An exercise that is meant to sharpen the mind and clarify ones’ motives:
What would you do if money was not an issue?
Taking money out of the equation is supposed to help us discover what we would really like to do with our lives. But it’s a rare individual who interprets this question in any manner of useful way.
Me? I tend to interpret it as “what would you do if you had an infinite supply of money?” to which the answer is “a whole lot of extravagant, indulgent, expensive, money-driven pursuits and acquisitions.” If money were really not an issue, I would spend my time spending it.
Perhaps a better question to ask is: What do you value in life apart from money?
For a Melancholic idealist, this is indeed the better question to ask, sparing us the confusion of trying to imagine what we would be like if we were rich. It’s hard enough knowing what we’re like at present, let alone in unrealistic hypothetical worlds.
It turns out there are a lot of things I value, appreciate, and enjoy a whole lot more than money. Spending money on a thing is, after all, a very practical indicator that I value it more than the money I spend. Basic necessities, a home, a car, clothing, a computer, an internet connection, and so on.
Then there are the things I value that can’t easily be expressed in terms of money.
I value philosophy. I value the long, difficult journey of learning a rare Chinese martial art. I value writing articles, the thrill of a new idea or a fresh insight, and the near-transcendent feeling of truly understanding something significant, complex, and deep. I value the accomplishment of finally mastering an intricate piece of Gregorian Chant, and the powerful resonance of chanting it together in a group. I value my thoughtful and reflective conversations with friends, as we each grapple with the pitfalls of our strangely disconnected way of life. I value recognising I am different from the norm, and having the freedom to continue being different and not succumbing to the stultifying rationalisations of other people’s lives.
It is these varied and engaging adventures that enrich my life far more than actual money ever has. In that sense, if I had to choose between relative poverty with the freedom to pursue these riches, versus relative wealth at a cost of acceding to a narrower vision of life and meaning, then I hope the choice will always be as obvious as it seems right now.
Having gone once already down the wrong path, I hope this painful lesson is well learned.
Unfortunately our society is so compelling in its embrace of utility, it is hard to even think about things like studying philosophy or freelance writing without considering value in monetary terms or career prospects. We timidly embrace our ‘hobbies’ and ‘pastimes’ as though all the serious intellectual and moral content of our lives takes place in the confines of a conventional work environment. We are not used, despite ancient rhetoric, to seriously defending the claim that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, without instinctively grasping for some utilitarian apologetic to the effect that ‘philosophy graduates have highly translatable analytical and problem-solving skills’.
If you find yourself, poor melancholic, in an uncomfortable state of career dishevelment, reflecting on the financial irrelevance of your deepest and most sincere pursuits, I urge you fret not. If a career path or ideal job has not yet emerged to satisfy you, then perhaps it is worth admitting that no ‘job’ ever will. You’ve most likely already found two or three key themes, pursuits or ideals that give genuine meaning to your life; in that sense you already have the answer.
We’re often told that the luckiest people are those who love their job, or who get paid to do something about which they are truly passionate. But we are rarely told how lucky it is to be passionate about something meaningful and worthwhile in the first place. It’s so lucky, in fact, that we shouldn’t feel bad about working any kind of job to make ends meet. We shouldn’t feel as though we ought to love our ‘careers’ when we’ve already found something we love more than any salaried position.
The answer by now ought to be clear: make time, give yourself the opportunity to do the things you love, the things that define you as a person and enrich your life. While this will mean having a career on the side, doing whatever work you have an affinity for, it will also mean that the work is never central, never overshadows the true meaning in your life.