What makes for a life we enjoy? Work we enjoy? What do we need to be content and comfortable in our own skin, and in our place in the world?
I tend to come across this question on a regular basis, and from all kinds of angles. The last time I thought about it – especially the angle of work – was when I talked to a guy on Tinder. He was in his early forties, and about to retire from a finance job in NYC. He had just bought a house at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala – his retirement home. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
This was intriguing – I had never met anyone whose life plan included retiring in their forties. My own life plan entails working until I die: I LOVE what I do; I can’t see myself ever not wanting to do it. I am already living exactly the life I want to live (something he was referring to being able to do after retirement). Retirement isn’t part of my plan.
I thought about this some more, and talked about it with another friend. Interestingly, my friend agreed that having saved up enough money in order to retire would be a huge burden off their shoulders despite the fact that they, too, are passionate about their work!
This disproved my first hypothesis, i.e. that “FIRE“ing was appealing to people who didn’t particularly enjoy the work they did or had to do. My friend (not a FIRE person, btw.) wistfully considered the idea of having enough money to stop needing to work. This friend likes their work. A lot. They said they would probably continue doing the very same work they are doing right now after an imaginary financial independence-based retirement. They believe they would feel better doing the exact same thing if it did not generate an income they were dependent on. Being financially independent, they wouldn’t have to do the work they would still be doing: they wouldn’t have to worry about paying their rent, etc. I find this intriguing, given the fact that this particular friend already has about ten times the savings I do. They have health insurance, a pension plan, and they live twice as frugally as I: from my point of view, they have no reason to worry about being able to pay their rent as is. But apparently, they still worry! So … Why do they? Or maybe I should ask: why don’t I?
Two kinds of freedom
Looking back on both these conversations, I think there are two kinds of freedom that make retirement/financial independence appealing to the two people I sampled:
- The freedom to do whatever you want on any given day – the lack of obligation.
- The freedom from worrying about your future/financial security/health care etc.
One reason retirement isn’t something I actively pursue is that (1) I am already doing what I want. I experience significant personal freedom, agency, and self-efficacy on a daily basis, and I have changed the course of my life often enough to “know” that I can pretty much do whatever I want whenever I want: I’ve switched majors in college; I’ve dated guys and women; I’ve used different pronouns; I’ve lived in different countries; I’ve learned foreign languages; I’ve started two businesses; I’ve traveled …
In addition, I (2) do not worry about my future, my financial security, and my health care. Yes, I did worry about these things at some point in the past, but I haven’t in a long time. In fact, I believe I haven’t worried about these things since I started (1) doing exactly what I want!
(2) may also have to do with the way I compare myself to others. As a species, we can’t help thinking about ourselves in relation to those around us – it’s just what we do. The secret isn’t to stop comparing yourself to others altogether. The secret is in the directionality of the comparisons we make. Rachel Sherman and Keith Payne point out that there are two ways of comparing ourselves to others, and they result in two vastly different experiences of our own place on the ladder of success.
Upward versus downward comparisons
Upwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have more than we do. Downwards comparing means we compare ourselves to those who have less than us. People tend to have a default direction their comparisons take. I’m not sure what determines which tendency an individual ends up with – but according to Payne, it is possible to change what we default to. If you currently compare yourself to those who have more than you do, you might want to rethink your directionality: downward comparers tend to be more content and worry less than upward comparers.
My default mode of comparing is downward: several times a week – sometimes several times a day! – I realize how lucky I am. I have a big and central apartment, I have a car (which I am trying to get rid of, because who needs cars), I have a dog who I just took for fancy dental surgery to Mexico City without having to think twice, and I’m toying with the idea of hopping on a plane, and fly to the US and back for no other reason than to get a COVID vaccine. As opposed to most people in Latin America, my European Union passport grants me visa-free access to most countries in the world. A couple months ago, I applied to a postgraduate program I’d be able to pay for out of pocket if I got in and decided to accept the offer. This is not the norm. I am aware of my privilege, and I often marvel at it.
I have more than enough: if I found myself out of work tomorrow (highly unlikely), I’d have plenty of time to find something new before making rent would become an issue. I see myself as capable, versatile, adaptive, and likeable. I’m trilingual, and in my adult life, I’ve always found a way to fit in. I have no doubt that I’d find something new to do that I enjoy, even if it was something completely different from anything I have ever done. And if for some post-apocalyptic reason, all possible ways for me to make a living disappeared, I believe I’d still get by somehow. I always do. If I couldn’t sleep on someone’s couch, I’d sleep in the street. Things would be different, but I’d make do with less, and I’d be just fine.
This is the story I tell myself, anyways. It’s the story I believe, and it’s a story that has served me well. My friend might say I’m unreasonably optimistic – that I don’t see society for what it truly is: injust. Corrupt. Untrustworthy. (It’s not that I don’t see it – I do. I know the playing field isn’t level, and that the game is rigged. I just don’t dwell on it, and I still enjoy playing. Setbacks motivate me to try again, or try something else, or turn a negative experience into a great story. I have a tagulator, and a dog, and there is cheesecake in the world. What could possibly stop me?)
An incremental theory of intelligence: hard work pays off
Growing up, the messaging from my parents wasn’t that I was exceptionally intelligent. It was that I had to work exceptionally hard in order to stay at the top of my class. If I didn’t do well, obviously, it wasn’t because I was dumb but because I hadn’t worked hard enough. There was performance pressure (which did occasionally cause me anxiety) – but my ability to do well if I worked hard was never questioned. Consciously or not, my parents taught me an incremental theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed, and that performance is a function of effort.
I worked hard, and stayed fairly consistently in the top third of my class. Hadn’t I worked hard, I’d probably still have made it through somehow – but I’d have dropped to the bottom third in terms of performance. I knew that then, and I know it now. My performance potential is perfectly average. So what?
Maybe that is why the person I am today believes that I am capable of understanding and learning pretty much anything if I put in the work. University felt easy because my grades were directly related to my effort. Earning a scholarship to study abroad felt well deserved because I put in a ton of effort. Writing my MA thesis was a challenge I thrived on: I wanted to do well, so I worked hard, and did well.
I’ve got an above-average education level, but I don’t believe that my genetically determined frame of potential capability is any greater than that of the average person. It’s just that due to the combination of the random privileges I was born with (my white skin, my EU citizenship), my upbringing by parents that fostered an incremental theory of intelligence, and a bit of luck every now and then, I will be able to achieve most goals I want by working hard.
Most people do not share my random privileges, which may make them equally or less successful than I am even if they, too, hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Even if their genetically determined frame of potential capability is greater than mine.
From where I’m standing, being successful means that you’re probably a privileged person who worked reasonably hard, and had a bit of luck along the way. It doesn’t mean your potential is greater than average. It doesn’t mean you are the one who deserves success more than your less privileged peers. It means that you had an advantageous starting position: you started out further ahead on the race track due to your skin color, gender, citizenship, economic background etc. And when the start pistol went off, you started running, just like the people next to and behind you. Being among the first to cross the finish line makes you no better than those who started behind you on the track (if you are like me – white, and European – that would be most people.)
It’s also nothing to be ashamed of: you did work hard, after all. We can be proud of ourselves and confident in our ability to learn new things while still recognizing that being born privileged is a huge part of our success. Both these things can be true at the same time – there’s no contradiction there.
An entity theory of intelligence: intelligence is fixed
The puzzling thing is that both FIRE dude and the friend I talked to have at least some of the same privileges, and an additional one that I do not have: maleness.
Looking around at my friends – most of whom have at least a BA, and many of whom have PhDs – I find it fascinating that they do not necessarily share my optimism (realism?): they are more pessimistic about their own financial and physical safety, and they feel less in control of their own outcomes than I do. The difference in our experience doesn’t seem to be related to objective, external factors (such as income levels).
I’ve noticed that I have friends who appear to consider themselves more intelligent than the average person. I’m basing this assumption on their stories of getting top grades up until the start of college “without doing any work.” I suppose these brag stories are indicative of an entity theory of intelligence: the belief that intelligence is fixed rather than malleable; that you have a certain amount of it, and are stuck with that amount.
Some of these friends feel like imposters – as if their above-average, but finite amount of intelligence could only have taken them so far, and they’ve stumbled into a space their intelligence isn’t sufficient for dominating. Since their fixed amount of intelligence is their main asset, they are constantly in danger of being found out and exposed as a fraud who hasn’t earned their seat at the table of accomplishment.
My incremental theory of intelligence allows me to feel accomplished and capable when I succeed – it allows me to take credit for my success. It also allows me to accept failures, and approach them with a new strategy or greater effort on my next attempt. I do not attribute failure to a fundamental lack in ability, but to insufficient practice or effort. Just like the students in Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck’s study, it seems that the adults around me who hold an entity theory of mind are more likely to experience helplessness upon failing rather than adopting a positive strategy of trying again, or trying something different.
It seems to be easier to be content – and worry less – when you default to downwards comparisons, and hold an incremental theory of intelligence. Payne says it is entirely possible for an adult to change their direction of comparison. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck ran successful interventions among junior high school students, causing them to adopt an incremental theory of intelligence. I certainly hope that what they have found among junior high students still holds true for adults: it’s possible to change our world view, and become more optimistic and happier as a result. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, unless you make an effort. As adults, we are pretty committed to our philosophies of life, which continue being reinforced by our confirmation bias. But as a species, we’re also incredibly adaptable – maybe change is always at our fingertips. It’s certainly worth a try!
Something to think about
+ Do you default to upwards or downwards social comparisons? Does it differ depending on context? How does your default direction of comparison make you feel?
+ Do you hold an incremental theory of intelligence or an entity theory of intelligence? Where do you think you have learned to think of yourself/the nature of intelligence in this way? How has your theory of intelligence helped or hurt you in your adult life?
+ Are you financially independent/retired? If you are – what do you like and dislike about it? If you aren’t – would you like to be financially independent/retired? Why or why not? What would you do differently if you were?
Resources mentioned in this post
(a) Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck: “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition,” Child Development (Jan-Feb, 2007).
Sherman, Rachel – Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence
Payne, Keith – The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects The Way We Think, Live, and Die