I recently came across an article written by author Mark Manson, who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a counterintuitive primer on how to deal with life’s problems.
I liked it, despite the profanity in the title. I thought his writing was refreshingly honest. And his traveling lifestyle was something I could easily identify with.
There were many elements of Greek Stoicism – written for the Millennial generation.
Mark Manson’s Key Question
He also wrote an article called The Most Important Question of Your Life back in 2013. I only read it recently, at a local library job search seminar no less, and it immediately resonated with me.
The essence of the article is that everyone wants the good things in life – wonderful family and friends, a fulfilling job, luxurious consumption, etc.
But people do not want to pay the price to achieve these things, nor do they even want to know what the price is.
So the key question is not, “What will make you happy?”
The key question actually is, “What are you willing to suffer for?”
This question hit me like a ton of bricks. He was right. Not that other gurus of self-improvement, productivity, and start-up/entrepreneur books were wrong, necessarily. They were just always focused on the goals and the rewards that come with achieving them.
Mark Manson was the first person I’ve read who focused on the cost and the pain to achieve them.
So What Am I Willing To Suffer For?
Starting from a blank slate, I’m going to look at my goals, past and present, and evaluate if the suffering needed was and is still worth it. I think this would be a good exercise to go through for everyone.
Goal – In the past, I wanted a long and prosperous career, with progressively more impressive titles and responsibilities. And, at a company that is a leader in its industry. I wanted respect from both inside my company and outside my company.
Suffering – I needed to work long hours (at least 60-80 hours/week). Work became the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing I thought of when I went to bed. Since I wanted the approval of my bosses and senior management, I almost never said “No” to new assignments and additional responsibilities.
Analysis – The stress was tremendous. I had bouts of insomnia. When I did sleep, I gave myself cavities by constantly grinding my teeth. I answered work emails while visiting tourist sites on vacation. Looking back, I achieved a fairly high level within my company, and yet I felt empty.
Yes, I had dozens of people reporting to me, millions in revenue associated with my name, and trusted relationships with clients. But there was always another rung on the corporate ladder. The company always demanded more.
Verdict – No, not worth suffering for.
Goal – Simply put, I wanted and still want more. Not that I want to spend and consume beyond an average American middle class lifestyle. I just want the security that more money brings, a shield against disaster and emergency. Especially in the context of employment uncertainties and the goal of financial independence.
Suffering – Since career is closely related to this and I’ve already evaluated it above, I’m going to focus on the spending/consumption side. In the past, I typically would want to eat out with friends, go on nice vacations, and buy laptops and smartphones, all without too much concern for price.
But now, I’m very concerned about price. My wife and I have curtailed our desires. We eat out less often and always consider how to maximize value per dollar spent. We eat meals in and buy most of our vegetables and fruit from Chinatown. Similarly, we hardly buy new clothes. I tend to wear clothes to the point of “zero salvage value” and beyond. And we find ways to get the most out of public transportation instead of driving, even to the point of taking long distance and regional buses up and down the East Coast for vacations. We have not done too much with rewards points yet, but when we do travel we try to get amongst the lowest fares/room rates possible.
Analysis – Even though it might sound intolerable to the average American, I actually don’t see this as suffering. In fact, since pursuing financial independence, the prospect of consuming less/saving more has become pretty enjoyable. Suffering (or joy, for that matter) is really about perspective.
It’s like going to the gym. I suffer discomfort today so that I will have a better quality of and length of life in the future. Similarly, I realize that every dollar not spent on consumption today is a dollar (or more, if invested properly) that will buy flexibility and freedom in the future. So I will continue to “enjoy” this suffering because it is worth it.
Verdict – Yes, worth suffering (via reduced consumption) for.
Goal – I want to be well-liked and respected by everyone, especially those whom I respect. I want to be popular. It seems shallow, very high-school, but it’s true. With some parallels with my career goal, I seek approval from others in order to validate myself.
Suffering – Again, with eerie similarity to my career goal, I did things that I did not enjoy or went against my values so that others would think well of me. I conformed my opinions and actions to my peers – i.e., peer pressure – for fear that I would be thought less of or even ostracized. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance became stressful, and I felt I was living a lie.
I remember so many times, living in my 20’s and 30’s in New York City, when a group of friends would go out to bars and clubs. I went because it was what my friends did. And, I hated it. I remember so many water cooler conversations at work where people gossiped about who would get promoted and their compensation packages. And, I hated it. Even now, there’s the pressure to present yourself a certain way on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. to appear successful and enviable to your peers. I still hate it.
Analysis– I look back at the groups of friends and professional colleagues, and very few are in my life now. For the most part, they didn’t really care about me in a deep, lasting way. Mainly, they were friends of convenience and of circumstance, like most people’s freshman year roommate in college. But to be fair, I am as absent from their lives as they are from mine.
Now, having gone through so many stages in my personal and professional life, I know that identifying and building up close friendships that will last decades – friends who you can be as real as possible with – is a much better path.
Verdict – No, not worth suffering for.
Goal – I want to maintain an inner peace, a freedom from disturbance, regardless of external circumstances. I do not want to be carried away by extreme, negative emotions but to be consistently positive and practical.
Suffering – The cost to achieving and maintaining this inner peace is to be a step emotionally removed from society. This has always been a part of my personality – to be a watcher and observer, but not a participant. The ardent followers of Stoicism would say that one can be fully engaged in society and partake in its positive aspects, and yet not be affected by the negative aspects. I have not reached that level.
I some times look at envy with people who seem to be really, really happy due to a particular event or circumstance, like children on Christmas morning. It’s the feeling of a someone watching a scene in a movie or voyeuristically looking through a window at a happy family gathering. You feel positive, but it’s an intellectual joy, not an experiential one. Since, it’s not happening to you, your joy is only a shadow.
My suffering, so-to-speak, is to always be a bit distant, to not let the problems of others, even close friends, affect me too deeply.
Analysis – I have experienced the consequences of being driven by extreme negative emotions – intense anxiety that, in the extreme, can cross into depression. So I think that the goal is worth the suffering, at least for now. The ability to create an inner fortress under your own complete control, against which the outside forces not under your control have no power, is very attractive.
But what about the long term? Can I have this inner fortress and love someone, such as my own child, sacrificially? These are questions I sometimes wrestle with.
Verdict – Yes, worth suffering for (but with reservations for the future).
Goal – I want to have both longevity and high quality of life. There are so many things, including raising a child, I still want to experience, and the only way I can do so is if I maintain my health. I want to share the workload with my wife. And, as I age, I do not want to be a burden on loved ones, so I want to be self-sufficient.
Suffering – Actually exercising! There’s the physical discomfort and soreness, especially if I hadn’t been consistent. But also the inconvenience of going to and from the gym, showering, preparing the right clothes/shoes/padlock, etc. And the time it takes, time that I could be spending on other things. And, finally, there’s the monthly gym membership fees.
Analysis – Good physical health is the basis of everything we do, hand in hand with good mental health. It’s almost a no-brainer, but surprisingly few people (including myself) really exercise consistently over our lives. At best, there are seasons of discipline, but then we get distracted by other things. Life happens. Especially when it’s busy at work, or there’s a relationship problem. But exercising is like long term investing in one’s future.
Verdict – Yes, worth suffering for.
Goal – I want to have close relationships with a select group of like-minded people, and I want them to have relationships with each other so that we constantly encourage one another. This can include family (not all relatives are like-minded) but not necessarily. It would be ideal if we were to physically live in close proximity (commune, anyone?) but I know that’s a stretch in today’s world.
Suffering – The cost is being vulnerable to others whom you really care about is that they might hurt you and reject you. The cost is also that they will ask you to help carry their burdens. It’s a two way street. You share the joys and the sorrows. It’s when the one side perceives that the sharing of joys and sorrows are unequal that there’s a problem; then people feel taken advantage of. And then hurt can tear apart the community.
Analysis – Honestly, this is one of my major struggles. I want the joys and advantages of community, but I also want to limit (or even avoid) the hardship and the drawbacks. It’s actually related to Mental Health above. I don’t want my inner peace to be disturbed by others.
But I have come to realize that maybe I need to take responsibility, be willing to pay an uncertain price, for all the good things that come with community. I need to take the chance.
Verdict – Yes, I think it’s worth suffering for. But I’m still working on my heart.
How about you? What are you willing to suffer for?
If there are goals that remain unfulfilled, do you think it’s because it’s just not worth the cost?