“If you want to take the island, you burn the boats,” the saying goes. In other words, if you set a goal for yourself, you need to eliminate all possible escapes and distractions to maximize the chance of success. In theory, this makes sense. The more time you spend on something, the higher the chance of reaching your goal. Right?
But if we zoom out a little further, is it really the best way to go about it? I mean, back in the days where it was literally take on the island or die it made more sense. But we now apply this same mindset to especially our career and work goals. The problem as I see it is that most people who apply this to their work life, do it to set their professional mark on the world, while they’re here. So they feel that their life is not completely meaningless. They strive to fulfill a basic human need of being significant. And I get that; I have the same feeling myself. In many ways, I think it’s to cope with our mortality. If you build something that will outlive you, you feel like you’re “extending your life” as well. Or at least the memory of you. Which makes the thought of not being here a little easier to tame 😅 It’s one of the same feelings you get from having kids. You can cope a little better with the thought of not being here, because you have created something astonishing that will continue to do well and good for humanity even after your last breath.
The problem, however, is that in today’s world, it’s not do something extraordinary in your professional life or die. For many, it’s frankly do something extraordinary and die — because they have sacrificed their health in the process.
And for those who don’t fall dead from a burnout right away but has sacrificed everything (i.e. family, health, friends, etc.) and worked their asses off for decades, they often regret it later in life.
But despite that, the headlines (/covfefe) typically still reads something like this: He/she’s extremely successful having built/published/become/won X, Y & Z. And then at the bottom of the article, you find out that the guy or girl is on their third marriage, almost never see their kids and have a temple-like body (meaning old and fragile).
I know there are examples out there of inspiring people who have managed to do both. But we need way more stories like this.
Because why is it that ‘sacrificing everything to accomplish your goal(s)’ is still seen as something admirable?
I think sacrificing yourself is built into our survival instinct. It’s natural selection working its magic. When people in the past sacrificed themselves, it was often to save the village/city/country/world in some way.
When we consider sacrifice as a virtue by society; it is actually due to our self-interest that we admire such people. When we hear stories of people who put their lives on the line to save others, we imagine them doing the same if they were to come across ourselves or a family member in strife. These are obviously the kind of people we want in our neighborhood.
Nowadays we still have people who serve in the army to protect their country and countrymen and women. And we have firefighters and policemen and women who are willing to save others, even though it will potentially cost them their life.
So it makes sense that evolution has created an ‘awe’ response for people who sacrifice themselves for the greater good or a higher purpose. To protect the species and let the majority be better off.
But we should be extremely aware of this potentially dangerous cognitive bias in today’s day and age. Nowadays it’s very popular to want to save the world or put a dent in the universe. But we need to be careful playing hero for humanity here, because the fact is that most of us are not Elon. We simply build software and sell products. And that’s cool. But please be conscious about how you react to somebody going “I’m working 110 hours a week to build the next pet food delivery app.” Because they need a hmmm, is that healthy? more than they need an awe, that’s amazing!
Still other times it’s ‘sacrificing everything’ (and sometimes being an asshole to other people in the process) until you have done something extraordinary. Until you reach that plateau. And then after that, you start to look yourself in the mirror and adjust your behaviour and your priorities.
None of this is healthy in the long run.
It’s time to redefine what sacrifice and success mean in the 21st century.
Furthermore, if we look into the not so distant future, it’s not certain if all of us will be able to work as much as we do now. The progress of AI will likely take over many many jobs and will automate large parts of others. Many important pieces have been written on this, so if you’re in a rabbit hole mood, here you go.
I especially find this comment very much on point:
People who are very skeptical [about machines taking our jobs] tend to look at the historical record. It’s true that the economy has always adapted over time. It has created new kinds of jobs. The classic example of that is agriculture. In the 1800s, 80 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms. Today it’s 2 percent. Obviously, mechanization didn’t destroy the economy; it made it better off. Food is now really cheap compared to what it was relative to income, and as a result, people have money to spend on other things, and they’ve transitioned to jobs in other areas. Skeptics say that will happen again.
The agricultural revolution was about specialized technology that couldn’t be implemented in other industries. You couldn’t take the farm machinery and have it go flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology. There isn’t a new place for all these workers to move.
You can imagine lots of new industries — nanotechnology and synthetic biology — but they won’t employ many people. They’ll use lots of technology, rely on big computing centers, and be heavily automated.
If computers will soon be able to take care of a lot of the work we do today then we are forced to:
My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’
Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income. If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.
There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seatbelts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well. People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.
I think that future generations will (brain) laugh at how much we worked in the 20th century and the (beginning of the) 21st century. Of course, they will most likely grow up in a super intelligent world, and so they will not really grasp how it was before that. With all the manual and dumb stuff, we still need to take care of now. And so they would be colored on this, but nonetheless, they would shake their heads at how much people used to work. Sometimes even killing themselves in the process. It will be the same as we now look back at the time before women were part of the workforce. Stupid and old-school.
I do know it’s a catch 22 situation as well. Because we still need to work towards the above-mentioned future. So I’m not saying that we all can have a four hour work week, Tim Ferriss style, starting today. And I’m not saying that that should be the goal either. I’m simply saying that we need to think a little further ahead and make a conscious decision about how we want to work the next 50 years and beyond.
Last, I’m also not suggesting that we should all be lazier and less ambitious. Don’t get me wrong. I want to do everything in my power to help our company succeed. But I will never throw my wife or kids under the bus to do so. The equivalent to this is when people used to brag (some still do) about only sleeping 3–4 hours a night. It’s plain stupid, not cool. So please stop bragging about it immediately. You will ruin your life long term, and you will regret it deeply after the fact.
Okay. Let’s get a little bit more into the woods now. How do I (a 27-year-old, with a wife, two kids, and a four-year-old startup) then try to keep my balance and live a harmonious life?
As a start, you need to take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself some though questions: “What’s a good life to me? How do I want to spend my time while I’m here? What are the bigger goals/questions/problems I want to pursue? And how should I prioritize my time?”
For me it’s becoming pretty simple:
But Jonas, you do need to sacrifice something? Yes, that’s absolutely true.
I’m a big fan of writing things and to-dos down. But I think it’s equally important to create a not-to-do list to keep your delay gratification monkey in check at all times. Here’s how that list looks to me:
Okay, so now I know my priorities and my sacrifices. It’s time to structure that into ’an optimal day.’
As you probably can tell by now, I believe in living a harmonious, happy, healthy and ambitious life — for many fucking decades. So when it comes to working, I will, therefore, put in about 40–50 hours per week, so I’m not burned out and ready to retire when I’m 60 (or even sooner than that).
Multiple great things come from putting a cap on your weekly work hours. Here are some of them:
With that in mind here’s how I try to structure a typical work day:
If I’m instead picking up the kids from kindergarten in the afternoon, I’ll go to work right when I wake up and thereby move the first blue block (family time) to the afternoon instead. Pretty straightforward.
Instead of saying “If you want to take the island, you burn the boats” and continue to celebrate the ‘sacrifice everything to become (professionally) successful’ hero stories, it’s time that we instead should go after building rockets (metaphorically — for most of us at least) in a hyggelig manner. Hygge is a nique Danish concept, and it’s hard to easily translate to other cultures. But for me, it’s merging wanting to tilt the earth just a tiny bit and living a great life. It’s going after the gold, but not sacrificing your health and the people truly important to you in the process. It’s making a mark while you’re here by doing something meaningful for other people while you invest in your marriage, watch your kids grow up, laugh out loud daily and tune in on a basketball game every now and then.
Now, that’s a hyggelig life!