One nation, hopped up on caffeine and Adderall, making pennies on the dollar to buy shit they can’t afford.
The day of the dream job is over, nobody is going to pay you what you are worth. That’s not how capitalism is designed. The payers want to pay less despite the payees’ need for more; advancements in technologies reduce costs and the need to have so many payees on payroll. The savings are then passed on to the underemployed consumers with raised prices among record setting profits; also known as “inflation.”
Of course, I would love to be rich. I miss making more than enough money; I don’t miss the stress. I don’t miss the afterwork emails and phone calls that came with the promotion that put me closer to the toxic CEO. I don’t miss Sunday Scaries and pre-meeting meetings to discuss who should say what about the super-important reduction in the workforce; HR speak for “layoffs.” I don’t miss added luxuries, in fact; I appreciate less frequent luxuries infinitely more. I work to live, I don’t live to work.
I made the decision to make less money and have more life. I have a dream lifestyle, it’s not very expensive. We can point to my not having a family as what gives me the room to do this. I’d argue that having a family would be a good reason for me to spend more time and effort on my income; but it’s not a good enough reason to put all of one’s time and effort into their income. Giving them everything doesn’t have to be everything just above your means. If you’re not enjoying your daily life; what’s the point? Life is too short to spend a moment of it in misery.
I aspire to make good money, I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I often take less money for more fulfillment, that’s how I became a teacher. Going forward I will choose life experience over job experience. My passions and curiosities got me off the treadmill. One day I woke up and realized; despite having it all I wasn’t having any fun. More money meant nicer things but my quality of life deteriorated fast. Dredging myself to the place that didn’t lay me off to cut costs, yet, was soul crushing. Especially while having to make up for the annual lost productivity of a shrinking team. Cursed with competency, more responsibility doesn’t come with more pay. The status quo, no-matter the industry.
By all means, try to get rich. I’m still trying; my way. One of us could drop dead tomorrow. Do you want to stand before your deity and say, “… Well, I worked real hard;” or do you want to reflect on a life well lived? The first rule in my HUMANifesto for Modern Living is; get rich or have fun trying. If you want to get rich, you have to become a capitalist. You won’t get rich as an employee, you have to do something that creates value for consumers. When people spend money on your creation you create capital. BOOM, capitalist.
There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to do your job and go home. We can’t all be titans of industry. Know the worth of your labor and have fun getting it! That is not nearly as catchy. There’s more to life than how much stuff you buy? Meh, that won’t look good on a t-shirt… Get rich or have fun trying!
Friedman, Zack. “Shock Poll: 7 in 10 Americans Live Paycheck to Paycheck.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Feb. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2022/02/08/shock-poll-7-in-10-americans-live-paycheck-to-paycheck/?sh=735a0a3455f6.
Pine, J, and J Gilmore. “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014, https://hbr.org/1998/07/welcome-to-the-experience-economy.
Marte, Jonnelle. “U.S. Household Debt Increased by $1 Trillion in 2021, the Most since 2007.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/us-household-debt-increased-by-1-trillion-2021-most-since-2007-2022-02-08/.
Rosenthal, Norman. “Stuck, Sadly, on the ‘Hedonic Treadmill.’” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Apr. 2002, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/wellness/2002/04/02/stuck-sadly-on-the-hedonic-treadmill/f502312c-0462-4665-a7bd-69c4bc13f5f4/.
Selyukh, Alina. “Paycheck-to-Paycheck Nation: Why Even Americans with Higher Income Struggle with Bills.” NPR, NPR, 16 Dec. 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/12/16/941292021/paycheck-to-paycheck-nation-how-life-in-america-adds-up.
SPARCC. “How Local Leadership Can Drive Prosperity for All.” SPARCC, https://www.sparcchub.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/SPARCC_Poll-Results_Report.pdf.