Alan Watts: What If Money Didn’t Matter?

Alan Watts was a “British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.” I actually stumbled upon his readings via a trailer for Days of Our Youth, a movie about people who grew up to be professional skiers.

Anyhow, he turns out to be pretty popular but if you haven’t heard of him before, I think listening to his voice is the best way to experience it:

Here is a transcript of the YouTube video above:

What makes you itch? What sort of the situation would you like? Let’s suppose, I do this often in vocational guidance of students: they come to me and say well, we are getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea what we want to do. So I always ask the question: What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life? Well it’s so amazing as the result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say ‘Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers’ But as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way! Another person says ‘Well I’d like to live an out-of-door’s life and ride horses.’ I said ‘You wanna teach in a riding school?’

Let’s go through with it. What do you want to do? When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him ‘You do that! And forget the money!’ Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing you will spend your life completely wasting your time! You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living – that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing! Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing then a long life spent in a miserable way. And after all, if you do really like what you are doing – it doesn’t really matter what it is – you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way of becoming the master of something, to be really with it. And then you will be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much, somebody is interested in everything. Anything you can be interested in, you’ll find others who are.

But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach our children to follow the same track. See, what we are doing is we are bringing up children and educating to live the same sort of lives we are living. In order they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing. So it’s all retch and no vomit – it never gets there! And so therefore it’s so important to consider this question:

What do I desire?

Alternatively, Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils turned the quote into a very cool comic:

alanwatts_zenp

Stuff like this is always controversial. Too dreamy? Too hippie? My current opinion is that it all depends on the person. Some people don’t have a strong affinity towards anything, they may value safety or prestige other things. (Is that really wrong if that’s what they want?) But to some people, they do have a latent desire, and reading such stories is like a wake-up call. Yes! That thing that you always think about in the shower, or right before you go to bed? Yes you should try that!

In the end, I think if you are going to spend a huge chunk of your life doing anything, then it should be at least be aligned with your personal beliefs. Only you can decide if that is currently the case, or if a change must be made.

Comments

  1. The Frugal Millionaire says:

    Very thought-provoking. It reminds me of a line from the movie “Office Space” (and I’m paraphrasing) where the characters are discussing a similar idea and conclude that there would be no garbage men or janitors in the world if everybody did what they loved.
    My personal belief is that the answer lies in balance. I worked in sales for over 35 years. There were times when I loved it and times when I hated it. BUT it paid well and I used my compensation to provide the nicest possible quality of life for my family. I was able to enjoy hobbies and activities that filled any voids that my job didn’t fill.
    Call it a job or call it a career, I spent 40 hours a week making sure the other 128 hours were as nice as possible…and, now retired, feel I made a great trade!

    • This.
      I have been successful at my job and there are certainly aspects of it I enjoy, but if I had a choice to do absolutely anything I wanted all day I would certainly spend my time otherwise.
      Compared to almost every other job I could have this one ranks very highly, so I’m lucky. But even the best of jobs are still jobs and hedonic adjustment will cause us to focus on things that could be better. If I were to turn one of my hobbies, which I love, into a profession, I’m sure I would start to feel less enthusiastic about it over time.

  2. “Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing then a long life spent in a miserable way.”

    While this may have been apt in Watts’ day, young people facing this choice today will likely live to see significant advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology within their lifetimes, allowing for vastly longer human lifespans. In light of this, it makes sense to delay gratification longer nowadays than it did back then, since you’re likely to have much longer to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Put another way: “Living fast and dying young” nowadays is potentially much, much costlier than it was even 50 years ago.

  3. Agree with the idea. Detest work. I’m paid well but feel every moment is a waste of my life. My son sees how many hours I work and how much I hate it. I always point out he needs to do what he loves… Not throw it away like his parents have.

  4. This is nice and all, but I’m OK with a little delayed gratification. We could have moved to a homestead years ago and been very poor and without a plan for retirement.

    But by delaying a few years, living really frugally, and continuing to work jobs we don’t love… we’re going to be in great financial shape when we make the jump to a homestead. In my mind, less than 10 years of office work is a fair price to pay for retiring at 33 and heading to the country.

  5. For all the naivete; was Love, Peace and Happiness really so bad? Especially when compared to everything that has come since and the tragedy that people call their lives today.

  6. Instead of calling it “thought provoking”, I called it “meh”. This is pretty much in line of what Steve Jobs and most other inspirational speaker been saying, to pursue what you love. But what if you really don’t have a passion of anything? Pursuing laziness is also an option? Or, can you say you can be a mater of coach potatoes? The devil is in the details, the mission statement doesn’t matter that much if you don’t know how to execute your plan, or even draft a plan. What we need is more coaching on how to plan and execute your dream.

    There are paid professions that pay well but will almost certainly never gain any kind of aspiration. For instance, septic tank operations. I can’t imagine who fall in love (and get really good at) pumping shit out of ground.

    There are also things that you will almost never going to fall in love unless you were practically forced to spent a lot of time to get to a decent level of proficiency. Concert pianists, for instance, almost all started when they were ultra-young. Most of them probably hated piano before they become really good at it in their later years. I am not sure if they became master of piano because they fall in love with it, or they fall in love with piano because they were really good at it…

    In the end, there’s another layer of things. Yes, you should pursue the kind of happiness you desire, but what does the morality and family value have anything to do with your job? What if you hate your job but it provides for family and you are determined to be the best parent you can be?

    • Of course, this guy was born 40 years before Steve Jobs. I think you’d have to know him better before pronouncing ‘meh’ to his ideals.

  7. I love this thread as I am a college-based career counselor for 25 years now. Many of the career exploration gurus put forth this idea that you should do what you love, first and foremost. I spent years teaching this perspective. A number of years ago, I ran across an amazing book called “Your Money or Your Life,” by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Basically, it says you should reduce your dependency on paid employment as soon as possible in life, so that you can do that which you find truly meaningful, regardless of what it pays, if it even pays anything at all. The way to do this is to live frugally, in accordance with your values, AND to maximize the amount of money you get for your time working. The purpose of paid employment, according to the authors, is to get paid as much as possible for your work (which is actually your time which is actually your life energy which is finite), as long as it doesn’t violate your values. This is rather different from the “Do What You Love” philosophy. In my own career, I have tried to achieve the balance previous commentators have mentioned. It is NOT what I would be doing now if I were independently wealthy, however it is sufficiently interesting, sufficiently worthwhile, pays reasonably well, has excellent benefits, offers much time off, and promises a healthy pension. All that, plus I live in Lake Tahoe and have a 6 minute commute to work and now only work part time, by choice, maintaining all my full time benefits. Plus the end is in sight—about three more years. When working with younger students, I encourage them to follow their dreams. When working with older students, there are more factors to consider. It’s an age old question that I still think about, even at age 57.

  8. I actually see this phenomenon in reverse on a frequent basis. I live in Nashville Tennessee, and literally thousands of people come here every year dreaming of a life of music making. Eventually, almost all of them eventually leave the music world to get a “real” job. In all fairness, many come with a lottery mentality. That is, they hope to write one song, get rich and never do any real work for the rest of their lives. Then there are some few who just truly love music, and are willing to endure a meager living in exchange for feeding their passion.

    In all, I think that this is probably not the best advice in the world. In truth, there are many financially oriented careers that can be very rewarding. If I had followed my dream as a youth, I probably would have pursued a life of writing. I suspect that by this point in life it would be no more rewarding than the healthcare career that I currently enjoy.

    • Good observation. I think the sage words from Mr. Watts is good, except that it is just his opinion, not backed by any objective and scientific research. It’s like the advice that you should find your true love when selecting your mate, but in reality, couple generally are happier when they have less expectations and options in their marriage (arranged marriage comes to mind).

      One thing what Mr. Watts said is probably not true: that if you do something you passionately about, and do a lot of it, you will end up being the master of it. There are many things contributing being a “master”, technical skill is just one area of that mastery of things. Remember that Sony executive calls Angelina Jolie a minimal talented actor? So she’s a master that wasn’t even that good in the first place.

  9. This is such a great message and I am glad I finally got around to listening to it! I totally agree with you that some people may not know what their passion or may have nothing that makes them really “excited”. Those people are probably fulfilled by moving up the corporate ladder and/or making a great career working for someone else. However, there are many other people who know EXACTLY what their passion is/are (I include myself in this category) and thus, for those people it might be a “stupid” idea to spend their life under the blanket of “security” wondering “what if”. Those people need to try whatever their dream is and see what happens so that there are no regrets (I am in my early 30s but I cant even imagine how horrible regret may feel like in older age). Anyways, great message, great post. Always enjoy reading your blog.

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