Independence

I recently talked about how we have swapped autonomy for convenience, and this is a good thing. I wanted to expand on that. It’s not just convenience that we have gained. We have arguably gained back some freedom, perhaps in a different form that a truly independent, autonomous living would provide, but arguably equally or even more valuable.

It is entirely possible for a modern day person to enjoy an amount of wealth that enables them to purchase goods and employ services from others for a lifetime. At least in the western world private property is protected, and goods and services are widely available for purchase. Having such options is more freedom.

This is a relatively recent development. Both on the availability of goods and services, and on the amount of wealth available to the average citizen.

The former is uncontroversial, but I can see you raising an eyebrow on the latter. “Really? amount of wealth available to the average citizen? what are you on about? Global wealth inequality is high and keeps rising. Most young people can’t buy a property and retirement age keeps going higher.”

Yes, I am well aware. Yet, the statement still stands. It is much easier and increasingly so for the typical westerner to acquire wealth that enables freedom. Access to the means of production, to use a Marxist term, has never been more democratised. It is a relatively recent development that the little guy can own Capital. A diversified portfolio of shares in the best businesses in the world, their assets, production and earnings power is available at a click of a button. This makes the pursuit of financial independence more feasible.

You may argue that it’s not easy for someone to save enough to actually achieve financial independence. True. It’s not easy. But it is possible. Just as for pre-industrial people it wasn’t easy to be autonomous. It was in fact even more difficult for someone back then to be able to survive independently than it is for a modern middle-class person today.

And not only it’s easier but the end result is better. Being financially independent in a modern world with all its goods and services abundantly available, is far preferable to a farmer in a state of autonomy centuries ago.

The fact that some of the goods and services are out of reach, and that wealth/income inequality is increasing does not change all the above. Wealth inequality increases in line with the overall wealth increasing. It’s not redistribution of an existing pie at more unequal parts, it’s expansion of the pie. Sure, some things are completely out of reach for most people, but these are extreme luxuries, that always have been only available to a select few. And yet a typical middle class household today enjoys more luxuries than high class citizens of 100 years ago or Middle Ages kings. And they can feel more independent, not reliant on the goodwill of a benevolent overlord but on their own capacity. And thanks to a better organised State and an established social contract, even the poorest members of the society are not helpless.

Market and State

So we have swapped autonomy with convenience and freedom. It’s a good trade-off. It all rests of course on the system continuing to work.

It is interesting that the two supporting pillars of this system are the Market and the State. Much to the disappointment of both the hard Left and the hard Right, it is the perfect balance of both of them that enables both the richer and the poorer today to be better off than they would otherwise. The market is essential in order to create wealth, and the state is essential in order to protect the property rights that allow the market to work and avoid a catastrophic revolution that would destroy wealth and prosperity for all.

As long as this continues to be the case, people’s lives will continue to improve.

Immortality

I have a Media Center PC. A normal desktop computer in a living-room friendly case, serving as the main playback source for the TV. It can also be used for other computer activities, such as web browsing. It is rather old at this point.

How old? I’m not sure.

I bought it 16 years ago as a normal desktop computer with a tower case. I then changed the hard drive. A couple years later I upgraded the motherboard and CPU, as well as RAM. I then changed the graphics card, and replaced the DVD drive with a Bluray drive. Then upgraded the CPU again. Then I changed the case and the PSU. Then I changed the hard drive to an SSD. Then upgraded the GPU again. And last year I changed the hard drive again to a new one.

Over the years I reinstalled the OS many times. All in all the current computer doesn’t have a single component from the original one. Yet there is no specific point in time that I changed the computer. Every upgrade was gradual, as the great song by Johnny Cash goes: one piece at a time (expect in my case it did cost me more than a dime).

Computers and other objects can be like that. Houses for example. There are definitely some buildings in London that most of their external surface and foundation is more than 100 years old, yet the inside is as modern as can be. Several refurbishments over the years, going back to the brick, changing pipes, cables, the works. Is it the same house after a complete refurbishment?

I do wonder if in the future this extends to living creatures, including humans. Prosthetics have been with us for years, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink is working on more advanced implants to replace functions lost by accidents or diseases.

What if this eventually extends to most body parts? What if in 500 years or so, biotechnology has evolved to the point that human organs and limbs can be created in a lab to higher specifications than our current, natural ones. And once you grow old or have an accident or whatever, you could upgrade yourself one part at a time. A new body, even new neurons to replace your current aging ones.

Where does it stop? And at what point you is no longer you? What defines us? Is it the brain? If we were able to transplant the brain with all its memories, capabilities, knowledge, personality, into a new body, would you say it is the same person?

Using the computer analogy it’s probably similar to upgrading every hardware component and keeping the OS and all installed software and files. Is it the same computer? Or is it the reverse? If you factory reset a computer, is it the same as before or a different one? “Silly analogy” I hear you say, the computer is an object, it’s primarily hardware, the software just helps you use it. A person is primarily the soul, the personality. The body comes after.

But then if technology does indeed evolve to a point where we can upload our personality to a new, improved, upgradeable body, we will have cured death.

I’m pretty sure one day this will be reality, and humanity will have achieved immortality. I’m also pretty sure it will happen after I am dead.

Autonomy

There’s a fuel supply crisis in the UK at the moment. Motorists are panicking and there are long queues at every petrol station that still has stock. It is a reminder of how much we depend on modern infrastructure, and ironic that a car, that most of the time provides more independence for one’s transportation needs than say public transport, now offers less. Depending on where one lives, and what alternative transportation methods are available, lack of fuel could be a big, life threatening even, problem.

Presumably owners of electric vehicles feel doubly smug right now. They don’t depend on dirty fuel, they can still enjoy the freedom that their car provides knowing they can recharge it at home whenever needed. But hang on, how is the electricity at home generated? Virtually everyone purchases it from the grid, and yes, currently the electricity supply is uninterrupted but can we see a scenario where there are power cuts, and electricity is rationed?

We don’t have to worry about such scenarios too often as the modern infrastructure usually works very well. But the more complex this infrastructure is the more we are dependent on it and the worse the consequences are if it breaks down.

My grandparents were much less dependent on factors outside their control. They were farmers in a rural setting, growing their own food and getting water from wells. They had no electricity. Their transportation was donkeys and mules. Their life was very hard, but there was very little that could severely disrupt it. In comparison we live like kings. But we are way more vulnerable to disruptions from things well outside our control.

Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? Can we enjoy all the luxuries the modern world provides but also have more autonomy for the basics? You don’t have to consider extreme post-apocalyptic scenarios to appreciate the appeal of having at least one’s basic needs covered with as little dependence on factors outside our control as possible.

We could have electricity provided by renewable sources. Photovoltaic panels on our roofs plus some small wind turbine, with enough batteries to store much of the excess production to ensure uninterrupted supply. An electric vehicle. Enough tools and machinery to do DIY repairs. Food and water survival kits.

Would that be enough? Would it even matter? In a mild disruption scenario, surely one is better off avoiding the hassle of all his elaborate setup and just paying up for whatever is the best alternative at the prevailing black market price. In a complete society breakdown, how would one protect their property anyway? I’m going to stop short of contemplating extreme survivalists’ approaches with nuclear bunkers and enough guns and ammo to have a small army. The reason most people don’t go down that path is that it is incompatible with enjoying life as part of a modern well functioning society. The latter hinges on giving up autonomy in exchange for a better quality of life. Any half measure as the one described above is partially regressing on that front. Much like traveling back in time, maybe not all the way to my grandparents generation but perhaps my parents. Given the choice to do it we would not. Because we prefer the present, with all the benefits it brings most of the time, and we accept the risk that sometimes things may temporarily be disrupted.

So autonomy is a pipe dream and we are rationally better off just going with the flow and accepting that we fully depend on the continued existence of a well functioning modern society and infrastructure. But going through this thought process and rationalizing it makes one appreciate this infrastructure. The thought that it’s rationally better to be part of it, accepting the tail risk of being helpless if it breaks down, is both reassuring and exhilarating.

We are indeed lucky to live in the present era, and have the luxury to complain about petrol shortages. And we are right to complain, and hopefully trigger some improvements in the processes and the infrastructure that further improves our lives, as has been the case throughout history. What we have purchased by paying with our autonomy is absolutely worth it.

Life is grey

I spent a month in Greece this summer, the first time I was able to do so in 15 years. I used to go for just one or two weeks, enjoy the sea, get a bit of sunshine, and then return to London. Two weeks used to be enough. I recharged my batteries so to speak and I was ready to get back to work. Not out of necessity, or at least not purely because of that. Of course there was the practical necessity of work, and in terms of professional opportunities London won hands down. But it wasn’t just that. I had convinced myself that on balance I preferred life in London, as everything from public services to private businesses is better organised, and there’s more efficiency, transparency, meritocracy and rule of law. Visiting Greece for two weeks in the summer allowed me to have the best of both worlds.

To a lot of people this seemed strange. While the professional opportunities are better in London, this is only one part of the equation, and the difference in quality of life, perceived or real, is enough to trump any regards for career prospects. For many people when it comes to overall quality of life Greece wins hands down. Quality of life comes first. Career ambition will then have to follow.

I used to feel strongly against this mentality, maybe even look down on it. Growing up I was always ambitious and competitive. Top student throughout school and university, aiming high, shooting for the stars. This was in contrast with most of my friends and society at large, for whom the ideal situation was a steady job preferably in the public sector with lots of spare time and not much stress. For me the latter seemed too restrictive, like cutting my wings and keeping me in prison. I remember arguments with older relatives who advised against going for post-graduate studies abroad and in favour of applying for a safe public sector job. We could not be more diametrically opposed. Black and white.

Years later, black and white started fading into shades of grey. From both sides.

It took a devastating economic crisis in Greece to start cracking the previously rock solid public opinion that a state job is the Holy Grail and Greece is Paradise on Earth. People who previously wondered how it is possible for me to prefer living in London were now saying I should never come back and that they wish they could leave as well.

Meanwhile, I started to change as well. Nostalgia started to kick in. Guilt even, for losing my connection to my roots.

London is now the place where I have spent most of my adult life, and I do consider it home. I would go as far as saying I consider myself a citizen of the world, with a strong distaste for hard borders from both a practical and philosophical point of view.

But perhaps Theresa May had a point when she said that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” I hated it when I heard those words. I strongly opposed to it. Then I came to see that my hate was defense, because these words hit home. I felt offended, as if it was a racist comment and I was the victim. Upon reflection though, this merely describes what I have been increasingly getting to realize, that we are a social animal and we deeply need to feel that we belong in a group.

In his excellent book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” Professor Yuval Noah Harari explains that while other human species before Homo Sapiens were able to communicate with language, what set Homo Sapiens apart was the ability to construct myths that enabled the species to operate successfully in larger groups. Myths such as religion or nation or a common purpose helped Sapiens overtake otherwise stronger and perhaps smarter species and dominate the Earth.

We may argue that such myths are irrational, and we may individually oppose specific ones. But we do need to feel part of a group, we need the social acceptance, the sense of belonging somewhere, and even the sense of identity that comes with it. It’s part of our DNA.

Ambition often directly opposes that. Career advance requires a conscious effort to enter a different group, and often alienate the previous ones. The feeling of not being a true member of a group is bad. This explains nostalgia.

I was talking with a Business School classmate a few years back about this conundrum. How we are torn by the opposing forces of ambition and homesickness. It felt good to talk about, although there was no solution or way out of it. It was our fate to continue trying to balance in a tightrope.

As years passed by, I get to appreciate that life is not black and white, but grey. My own ambition slowed down considerably. A moment of clarity was a meeting with my boss who explained his ambitions to climb further up the corporate ladder. There was no specific end goal, and definitely no financial considerations, he was already more than set for life. I was thinking that I would not want to be in the same position. I found it too stressful and unfulfilling. I had very clearly seen the limits of my own ambition, it was well below his. This was very helpful and instrumental in my decision to switch gears.

I imagine that in previous discussions I had with my old friends and relatives, they must have been looking at me with the same bewilderment and perhaps even disbelief I had in that discussion. It certainly made it easier to appreciate a different viewpoint.

We change all the time. We change our opinions, beliefs, attitude, goals, in a constant pursuit of happiness. We convince ourselves that whatever we do achieves it or attempts to. At times we adopt myths or construct our own. We are converted, and everything is either black or white. But life isn’t. It’s grey. Which makes it more difficult to navigate – but at the same time recognising this can be liberating.

Out

It’s been two years since I last posted about the rat race. Since then my attitude has increasingly drifted towards exiting the game. A few factors contribute to this:

Covid-19

I caught the virus last year. Even though I didn’t reach the point of needing hospitalization, it was a very painful experience nonetheless, and one that makes you reconsider your priorities and question the meaning of life and work. I also spent some time at home with my kids in an attempt at forced home schooling, and I felt that I should be spending more time with them. Much of childcare has so far been outsourced, which makes financial sense, but there is an irreplaceable cost of missing out on spending quality time with the kids while they and I are still young.

Burnout

Work itself became less and less enjoyable. Perhaps because of some disagreements on how things should run, perhaps because my tolerance for politics and other office bullshit has decreased substantially, perhaps because I was simply bored with doing the same thing for years. Maybe all of the above. Either way, my intrinsic motivation to perform started waning, and work felt like a burden, something that requires external motivation in order to tolerate. That motivation usually is the pay. Which brings me to the next point.

Money

The money itself feels increasingly less important. Partially that’s because my employment income has started being dwarfed by my portfolio returns. It doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, but it doesn’t create the same amount of urgency as it did years ago when I absolutely relied on it to pay the rent. And beyond a certain point it is less of a priority.

Endgame

More broadly, money aside I’m not that “hungry” anymore. I feel that at some point there should be an end to the game, and a victory declared. But what I see above me in the corporate world is nothing of the sort. If anything the higher one goes there seems to be an increasing amount of stress and a decreasing amount of freedom. And yes, an increasing amount of money to go with it but beyond a certain point, that money won’t be enjoyed at least not by the current generation. The majority will go to taxes, and some will stay for the descendants. But I feel that my kids would ultimately appreciate me spending more time with them than leaving them more money, something that will hopefully happen long after they have been fully independent themselves.

This thought is perhaps more prevalent because in the past year money can’t be enjoyed much due to the pandemic, and even more so because when the world briefly paused I kept going, and I felt that time is running fast, and started having some kind of early mid-life crisis.


Hesitation

Despite becoming more and more disillusioned with work and burned out, my ultra-conservative self has been hesitating to leave. Kind of like walking on a plank high above a swimming pool, ready to take a dive, but fearing to jump as you reach the end and look down.

One reason is uncertainty for the future, especially because the solution to my perception of the reason for my current state of unhappiness is to be a full time dad, with a part time hustle of managing my investment portfolio and maybe another yet unidentified part time gig, but one that allows the full time parenting to go on. And what if after a few years of that I change my mind and want to go back to full time work and I can’t because I have made myself unemployable in the process? Am I limiting myself and reducing my optionality, not in terms of money or career potential but also in terms of the satisfaction that comes with personal achievements and self-fulfillment?

But then again, if I stay where I am, am I actually decreasing my overall optionality in terms of other opportunities, personal or professional, that may not necessarily be as lucrative but they may offer greater overall satisfaction?

Jump

So I have just decided to jump. I haven’t reached the water below yet, but my feet have left the safe ground of the plank and I am looking forward to the new environment.

The rat race

Why do we work? It’s a real question. Is it for the money? For self-fulfillment? For sense of purpose and achievement? The answer could be some or even all of the above.

Depending on the answer, the attitude towards work defines most of our life. For most people money is the obvious answer. You have to work to earn your living. And while many see this negatively, as modern day slavery to The Man, it really isn’t, at least for people in the developed world, considering how our distant ancestors lived. We don’t have to go hunting for food or toil away all day long in fields being one bad harvest away from starvation. We live in relative luxury in nice cities or even nicer villages and we only have to work for about half of our awake hours of about half our life. And in many cases what we do can be interesting and sometimes fun, and give us a sense of purpose and make us proud. And then we don’t call it a job anymore, but a career. Much nicer sounding and something to pursue, not suffer through.

And yet, even for people in good careers, the job’s primary function is income and the ultimate goal is retirement. There are exceptions, of course. Most CEOs of Megacorps for example have probably accumulated enough assets already that they don’t need to work any more, but they do purely for the satisfaction of winning their game. But for most people in the lower ranks the motivation is still a need, not a want. Hence the term the rat race.

So many people refer to the rat race, and acknowledge that they work for the income, and by extension if they had enough savings or a lottery windfall, they would stop working. Some actually go to extremes to pursue exactly that, and so we have the FIRE (Financial Independence – Retire Early) movement. But even outside this extreme group, people often talk about their work as a means to an end, which is successful retirement. Which then begs the question: is this really what it is all about?

A long time ago I remember reading as career advice that you should consider what you would do if you had enough money so that you didn’t need to work. And then try to pursue that as a career. The idea is that you would be very good at it because you like it and then it would also become a lucrative career.

I was and still am skeptical about this advice. As an example, I could have easily said that if I had enough money so that I didn’t need to work any more, I would just go out and party all day long. Try turning that into a career!

But this question, slightly altered, can serve as a guide about what you really want to do once you are at a stage where you don’t need to keep firing in all cylinders and you don’t want to retire either. When you have enough of a financial cushion to allow semi-retirement, are tired of the rat race because you don’t enjoy the game any more, and you feel productive and knowledgeable and experienced and active enough that you definitely don’t want to actually retire.

This is where I often find myself. And this attempt at blogging is to a large extent motivated by putting down some thoughts and doing some introspection. It is often surprisingly difficult to articulate what is in the back of your mind, and when you do, sometimes you get an insight yourself. Call it self-therapy. It kinda works.

So, back to the question above: why do I work? For a long time I didn’t question it. I am lucky enough to work in job that is both lucrative and something I mostly enjoy doing. I was also making enough progress every year that the job was quite rewarding, not only purely monetarily but also from a self satisfaction point of view. At some point in the last few years the rate of progress declined and then ground to a halt. But even if the pay didn’t increase any more, it remained high, so I couldn’t really be unhappy. But then as the focus was shifting more and more on the income, with that being the primary source of happiness from work, I started to see the job more as a rat race. And inevitably I was looking for the exit. So I started running the numbers similar to the FIRE guys, for how long until FI (Financial Independence), expecting not to RE (Retire Early), but to have the flexibility to do whatever else I wanted.

I’m not quite sure what that thing would be. On the one hand I like what I do and it pays well. On the other hand it is boring at times, and as in most lucrative jobs, stagnation is not viewed favorably. That means that even if I wanted to keep doing the same job forever, it may not be an option. And even if it is an option, it won’t provide any self fulfillment or sense of purpose or achievement, and assuming I have reached FI, then what’s the point?

The reality is that I am conflicted. There are times that I think that I should not waste any more time at work than the absolutely necessary. So when I hit my number, be it in 3, 5 or 7 years, quit, and enjoy life. Spend time with my family, do some gardening, reading, watch movies, write ramblings in a blog that noone will read. Part of me thinks that it’s too early for that (I’m only in my early forties), and I should really max out my professional potential. This gets triggered especially when I see people less knowledgeable or capable advance professionally faster, which seems unfair as I deserve it more. But then I think of the rat race again, and acknowledge that the game is there, and if I am unable or unwilling to play it, to put on the extra hours, the face time, the political effort, then I don’t deserve to progress any more than I already have.

And so this tug of war of thoughts continues, with no clear answer for what is the ultimate purpose of work and therefore whether to stay in the rat race.

Behaviour chart

The other day we decided to put a behaviour chart on our fridge. That’s a piece of paper with a green area in the middle, a yellow and a red area underneath, and a silver star and a gold star above. On it, we placed two stickers, one for each of our children. The stickers start the day on green and then depending on the childrens’ behaviour they can move up or down. A bad deed relegates them to yellow and then red; a good one promotes them to silver or gold. During the day they can travel up or down.

It wasn’t our idea. It was a direct copy from their school. They use the same exact chart for all the kids in the class to mark their behaviour during the day and make sure that everyone else sees where they stand. This is supposed to incentivise good behaviour as the kids want to go to gold and most definitely not go below green.

Our kids are lovely – as if a parent would ever say otherwise! – but we do have the occasional misbehaviour. Nothing too serious, but as every parent knows, it’s a constant struggle to enforce rules and to steer good behaviour. There are not enough sticks and carrots available, and the ones that exist do wear off very quickly. Our four year old daughter has been disciplined with the threat of not having her toys in bed at night if she misbehaved. We would remind her of this before having to enforce it a couple of times. This worked – for a while. Then she seemed to not care any more.

So we moved to this new plan. We drew the big piece of paper and put stickers with their names on blu-tack on them and told them that from now on this would be in effect at home just as in school.

And it worked! Amazingly, the threat of going to yellow influenced the kids’ behaviour more than the previous threats of withholding toys (I’m not even mentioning rational talking and explaining the merits of each action/behaviour).

I was positively surprised to observe this, because there are really zero consequences to going to yellow or red or silver/gold. There’s no other penalty or reward linked or associated with the chart, and the positions reset at the end of the day anyway. And still, my young daughter was more obedient than usual and fiercely protested (unsuccessfully) a downgrade to yellow when it inevitably happened.

I was then thinking that while in my adult mind this is nuts – she shouldn’t really care – it is in fact not that much different from what we rational adults do frequently in our society. When we struggle at work to win a promotion, or show off in social circles or even in anonymous social media to earn some reputation among other people. Sure, sometimes there are tangible rewards that come with social or professional status. But often there are not. And yet, the thought of being seen as lesser people terrifies us. And the prospect of being admired or otherwise looked up on motivates us.

We think we are rational adults, but we are still easily manipulated children. We think we know better, but we don’t. We are tricked by The Man, just as my kids were tricked by our behaviour chart.