Gainfully unemployed: the search for meaning beyond money

March 8, 2021 • Reading time: 6 minutes

Self-employed. Programmer without portfolio. Gainfully unemployed. Funemployed. Retired. These are all terms that I've tried on over the 6 months since I left my last job (ever?) at the tender age of 33, but none of them feel right.

Perhaps I can best express my goals in terms of what I don't want. On one end of the spectrum, I don't want to be idle or hedonistic. On the other hand, I don't want to found a startup that will go public or sell to Google for billions. It seems like finding a place between those extremes should not be difficult, but my search is ongoing. (And this article, such as it is, has no answers to offer, only more questions.)

I have become increasingly convinced that video games are right about money. There are many games that I could point to here, but one that I always come back to is Assassin's Creed II. I come back to it as a player because running around Renaissance Florence is about the coolest thing that can happen in a game as far as I'm concerned, but my thoughts drift back to it because I've experienced it. Not running around rooftops and killing people, but the game's money model.

At first, you scrimp and save to acquire a dagger, or armour, or something of practical value. When you've accumulated a bit of cash, you can pay to upgrade buildings in your town, which exposes new areas that you can loot for more money. The more money you spend, the more royalties (?) you earn from the upkeep of your villa. By the end of the game, you've bought everything you need, you've bought everything you could possibly want, and you've moved on to buying paintings you'll never look at because they're hidden away in obscure corners of the mansion you never visit.

I've seen this facet of the game ridiculed as pointless and inane, but the devolution of money into high score chasing is the best firsthand analogy for wealth I've come across. Its inanity, deliberately or accidentally, is exactly the point, right down to the useless villa filled with unappreciated paintings.

I've never been so completely hoodwinked by the lies of capitalism that I've conflated my self-worth with my monetary worth. The CEO of McDonald's, Chris Kempczinksi, made nearly 2000 times as much per hour as the median employee in 2019. No one will reasonably tell you that he is 2000 times as valuable. Personally, if you asked me if he was even as valuable to a company that makes food as the person who makes the food, I'd have to give it some thought and get back to you.

No, money is not a meaningful shorthand for your worth as a person. It doesn't even correlate positively to your value, although there's an argument to be made for a negative correlation thanks to the highly-paid world of hedge funds, property developers, and oil tycoons. That's not a difficult or controversial argument to make, but it's also not the point of this post.

That said, professional recognition does have value for self-worth. I experienced it on my journey from a teenager who enjoyed tinkering with computers to an underqualified code monkey to someone who was increasingly comfortable describing his employment as a career and acknowledging his value in more abstract terms than the amount and quality of code he was producing. Looking back on the later years of my career, my primary IDE was dry erase marker, my primary programming language the flowchart.

Now I have come full circle. I am now an adult who enjoys tinkering with computers, and I need to decide what that means. Part of that is re-learning how to (metaphorically) work with my hands instead of drawing pretty pictures and leaving it up to others to handle the implementation. But I think my decade in industry has left me with a depth and breadth of knowledge that I could not have attained any other way, and hopefully I'll be able to draw on it to achieve whatever I want to achieve.

So if not money, then what? A life of service has a lot to recommend it, to be sure. I could have left my job to volunteer my time at a homeless shelter, but from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, wouldn't I have a greater impact by continuing to work and donating my entire salary to the shelter so that they could employ 5 people, each more competent than me? And yet both of those options are at best incremental. A world in which homeless shelters are needed is a deeply unjust one, no matter how well-funded or well-staffed the shelters.

I've been idealistic (some would say naïve) from an early age. What has attracted me to tech throughout my life is its ability to channel the transformational power of ideas, often all out of relation to the complexity of those ideas. My favourite example here used to be Twitter. Leaving aside the complexities of scale for a moment, changing the world 140 characters at a time is simply mind-boggling. (Nowadays it's harder to paint Twitter as an unambiguous net positive, but its impact is no less for it.)

So for the time being I continue my search for meaning in ideas. That isn't to say that I have any particularly momentous ideas. I have no technical solution to homelessness, and maybe my pursuit of small but meaningful ideas is in some way an excuse or an escape from the great, intractable injustices of modern life. Still, for now, I control my direction in life. Even if I don't succeed in making the world better, I can at least be secure in the knowledge that I don't make it worse through my work. And in an age where the invisible hand of economics is sufficient to turn good people to evil deeds, perhaps that's enough to be getting on with.