Letter to a younger friend

A friend wrote to me about the confusion of entering adult life – the 9-to-5 grind, the loss of close-by friends, the phoniness, the materialism. Here’s my response.

I remember my first experiences of adult life well. It was during my internship the summer before senior year. I was exhausted each day when I returned from just sitting in front of a computer from 9am to 6pm. I was frightened to realize that all my friends were suddenly far away. I remember thinking, How did I get here? I was so confused about what to do with my life. I changed my mind again and again.

Adulthood was so utterly overwhelming that I took many, many months to ponder it.Many thinkers have helped me. I also benefited from talking and writing with many friends and, at one point, a therapist. Perhaps I can help by telling you a few principles that I now follow.

Goals

(1) Build deep relationships with many people - Psychologists say relationships with other humans are the single most important factor for happiness. As I left school, I began to realize that friendships just aren’t the renewable resource that it used to be. I’ve never been good at keeping touch, but I try to do better now. I have found this to be pretty simple: Just reach out to people whose company I like and grab a lunch or Skype. Really listen to them. Help them. It is incredibly rewarding to keep relationships with friends and family alive, warm, and meaningful. Here is more wisdom on how to love someone.

(2) Do work I enjoy - The idea is simple: spend as many hours a day as possible doing something I love. By contrast, this is very hard to achieve. It has only been a year since graduation and half of my friends have quit their first jobs because they weren’t a good fit. I think finding work you love is hard because no one can tell you what kind of work you will enjoy. To pick the right job you have to know what motivates and excites you. These things are partly unique to each person.

I have a clearer idea now that I have tried a few things: I like thinking about ideas and helping people I love. I love writing and teaching; I get totally immersed in it. But I hate commuting, short deadlines, and meetings. I’m also not really a competitive person, so I don’t excel at everything I do. I’m much more motivated when my actions lead to something bigger than myself, like helping people.

You might think: all this should be obvious, right? But while I could say these same words two years ago, they were not meaningful realities. Two years ago I could say, “Oh, 9-to-5 is a drag”, but did I really understand how or why it was a drag until I experienced it? Sometimes one has to make mistakes. Mistakes hurt, but they also make one think harder. If you’re not completely happy with your internship, you might ask: Well, why do you find your work unfulfilling? What might make it more fulfilling? How do you get there? The only way to find work you enjoy is to try.

(3) Make some money (eventually) - Money is a means to an end. Money matters to me because I want the power to do things for people I love, such as pay my parents’ medical bills or my kids’ education. Money also matters because it frees me to do things I enjoy and spend time with people I love; I don’t want to worry a ton about the cost of groceries or be unable to purchase airplane tickets. When you think about it this way, making money can be an act of love. Some people make money for selfish reasons, but it is possible to make money for selfless reasons too.

So how do I make money? In fact there are so many ways to make money. Sure it can mean joining a profession like law or banking where entry is difficult. It can also mean making yourself desirable for employment in less traditional ways, such as being really good at graphics design or statistics. Importantly, making money can be separate from the work you love. This is why I put making money as a separate goal from doing work you love. People who have the opportunity might borrow cheaply (e.g. from family) and invest on the side or start a lifestyle business. You can even have an extremely fulfilling life with a totally boring job but an awesome hobby, like the famous postman/librarian art collectors Vogels did. Each of these paths involve different kinds of stresses and rewards. Some are riskier. Some are more challenging. For example, starting a business can really pay off, but it’s also very stressful. It’s for you to decide out how to go about it.

I am fortunate. I don’t have kids yet and my parents hopefully have many healthy years left. It wasn’t easy, but I did manage to find jobs that allow me to subsist and learn a ton. Learning is enjoyable and it helps me make money in the long run.

There are often moments when doing things I love comes into conflict with making money. When this happens, I try to remember that money is just a means of achieving some other things that I care about. I ask myself: Are those other things worth the time that I won’t be doing what I love?

Other observations

You raised some interesting criticisms about the culture of the tech industry. I’m not sure that they should stop you from doing what you enjoy if indeed technology is what motivates and excites you. There will be bad incentives and bad culture in any industry. Academics spend too much time fussing about publications and tenure, doctors with lawsuits, bankers with face time, priests with orthodoxy. If you ruled out industries due to some generalization like “people in tech aren’t tackling meaningful questions”, soon there won’t be any industries that you can work in.

What matters is that you do work that is fulfilling and meaningful. Thankfully, variation within industries is often large. I care more about the mini-culture of my specific team. I look for coworkers that I can learn from for a long time to come. I look for bosses that give me clear goals and good feedback, but trust me to be independent and creative. Great parents do that for their kids. Great teachers do that for their students. Great bosses are like that too.

Now the 9-to-5 grind and the loneliness of adult life – that shit is real. When I was grinding away in consulting, I barricaded my soul against the tedium of work life with books, documentaries, new experiences around the city, intellectual conversations with friends nearby, and letters with friends far away. Even now with a job I enjoy much more I still try to keep my life varied.

I try not to live beyond my means. Getting used to a lifestyle can lead to suffering, because you then no longer know how to live without it. Behavioral economists call this loss aversion. Buddhists call this attachment. But at the same time it is too extreme to shun all worldly pleasure. What I try to do is to live with a bit of awe in my daily life instead. I try to remember that I come from dust and to dust I will return. Everything nice is nice while it lasts. It is a luxury and not a necessity.

As for networking, I think of it as finding out about different people and different work and maybe making friends along the way. It is really not that important to impress anyone. I just let them teach me something new and have fun listening.

I once wrote about my more rational approach to finding work I love. Perhaps I was a bit vague there. Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Be curious. Try things. Put yourself in positions where you get to try many things. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • Don’t buy into the myths and stories you’re told. Keep an open mind.
  • Keep track of what you enjoy and what you don’t. Be honest with yourself.
  • Don’t decide on your life now. Keep some options open.
  • Stay in touch with people you like and admire.
  • Reflect often. Meditate or pray. Give yourself plenty of time and space to grow up.

Living well is the work of a lifetime. In retrospect I feel lucky that I didn’t love my first job; I ended up with lots of mental bandwidth to reflect and work through personal issues. You and I will experience many more things in the next few years. We should expect to change our mind many times. We are young and we still have time.