May 28, 2020 · not software engineering

Do We Really Need More?

Unless you're a uniquely enlightened individual, you probably want it. More. Be it fame, recognition, tacos, cats, whatever. For me, money has always been high up on that list and it took a lot of years to realize my financial desires are really about security. Strange as it sounds, when I was a kid I worried a lot about how I'd ever make enough money to afford a place to live when the time came. I have this distinct memory wherein I learned that the average adult made like $28,000 a year. It was probably median income and not average but still, this blew my mind. 28 grand a year seemed like an insane amount of money and apparently it wasn't too difficult to get if the "average" yahoo on the street was pulling it off. This newly discovered fact meant that not only would I not have to be homeless but I could also afford whatever hot shit video game system was on the market. Even some games to go with it.

In my early 20s I got my first ever programming job. It paid me $40,000 a year and I felt like I'd won the lottery. I had no idea how long it'd last and I saved most of it. The first time I saved $20,000 I took a screenshot of my bank account. I still have the picture.

Fast forward to today, I've seen a fairly steady income increase over the years and I've never had to be homeless (not that my super solid parents would let that happen anyway). Still I try to live within my means and save most of what I make. Over time though, a funny thing creeped into my psyche...

It didn't take long to realize just how much money there is in tech. I was coming into the industry just as Silicon Valley was becoming a real contender with Wall Street as far as concentration of capital is concerned. I would get these inklings like I deserved more. That my skill set was somehow inherently highly valuable and that the raises I got were owed to me.

The reality is, I wasn't curing cancer or anything over here. I didn't particularly deserve it and the world owes me nothing. It owes us all nothing. The Cult of More however, tells us the opposite.

Now, I get how capitalism works, the people who make an industry function usually (emphasis on usually) get a slice relative to how much cash goes into it. It's why professional athletes make so much more than teachers. However, it becomes easy to conflate our value as individuals or the value we provide to society with the simpler and, more often than not, unjust notion of capitalistic value. These things are not the the same.

You may even find them to be diametrically opposed.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic adapatation is basically what happens when you A) get what you want and then B) get used to it. B pretty much always follows A, it's just how we humans work. When Hedonic Adaptation continuously builds upon itself we say you're on the "Hedonic Treadmill."

Whenever I'd get that raise, it'd feel amazing, initially. Quickly though those paychecks would become Normal and my keel would even out.

The problem with hedonic adaptation is not that your new Levels of Normal become... normal... it's that previous Levels of Normal become more difficult to return to. Which is odd right? Were you actually less happy then than you are now? If you answered "yes" was it because of the thing you're worried about (money, fame, tacos, etc) or was it some deeper unrelated issue?

What Society Tells Us

Try spending a day being aware of how much you are marketed to. It is exhausting. We're told constantly that the "hot new thing" is what we need and the previous "hot new thing" is passé, even though less than a year ago it was "the best ____ the world has ever seen."

When I got my first ever iPhone it was an entirely new world. I could Google things from the grocery store and have real-time maps tell me if I missed a turn. It solved a whole host of problems I didn't even realize I had so, for me, it was a big deal. Since then there have been a dozen or so new models but I still care most about the same few things that even the oldest phones could do. Maps, Podcasts, Audiobooks, taking halfway decent photos and using the internet on the go. Oh, and of course, being a phone. Yet, if a person didn't know any better you'd think every new model would have the same impact that first one did. They're marketed like it anyway.

Take another example, the Kindle. I used to have a ton of books and I found myself moving a lot. Packing up and carrying those books sucked, big league. Then Amazon released the Kindle. This thing changed my life. All of a sudden I could carry around every book I owned in something that was smaller than a single book. I could also buy books and have them delivered immediately. Pretty amazing and to this day I don't go anywhere without the freakin' thing. However, did the second or third generation of Kindle have an equally impactful effect?

Hell. No.

They're basically slight design improvements on what was initially a revolutionary idea. Yet, somehow thinking about going back to a generation 1 makes me itch a little. Should it though?

It's not just gadgets. Social media's most insidious downside is perhaps it's subtle ability to remind us how much more everyone else has than us. More love, happiness, vacation time, whatever it may be.

What's Wrong With More?

Nothing specifically but it can be tangibly dangerous. A high salary for example will put you at risk of being a first cut if your company is having financial troubles.

What's going to happen when life decides to cold-cock you right in your big dumb face? Say you lose that 300k per year Netflix engineer's salary. What if for some crazy reason you then had to get a job bagging groceries to make ends meet? People have been totally crushed by less. Would you be? How much of your own self worth do you have wrapped up in these things. If we're talking about your Playstation 57 or your job it should be somewhere in the neighborhood of zero.

When you're bummed because you dropped your nice phone in a river and need to borrow your girlfriend's old school iPhone 5 (total hypothetical here), or because you have to take a pay cut, even though you'll still be able to cover the bills and save a little, you're experiencing the pain of hedonic adaptation. What was once normal may now seem annoying, awful or even unthinkable.

Decide what your priorities are. Figure out what "enough" looks like to you. More money, power or bathrooms in your house might be exactly what's important to you but I'd encourage you to consider two things...

  1. The "why" behind it all. Like, where do these desires come from? Is it what you REALLY want or is it only hiding some deeper need?
  2. What would happen if life took this thing away from you and how could you prepare for that?

For me, I've found that security, freedom and agency are important. Just barely beyond that, personal relationships, creativity and solitude. Because of the world we live in, money actually does play a large role in these needs but it doesn't mean my relationship to it has always been healthy. I'm getting better though.

Trying to carve away that which is not essential and learning how to survive, or even thrive, without that which you believe is essential is a lifetime's work. I know it's a slog but it's worthy of your effort. In more ways than one the world depends on it.

Besides, chances are you've already got everything you need. Get off the goddamned treadmill.

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