I’ve spent the last 13 months of my life working for a financial institution. I started the job as healthy as I’ve ever been, only to continue getting healthier. I ate perfectly, cooked most of my meals, and even cut out alcohol for extended periods of time. At 21/22 years old, this is not necessarily easy to do.
Flash forward to today where I’m back up in weight significantly, I have a broken foot, and happiness is not something I have experienced except for rare occasions. I’m as unhealthy as I’ve been since I first learned how to take care of myself with wellness.
So what gives? Is this something to expect for the rest of my life if I have a well-paying job? Is there something wrong with me personally if I can’t live this way?
It’s an Artificial World Out There
In the words of entrepreneur Paul Graham, “In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.” I think there is a lot to take away from this, especially as it relates to wellness. Because this world is artificial, you have to think and act like an extremist if you want a natural life.
As a society, we pay a social price for engaging in behavior that isn’t considered normal. This is true for eating more than just about anything else. Try devouring some raw meat at your desk like my buddy RJ does at his job. Carry green water with you to work every day and leave it on your desk as I did the past year. Or just order a salad at a steakhouse. The more extreme you are with your wellness habits, the more obnoxious the questioning from those around you. You will get similar looks carrying a jug of vegetable juice that you would if you showed up to a corporate job in shorts and a t-shirt. You find yourself defending not only the food/beverages you have chosen to consume, but also the science behind it. And those you talk to have not the faintest clue about wellness despite having many ill-formed opinions on the subject.
If the above paragraph sounds a bit annoyed, it was intentional. It is annoying having to try to explain yourself about taking care of your body. I know RJ has completely stopped explaining his behavior to anyone. I am considering starting that as well.
But the alternative to wellness extremism is far more funny to me; eating fried, calorie-dense nutrient-poor food that is likely to cause heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and premature death isn’t even given a second thought. It’s similar to the time period when cigarettes were pervasive and even looked at in a positive light. Now, if you saw a morbidly obese individual carrying a milkshake and a box of friend chicken, you might judge their life choices. I’ve also seen some shaming of incredibly heavy people on airplanes who need more than one seat. But the majority of people are never considered regularly for their horrid eating habits the way that I am for my good ones. It’s a focus on outcomes over process, as with so many areas of society. But that’s the world we live in; it’s far more normal to see a Subway sandwich or McDonald’s than we are an organic homemade salad.
Another take on our artificial world is the workplace. Everyone is pitted against each other in some form of loose competition where the rules aren’t clear, and so everyone plays office politics. You have to watch what you say for fear of it preventing a future promotion. In my work experience, I was told on by a 30-something year old co-worker for taking a personal call at my desk that lasted 20 minutes. It was in regards to managing my father’s retirement, and while I shouldn’t have taken the call, I couldn’t believe I was told on like it was grade school. Naturally, this was the only thing discussed in my semi-annual performance review. Nothing about the work I had done or anything else, really.
Even more basic is the environment itself. No sunlight reaches you all hours of the day, you sit in a chair 99% of the time, your clothing covers virtually all your skin for when you do happen to make it outside, and you stare at a screen all day long. Considering we get essential Vitamin D from the sun and it can kill you if you don’t get enough, that’s a very obvious deficiency most corporate workers will have. Others include spinal problems and muscle/bone weakness from a sedentary lifestyle, such as how I broke my foot simply from running. Humans are meant to run. If our bones broke from running naturally, our ancestors wouldn’t have survived. Just some food for thought.
It’s only natural, therefore, to slide back into bad habits if that’s the environment you live in. When your friends only socialize with alcohol, it’s hard not to partake. When your coworkers choose a restaurant with no even moderately-healthy options for a team lunch, do you simply go hungry for the afternoon? Or, in my case, when the job makes you miserable and you try to find ways to feel good again, you end up eating poorly just to help you endure a bad period of your life.
Before I blame the job for all the poor health as described in my intro, I will say it’s not fair given my circumstances. I was hospitalized again in December with mental health issues and the recovery has been a bumpy one. As part of survival through the lows of that process, and despite my self-loathing as a result, I ate SAD (Standard American Diet). Pizza, ice cream, burgers, sugar-dense foods, and did I mention pizza? The weight gain was 80% the result of my mental health and 20% from sitting in a cage all day. However, 100% of my unhappiness was a result of the job. Which leads me back to bad habits.
Removing a considerable amount of the time in one’s day and also removing their happiness completely will cause some strange effects. Instead of coming home and treating 7 hours of free time like it really is 7 hours, most of that time will be spent improving one’s happiness. And it’s far easier to do that with bad habits – drinking, drug use, television, poor eating, sedentary lifestyle – than it is with good ones. And so, while I consider myself a strong person with conviction and ambition for my future, I couldn’t pull it together to become who I intend to become one day. It’s hard enough to be great without the added baggage of deep unhappiness and the bad habits that come with it.
So is There Something Wrong With Me?
In assessing my priorities for the future – wellness, self-employment, and freedom – I couldn’t see any value in staying in my current position. So I quit. Today is the first weekday I have off since August of last year, absent the vacations I’ve taken. I couldn’t be happier with the immediate effects on my mind and my body. I’ve already churned out 7 hours of work, eaten perfectly today, and do not feel any negativity or strain in my deliberations. The good is easy to see. And it will keep getting better as the benefits of a free lifestyle accrue to my active mind. But what about the negatives?
As far as negatives go, it’s hard not to ask myself if there’s something wrong with me. That I can’t hold down a job working 40-45 hours/week while still remaining productive in my life outside the job. Or even that I wasn’t proud of my pace or energy for the position I was in. The work I turned in was sub-par by my standards and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm wasn’t missed by my coworkers or manager.
But as I’ve found with studying all different types of people, the ones I gravitate towards the most are the entrepreneurs and the hippies. The ones who are looking to build something great while remaining independent, or even just to live a great life by being happy every day. Are those goals worth sacrificing so I can drive a nice car or own a big house?
It’s only natural to want nice things. But as was made very clear in the movie American Beauty in the scene where Lester (the protagonist) tries to seduce his wife with whom relations have become strained. He pins her against their expensive Italian silk couch while holding a beer. She ends up worrying more about the couch being ruined than experiencing this intimate moment with her husband. He yells something simple and yet quite profound:
“This isn’t life, it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.”
Is there something to this? Have we all lost sight of living in pursuit of material goods? Ten years ago, I’d never have believed I’d type out a question like that. But this isn’t meant to be some kind of lecture on loving your family and trying to get what you can out of life. It’s more just a cost/benefit analysis. Does that extra 10-20 hours/week you work in a job you hate to buy a larger TV or a faster car seem worth it?
Polls and statistics always lie, but from what I’ve read recently, 70% of Americans hate their jobs. Assuming it’s even just 1 in 2 people, that’s 40-50 million people who hate how they spend half of their time every week. Considering that and putting it in the lens of an artificial world, my actions to quit don’t seem so outlandish or extreme to me as they do to others. In fact, staying in a job you hate will cause significant unhappiness and lead to many of the bad habits I outlined above.
Steve Jobs has an absolutely fantastic speech at Stanford that I encourage everyone to watch. In it, he talks about his decision to drop out of college:
“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”
You won’t see any mention of him wanting to build Apple as a reason to drop out of college. It was solely about removing a costly barrier in his way. This speech shines some insight into my decision, namely that I’m also removing a costly barrier to personal success and trusting it will work out okay. While I will work incredibly hard toward entrepreneurship, this is far more a decision to not live in the artificial world laid out for all of us than it is a conviction that I will build a company one day. So I too am trying this out, despite being a bit scared about the process.
In closing, I’d like to end on something RJ said to me earlier this year (paraphrased). It arose out of our ongoing discussions and disbelief of the world so many choose to live in:
“There is nothing wrong with you. This world, everything around you, is a result of a society on autopilot. Most people don’t question it and will have to live with the consequences. But realize there are other ways to live if you simply seek them out. It won’t be easy, but it is simple. Choose to live well and ignore the noise. There is nothing f***ing wrong with you. So don’t ever think that.”