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The anxiety of freedom: your job is not the tyrant

This is the third part of a series of posts I’m writing about why I quit my software engineering job at Microsoft to make a game. I mostly talk about the revelations that I had during a time period of introspection before I could make that decision.

birds on wire

  • Do what makes you happy.
  • Don’t doubt yourself.
  • Listen to your inner voice!
  • Just do it!
  • Just follow your passion.

Are these really good advice? Some of the most horrifying criminals blame their “inner voice” for what they did. If that’s the case, I wish they had doubted themselves and hadn’t listened to that voice. The world is full of clichés and inspirational quotes. They’re useful, but I think most of us are confused about their purpose. They’re great for making a spark and intrigue you into something interesting, but they don’t give you answers or instructions. They point you to a direction and give you the ignition energy to set you on a journey towards a deeper truth. Quite often we just take that initial energy and convert it to a feel-good candy and move on with our lives. I did a lot of just that when I was deciding to quit my job, but they were never enough for me to make up my mind. The same generic advice can result in very different results for people with different values. You should set on your own journey to find your values, define popular terms like happiness and success, put your inputs into the context of your life, and build up the unique system of the universe that you call “me”. For me, it started by trying to define happiness and what makes me happy.

I don’t know what makes me happy

It was liberating for me to admit this. It’s not an easy thing to admit. As we grow up, we are fed ideas about happiness and success. Parents, peers, books, billions of dollars of marketing budget; the whole society is constantly shaping our idea of success and happiness, and as kids, things captivate us much easier than adults. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, our inspirations come from the same place. However, they can be a problem if we follow them religiously without ever reevaluating them honestly, which is constant work. Every time I challenged my existing ideals and goals in life and replaced them with new ones, I had to eventually reconsider them. The closer I got to make them a reality, the less inspiring and motivating they’d become. At some point I realized that achievements are less about what you achieve than the process of achieving them; that dreams are not there to come true, but to keep us going. It’s especially true when your dream is landing a job. If it’s a car and you don’t like it that much after you bought it, then it’ll still be of use; if it’s a job, it will consume your life and deprives you of other possibilities. Landing a job can’t be the thing that makes you happy once you have it; you’d have to enjoy doing it every day. By admitting that I don’t know what makes me happy, my aim went from pursuing the thing that I thought would make me happy to the pursuit of happiness itself.

Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy freedom

Here is another cliché for you: Money can’t buy happiness. It’s true, but money can buy the means of happiness. It’ll be up to you how to use it. Financial freedom opens up possibilities you couldn’t think of before, but only few succeed in exploring those possibilities due the anxiety that comes with freedom. In my previous post, I talked about how getting my first job was about finding more freedom, but after a few years when I realized I have achieved my initial goals, I was still staying to maximize my income without really needing it. In that post, I explained how I was using sound logic to optimize for the wrong goal (maximum financial security). Why did I choose that goal? Of course, societal norms have a big impact; but from a psychoanalysis perspective, I was willingly forfeiting my hard-earned freedom for a sense of security. I didn’t want to deal with the anxiety of freedom, so I gave it up to my job (or the ideal of a successful career). I think this is why we so often make up a tyrant for ourselves to use as a scapegoat for our lack of courage. So, we can say “I can’t try X, because my job won’t let me”.

Anxiety is the state of man…when he confronts his freedom… Whenever possibility is visualized by an individual, anxiety is potentially present in the same experience… To Kierkegaard, the more possibility…an individual has, the more potential anxiety he has at the same time.

— Rollo May (on Kierkegaard’s philosophy), The Meaning of Anxiety

The relationship between freedom and anxiety is a very interesting topic. I’ll put a link below for those who are interested to know more about it.

Finding inspiration to use freedom

Dealing with this anxiety is hard if you start by looking at your own life and routines. To break out of your habits and comfort zone, you need inspiration. Something to look up to. I started by looking at wealthy people and how they handle their financial freedom. Are they inspiring? I found out that I find a small group of them inspiring. Those who always have ongoing projects, and when they make more money, they make those projects bigger and more ambitious. They’re always transforming the world, often in creative ways, and if they make more money, they see it as additional freedom to do more of what they like to do. On the other hand, there are wealthy people who like their money more than what they do for it. They sometimes hate what they do, but they can’t let it go because they can’t leave any money on the table, and sometimes they’ve never discovered what they’d like to do altogether, or may have forgotten it somewhere in their journey to make money. They bribe themselves with buying trophies, and they often have to show off their money more than their work to get social validation. Most of us are not wealthy enough to be anywhere on that spectrum, but if we are working hard to make it there, it’s good to be aware of it and aim for what inspires us.

simple rick

Side note: A lot of people get stuck in the process of finding inspiration. They go on an endless trip of motivational material and inspirational guides. There is a big industry dedicated to serving this market by packaging and selling dreams, including the dream of freedom. Beware of this trap. Beware of the Freedom Wafers. (Rick and Morty, S3 E07)

Obviously, you don’t have to look at wealthy people to find inspiration. There are indie artists and all sorts of hobbyists and enthusiasts that inspire me, and they are on very different levels of financial success. The common denominator between them is that they use their freedom to express themselves more passionately and elaborately through some form of creation. Some of them try to align those expressions with something other people are willing to pay for so they can earn more money, only to use that money for a bigger and more elaborate expression. Some forms of creative projects have more economic value than others, but it’s getting increasingly more accessible to market all kinds of creative work on the internet. The balance between earning and using financial freedom is different for each person, and I am not the one to give any practical advice on this, but the key is to remember that there is a balance.

But what is worthy of my time?

Even after finding inspiration and getting determined to use my financial freedom, I still had a question to answer. How do you know what your real passion is? What is worth spending your freedom on? It took me a lot of time before I could commit to my current project. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell inspirations apart from temptations. I had let my “passion” take me to the deep pit of video game addiction before, or exhaust myself in manic phases of trying a barrage of new ideas with no end in sight. My last and probably tallest hurdle was to decide if I’m being tempted or inspired; if I’m following a true passion or a pipe dream. I will talk about this in the next (and probably the final) post of this series.

References

An interesting and insightful post/video on freedom and anxiety: https://academyofideas.com/2019/09/freedom-and-anxiety-inner-god-vs-inner-worm/

Next Part: Temptation or Inspiration: how to overcome doubt