The Big Question

stargazing

It’s been several days since I wrote about The Big Idea and since then I’ve promised on a couple of occasions that I would eventually tackle the reasons behind it. In that time, I suspect that any readers who care about me have been worried that I’ve come completely unhinged, and anyone who’s just here for the spectacle is hoping I have… Rather than speculating one way or another, I’m inclined to let you decide for yourself. This post is my attempt to answer The Big Question regarding The Big Idea:

Why?

That it’s a question that should come to mind upon learning of the idea is, I think, self-evident. After all, what I’m proposing runs counter to the Hungry-Hungry-Hippo mentality (consume everything you can) that pervades the ‘Westernized’* world. And it runs especially counter to the mentality that pretty much dominates the white-collar environment and – especially especially – the financial sector in which I’ve come up.

(*I’m not here to rail against economic imperialism – that’s far too political a topic for me to even be interested in having an opinion on. I only make the ‘Westernized’ distinction in recognition of the fact that there are obviously places in the world where people don’t have the means to live a life driven by consumerism. What, specifically, does ‘Westernized’ mean? I don’t know, nor is that relevant for my purposes. My use of the word was only meant to refer to my immediate surroundings and anywhere else where consumption is king.)

Not that I’m suggesting everyone in the financial sector is diametrically opposed to charity or other forms of mindfulness, but as I noted before, “in the business world, the propensity to help others does seem to be conditional upon one first providing for his or her own affluence.” Translation: in the financial sector, there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to materially reduce their standard of living in order to make a (bigger) positive impact on the world beyond them. Note that I’m presenting this not as accusation or judgment, but as plain fact. (This, for the purposes of pointing out why my decision to take a different direction is likely to yield questions as to my motives.)

(One more quick aside, before getting into my ‘reasons’: I want to talk about the concept of Charity for a second – again capitalized to emphasize the concept over the specific instance of it. Here’s an unpopular, or at least unconventional, opinion: if we’re not careful, Charity can manifest itself in ways that might be described as patronizing, patriarchal or worse. This is a big claim that I think I’ll address more fully another day. For now, please take it as given that when I talk about Charity or ‘help’, I’m not suggesting that those on its receiving end are weak or incapable or that I’m somehow going to be able to fix everything, whatever “everything” is. I’m not saying anything along the grandiose lines of “my people need me”. My disclaimer, then, is that I’m only talking about Charity in the simple sense that I’m sure there are ways – financially, in particular – that I can do more, however modestly, to help where help would…help. No more, no less.)

Last thing before I finally get to my point(s). For all that follows, recall my prior comments regarding my tendency toward pragmatism. None of what I’m about to say is meant as some grand philosophical statement of purpose that’s otherwise at odds with my personal tastes. If you’re really interested in putting yourself in my shoes, try to take what I have to say at face value: namely the parts where I describe personal preferences or experiences that may differ from yours.

Without further ado, here’s Why I’m doing what I’m doing:

To free myself from white-collar purgatory.
‘Nuff said.

I’m done with consumerism.
With the obvious quick-hitter out of the way, I might as well tackle this one next, since it’s the biggest item to be covered here. It’s a short sentence but presents a whole lot of stuff to unpack…

For starters, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Consumerism, in the way that I intend it, is as Wikipedia‘s intro suggests: “a social and economic order and ideology encourag[ing] the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.” In other words, it’s the Hungry-Hungry-Hippo mentality that I touched on earlier. The operative part of the concept isn’t about any problem inherent in consumer goods themselves. Rather, it’s the idea that no amount of consumption of those goods is ever enough. And if you look closely – or, really, step back and look at what’s glaringly obvious but mostly ignored – this consumerist mentality is evident all around you. It’s the thing that drives the Civic owner toward the Accord and the yacht owner toward the yacht-with-helipad. I could make up a whole bunch of examples of people wanting more irrespective of what they have in the current state, but I think you get the idea.

I’m not suggesting that every person is a slave to consumerism. I’m suggesting that many people are. And I’m suggesting that, disproportionately, those people occupy the ranks of the highest-earning professions, including (but not limited to) financial-sector management, executives and entrepreneurs. I’m also suggesting that, while I never would have identified myself as a rabid consumer, I have in the past exhibited (to varying degrees) many of the hallmark traits thereof: coveting the bigger house, nicer car, more expensive wardrobe, etc., not to mention a propensity to increase discretionary spending (e.g. restaurants, entertainment) in proportion to my financial means.

And what did all those things get me? Mostly an ever-present desire for still more.

I remember when I entered the workforce out of school, making an annual income of $X. At the time, I could hardly fathom what life might be like on the day that I began to earn 1.25X. Then when I reached 1.25X, I imagined that 1.5X would be a totally different ballgame. And so on for 1.75X, 2X, etc. At each step of the way, my consumption increased but my degree of satiation did not. Textbook hedonic adaptation.

Remember my interest in pragmatism? Consider through that lens what I’m describing: what’s the point of greater consumption if it doesn’t lead to greater satiation? Isn’t satiety a more rational goal than some arbitrary level of consumption?

Of course, this grand conclusion is not something I reached of purely my own devices. (Even the objective evaluation of my own trajectory, two paragraphs above this one, is not something I would have ever been independently capable of, were it not for some additional stimuli.) There have been things – plenty of them – in my environment that have guided my way. Things like this documentary and this address and podcasts and articles and bits of information that I absorbed from sources I can’t remember. None of these external signals, though, have made a greater formative impact on me than my own experiences.

(Brief aside: both of the things I linked to in the previous paragraph are highly worth checking out. The first is a documentary that, among other things, presents the concept of the hedonic treadmill and the findings of some research showing that above a certain level of income – at which basic needs are met – greater income does not lead to greater reported satisfaction on the part of the people earning it. This has stuck with me. The second link is to a 2005 commencement address delivered by David Foster Wallace – the late American writer – that deals with how people assign meaning or value to experiences and things. Salient part: if you worship money, you’ll never have enough of it. To say that this video resonated deeply with me would be a pretty massive understatement.)

My own experiences are what caused these nice little intellectual concepts to begin to hold real truth to me. Long story short: in the last half-year, for reasons not relevant to this story, I scaled back my standard of living and have been astounded by the results. Instead of pining for the old days of indiscriminate spending, I’ve found real satisfaction in simplicity. Instead of equating consumption with pleasure, I’ve learned that the two constructs are actually independent of one another. (For instance, I now know that my enjoyment of social experiences has little to do with how much money I spend on them. Don’t get me wrong: some experiences require money in order to happen at all – e.g. going to a concert with friends. But once you’ve provided for the ability to have the experience, more expenditure doesn’t necessarily equal more fun.)

It’s in these realizations that I’ve gained the power to reflect on my past behavior and experiences. Only in recognizing my ability to derive meaningful satisfaction from simplicity have I been able to identify the endless want to which I was previously beholden. And, framed in ever-pragmatic terms, I am prepared to defend my observation that this conscious moderation is actually more enjoyable than limitless consumption. In a plot twist that would have absolutely blown a younger me away, it turns out that the key to sustained satiation lies in re-calibrating what that satiation entails rather than blindly assuming that more consumption will get you there.

I don’t expect this to make sense to you. The whole point I just finished making is that it took me experiencing this for myself in order to arrive in this place. Assuming you’ve even read this far, my words may be interesting (maybe not) but are probably no more truly compelling than all of the many signals I let go unheeded in earlier stages of my trajectory.

Besides, the consumerist ideology is hammered into us from the time we’re children, so of course it’s bound to be hard to shake. And I’m not just talking about advertising and product placement (formidable forces, no doubt). I’m also talking about the fact that the basic advice generally given to children is something along the lines of “do well in school so you can get a good job to pay for stuff”. This, of course, presupposes the idea that more income = more stuff = more enjoyment. If you doubt the veracity of my observation, consider your own impression of the parent who encourages their child to simply “be happy” or pursue a livelihood that “fulfills” them. Pretty new-agey, right?… Traditionally, parents want their kids to be doctors and lawyers, and the fact that we generally don’t bat an eye at this (not that I’m suggesting we should) is evidence of what I’m talking about.

Let me be very clear about something that I’ve been implying to this point: my comments are not meant to be prescriptive. I’m talking about the reasons have for having chosen my present course, which are based on my observations and experiences. No part of what I’m saying precludes the possibility of your experiences having been totally different. If you’ve never struggled with consumerist tendencies or felt a nagging sense of Hungry-Hungry-Hippoism, then chances are that you’re pretty satiated and, by extension, satisfied. That’s awesome. And even if you have felt some of the things I described, at best I’m offering a suggestion for how to approach them, but only if you’re so inclined (of your own volition).

So for me to say that “I’m done with consumerism” means not that I’m done with consumption per se, but that I’m done with the endless pursuit of ever-more consumption. (On the ‘consumption’ thing, I’ve noted elsewhere that I have no intention of leading a life of willful deprivation. Comfort without extravagance is the mantra, steering clear of consumerist angst in the process.) This on the basis that – as I’ve experienced first-hand and had suggested to me many times by things I’ve encountered – I know it’s an approach that will bring me more sustained satiation and corresponding satisfaction with my quality of life. A pragmatic pursuit, through and through.

(By the way, it’s not lost on me that this approach is so unconventional – particularly in the financial sector – that skepticism as to my genuineness will end up being a very real obstacle that I’ll need to overcome in my business pursuits. Any self-respecting consumer will raise an eyebrow at the businessman who claims to not be interested in endless riches. There has to be a catch, right? Notwithstanding the irony of the consumer being less trusting of someone who isn’t trying to pull a fast one on him, I’m well aware that I will have to come up with a very believable way of demonstrating that there isn’t.)

I want to do more to contribute positively to the world.
This item could get a pretty deep treatment, examining the philosophical ins and outs of whether the human animal is morally or ethically obligated to help out his brethren. But that whole discussion is a moot point in light of (once again) the practical reality of the matter. I meant what I said before: I’ve always felt guilty about using my lot in life primarily to benefit myself. Where that guilt comes from, I don’t really know nor is it necessary to speculate. Cosmic musings aside, the pragmatist in me sees a simple opportunity: feel bad about not doing enough? Do more. Problem solved.

(The flip side is, of course, that it feels good to help. You could probably google that idea and find a wealth of literature on the topic. I don’t think I’m the first to suggest that humans are generally wired to derive a real, meaningful gratification from assisting others. I just think we don’t always have the inclination to go out and do the work of finding opportunities to do so. In any case, double whammy: helping – in a manner whose specifics are TBD – will assuage my guilt of nebulous origin and replace it with some sort of satisfaction. This point doesn’t need to be deeper than that.)

I can think of no better example to set for my son.
As a parent to a young child, my priorities are a) to ensure his safety, health and happiness in childhood and b) to equip him with the tools to lead a life that fulfills him and makes a positive impact on the world – in that order. Part ‘a’ represents the hands-on work of caring for him every day. Part ‘b’ is a little less obvious but, nonetheless, the conscientious parent is naturally adept at the sort of constant education that – over the course of an entire upbringing – programs a moral code and foundational values into the child.

But there is, of course, the potential challenge of having to convince the child to do as you say, not as you do. If the parent preaches one set of values but behaves according to another, I think the professed values are less likely to stick. I don’t know how often this happens or, really, what the experience of any other parent is in this regard. I just know that the sorts of values I’d like to program into my son are the ones implied in the pursuit of lifelong fulfillment by means of helping others. So if I can walk the walk, it takes a little bit of pressure off of my need to talk the talk.

Does that about cover it?
I’m sorry for the length of this post, but my desire to chronicle this period of my life (for later reflection or otherwise) necessitates that I give due respect to all the many things that are driving me forward on this. I think that the above, heavy though it may be, paints a fairly accurate picture of (some of) the things you’d see if you boarded a double-decker bus and took a guided tour of my present state of mind. (See what I did there? State… Never mind.)

And look, I know this stuff is all very serious – that’s probably to be expected of the sort of tectonic identity shift that it implies. But let’s not forget the fact that it goes hand in hand with a freedom and happiness that I’ve never experienced before. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m extremely excited and hopeful about all that’s entailed here. So as much as the underlying details are serious and somewhat sobering in tone, they’ve led (so far) to a genuine lightness of being on the surface. We’ll see how it goes from here.

If nothing else, I think it’ll be kinda nice to have a documented answer to the inevitable question: “what was I thinking???”

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