How Will You Spend Your Energy?
Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the things I’ve learned since becoming a father is that energy is a precious and exhaustible resource. In BCE (“Before Child Era”), recovering from a long day at work, intercontinental flights, or other enervating activities was fairly straightforward: grab a cerveza and read a book. Restoration achieved.
In CE, particularly upon entering the bipedal (i.e., toddler) period, carving out 30 minutes of reading time has proven to be a high hurdle. I’ve read 465 pages in the last four months.1
Rejuvenating weekends have gone the way of the dodo, as has the memory of routinely getting more than six hours of sleep. With a wife working grueling hours as a physician in residency, there simply has been very little time to recharge. I don’t know how single parents do it.
I don’t remember exactly when the epiphany hit me, but it was preceded by burnout and a rut; a hectic stretch of business travel; coming home to a couple weeks of watching the kid solo; and learning that one of our family members had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at an unjustly young age; that I realized I could no longer put off answering one question: how will you spend your energy?
As I peeled the onion on this question, I broke it down into three buckets: family, work, and contribution.
Family — I don’t mean to give the impression that I feel this way all the time—the charms of parenthood are spoken of more often than the madness of it—but there are moments when I look at my son, and I see that all of the world’s possibilities reside within him. All of the human experience is right there. So being present in the moments I have with him and shaping this kid in a constructive way is job number one.
Work — When it came to work, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the most satisfying and rewarding parts of my job. The clear winner was serving as a mentor to our analysts, and seeing each of them go on to the world’s best graduate schools and / or careers of their choosing. An important finding, but the market for mentors pays volunteer wages—an itch I’d have to scratch a different way. That said, there were elements of my job that still kindled a passion—primarily the larger mission of economic empowerment, but also the fulfillment that comes from using one’s knowledge and skills to help others succeed.
I also spent time in introspection, reaffirming my core values and interests. I sent an anonymous, four-question survey out to friends and former colleagues to gauge whether my self perceptions were misperceptions. For the final question, I asked for the one word that best describes me. My favorite response—also one of the most frequent—was “no bullshit.” It’s tough to find established organizations where bureaucratic, internal, political bullshit isn’t served fresh daily. And while there are a number of exciting emerging growth companies doing genuinely cool things, I was a bit flummoxed when it came to identifying roles for a chap with a non-tech background.
The other variable that factored into the work equation was my son. It’s great to tell kids to assume some risk in life and to pursue their dreams, but ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it rings a bit hollow if Dad plays it “safe” for a paycheck. I put myself in the position of advising my son if he were in my shoes, and the answer to the work question became clear as day. Ductus Exemplo.
Contribution — Readers of this blog might detect that I have been dismayed for some time about the direction in which the United States is headed, as well as the lack of our political leadership’s willingness and capacity to address the multifarious challenges besetting the country. Rather than waiting for a candidate to get behind—a Godot if there ever were one—for the level of national discourse to improve, or for someone else to make things better, why not make time so I can exert agency myself?
The final tranche, contribution, offered the prospect of marrying the satisfaction of mentorship with the rejuvenating qualities of learning and ideation. I wish I could claim this discovery as my own, but in the abyss of burnout, a friend suggested that rather than viewing my job as the vehicle for satisfying this urge, I should consider building out this part of my life through writing and teaching. Inception.
Throughout this process, I often thought about the concepts of risk and time.
It’s a bit of a paradox, but there comes a point when what appears to be the riskiest option in the near term (with costs that are fairly easy to identify and measure), is in fact likely to carry the least risk over the long term. And the play-it-safe approach provides material comforts in the short run, at the cost of stagnation and (immeasurable) losses that accrue over the long term. The latter assumes that time is in abundance; that the future has a role for you in it.
Time doesn’t wait on anybody. How one spends each day is a conscious decision.2
So, I quit my job to start my own company.
I’m an optimistic person, but I’ve never been confused for a Pollyannaish one. Entrepreneurship is going to be a hard, hard slog, with many, many rejections. I appreciate now more than I did as a younger man why “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation;” and I have a more attuned feel for the weights on the scales of life’s tradeoffs. But I have tasted a tincture of Transcendentalism.
I know it might sound foolish to think that it’s possible to have a rounded-out life when you’re starting a business—and it may very well prove to be so. All I can say is, right now, I haven’t felt this energized in a long, long time. It all seems doable, and the morning jogs are extending in duration.
I’m excited to show my kid that there is no reason to fear failure, and to demonstrate through my own actions that he is the center of my life.
I’m excited to wake up and work directly with people to solve their problems. Though it’s painful to write some of these checks to get off the ground, it’s gratifying to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, and to achieve a stronger alignment of interest with clients.
I’m excited to contribute more to my community, starting with kindling a measure of intellectual curiosity amongst the next generation, and preparing them to compete in the global economy.
There’s no single right answer to the question, but it’s one worth pondering. How will you spend your energy?
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1 Roughly 40% of the way through Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
2 I’m reminded of a section from Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Vanity of Existence:
The scenes of our life resemble pictures in rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to run beautiful. That is why to attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and why, though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past. The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite temporary and serving only as the road to our goal. That is why most men…are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.