What I Talk About When I Talk About Otium, Part 2

In Part 1, I previously wrote about self-explanatory, easily describable things that I want more, less and none of in life (such as more free time and less looking at a screen). In Part 2, I explore more abstract ideas, concepts and goals. These seem more subjective or harder to pin down, but get to the heart of what I’m looking for in life.

Subjective or Abstract Goals

More: Possibility

A moment may come when we recognize the face of our world, as we mould it, to be death; and we will then think no change too drastic, no renunciation too high, for the recapturing of what once demonstrated, by its actual existence, the infinite possibility in men.

Freya Stark, Ionia: A Quest

I want a life that engages with the infinite possibilities of life, one that aligns with the non-linear nature of human existence.

Like nearly everyone I know, my life to date has been largely focused on achieving a stable, middle class existence: get a good education (K-12, college, law school), so I can then get a good job (BigLaw, in-house lawyer). In short, not too dissimilar from Dr. Evil’s upbringing.

In that respect, I’ve been successful so far, and expect it to continue if I choose to remain on this path. The feeling of security, of not lacking material goods and comfort and being able to help others is certainly wonderful. I don’t take that for granted and feel lucky and privileged.

But, I want more in life, and I’m fortunate to have options. Am I really willing to continue working at my current job, or one similar to it, for the rest of my prime, another decade or two, or three? To what end? And what possibilities would I be excluding myself from in the meantime?

I left the Biglaw firm, in large part because I looked at the law firm partners and didn’t see anyone whose life I wanted to emulate or be mine. If I remained a law firm attorney, my worth would forever be judged by how many billable hours I generated. I would earn more money if I stayed, but I would be subject to the same (or even more) stresses, demands and expectations. As I played that hypothetical movie forward in my mind, I knew that wasn’t for me.

Working in-house is a better fit, and there are many arguments in favor of remaining at my current job. But, it still feels like a linear existence — following a fairly predictable routine each week, going into the office, answering emails, dealing with familiar issues and situations, gaining more responsibility year after year — even if I’m more connected to the outcomes of my work and its impact on the real world. There’s not much opportunity for spontaneity, detours or chance to play a part in daily life. Or, to simply be non-productive or non-utilitarian if I want to be.

At the end of the day, the activities and concerns of my current life in the corporate world only touch upon a narrow part of the infinite possibilities of human existence. It doesn’t feel like I’m making the most of my time and opportunity on Earth if I’m climbing the corporate ladder, with its associated constraints and dull predictability.

What about my interests in art, beauty, music, history, nature, science, other people? What possibilities might arise, what might I experience or learn, if I looked beyond my current path? Who might I become?

I wasn’t born a lawyer, springing from the womb with a briefcase in hand, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ head fully-formed. It was something I learned and shaped my life toward. But, there are other interests and skills that I might work toward, if only given the opportunity.

There’s nothing inherently *better* about a non-linear life. Once I get off the treadmill of the corporate world, and leave the safety of a stable wage and career, there’s no guarantee I will be more satisfied in doing other things. Life is inherently precarious, and I may one day wish for more predictable times, when my daily life was focused on clearing my email queue and to-do list. My identity may feel less clear if I leave my current path, a topic to explore another time.

But, similar to Freya Stark, I think a linear, wholly predictable life is not fully living at all. It seems worth the potential risk and cost to pursue a life that feels more real, a life of possibility.

More: Genuine Interactions

No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur.

Martin Buber, I and Thou (English translation of Ich und Du)

I want more genuine interactions with people, based on the “intention of establishing a living mutual relation,” absent of external compulsion or obligations.

During the weekdays, I spend about half of my waking hours with people at work. I like most of the people I work with. They’re generally smart, funny, interesting and caring. But, there’s often something dehumanizing or transactional about interacting with people in a work setting, given the power dynamics and compulsion involved.

In a work setting, my colleagues and I are all part of the corporate structure. We each have our roles and responsibilities, and are subject to expectations about how we act and interact with each other. In those types of interactions, other people aren’t interacting with me purely as a human being, but as a means to an end. We’re all initiating or receiving inputs to get an output.

When an email comes from my boss or another co-worker asking me to do something, there’s an expectation that I do it, even if that demand isn’t made explicit or it’s made as nicely as possible. I’m playing the role of the “in-house lawyer” who has information someone needs or who can do something someone wants. People aren’t interacting with me as the person who would rather be at leisure and not in the office or who has hopes and desires beyond, for instance, reviewing a contract.

Similarly, when I make a request of or present information to someone, I’m not seeking to interact with the whole of a person. I’m interacting with an object, a subset of someone’s identity, whether it’s a “paralegal” or “senior lawyer” or “executive.”

People are of course free to say no, or even quit their job. But — with the exception of a few people that I would keep in touch with even if we were no longer co-workers — that would lead to terminating our relationship entirely, which highlights the contrived nature of our interactions to begin with. My issue isn’t with the temporary nature of my relationships with co-workers, but that our relationships and interactions generally exist within a narrow framework that constrains what we might say or do.

Maybe that’s why popular wisdom advises against entering into business relationships with friends and family: it changes relationships from one based (ideally) on mutual support, affection, acceptance and love, to one focused on more narrow concerns such as money. And once that’s happened, particularly if there’s a falling out, it’s hard to unsee or disassociate that from the person and relationship going forward.

That’s not to say that all commercial relationships are inherently incompatible with genuine interactions. For instance, it’s possible for that to exist between a customer and a barista in a coffee shop. But, it requires each person to get beyond their respective “customer” and “barista” labels, to engage each other as people. That tends to be difficult when people have their defenses up against strangers and potential threats, when there’s a line of other people waiting, when people’s minds are elsewhere.

Conversely, in a “living, mutual relation,” people interact because they choose to, not because they have to; and, when they interact, it’s in a spirit of seeking to understand and share with another, without any preconceived notions. There’s no possibility of disappointment, because there are no expectations or obligations that apply. There is, however, joy and affirmation when people engage in a spirit of openness and in accepting and engaging with each other as they are.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But, these are the types of interactions which seem rare in a work setting and which I want to seek more of.

More: Optimizing the Right Things

Your relentless optimizations are a drain on my life energy.

Pete Adney (aka Mr. Money Mustache), imagining his wife’s inner voice, in “Mr. Money Mustache, the Frugal Guru,” The New Yorker

I want to optimize for essential things, like joy, fulfillment, self-understanding and meaningful relationships with friends and family.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with optimizing life. But, it’s important to optimize for the right things.

As I track my progress toward financial independence, assessing savings and spending, it’s sometimes easy to forget that those are merely a means to an end. My ideal life begins when it is more oriented toward things that matter, like joy, fulfillment (including a different idea of achievement), self-understanding and meaningful relationships.

*begin caveats*

Of course, this is all easier said than done. To begin with, a person needs to understand herself well enough to know what she truly wants, and overcome cognitive biases that may cause her to misjudge. What if, instead of the freedom of a life of possibility, I actually prefer the security of a stable job, and simply want a few more hours of free time each week?

Human nature is also restless, changing its desires and wants from moment to moment. It’s hard to optimize toward goal posts that keep changing or that may even conflict with each other.

There’s also the issue of measuring progress toward the goal and understanding how to increase what you actually want to increase. It’s tempting to want to quantify what you’re trying to measure, to rank schools in the US News, law firms in the Am Law 100, companies in the Fortune 500 and so on. But, it’s useful to remember what exactly you’re measuring (e.g., when law schools buy more library books to move up rankings although that isn’t necessarily tied to educational quality or when companies focus on short-term profits even if that may weaken the company in the longer term).

As illustrated by the challenges of measuring the happiness or well-being of a country, how can a person optimize something that she can’t measure or assess? Similarly, it’s easy to measure progress toward a financial goal, but difficult to measure one’s own happiness or well-being.

And, given the complexity of life and human existence, there will likely be tradeoffs and unpredictable results or implications that are hard to fully take into account in advance.

*end caveats*

…this is all to say that it may be best to not overthink things. The things that (I think) I want aren’t easily measured and can’t be quantified and ranked. I will have to feel my way toward those kinds of goals, making progress in fits and starts. But, that’s the point. I want to live a life that’s not reducible into mere numbers and statistics.

As SCOTUS Justice Potter Stewart wrote about evaluating obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Last Thoughts For Now

I fully expect (and hope) that my ideas about what my best life looks like will change over time, as I evolve as a person and as my priorities and circumstances change. I want to remember to maintain a spirit of humility and openness about pursuing otium and what it means to me.

But, I suspect there will be some common themes about my beliefs of living well that will remain largely the same throughout life. This post should serve as a useful starting point to build from and, as usual, I may update or supplement it as I hone my ideas and thoughts.

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