A few years back I read (or listened to, actually) “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”. From the name alone I thought it would be a fun listen on the drive to and from work, with some foul language and some comedy all wrapped around a decent bit of self-improvement mumbo jumbo.
By most measure, it was. That is, until the final chapter. The final chapter of the book was one of those rare illuminating things that shook me to the core and changed my entire worldview, and remains something I recommend to people regularly.
I thought I would cover it here at a high level. I still highly recommend you get the book and read it for the full experience, but if you want the tl;dr version, keep reading….
Ernest Becker wrote “The Denial of Death” back in 1973. Described as a bit of an outcast, he was a Ph.D. Anthropologist that dabbled in Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. He was largely loved by his students but hated by his fellow professors and bounced through several universities (4 in 6 years) trying out his unorthodox methods. That is, until he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer and given two years to live.
He died in 1974, having finished the book, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. The book itself remains one of the key works in the psychology of death and grief, focusing around two main points:
- Humans are unique on the planet as the only creature that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. We’re the only creature that sits around and worries about our jobs, our family, regrets past mistakes and wonders how we could have handled some differently. Because of this, we (eventually) understand that there is a version of the universe in which we don’t exist: In which we have died.
- Once we make that realization, we fragment our psyche into two parts: The Physical and the Conceptual self. The physical self being our mortal body, and the Conceptual self being the societal impact we leave behind.
Once humans mature to the point where we realize that we are merely mortal and will die, the “death terror” (his name for it) causes us to fragment our concept of self into two parts. We acknowledge that the Physical self will pass away, but we can take steps to keep the Conceptual Self alive. This drive to preserve the Conceptual Self is behind everything that humanity has achieved.
The projects that come from the drive for an immortal Conceptual Self are called “Immortality Projects”.
Human Civilization is nothing but a collection of various Immortality Projects. Everything from Napoleon’s attempted unification of Europe to the latest iPhone, it’s all the manifestation of someone’s Conceptual Self to create something that people will look at one day and go “Wow, that’s Steve Job’s iPhone!” . There are some simple and obvious immortality projects like Children and families. However, a deeper look shows that every company, every congressional law, every city and nation, every book and song, all of these are someone’s immortality project manifested.
However, as everyone knows, not every project is successful. Nations crumble, books and stories go unpublished, and 90% of all startups fail. These are particularly troubling for the ones undertaking them, because it is a death of the Conceptual Self just like the Physical Self. If nobody will print or read my book, then my chances of it being a long-lived record of my existence are zero.
He then connected this failure of immortality projects to a wide variety of ailments such as anxiety, depression, and several others.
For me, this bit hit home in a particularly hard way. When I read it, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life. I had just uprooted my life and family, moving 1000 miles away to South Florida, in hopes of making it big with a new startup that promised to revolutionize the world. I was one of the founders of the company, and after 5 years I had seen both amazing things happen and seen my own personal involvement go from leading the project to being barely involved.
New investors had come in, new leadership had taken over, and everyone seemed to have their own ideas of what we were making and how it should be done. All of my personal contributions had been tossed out in favor of newer ideas, and any attempts I made to be heard were drowned out by the new players. I was depressed, unhappy, and wondering if I had made a huge mistake.
The morning before I got to this chapter of the book, I had been informed by my boss that my project would be put on hold and my resources reassigned temporarily to support a big demo. Demo of what? I couldn’t be told, confidential. Demo to who? Sorry, confidential. Being a founder of the company, and now being told that even I didn’t need to know what was going on, but just had to roll over and agree to have my work shut down to support it.. It was infuriating, belittling, and I blew up. I think I have already done so to everyone in person, but to anyone that was in the room at the time and I didn’t: I apologize.
Later that day when I finished the book I realized that I had turned that job, and the company’s product, into my Immortality Project. I had defined my personal self-worth and conceptual self by the success of this company product, and all of the anxiety and frustration I was experiencing was from having someone else attempt to take it away from me. Just like Ernest Becker wrote in his book, my contributions and recognition was being stolen from me, and my attempts to reclaim it were being denied, and all of that was leading to anxiety and depression in the realization that when (if) the company succeeded, I wouldn’t be a recorded part of it.
It didn’t take long to realize how colossally stupid that was, and realize I had plenty of other things I could be happy about: I have a beautiful wife and 2 kids, I have a home, I have the time and resources to undertake other projects like this blog, like New Hobby: Woodworking, and more.
Basically, whether the company succeeded or failed, it made no difference to me. I could always find another job if I had to. Whether the company used my ideas or not, it made no difference. I could always take my ideas elsewhere and try again. Separating myself and my personal worth from that of the company is such a tiny and trivial thing, but something that is just not obvious in American culture.. especially Startup culture.
So if you’re reading this, and you’re working in a small startup and feeling similarly depressed about your part in the larger machine, just realize that:
- The company’s value has no bearing on your personal Value
- The company has no desire or interest in feeding your personal value
- The company exists to extract your personal value, to convert it into company value.
Realizing that the job is merely a means to fund and support your own projects is one of those things that Startup life doesn’t like to talk about. People talk about pulling all-nighters and weekends, answering phonecalls in the late hours, and taking meetings from family events like it’s all heroic examples of how they’re such a key part in this amazing company. In reality, it’s just demonstrating that they’ve entangled their personal self worth with the company in a dangerous and unhealthy way.
It’s a cliché thing to say, but The Job is The Job.. and Your Life is Your Life.. Don’t get the two confused.