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Nov 30, 2006, 10:34a

I went to elementary school, like most kids. Unlike most kids, I went to a private school because my parents wanted me to and we were able to afford it. I was a good student, of no doing of my own. I liked learning the spellings of words and didn't find learning all that hard. I was just interested in it, I'm not really sure why - "kid instinct" I guess. Because I was a good student, people used the generic term "smart" to describe me. I was a "good" kid because I was "smart".

To go to a private high school, I had to take the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Examination). It was the first standardized test that I took that mattered. I didn't study for it and I don't remember what I got, but I guess I did well enough to get in to 2 of 4 high schools. And I got in to the one I wanted to go to.

At Windward, studying actually became quite hard. I had some excellent teachers, some of the best teachers I've had in my entire life, especially in science, math, and history (though I had some pretty terrible teachers too). As the stress level picked up with the work, I told myself I was working to get in to a good college. I needed a reason, a goal, a finite timeline, for all the self-induced stress and early mornings (I used to wake up at 2am to study).

And I was lucky, certainly not for the first time in my life. Stanford let me in, so I went. My hard work in high school had paid off, and now I was free, or so I thought. Stanford was great - I made most of my best friends there, I met a ton of "smart" people like me, and I got to spend all my time with them in the dorms. I didn't stress as much about my grades, though studying was still stressful and pretty hard work, though not as hard as high school.

I went to Stanford to learn. When I got there, I was elated by all the choices I had. For the first time in my life I actually got to choose what I wanted to learn about. At Windward I only had a few opportunities to select from a handful of "electives". I pored over the Stanford Course Bulletin, and when I was done I had a list of classes that would have taken me 12 years to complete, spanning the sciences, engineering, psychology, communications, economics, and sociology. And that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know what my major was going to be - I just knew what I was interested in, and that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know whether it would add up to anything, but I knew I would enjoy it. I came to Stanford to learn.

I looked in to the Individually Designed Major thing, but ended up with Product Design. All my friends were doing Computer Science, so I wanted to do something different. At graduation, I was $60,000 in debt, but I wasn't worried. I'd start my own company and figure things out.

Of course, I really didn't know the amount of dedication it took to do that, and my meager attempts didn't amount to much. So after my summer vacation I decided it was time to look for a real job. As my luck would have it, Google let me in, so I went. I wanted to build products, and that's what I was told I would do, so it seemed like a good match. I didn't really know what to expect, but I didn't really have anything else I wanted to do. Sure, I had mapped out a cross-country road trip with my brother, but that could wait.

Google was great, but also inordinately stressful. But I had a new goal to justify my hard work: I wanted to pay off my student loans. Every 2 weeks I would get my paycheck, and every month I was able to pay off not just the interest but also a good chunk of the principal. It was actually a pretty good feeling - I felt independent, paying my way for the first time in my life.

And then one day the loan was gone. Not to worry, I had a new goal in the wings.

After graduating but before starting at Google, I read an exceptional book called Your Money or Your Life. The premise of the book was simple - we each possess our own, finite share of life energy and we each decide how much of it to exchange for money. The most important thing that the book taught me was how to calculate how much money was enough. Novel concept, eh? Basically, you figure out how much money you need each month, and how much money you'd need to have in government bonds at a 5% post-tax interest rate to earn enough money to cover these monthly expenses. They called it the "Financial Independence" program, and I sucked it up. Simply, it's the amount of money you need before you can stop working for other people, the amount of money you need to buy your own freedom. So I had a number I was shooting for, and it was actually much lower than I expected it to be.

So I was working to end my indentured servitude. Sure, I loved designing and building products that lots of people used. I learned a lot at Google, the people were even smarter than the folks at Stanford, and I was given significant responsibility and opportunity. But ultimately I was working for the money. If that hadn't been there, I would have been doing something else.

I never thought that's what the point would be. I felt scammed. Was I expected to spend the next 40 years of my life acquiring as much money as possible? Was that why I was alive? Was that how I was meant to spend this miraculous gift of life? It seemed wrong. Didn't they teach you that greed was bad? Didn't they teach you that envy, lust, materialism were all bad? Did they just teach that on the off-chance that you might actually be able to break free, knowing that most wouldn't? Or was I just hanging out with the wrong crowd? I felt ripped off.

I didn't work my ass off in high school so I could work hard in college so I could work hard acquiring as much money as possible so I could retire so I could die.

I was never told that that was the deal. But now I see clearly that it was. Maybe I was just naive - it wouldn't be the first or last time.

Maybe I shouldn't be ranting - maybe I should just appreciate my ridiculous privilege and stop whining. Maybe I'm the only one that feels this way. Maybe I'm not ranting for myself, but for everyone else who didn't have the luck that I've had, didn't have the genes, the environment, didn't have the opportunity to learn to think the way that I've learned to think. Maybe I'm just a little lost, disorientated at the confrontation of this realization.

Maybe the realization is wrong, stilted, artificial.

Maybe I just wish that I had blocked my naivete for just a few minutes in high school to get the news, because maybe I would have gotten used to the idea in the past 10 years.

Or maybe I'm glad I haven't.

Read comments (7) - Comment

omar - Dec 1, 2006, 11:52a
so then why did you work your ass off in all those places? for me, i worked hard not because of some coherent, well-understood reason; i just did it because that was the value instilled in me from when i was little. it's much easier to work on automatic pilot, but eventually there comes a day of reckoning. i think i've had that day of reckoning, but now i feel very lost.

omar - Dec 1, 2006, 11:53a
ps: would you fix your damn blog so that when i click submit, it actually returns with success (as opposed to just sitting around submitting forever).

nikhil - Dec 1, 2006, 12:14p
yes! i know, it's annoying. after i finish my apps, it'll be fixed. for now, you can just reload the page and submit another comment - they'll both come through in the end. also, after you click the Submit button for a new comment, you can close the page - it'll still be published, you don't have to wait for it to time out.

also, i like working my ass off, but if i'm doing that for something i don't really want to do, then i need to justify it in some way. for me, the short-term goal (within 1-4 years) was sufficient, it seems.

jessica - Dec 3, 2006, 8:46p
i think you're still blessed with more naivete than you imagine...

Buzz - Dec 5, 2006, 11:54a
Well, I've observed that you're less naive than the vast majority of people I've encountered, and are more apt at recognizing what it is that you don't happen to know... but maybe that's just due to my own naivete

charles - Dec 25, 2006, 12:10p
Your thoughts on this subject are profoundly important and merit much more discussion. I've been poor, rich, poor again, and have always struggled with these issues. It's not about money, its about living a satisfying life. Not easy! Money is necessary, and more $$ is better than less. But what comes next?

charles - Dec 28, 2006, 3:43p
just wanted to say hi and i've learned how to bookmark your blog

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