Most people optimize their careers for money, while they should optimize for happiness instead.
Focusing on big career goals and productivity may lead you to success and wealth, but may not necessarily make you happier. On the contrary, it might lead you to less happy places. That is, if you don't focus on creating/finding happiness in your life when making your decisions.
You should focus on happiness first. Happiness is the one metric to rule them all. Status and wealth pale in comparison. They're shallow goals to aim for. Worse, status games are finite and tend to be toxic in the long run.
Optimizing for happiness
In life, the path forward is rarely obvious. There are countless ways to live and work. Some are better than others. Some are more or less aligned with yourself, your values, and what you actually need in your life. Optimizing for happiness requires prioritizing choices that have a higher chance of making you happy, before devoting more time and energy to be/remain productive and progress towards whatever goals you have in mind for yourself. It sometimes means choosing to go slower if needed, changing your plans, and making tough decisions. In short, focusing on yourself, your well-being, and your loved ones first. Generally, it means putting less focus on your career and whatever society/social pressure pushes you to believe is most important. Instead, it means following what you feel is the right path for you and your family.
Too many people bring the best of themselves to work, and bring the leftovers home — Esther Perel
It's also a question of balance. You need stability to feel secure, but also challenges to remain engaged. One analogy I like is that of Lines and Circles. When we're on the circle, everything is perfect. We can follow the perfect path, and we keep going round and round forever. This is when we have stability. We feel at ease, and secure. We're in our comfort zone. But we also need goals and a sense of purpose. Lines trace a path ahead of us. We need those to have direction. When we combine stability with direction, we can truly find balance in our lives, equilibrium. To me, that's where joy and happiness are. Not at the end, but on the path.
There's no free lunch. Prioritizing happiness does have a cost. Sometimes it means you won't fight to get one more promotion, won't try to move to a new company, won't explore new business opportunities, etc. The cost is often very tangible. When you think too much about it, you can feel like you're missing out. Maybe you are, in a sense. But what really matters is how you feel about the choices you make and the life you live. Avoid status games like the plague. You may be getting half the money you could make elsewhere, but if that is the cost of living a happier life, I dare to say that it's worth it in many cases. Of course, I am talking from a privileged position. I am a white European male and I don't struggle financially. I acknowledge that what I'm preaching just cannot be for everyone, and I am truly sad about that.
My own experience
In recent years, I've progressively decided to optimize for happiness. It all started back in 2019 when I launched my own company. After having worked for 15 years as an employee, it was a real leap of faith for me. Actually, it was the first time I decided to change my career trajectory in a huge way. I had a very comfortable situation. I had job safety, a great salary, a great team, a ton of freedom/flexibility, and awesome perks. From the outside looking in, I had no reason to make a move. But I wanted to try other things, and hoped to gain even more freedom (financial and otherwise). I didn't like the idea of being "stuck" in a job forever. I didn't want "that" to be the only chapter of my career's story. It wasn't the first time I wanted to start my own company, but I was waiting for the right time. Then I realized that there's no such thing.
I did some consulting for a few months, but realized I didn't enjoy it all that much. Even if the money was great (I was invoicing 15-20k EUR per month, working 4 days a week), I quickly realized it wasn't for me. It was making me deeply unhappy and stressed out. The company I worked for turned out to be nightmarish, and I quickly stopped collaborating with them. Fortunately, the next client was much nicer. Still, I came to the same conclusion after a while: I didn't enjoy the work.
Instead of continuing down that path, I embarked on a startup project, hoping to create a better future for myself. It felt truly liberating to work 100% on my own terms. I enjoyed the level of freedom it gave me, but I stumbled upon other challenges. The project dragged on and on, and we failed to deliver for various reasons. In 2021, as my bank account went dry and as Covid really started to make life really complicated, I realized that it was time to stop. I couldn't risk my family's safety just for my startup dreams. I came close to burnout. I didn't want to listen, but it was all too much for me. One of my co-founders was toxic for me, we were nowhere close to actually selling what we had built, and the stress turned me into a person I didn't like. From one day to the next, we decided to take a break, and I almost never heard back from my co-founders. After two years of intense collaboration, that was surreal. It took me some time to get over it.
I had to keep my family safe. So I went back to my previous employer, which was (luckily) pretty happy to have me back. It didn't feel great to "crawl" back, but I swallowed my pride and focused on other things. It was at that moment that I decided to take another path forward. Instead of going back full-time, I went back half-time, exchanging 50% of my salary for 50% more freedom. I decided to use that time to try other things. It's really at that point that I realized I could be much happier. I completely changed the way I think about work. Instead of pushing hard to be productive every minute of the day, I started focusing on what I could do to make the "process" more enjoyable. Instead of hardcore productivity, I embraced "Zen" productivity. Instead of aiming for the sky with startup projects, funding rounds and all that nonsense, I decided to make small and riskless bets. I bet on myself, and put my happiness front and center. I started rejecting everything that felt toxic. I rejected hustle culture altogether. And I felt much better ever since.
My life has changed a lot in the last four years. We're now in 2023 and I am almost 40. My projects are moving forward, little by little. I'm pushing forward. But I'm doing so gently, enjoying every minute I can spend on them. I don't force myself to work long hours. I don't focus on growth and shortcuts. I'm not after big bucks or easy money. I create things I care about, share ideas I find valuable, and enjoy the time I spend with my communities. I make a lot less money than before. I am soon going to live in a smaller house too. But I don't give a damn. I am happier than ever. I don't need more in my life. I need less. I prioritize happiness over money and fame. I prioritize happiness over pride and status. I prioritize happiness over business.
Life is shorter than we all think. There's no time to waste. Every minute counts, and seeking to be productive all the time is a dead end. It only leads to burnout, sorrow and pain. Define clear goals for yourself, but make sure to choose a path that you enjoy. You can choose the rapid river, or a calmer one. There's no right or wrong answer. Wherever you'll go, you'll find something interesting. Trust your gut. The end goal is not what matters. What matters is the journey. Focus on making it joyful. Focus on yourself. Optimize for happiness!
That's it for today! ✨
Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois. I'm an author, founder, and CTO. I write books and articles about software development & IT, personal knowledge management, personal organization, and productivity. I also craft lovely digital products 🚀
If you've enjoyed this article and want to read more like this, then become a subscriber, check out my Obsidian Starter Kit, the PKM Library, my collection of books about software development and the IT Concepts Wall 🔥.
You can follow me on Twitter 🐦
If you want to discuss, then don't hesitate to join the Personal Knowledge Management community or the Software Crafters community.