Tag Archives: work life balance

How to Live Your Life

I think the whole philosophical school of ethics serves but one purpose — to tell use how to live our lives. Most religions do it too, at some level, and define what morality is. These prescriptions and teachings always bothered me a little. Why should I let anybody else decide for me what is good and what is not? And, by the same token, how can I tell you these things?

Despite such reservations, I decided to write this post on how to live your life — after all, this is my blog, and I can post anything I want. So today, I will talk about how to lead a good life. The first thing to do is to define what “good” is. What do we mean when we call something good? We clearly refer to different attributes by the same word when we apply it to different persons or objects, which is why a good girl is very different from a good lay. One “good” refers to morality while the other, to performance in some sense. When applied to something already nebulous such as life, “good” can mean practically anything. In that sense, defining the word good in the context of life is the same as defining how to lead a good life. Let’s try a few potential definitions of a good life.

Let’s first think of life as a race — a race to amass material wealth because this view enjoys a certain currency in these troubled times that we live in. This view, it must be said, is only a passing fad, no matter how entrenched it looks right now. It was only about fifty years ago that a whole hippie generation rebelled against another entrenched drive for material comforts of the previous generation. In the hazy years that followed, the materialistic view bounced back with a vengeance and took us all hostage. After its culmination in the obscenities of the Madoffs and the Stanfords, and the countless, less harmful parasites of their kind, we are perhaps at the beginning stages of another pendulum swing. This post is perhaps a reflection of this swing.

The trouble with a race-like, competitive or combative view of life is that the victory always seems empty to the victors and bitter to the vanquished. It really is not about winning at all, which is why the Olympian sprinter who busted up his knee halfway through the race hobbled on with his dad’s help (and why it moved those who watched the race). The same reason why we read and quote the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was never about winning. And there is a deep reason behind why a fitting paradigm of life cannot be that a race, which is that life is ultimately an unwinnable race. If the purpose of life is to live a little longer (as evolutionary biology teaches us), we will all fail when we die. With the trials and tribulations of life volleying and thundering all around us, we still ride on, without reasoning why, on to our certain end. Faced with such a complete and inevitable defeat, our life just cannot be about winning.

We might then think that it is some kind of glory that we are or should be after. If a life leads to glory during or after death, it perhaps is (or was) a good life. Glory doesn’t have to be a public, popular glory as that of a politician or a celebrity; it could be a small personal glory, as in the good memories we leave behind in those dear to us.

What will make a life worthy of being remembered? Where does the glory come from? For wherever it is, that is what would make a life a good life. I think the answer lies in the quality with which we do the little things in life. The perfection in big things will then follow. How do you paint a perfect picture? Easy, just be perfect first and then paint anything. And how do you live a perfect life? Easy again. Just be perfect in everything, especially the little things, that you do. For life is nothing but the series of little things that you do now, now and now.

Image By Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Melesse using CommonsHelper., Public Domain

Midlife Crisis

In one of my recent posts, an astute friend of mine detected a tinge of midlife crisis. He was right, of course. At some point, typically around midlife, a lot of us find it boring. The whole thing. How could it not be boring? We repeat the same mundane things over and over at all levels. True, at times we manage to convince ourselves that the mundane things are not mundane, but important, and overlay a higher purpose over our existence. Faith helps. So do human bondages. But, no matter how we look at it, we are all pushing our own personal rocks to a mountaintop, only to to see it roll down at the end of the day — knowing that it invariably will. Our own individual Sisyphuses, cursed with the ultimate futility and absurdity of it all. And, as if to top it off, our knowledge of it!

Why did Camus say we went through the Sisyphus life? Ah, yes, because we got into the habit of living before acquiring the faculty of thinking. By midlife, perhaps, our thinking catches up with our innate existential urges, and manifests itself as a crisis. Most of us survive it, and as Camus himself pointed out, Sisyphus was probably a happy man, despite having to eternally push the rock up the slope. So let’s exercise our thinking faculty assuming it is not too dangerous.

Most of us have a daily life that is some variation of the terse French description — metro, boulot, dodo. We commute to work, make some money for ourselves (and more for somebody else), eat the same lunch, sit through the same meetings, rush back home, watch TV and hit the sack. Throw in a gym session and an overseas trip once in a while, and that’s about it. This is the boring not merely because it really is, but also because this is what everybody does!

Imagine that — countless millions of us, born somewhere at some point in time, working hard to acquire some money, or knowledge, or fame, or glory, or love — any one of the thousands of variations of Sisyphus’s rock — only to see it all tumble down to nothingness an another point in time. If this isn’t absurd, what is?

If I were to leave this post at this point, I can see my readers looking for the “Unsubscribe” button en masse. To do anything useful with this depressing idea of futile rock-pushing rat-race, we need to see beyond it. Or have faith, if we can — that there is a purpose, and a justification for everything, and that we are not meant to know this elusive purpose.

Since you are reading this blog, you probably don’t subscribe to the faith school. Let’s then look for the answer elsewhere. With your permission I will start with something Japanese. Admittedly, my exposure to the Japanese culture comes from Samurai movies and a couple of short trips to Japan, but lack of expertise has never stopped me from expressing my views on a subject. Why do you think the Japanese take such elaborate care and pride in something as silly as pouring tea?

Well, I think they are saying something much deeper. It is not that pouring tea is important. The point is nothing is important. Everything is just another manifestation of the Sisyphus rock. When nothing is important, nothing is unimportant either. Now, that is something profound. Pouring tea is no less (or more) important than writing books on quantitative finance, or listening to that old man attempting the Susannah song on his mouth-organ on Market Street. When you know that all rocks will come tumbling down just as soon as you reach the pinnacle of your existence, it doesn’t matter what rock you carry with you to the top. As long as you carry it well. And happily.

So I try to write this blog post as well as I possibly can.

How to Make Money

After my musings on God and atheism, which some may have found useless, let’s look at a supremely practical problem — how to make money. Loads of it. Apparently, it is one of the most frequently searched phrases in Google, and the results usually attempt to separate you from your cash rather than help you make more of it.

To be fair, this post won’t give you any get-rich-quick, sure-fire schemes or strategies. What it will tell you is why and how some people make money, and hopefully uncover some new insights. You may be able to put some of these insights to work and make yourself rich — if that’s where you think your happiness lies.

By now, it is clear to most people that they cannot become filthy rich by working for somebody else. In fact, that statement is not quite true. CEOs and top executives all work for the shareholders of the companies that employ them, but are filthy rich. At least, some of them are. But, in general, it is true that you cannot make serious money working in a company, statistically speaking.

Working for yourself — if you are very lucky and extremely talented — you may make a bundle. When we hear the word “rich,” the people that come to mind tend to be (a) entrepreneurs/industrialists/software moguls — like Bill Gates, Richard Branson etc., (b) celebrities — actors, writers etc., (c) investment professionals — Warren Buffet, for instance, and (d) fraudsters of the Madoff school.

There is a common thread that runs across all these categories of rich people, and the endeavors that make them their money. It is the notion of scalability. To understand it well, let’s look at why there is a limit to how much money you can make as a professional. Let’s say you are a very successful, highly-skilled professional — say a brain surgeon. You charge $10k a surgery, and perform one a day. So you make about $2.5 million a year. Serious money, no doubt. How do you scale it up though? By working twice as long and charging more, may be you can make $5 million or $10 million. But there is a limit you won’t be able to go beyond.

The limit comes about because the fundamental economic transaction involves selling your time. Although your time may be highly-skilled and expensive, you have only 24 hours in a day to sell. That is your limit.

Now take the example of, say, John Grisham. He spends his time researching and writing his best-selling books. In that sense, he sells his time as well. But the big difference is that he sells it to many people.

We can see a similar pattern in software products like Windows XP, performances by artists, sports events, movies and so on. One performance or accomplishment is sold countless times. With a slight stretch of imagination, we can say that entrepreneurs are also selling their time (that they spend setting up their businesses) multiple times (to customers, clients, passengers etc.) This is the only way to address the scalability issue that comes about due to the paucity of time.

Investment professionals (bankers) do it too. They develop new products and ideas that they can sell to the masses. In addition, they make use of a different angle that we discussed in the Philosophy of Money. They focus on the investment value of money to make oodles of it. It not so much that they take your money as deposits, lend it out as loans, and earn the spread. Those simple times are gone for good. The banks make use of the fact that investors demand the highest possible return for the lowest possible risk. Any opportunity to push this risk-reward envelope is a profit potential. When they make money for you , they demand their compensation and you are happy to pay it.

Put it that way, investment sounds like a positive concept, which it is, in our current mode of thinking. We can easily make it a negative thing by portraying the demand for the investment value of money as greed. It then follows that all of us are greedy, and that it is our greed that fuels the insane compensation packages of top-level executives. Greed also fuels fraud – ponzi and pyramid schemes.

There is a thin blurry line between the schemes that thrive on other people’s greed and confidence jobs. If you can come up with a scheme that makes money for others, and stay legal (if not moral), then you will make money. You can see that even education, traditionally considered a higher pursuit, is indeed an investment against future earnings. Viewed in that light, you will understand the correlation between the tuition fees at various schools and the salaries their graduates command.

Little Materialists

The other evening, I had a call from a headhunter. As I hung up, my six-year-old son walked in. So I asked him jokingly whether I should take another job. He asked,

“Does it mean you will get to come home earlier?”

I was mighty pleased that he liked to have me around at home, but I said,

“No, little fellow, I may have to work much longer hours. I will make a lot more money though. Do you think I should take it?”

I was certain that he would say, no, forget money, spend time at home. After all, he is quite close to me, and tries to hang out with me as much as he can. But, faced with this choice, he was quiet for a while. So I pressed him,

“Well, what do you think?”

To my dismay, he asked,

“How late?”

I decided to play along and said,

“I would probably get home only after you go to bed.”

He still seemed to hesitate. I persisted,

“Well, what do you think?”

My six-year-old said,

“If you have more money, you can buy me more stuff!”

Crestfallen as I was at this patently materialistic line of thinking (not to say anything about the blow to my parental ego), I had to get philosophical at this point. Why would a modern child value “stuff” more than his time with his parent?

I thought back about my younger days to imagine how I would have responded. I would have probably felt the same way. But then, this comparison is not quite fair. We were a lot poorer then, and my dad bringing in more money (and “stuff”) would have been nice. But lack of money has never been a reason for my not getting my kids the much sought after stuff of theirs. I could get them anything they could possibly want and then some. It is just that I have been trying to get them off “stuff” with environmental arguments. You know, with the help of Wall-E, and my threats that they will end up living in a world full of garbage. Clearly, it did not work.

May be we are not doing it right. We cannot expect our kids to do as we say, and not as we do. What is the use of telling them to value “stuff” less when we cannot stop dreaming of bigger houses and fancier cars? Perhaps the message of Wall-E loses a bit of its authenticity when played on the seventh DVD player and watched on the second big screen TV.

It is our materialism that is reflected in our kids’ priorities.