Unlocking Agency: Journey From Paycheck to Purpose
It's been three years since I quit my job. I have never come close to regretting that decision, but I also can’t explain why it was a good decision. Was it because I left finance or because I changed as a person?
It’s impossible to quantify the change, I can’t say my happiness has moved from five to eight. But I’m less cynical, judgemental, and critical. I’m more open to new experiences. More appreciative and patient. There’s less tension in my body.
Jim O’Shaughnessy’s conversation with Venkatesh Rao gave me perspective on the past three years of my life. What I went through was the journey from a Paycheck Person toward a Courageous Thinker.
Paycheck People are risk-averse people who take no agency in their lives. They have "failures of nerve" - an obsession with rationalization to justify events rather than taking action.
Courageous Thinkers not only have agency, but adapt to uncertainty to push through on their objectives. They know their interests and shape their identities and narratives to find meaning.
I was a classic Paycheck Person: I had a high-paying, high-status job in Manhattan. I was, as they say, living the dream.
But since my identity was attached to my high-paying, high-status job, I clung to it. I only considered jobs that would advance my career, and if any obstacle came up (layoffs or companies going bankrupt) I found another job in the industry as fast as I could. Every decision was tied toward furthering my career.
My ego told me I could do anything, but in reality, I never took any risks and I never considered any moves that would affect my job.
And I justified this mindset with rationality. I was optimizing the amount of money that I made, isn’t that the point? But rationality can’t tell you what the purpose of that money is. It can’t tell you how to derive satisfaction out of getting that money. Rationality can’t tell you how your life can be meaningful, and if you depend on rationality, your life will be meaningless.
Ever since I was a kid, I “knew” what I was supposed to do. Get good grades, get into a good school, get hired at name companies, get promoted. I checked all the boxes, and everything was on auto-pilot.
Some people realize they have agency after getting punched in the mouth. They have a crisis where they realize that life isn’t meant to be dictated by someone else. But I never had an acute breaking point. For eighteen years, I was a frog in slowly boiling water, habituated to the temperature.
Because my career crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s, I was oblivious to the fact that I was miserable.
But eventually, even I couldn’t ignore the signs of where this path was heading. My boss would stay at work late so he didn’t have to see his family. My coworkers “worked hard and played hard” but didn’t accomplish anything and didn’t seem to be having much fun.
I wasn’t enjoying my life. I realized I didn’t value the identity I built for myself.
If there was no point, what good is it? I left my job.
That was the moment I finally gained agency.
You need agency to pursue your interests. I didn’t know what my interests were because I was entangled in identities and narratives that I didn’t choose.
When I left my career, I didn’t have a plan. I don’t recommend it, but not having a plan + the fact that COVID made chaos feel normal meant I finally had room to explore. I tried things with no expectation of what would happen. I discovered that I liked writing and that people liked my writing. I found that I didn’t need to quantify activities to enjoy them. Instead of trying to be better every time I rock climbed or paddle boarded, I started appreciating the activity for the sheer physical pleasure.
The fluidity of a climbing move or the feel of the paddle catching the water became the focus. I can’t even explain why this is pleasurable, much less measure it.
And life became more meaningful.
The more interested I became, the more I pushed deeper. I hit challenges and instead of just getting through them, I studied them. Instead of muscling through difficult climbs, I started to figure out what was making it hard and what approach would make it easier.
Solving problems that you care about creates meaning.
When I was a Paycheck Person, I killed time. I had free time that I looked for activities to fill. Now, I make time. I have interests that I want to do and I make sure I have time to do them.
This journey opened up new ways of experiencing life and self-introspection, and I’ve found happiness through it. It’s a constant adventure of finding new interests and going deep into them.
I’m not a Paycheck Person anymore, but I don’t think I’m a Courageous Thinker yet. I’m not actually sure it’s possible to be a 100% Courageous Thinker. But I’m sure the only way is through trying. And as Jules Winnfield says, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”