Giving up the Green for the Gold

“Keep me searching for a heart of gold, and I’m getting old.”  – Neil Young –

Tree in the CityIn Black Swan, one of my favorite books on human nature and the markets, Nassim Taleb says “Quit your high paying job”, so I did. Ever since I gave up religion after reading Atlas Shrugged I have been one to make serious life changes based on reading material that resonates with me. Before reading Black Swan I read How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis, and that really got me started on the path toward premature retirement. In it, Dennis challenges readers to consider carefully if they truly want vast wealth. In doing that exercise, I concluded that 1) I don’t and 2) in fact, I already have more than I need.1

For over a year the idea of leaving my stable job stewed. During the same time, music returned to me in trickles and then waves. I had over a hundred sketches for songs, and concepts for several albums. In a completely static world I would be occupied for years simply fleshing out the ideas swimming in my head. One quote by Zig Ziglar in particular gave the final impetus for leaving: “Most people go to the end of their lives with their music still in them.” Shortly after reading that, I experienced an acute state of futility; I had to seize power back by quitting or relinquish it forever. The next day I informed my manager of my departure.

Other reasons for quitting became apparent after the initial decision. Employees of large corporations, salarymen as the Japanese call them, whether consciously or not, make two trades with their employers. Most visibly, they trade their time for money. In the standard western job, employees receive money in exchange for working 40-60 hours per week, plus preparation and commute, with a couple weeks off a year. The 40-60 happen to be the best hours of the day and the couple weeks is usually either pushed until the last minute or structured around some holiday when everyone else is also taking off. This creates the old irony of making plenty of money but having no time to enjoy it; though, the worse condition of giving one’s life to a job just to make ends meet is even more common.

Second, employees trade their freedom for security. This is more subtle but is perhaps the biggest reason most people stay in their jobs. Corporations provide employees with a routine, a structured and occasionally challenging way to occupy their time. They provide protection in the form of health insurance and as shelters in times of emergency. Teams and divisions form reliable social networks. Most employees understand the security their job gives them, but fail to consider what they are giving up: the freedom to bask in the afternoon sun, to work when inspired to do so, to follow their dreams. By laying out a large portion of the employee’s life, corporate security breeds complacency, and therefore weakness. By removing predictability, freedom necessitates action, and therefore strength. For those who wish to, in the words of Elliot Hulse, become the “strongest version of themselves”, the security of working for a company becomes the biggest constraint to living a full life.

So I made two unconscious calculations in my decision to quit: that I needed time more than money, and freedom more than security. Both needs have been self-reinforcing as I have adapted to living on “the outside”. To live with less money and stability, I have made a number of practical life changes: I shifted to an ancestral diet of mostly plants and animals for maximum energy, prepare almost all of my food for better health and lower cost, work at a standing workstation for higher productivity, and get sunshine every day for general health and happiness. All of these have been positive, fulfilling changes, but they require time and freedom to execute properly.

But it is the point about sunshine that keeps me from ever returning to a standard job. I had forgotten how much I loved the sun until I basked in its warmth on a clear afternoon with time and freedom intact. Such a simple pleasure, and yet one that is out of reach when chained to a desk. To sum it up, I traded two million2 for twenty minutes of sunshine a day: I gave up the green for the gold, and so far it has been beautiful.

1 Ironically, in quitting my salaried position I have taken the first step necessary to become rich – from Dennis, “nothing is more likely to dampen the prospects of getting rich than a big, fat, paycheck” – though I prefer to direct my new freedom to other prospects.
2 This is an estimate of what I could have earned over the course of around 5 years in my finance job.