This is an extremely rough draft of an essay I started writing several months ago and couldn't figure out how to wire together. I'm posting it anyway, mostly because I like the graphic I made. Whether the meandering flow of the essay itself makes a point is an entirely different matter.
America's impending doom by my narcissistic generation is a legend in the manufacture,
and rarely does a week go by without another reporter lamenting young graduates1 or
professor painting their delinquent students onto a strawman.
Like many distraught citizens, I love reading these stories and decrying their villains. I've even met
a few who embody the narcissistic archetype which apparently is the role model for my
Some might suggest I satisfy the requirements myself.
That said, I can't help but chuckle at the thought that narcissism is a grave danger facing my generation.
The much greater obstacle is recognizing and avoiding the aged truths which were cornerstones of successes past, but no longer apply to the present. In this essay I'd like to take a look at one of these truths which have deeply integrated into our lives and decisions.
The last fifty years of financial advice is based on the premise of
steady and inevitable gains, and has thus far--despite painful hiccups--held firm.
However, applying the same economics to spending our lifetimes of time has
Time: a Finite Resource
A textbook definition of economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources.
Even if you've never plotted the impact of a price ceiling on a market, if you ever think
about goals and have some nebulous life plan, then you are an economist. You're an economist
because you're allocating your scarcest resource: time.
Time is important because it is a necessary ingredient for creating both wealth and meaning
(one might imagine that time is important for other reasons as well).
In turn, wealth and meaning are the two substances that American society values above all else.
While we may not spend much time considering why these two substances are valuable, we certainly
have a growing niche of wealth and meaning alchemists who have discovered the art of turning
vapid advice into gold by way of the printing press2.
Skipping past the snake oil (it's poison) and the snake oil dealers (selling advice on making
money is the only surefire way to make money), the formula we've been taught for wealth
creation is pretty mundane.
This formula is the juxtaposition of old Protestant beliefs and new American ideals into
a quantum of wisdom. The moral that underpins all three of the ingredients
(education, effort and time) is the neo-American value that rules them all: fairness3.
The theory goes something like this:
- Education is a great equalizer which gives us all a foundation for success.
- Effort is something that anyone can marshall.
- Time is limited for everyone.
Thus, by that formula, as long as education is widely available, wealth is equally available to everyone.
That is to say, the accretion of wealth is a fair and predictable process. There is just one nagging problem: it isn't.
Education is widely available, but it is increasingly expensive, and the benefits have shifted from intrinsic to extrinsic.
Where--in our parents' generations and before--the benefit of education (in particular of the undergraduate and
graduate variety) was about learning skills and domains of knowledge, in many careers a college degree is a mandatory
entrance requirement (it serves as an easy to implement filter of applicants) but is otherwise ignored.
The catchphrase for explaining this phenomenon is that you go to college to learn how to learn. This strikes me as an
infuriating excuse for why so many students come to college and leave four to six years later without any usable skills
or directly applicable knowledge.
Looked at from the lens of the past--where education's primary value was intrinsic--the explosion of college and pursuant
increase of college educated students seems like fairness spreading its wings. It's a bit different when viewed from a perspective
where college's primary benefit is extrinsic. In the best case we achieve the dangerous fairness of uniformity, and at worst the
system is actively punishing those without the means to finance their college education by straddling them with debt that's exempted from
bankruptcy4. Instead of opening a world of opportunities, attending college is often the event horizon past which awaits debt
According to a somewhat prevalent mindset, effort as an unlimited resource, which we can tap to the extent that we try to tap it.
That is to say, we can exert effort to the extent that we put effort into exerting effort. While this is a comfortable lie to those of
us who are blessed with good physical and mental health, but simply isn't true. Long term stress caused by financial insecurity and depression
can both undermine the brain's functioning.
Even--which is to say, especially--the most dedicated of workers can and will experience burnout
during particularly trying times. The body and the mind will protect itself from yourself, and burnout is one surefire
mechanism it uses to prevent extended periods of overwork.
Time is, in one sense, the most egalitarian of the three ingredients, but demands upon--and thus opportunity of--time vary greatly
between individuals. To some extent we do have a large degree of control over how we utilize our time, but some individuals have more
The wealthy family who has hired a nanny and a gardener can devote time to work that would otherwise be invested in
picking up kids from school or cleaning up the yard. For those who would argue that having a home or a child is a choice,
I would argue there are comparable demands upon time that can only be avoided at great personal cost or cannot be avoided
at all: relatives with chronic disease, unemployed friends or family, personal injury.
Meaning: Failed By Our Alchemists, We Flounder
Unfortunately, even if we acknowledge the wealth formula as a
flawed construct, with that realization decisions don't become
any simpler. Rather, just like a novice programmer just beginning to understand threading),
the understanding opens the doorway to a new mess of confusion.
Whereas we have a formula--however broken--for wealth, our happiness algebra
is notably lacking. One suggested formula is
- Have a job you love (which pays well, offers long-term growth, is meaningful).
- Start a family (i.e. spouse and two children).
- Buy a house (with a yard).
It's a formula which hasn't aged particularly well. Sure, house prices are rather out of reach
as opposed to our parents' generation, but moreover I think it's lost its psychic cachet.
Owning a house and raising a family is much more pleasant when one parent can support
the family adequately. Raising kids at all is much more pleasant when you're part of a
strong and intact community.
Another common formula is do something you love. That's it. That's like
telling a 16th century sailor to navigate by sailing straight. Great. Thanks guys,
I'm going to do that, right now.
Security: the Value of Wealth
If one can scry a formula for happiness from the entrails of the past, equally important
is figuring out the formula for security, which is where the value of
wealth becomes apparent.
Then again, wealth is worthless when your needs exceed your wealth,
and wealth is worthless to the extent that it exceeds your mental state.
Wealth can't cure unhappiness. Nor can mental state cure poverty.
Nor will reducing your financial needs solve this formula. Instead
we need to examine our lives and make considered decisions.
Stop maximizing wealth when you're unhappy; stop neglecting
wealth when poverty keeps your from enjoying it.
Optimize where it counts.
So, our new goal is to spend our lifetime of time to optimize the
final happiness equation.
Given the equation, we still need an approach to solving it.
Algorithms for Living
In America we have this dream of college being the golden years before
we become productive (and spend much of our time working) and after
youth. With the rise of student loans, this college interlude is quite literally
paid for by decades spent in the workforce.
After those decades, blissful retirement awaits where you can go on long cruises
and buy a timeshare in Florida.
The entrepreneurial vision of living is much more enticing, seemingly offering a
much longer portion of one's life devoted to solely to meaning and devoid of
the concern of perusing financial security.
Certainly it looks better, but it's only a model. This doesn't always work out, and there are
many would-be entrepreneurs who take a long-hard stab at success and then up
working for the man or consume their life seeking wealth.
Summarizing Dilapidated Advice
In the end, the half-dozen pseudo-formulas boil down to a few simple thoughts:
We should emphasize creating security, rather than maximizing wealth. This means a balance of mental health and financial health. One without the other is unusable.
Security is essential for happiness, but is an insufficient condition. Pursuing security is an incomplete approach to living.
Advice ages. Sometimes it ages like wine and sometimes like milk. Check for expiration dates.
Security and happiness to all of you.