Getting a job to work towards a raise to buy a house to build a family to retire to die

Getting a job to work towards a raise to buy a house to build a family to retire to die
Photo by Luke Stackpoole / Unsplash

It's a paradox situation: You go to school, which prepares you for college. You then study towards a degree. With this degree, you then get a job. Once you're settled, you work a) to not get fired, or b) to be promoted, or c) to get a raise so you can buy a house. I need not go on: Once you finally have your property, you're now trapped as you have to work to pay your debts off.

This situation is not confined to 9-5 jobs. We can find similar structures in academia. Like before, you study to get a Bachelor's degree, so you're eligible for graduate studies. Then, during these years, you study towards a Master's degree to qualify for a doctorate. While researching, you are once again working towards something. This time it's a professorship. And it does not end there: You now work, research, and publish to land a contract with XYZ company or have a chair at ABC University.

Even if we shift our focus to our day-to-day life, we detect the same pattern over and over: You go to the gym to work out to feel comfortable with your body. You go to the supermarket to buy groceries to cook that delicious dinner. You clean the house to welcome your guest appropriately. And so on; it's the "working so you can get this, so you can achieve that".

It does seem logical to ask, "How can I prevent or circumvent this?" This question was also my first attempt at "solving" the riddle. However, I soon discovered that this is how all things go. Of course, we could now disconnect from society altogether, raising our own vegetables. But, again, we would work to have something to eat, get up again the following day, and water the garden so that our plants grow fruits that we then eat to live to the next day to get up ... The cycle is complete.

Therefore, the more appropriate question is: "Is this a problem at all?" And, if it indeed is one, "What can we do to make things easier?"--completely "solving" it is not possible, as we saw before.

Then, to the first question: "Is this a problem at all?" No, I don't think so. Problem might be the wrong wording; a strange concept is a better fit. After all, we have to work towards something, at least occasionally. Otherwise, we'd indulge in unhealthy worry habits, as author Dale Carnegie postulated in his classic, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. And it's definitely not the case that this concept is unsuccessful. No, by any means, humanity is exceptionally productive, continuously inventing things small and big.

By accepting the concept as-is, we no longer waste precious time and, even more critical, we free mental resources.

With this in mind, we can now attend to the second question, "How can we make things easier?"

The increased focus and mental clarity allow us to look for screws that we might adjust. And there are some:

Be financially literate

Being financially literate does not mean deciphering a company's financial statement. Unless you work in this domain, it makes more sense to learn how to handle personal finances. A good start is knowing the differences between assets and liabilities, as Robert Kyosaki explains in his bestseller, Rich Dad Poor Dad.

The main reason why this is useful: We have to do something anyway, and with a good financial standing we can choose more freely. We are not required to do anything that passes by but can be picky.

Choose your job wisely

A typical career has 80 000 hours of work, as the 80,000 Hours project describes. You thus spend a significant amount of your waking life with work. And if this is something you dread going to, then you're wasting a lot of precious time. Though it would be naive to expect that everything always is how we want it, we can influence things by choosing wisely. And this has the most impact when we alter how we earn our living. If we have to go around and around, then it should at least be something we are proud of having done. Because, as Seneca observed, "No slavery is more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed."

Set goals

Goal setting seems to be en vogue. Financial goals, fitness goals, and their companions meet us everywhere. Why is that? It might be because research has pointed out the motivating effects of setting SMART goals. This acronym is short for Specific Measurable Achievable/Attainable Relevant Time-based, as the job-searching company indeed puts it.

If we come back to the initial challenge of constantly working towards something, aligning your work with your goals is critical. Consciously setting your goals makes things easier to bear.

However, I also think that rigid goals might lead to frustration. For example, if you aimed to make ten grand but only made nine, is that still good? Thus, I propose to see goals more as signposts or guiding lines. They give a clear pointer in the right direction but still provide flexibility. In other words: a goal is not a single point but rather a broader area to aim at, within which you consider yourself successful.

Embrace the learning or enjoy the process

It's a fact that the human brain is highly adaptive. It's plastic, constantly evolving, sometimes within seconds. For example, when Michael Merzenich, a brain researcher, cut the middle nerve in a monkey's hand, he observed the following: When the centre area of the hand was touched, the corresponding brain area did not light up, meaning it received no sensory input. However, when the adjacent nerves, which "monitor" the outer parts (e.g., the thumb and picky), were touched, the brain area of the middle hand showed activity. This was directly after the surgery, showing that brains are highly plastic AND efficient, making optimal use of their sparse resources.

For us, this means that we can not prevent our brains from adapting to circumstances. As a result, we constantly learn, if we want it or not. For example, after Apple released their first custom-chip notebooks last year, I spent weeks getting simple software to run. Was that fun? No. But I still have learned a ton of new things.

That's also what Arya Stark, in the Song of Fire and Ice books, has to do to become an assassin. Every evening when she returns to her shelter, she is asked about three novel things she has learned. That questionnaire is part of her training.

We can also adopt this strategy: Every evening, recall at least three novel things learned that day. As a starter, this can be a new dance movement, coding quicker, or a new language. Because, in the end, we can rarely change things to our liking. So why not (learn to) enjoy the process?

Live (mostly) healthy

This one is a no-brainer. Working all your life and then being unable to enjoy retirement because your body and mind are wrecks is sad.

Personally, I favour Ido Portal's approach towards movement. Humans are made to move, in various positions, for extended durations. Sitting on a desk all day long is not good.

Consciously use social media (and digital devices)

On Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites, you are constantly at risk of being exposed to seemingly perfect things: "Oh, I wish I could live a perfect life like this". Or, "He looks jacked! I also want to look like him." Or, "I must own an even bigger house than xyz." In contrast, our lives seem pale, bland, unworthy. We become more anxious about ourselves, give too much weight to random strangers' opinions, draw unfavourable comparisons. These findings have been subject to many studies; a recent one linked the increasing availability of Facebook with an increase in mental health issues.

Entirely ditching these services is one solution. If that's not possible, for whatever reasons, I suggest using them consciously and only at fixed times. Because the more you are exposed to negative outside influence, the more you run in other peoples' circles, rather than following your own goals.

Setting a horribly long password is an easy way to limit smartphone and computer use. Every time you want to "just check", you first have to type 30 characters or more. That will soon become annoying, ideally leading to less digital time. And, once you limit your digital time, you have more energy to devote to other fields, such as increasing your financial knowledge, working out, or reading.

Read for pleasure, and avoid following breaking news

When the philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent two years living in the woods, he had ample time to think. He devotes a complete chapter to books in his classic work Walden. From there, two sentences stuck with me: "Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations". And, shortly before: "The symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech."

He is not talking about daily musings over the newspaper or that boulevard magazine. No, he highlights the importance of written works for our culture, giving you something to ponder. "For what are the classics than the noblest recorded thoughts of man?"

While I also want to stay informed, it's not urgent to follow breaking news.

If the incidence is important at all (which it rarely is), I tend to read well-researched articles or books that provide facts and background information. This is also what author Susan Wise Bauer in her book, The Well-Educated Mind, at one point mentions: "When you read the morning news, you may find out that a suicide bomber has just devastated a Gaza marketplace. This is information--a collection of facts."

A couple of sentences later, she stresses the necessity of background information: "But in order to be enlightened about the bombing, you must read seriously: history, theology, politics, propaganda, editorials. The ideas that impel suicide bombers cannot be gleaned from brief new reports or interactive media."

Ultimately, one has to consider what's vital for life. As Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselmann ask in The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living: "At the end of your time on this planet, what expertise is going to be more valuable--your understanding of matters of living and dying, or your knowledge of the '87 Bears?"

Further, they challenge us by asking, "Which will help your children more--your insight into happiness and meaning, or that you followed breaking political news every day for thirty years?"

Pascal Janetzky

Pascal Janetzky

Avid reader & computer scientist