Letting Go and Finding Center
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions.” — R.E.M. Losing My Religion. Out of Time.
In this day and age, the tapestry of experiences available to each of us, the menu of things we can do and overdo if we so choose, is so broad and multifaceted that no two people among the seven billion of us can claim to have the same exact set of interests, the same hobbies, the same passions.
Yet, with all these choices at our disposal to enrich our lives, we choose instead to lock ourselves in an office building, spending all our waking hours in conflict, in anger, under constant stress or in boredom — just so we can make a living. And we do this for the most productive and energetic years of our lives, all in the hope that we can maybe spend a few years in old age enjoying the things we really like. The irony, of course, is that by the time we reach our goals, we’re often too sick and tired to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
What is wrong with us that makes us do this?
We talk incessantly about work/life balance but we seldom, if ever, actually achieve it. Every time we reach a goal, we feel compelled to move the goalpost. Somehow, what we already have is never enough and we want more. Meanwhile, we don’t have time for our family, we’re always in a rush, and we rarely slow down long enough to understand why it is that we do the things that we do.
This may seem like a very cynical view of life. And I’m the last to speak. I’ve had a successful career and life, managing to retire at 52, while still in good health. Graduating from college at an earlier age than most, I spent the next 35 years working on some of the most successful products in the world — everything from supercomputers to PCs to the cloud — and am proud of what I achieved in my career.
But you could also look back cynically on the same career from the broader perch of history. Almost every product I ever worked on has now (or will soon) become obsolete.
“Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.” — Rene Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy: Of the Things of Which We May Now Doubt. 1641.
The “idea” is that we’re going to educate ourselves so we can help society by finding a good job which will mentally challenge us to be our best, that we’re supposed to feel positive about our contributions to society and in the rewards that we get in return.
I understand that’s the “idea”. It describes an “ideal”. But how many of us actually achieve that nirvana?
In my admittedly cynical view, ten percent would be too high an estimate. Meanwhile, the other ninety percent of us don’t or can’t achieve that ideal; either because we didn’t pay attention in school or because we hate our jobs or because our boss won’t listen to our ideas or because some competitor beat us to the punch or because we just lost our way somewhere along the road and gave up trying. The level of inefficiency and duplication of effort in our society is mind boggling.
Life, in general, is not fair. The game is rigged against us. The odds are much higher that something will go wrong than that we will do everything right and be fulfilled as an individual, not to mention financially successful.
And yet, somehow, the vast majority of the seven billion of us get up every morning for the best decades of our lives and keep pushing that ball up the mountain, believing against all odds that we’re going to be rich, we’re going to change the world, we’re going to make a dent in the universe. Fill in the blanks for whatever “it” is that will make you happy.
Somehow, meanwhile, we’ve also simultaneously twisted the intermediate goalposts, the way we measure ourselves, so that “it” is always out of reach.
What we have is never enough. We need more money. We need a bigger house. We need a faster car. We went to Europe for vacation last year so we need to go to Africa on safari this year. We got a raise last year but Joe got a bigger one. It almost doesn’t matter what we “achieve”. There’s always something more we want to achieve.
The goal post keeps moving up, often… no, always… at our own doing.
“Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.” — Abraham Lincoln. Letter to General Hooker, head of Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. 1862.
This problem is mirrored in our approach to leisure. You may like to hike or bike, jog or swim, listen to music or play the piano, play tennis or shoot hoops. These are all enjoyable experiences at heart. Take that same idea — swimming as a hobby, for example — and deliver it as a required after-school activity for a six year old and you get instead: anger, petulance, tantrum, drama, and lifetime resentment.
A few kids will excel in this model, are challenged by great teachers and go on to enjoy swimming as a hobby, as a healthy lifestyle, as a fun activity, or maybe even pursue it professionally. The vast majority of kids, I suspect, “the other ninety percent”, will go on instead to hate, or at least resent, swimming.
By turning an intrinsically joyful and healthy activity into a chore, one with ever moving goalposts, we create a cause for tension and long term resentment; we crush the spirit in our kids. We teach them that it’s more important to achieve goals than to enjoy what they’re doing. The same logic also applies in school — with physics, chemistry, and math. With history and English Literature. These are not topics to be relished as we learn about the world around us but rather subjects to be aced through rote memorization.
We manage to suck all the joy out of education.
So we do this for a dozen years or more — “educate” our kids, pat ourselves on the back that we are great parents, and then they enter the workforce where they get to sit in offices all day, attend meetings all day, write code all day, serve tables at a restaurant, or whatever it is that we do out there, knowing full well that the vast majority of us will not really accomplish a whole lot, some subset of us will move the ball up the hill maybe a few inches or a few feet, and a tiny subset may even get to do something heroic or transcendent. But, for the vast majority of us, we will be too old by the time we reach our goals to enjoy the rewards.
So here’s the riddle for me. Why do we do this to ourselves? What the hell is wrong with us as a species that makes us do this? It makes no logical sense whatsoever.
And what does any of this have to do with “Confessions of a Semi-Retired Silicon Valley Executive”, you may ask — the subtitle that presumably brought you here?
Let’s just say the observations above are based, at least partly, on personal experience. It wasn’t until I retired that I found the time to go and do the things I love. In my case, I’m talking about biking, about reading, about writing, about traveling, about music. (By the way, I don’t write to be read. I write to think.)
But it doesn’t matter what I like. What matters is that I finally have the time to spend on them. For you, that might be piano or cooking or video games or dinner out with friends.
“Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy.” — Steven wright.
The reduced level of stress and the improved healthier lifestyle is just a side effect of what retirement has given me. The real gift is the gift of time.
It took me a year to realize that. I’m healthier now in every measurable way than I was just a year ago, while I still spent brain cycles and daylight hours on work. Here’s just one example: I spend two to three hours a day, pretty much every single day, biking up the mountain. Because I can. Because I enjoy it.
What used to be painful and a chore is now a joy — I’m getting faster, I’m never sore, I could do twice as many hours in the saddle! All it took was time and reduced stress levels.
It wasn’t until I retired, until I intentionally and purposefully reduced the level of stress in my life, until I let go of a hundred little projects and innuendos at work, until I cleared my head of the clutter and the distractions, until I started feeling relaxed and happy and content, that I realized what a toll the previous forty years had taken.
It was only after I let go, after I stopped moving the goalposts, that I started actually enjoying life, actually finding center.
There’s a lesson in that.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also want to read the follow-up I wrote: