On Priorities

I’ve worked a few different jobs in my (so far) short working life. Each one I considered fairly carefully, and made sure that by taking the job I was pursuing the things I prioritized most. My first job I got when I was 18; I was freshly married, pretty broke, and eager to get started in the “real world”. I didn’t know much at the time about working or money, but I did know that I suddenly had a wife to supply for, and that I needed money. Money was my priority. I was offered a job doing IT at a commercial printing company. The pay was fine - way less than I make today, but way more than most 18-year-olds with no professional experience can expect to make. Even with the low starting pay, I knew there was room for extreme salary growth, so I took the job. Within a year I was making 60% more than my starting salary.

I lasted about a year at that job, and I hated most days of it. The commercial printing industry is brutal - I worked long hard hours, and most of that time was spent simply maintaining the status quo instead of making any real difference. So I quit. I decided I wanted to do something important. If I was going to spend the majority of my waking hours working, I should be doing something that would fufill me. I wanted people to know my name, and both use and appreciate what I was building. I took a startup job. The pay was a little less than my previous job, but I had an opportunity to gain equity. Most importantly, though, I had the opportunity to build prestige.

I lasted six months at that job. Again, the startup world is brutal - you still work long hard hours, but now you have to do it under an unexperienced manager, and doing it on a product that most likely will turn into nothing. Yes, most of the time you hear about startups with visionary leaders and explosive products, but the reality is that most startups fail because the leadership sucks and the product isn’t much better.

I’m approaching a year at my current job, and I’m not seeing any of the red flags that would have predicted me quitting my previous jobs. A year in, I’m not longing for vacation; I’m not constantly looking forward to Friday; I’m not grumpy when I get home - to put it straight, I’m happy. The odd thing is that I’m making considerably less money than any previous job, and I’m working on entirely less important things.

After my previous two jobs, I was faced with the realization that, while I thought I was aligning my work with my priorities, I was doing something wrong. Even after such close consideration, I ended up unhappy with my employment. I could blame it on bad luck, but I wasn’t willing to leave my future up to dumb luck anymore. I realized that only I could be to blame - the problem had to be that I was defining my priorities incorrectly, which ultimately resulted in my unhappiness and eventual quitting.

Priorities

It’s not unusual that I find myself in binds like this - often times I will make life decisions based on my feelings and superficial desires, but down the road it becomes apparent that my original motivations were just temporary. This time, I instead decided to define my priorities based on logic, rather than emotion. If my logical analysis holds up, my long-term emotional feel should align.

To start out, I listed the things that I priortize in my life. These things pretty strongly correlate to what makes me happy. I didn’t order them at this point, because I knew that my gut order would be based on emotion. I just listed them. The list came out to: Family/Friends, Professional Success, Money/Posessions, and Faith.

My next step was to define a logical analysis of how these things related to my long-term happiness. I’ve already defined these things as things that bring me happiness, so the only contributing variable is how long will they bring me happiness. The conclusion I came to was that the things that are most permanent in my life deserve higher priorities, because they will contribute to my happiness longer. It makes no sense to orient my life on something that will only contribute to my happiness for the next year - I should instead orient it towards a more permanent feature.

Money/Posessions

Money & Posessions are probably the most sterotypically sought after things in life. For good reason, too - stuff makes life more fun. I really enjoy buying new gadgets. I bought a lot of them when I was working higher paying jobs, and it was fun. The trouble with money and stuff is that it fades. Those gadgets I bought a few years ago are sitting in a drawer somewhere. I should probably just throw them away. That nice vacation you went on - the memories of that are lost in some deep nested folder on your hard drive. Stuff fades. It doesn’t last long. Yes, we can buy more stuff when the old stuff gets boring, but it’s like pouring water through a funnel; life seems full after every purchase, but it’s a constant battle to stop the funnel from emptying out.

Professional Success

Professional Success is still one of my largest priorities today. In reality, it’s why I write this blog. It’s why I contribute to open source. It’s even why I tweet. I deeply desire that the things that I create bring value to the people around me. I want people to know my name becuase I’ve built such great things. I don’t want professional success because it will help me get a better job or accrue more money - I want it for the intrinsic value of feeling important.

The trouble is, professional success is a pretty short-term goal. You can’t start generating it until you’re of working age, and you generally stop contributing to your professional success when you hit retirement age. That may seem like a long time now, but in the big picture it’s not. Most people get their first career-oriented job around 22 years old, and the average retirement age hovers around 65. That’s 43 years. Living to be 80 years old is a pretty common thing these days, which means you’re only spending half of your life in the professional world! Half of our life is a good chunk, and shouldn’t be ignored, but we can’t forget to prioritize the other half as well.

Family/Friends

Originally I just called this category Family. Then I realized that I have friends that I consider family, and family that I consider friends. I’m sure I’m not unique in this, so I expanded the category. The great thing about family and friends is that they can last a lifetime. From the day you’re born you have family; you quickly start making friends as a toddler. If you give both your family and friends the attention they need, those relatiosnships will last forever. Obviously, any relationship has ups and downs, but the whole idea behind having family and friends is that they consistently contribute to your happiness. Family and friends is a really important category, because it lasts the entire duration of your life and provides constant happiness. Prioritize your family.

Faith

I’m a Christian. That defines many of my views of the world, but I don’t think that the idea of faith is unique to me. You can subscribe to any religion and share the same principles of prioritization as me, even if you call it morals instead of God. The wonderful thing about faith is that it lasts forever - the things I believe in were here before I was born, and will continue on into eternity. Every minute that I pour into my faith I know for certain that I will reap the benefit of that for the rest of eternity. I think it goes without saying: prioritize the things you believe in - they never fail, and they always contribute to your happiness.

Ordering Priorities

It would be easy to read this post and decide to chase after whichever category provides the most happiness value. I don’t want that. It’s important to understand that each of these categories has to coexist - focusing too much on one category will necessarily decrease your attention to another, and will often lead you in the wrong direction. We need to nurture all of the things that are priorities in our life, but we also need to be purposeful in spending the most time and effort on the things that have the most long term value.

For me this means ordering my life as such: faith, family, career, money. I chose this job based on those priorties, and it’s no wonder that I haven’t felt the itch to move on yet. The structure of the company is flat enough that if I have to do something I disagree with morally I’m free to fight it. I work 40 hours a week, and no more - the rest of my time is spent on my family (and other faith-related activites). I have enough personal free time and work-sponsored research time that I can still build fun projects (and blog!) that contribute to my professional success. I make less money, but I make enough to support all the other higher priorities in my life. It took me a long time to realize the correct way to order my priorities, but I think I’m finally starting to view things with long-term value rather than immediate pleasure.

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