Going beyond work: separating meaning and money, and surviving in the meanwhile

Around 2000, I fired my boss. Not just a specific boss, but all of them, permanently.

It was about power. It was not about money, it was about power. I’d begun to understand that, at a profound level, the goals of the market, the goals of capitalism, were directly opposed to my own personal goals for my life and the world, at least in most cases.

I realized, in particular, that a huge part of the wealth in our societies was coming from one of three places: 

  1. stealing from the future, 
  2. destroying nature, or
  3. subjugating the poor. 

I was about 30 at the time, searching for meaning and purpose, but I knew from the way I felt interacting with my corporate superiors, working on projects that I did not care about, that there was A Problem. I knew that The Problem went beyond the surface, beyond a specific interaction with a specific boss, and into the experience of Work itself, within the context of late-stage Capitalism.

So I quit. It was easy. I was moving across country, taking a new role, and everything went wrong over a period of months. And at the end of it, I just said “enough”, and that was it. It was like the way I once became vegetarian. I just had a moment of realization, changed my ideas, and stopped eating meat for six years. The decisions I made around money felt the same way, the same sense of an insight which meant I had to change my way of life. So I did.

I thought, at first, that being my own boss would be the answer, that I could be a contractor. But what I discovered is that being a boss to myself was not the a solution. Being a boss is a position where one stands over another, and gives orders. And if I decided to be a boss to myself, all I’d achieved was internalizing the oppressor. My client (I used to build web sites) became The Market, I became The Boss, ordering myself around on their behalf and - frankly - I worked harder than ever, with more freedom, but with my own ever-present supervision. Was that freedom at all? There’s no slacking off for an afternoon, when you are your own supervisor. Being your own boss is not the answer, any more than never breaking a bad law because you constantly monitor your own behavior is the answer to living in a country with unfair rules. It’s just moving the position from which you are controlled from the outside to the inside. It’s change, but not necessarily improvement.

So I thought again. What I resented, fundamentally, was having my energy diverted from solving the world’s problems to making money for myself, and turning the great global wheels of Capitalism. I felt it was, in some sense, a double sin because I am mighty when I’m well aligned, and weak when I’m out of balance with myself, so when I was working on things I did not want to work on, squandering my energy turning the wheels of the machine rather than finding a future for all of us, it also massively cut my effectiveness as a researcher and a thinker in my own time. I found I could not serve two masters, the market and myself. So I chose to do it my way, and tell The Market to get stuffed.

I dug in. I got used to poverty, and I made a critical change: I started to refuse to take money for doing anything I would not be willing to do for free. I would not sell either my labor or my ideas. Period.

I had a critical insight. It was this: If it did not directly contribute to the welfare of the planet or humanity, I simply would not do it for cash. I have been poor since, I have borrowed money from friends and taken years to pay it back, I’ve clung to the edge. I’ve been damn near homeless. But I’ve never stepped back into the position of doing what I’m told for money because it seemed like the only choice, and that rule has become second nature - taking money for doing what is not aligned with my goals is now as eating meat is to a vegetarian - an unnatural act. It never occurs to me to be something I could do, and weirdly enough nobody seems to offer me that kind of work any more anyway. It’s just ceased to exist to me.

I cannot recommend this path to anyone. It came out of my own meditation practice, my own life experience, the fact I had no family or dependants to take care of, the fact I had a strong community that would occasionally catch me if I fell. But as a Gandhian, there’s a point where you start having to put what you know about the world into action, and it changes you. Partly it’s what comes from meditation, partly it’s from understanding at an intellectual level how we slip away from the truth. Partly it comes from psychotherapy, from the various traditions that help us square what we know and what we feel with each other, to integrate knowing-being-action as a single whole. For whatever reason, it became who I am.

What’s come out of never working just for money is considerable enterprise in trying to figure out how to make a living doing the right thing. I’ve learned four tricks which have consistently helped.

The first comes from John Boyd, a great American philosopher of conflict who in more reflective times might have been hailed as the American Sun Tzu (or, more likely, the American  Musashi). Boyd went through a long phase of living on as little as he could as a way of getting freedom from government bureaucracy - a person who needed nothing, who had nothing to lose, could not be controlled. Minimizing needs is one aspect of maximizing freedom. Boyd is worth reading, his presentations are some of the shortest, most effective cognitive psychology tutorials ever written.

The second comes from science fiction, specifically cyberpunk. This old genre flourished in the 1980s and 1990s and talked about a world dominated by information technology and economic/ecological crisis - a straight and reasonable projection into the present, albeit with a Bladerunner-type sheen. What I learned from cyberpunk is very, very simple: bet on technology. I’ve consistently projected forwards accurately by assuming things would get better and cheaper, more or less regardless of other trends, and by staying one or two steps ahead of other thinkers by having a better feel for technological progress, I’ve managed to retain a lot of currency while actually having to struggle less on policy agendas. By continuously calibrating  against the moving target of technological progress, I’m always just a little ahead of the curve, regardless of the news. This may sound strange, but it’s amazing how being able to say “well, in a year this will be half the price, so let’s start doing it the digital way and wait for the gear to arrive” makes you look like a prophet when the relevant equipment becomes cheap. There are lots of other megatrends one can follow this way, and learning to lean into the megatrends - without betting everything on a specific cognitive model of the future - is a really important part of making a living while maintaining an unreasonable moral stance. Science fiction is a cheap way to buy critical insight into what is coming, and to be a day early. Those of an unbending disposition need every single edge they can find.

The third is about the power of networks. Very simply, your reputation for getting the job done is the only thing that matters. I have an anger problem - the same ability which I’ve calibrated over years, which lets me break the models of extremely powerful organizations by direct engagement (i.e. butting heads with powerful people and forcing them to admit they are wrong and their organizations need to change), that power occasionally gets inappropriately pointed at individuals I’m working with, rather than corporate and government bureaucrats. I’ll come to the conclusion that something has to be done a particular way, and stamp on anybody who gets in the way in a manner which makes sense in life-or-death situations, but comes off as sociopathic in lower stakes arenas. But because I recognize that I’ve screwed up afterwards and make amends where possible, and most importantly of all, because I GET THE JOB DONE people deal with it. If I was the most pleasant person imaginable, but once in a while I signed up to do something, and simply did not deliver, my reputation would be terrible. People will forgive almost anything from performers, and so the most critical part of being part of a network is to reliably deliver the goods, particularly when money is on the line, and to have a realistic model of your failings so that when you screw up (and you will) you can at least take responsibility. I cultivate deep relationships with people who deliver and have a realistic model of themselves and their capabilities, and will put up with an enormous amount of flakiness and unpredictability as long as lines of communication stay open, and the job gets done. This allows me to work productively with people I’d never, ever employ, and who’d likely never employ me, because the pathology of the boss-employee relationship would not allow us to work around each-other’s human failings in an intelligent way. We are not machines, and yet the job must get done. In conventional employment, we’d be trapped in the roles the workplace assigned us, and much useful human productivity would be discarded. To be a good citizen of a powerful network, you have to be reliable and real - and that’s a completely different thing from appearing to be or trying to be perfect!

Finally, there is the tricky matter of financial reserves. My observation, and it’s a bloody awful truth, is that the more you save, the longer it is between gigs. The money always seems to just about run out before the next thing comes in, no matter how lean the burn is between events. It’s just the way life seems to work for freelances I know. So rather than saving, which requires bets about the future, I suggest that when you have money, pay your debts and help your friends, because in time you’ll have no money again, but you’ll still have friends. You have to make sure that your friends have the same basic values and levels of support that you do for this to work, however. Some people assume that family is paramount, and friendships come and go, and that’s true for them. Others assume that family are just the people you’re born near, and friendships are more important because we choose our friends, particularly as adults. All those systems of values are valid, but if you’re going to pursue the strategy of building really deep, strong relationships as a buffer against uncertainty, you have to go deep into your friends values and make sure you understand what they can and cannot be counted on for. You have to understand strengths, weaknesses and limits. And, on average, you have to be prepared to give a lot more than you get, because you give in plenty and receive in need, and you must maintain real diversity even with people you have profound disagreements or breaches with or your network will not be diverse enough to support you. In many ways it’s a lot harder than money, but it’s also much more durable. Our wealth in the late 20th and early 21st century was a rainbow of oil on a puddle, a few molecules of borrowing over simple facts - the Chinese do most of the manufacturing, we export little, the Energy mostly comes from foreign nations exporting oil and coal to us, and our countries no longer negotiate from strong positions. But friendship is an ancient thing, and strong friends will get you through hard times better than any amount of money in a bank. 8 hours a day, 200 days a year, for forty years is enough to be able to afford a house. But no amount of money can buy you a friend.

My experience is that I could not make money, but I could make meaning, and money comes with it often enough to enable me to survive.

I know that’s a radically different vision from what most people expect or want for themselves, particularly for people who want a family and need the security and stability that children need. I just want you to know that there is a different path, and that you have friends who walk it.

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Lots of stuff to crunch

Vinay, this is really brilliant writing, thank you! It will take me some time to unpack all this. You seem to have a knack for crunchy, sharp soundbites. In many of them I recognize my own and other’s experience (“to be a citizen of a good network you have to be real and reliable, not try to be perfect”), others are probably non-generalizable outside your own experience (“the more you save, the longer the dry spells”), yet others I don’t understand (what good is it if people think you have prophetic power?). But the overall lesson is clear: integrity is paramount. If you feel you are doing good, solid, useful work you can go a long way on very little in the way of material rewards. If your work is evil or pointless, well, you’d better be earning well, because you are going to have to try to spend your way out of depression.

My one luxury is that I never did anything I did not want to. And since I do want to do these things, I would try and figure out a way to them anyway, even if I were not paid for it. Hell, I’ve done a lot of work for free in my life. I still do it, and I intend to continue.

In Banff, Canada, I happened to take a walk in the woods, and stumbled upon a bunch of houses that the local edcation establishment (it’s called the Banff Centre) uses to house faculty. No-nonsense, simple, grey -brick-and-wood houses surrounded by nature. I found myself phantasizing about being a researcher in a place like Banff. Given a home and a card to access the library, the gym and the canteen you could survive pretty much on zero money. Would I? Totally. It would be so much freedom: be fed, be given housing, access to knowledge and fellow humans and not have to worry about money because there is pretty much nothing to buy.

Se, here’s the gist: I don’t work for a living. I do work; I somehow make an income. The two things are not strictly related. If I were rich, I would do exactly the same work. I guess this is going to be my execution on this mission.