How much money do you need to be happy?

At work recently, one of my colleagues posted an article titled “Do we need $75,000 to be happy?”. The crux of which was that basically anything over $80k yearly is superfluous — unnecessary luxury.

My response, having lived and worked in Silicon Valley for 12 years now, was incredulous. Uh no, $80k is not superfluous. I’m a successful person, but I’m still (annoyingly) paycheck to paycheck. And I make more than double that figure. Though the overwhleming majority of my circumstances are due to my choices, which I fully own (my wife doesn’t work at desk-job style career, we have a child, we own a house with 2 great dogs, we bought a trailer so we could take our toddler camping easier), some of it is outside of my control. If I had forgone homeownership, for example, I’d be subject to San Jose’s ridiculous rents (we’re currently in temporary housing while our house is being repaired, and the rent is $4200/month for a 2 bedroom place). In Silicon Valley, $80k is not enough to live well.

Eventually, I arrived at — the answer really depends on the person and the place they live. But really, none of this matters.

The most interesting question in life is not how much money do you need to be happy. It’s not even “what do you want out of life.” It’s something much different. Let me explain.

The Most Interesting Question

In order to get to know people, often one of the first questions asked is “what do you want from life.” The trouble is that the answer to that question is extremely predictable and doesn’t really tell you much about the person answering the question (since everyone basically answers the same way). It’s almost always going to be something like: look pretty/be sexy, be famous, rich, drive a nice car, have a nice house, great family, great sex life, etc.. Blah blah blah — everyone wants that, so that question and its answer are pretty useless.

If you really want to know what someone truly wants from life, a better question is: what kind of pain are you willing to endure to get what you want out of life?

Yes, you read that right. Nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost. You want to be rich? Expect to work longer or harder than everyone else, often at the expense of your personal relationships. You want a nice car? Expect to spend less on eating out, the latest gadgets, etc. You want to be famous? Say goodbye to your privacy, and lot of your personal autonomy. You get the idea.

Start your Business

Here’s a personal example: I always wanted to lead or CEO my own business. Or, at least I thought I did… I had this dream of making all the major decisions, setting things up to basically run themselves, and eventually kicking back and watching the money roll in. What I’ve learned over time is that I value family time over business time, and I’m not really willing to suffer the loss of intimate family connection for the 60–80 hr work weeks that that level of leadership requires. Not to mention the stress of knowing that the decisions I make could lead either to the success or the downfall of many, if not all, of the people I employ. My decisions could cost them happiness, marriages, last-minute changes of plans, or having them scrambling looking for new jobs. Learning this about myself has led to much greater happiness with where I am now.

What I learned is that I never really wanted what I thought I wanted. I learned this because I wasn’t willing to suffer what it takes to do it — either because of my lack of understanding what it truly takes to do it, or the unrealistic desire of wanting the outcome and not the process.

This same logic or thought experiment can be applied to just about anything in life.

The Life Acquatic

Another simple example: I’ve always wanted a sailboat. Nothing super far-fetched about that, right? I grew up sailing with my Uncle on his shared sail boat and loved the experience of it (he bought with 2 other friends and they split time on it like many folks split season tickets to the Warriors).

After doing my research and finding out what it truly takes to own a sailboat — buying or renting a slip at a marina (including the often 1–3 year long wait list in the Bay Area), insurance, taxes, registration, a trailer, painting the hull every single year, cleaning the deck, repairing things damaged by salt water, buying new sails every two years, yada yada yada — I came to realize that I was better off renting for many reasons. First and foremost is that I simply didn’t have the time, nor the money, for all the responsibility ownership of a sail boat requires. I even had the opportunity to inherit one from my grandpa without spending a cent on it, and I willingly passed on it, as alluring as my dream was.

I did this because I took some time to understand both what it takes to own one, and the process required to get there. And I wanted neither — or at least I couldn’t reasonably expect success with either, given the amount of time and money resources I had to devote to the Sailboat Dream.

Career Example

Let’s take a career example too, since I’m a tech person. My education was in Computer Engineering from Cal Poly SLO (a really great, learn-by-doing school with a great location, in case anyone out there is looking at colleges). That means I know some stuff about both hardware design, and programming. But I’m better at programming, for sure.

When I started my career, I (by sheer luck) landed an internship at Apple, which I converted into a full-time job after graduation, thanks to a great boss. My job was all programming, all the time, with no overlap on the hardware engineering side. But I wanted that. This was before the iPhone existed, but I wanted to be able to point to some future Apple product and say “I designed that, I made that work.” It was my dream to design the hardware in some new, awesome product, and ship it to the world.

So, three years into my career, I switched teams (still at Apple), and started worked on a Firmware team (see, getting closer to hardware). I wanted to gain all the experience and knowledge I could about hardware design, without yet being fully responsible for it (as I realistically knew I could not pull it off, yet). This job was awesome, had an even more awesome and supportive boss, and allowed me to work along side some of the most intelligent and talented hardware engineers in the world.

So, I did what anyone would: I soaked it up! I took notes, I picked people’s brains, I learned as much as humanly possible. Then I learned some more.

But I didn’t just learn the technical pieces. I also asked people about their lives. I wanted to learn what it takes — what pain and sacrifice it takes — to be a successful hardware engineer. And what I found out changed my career goals.

I didn’t want all the travel to China — the long hours (often arriving at the factory around 8:30am, and not leaving for the 1hr drive back to the hotel until 10:30pm); the time away from family with a 15 hour time difference that makes a simple “hey, how are you” phone call extremely difficult to be available for; the often coming home so physically burnt-out that I got sick.

So I changed my mind. I still find hardware engineering fascinating. I still know I can do it (I’ve made some designs in Eagle; done the schematic capture and the board routing; I’ve written the microcontroller code, and host-side tools required to flash firmware onto the device). But I know that I’m not willing to suffer what it takes to be a great hardware engineer at a company like Apple, and I’m definitely not willing to tarnish my professional reputation by allowing myself to be a shitty one. So I didn’t take that final step. I stuck in Firmware because I’m good at it, and I’m willing to suffer what it takes to be good at it. Hell, I like it! It also has costs, but they are costs that I and my family are (currently) willing to bear.

The Take Away

The answer to the question “what pain are you willing to suffer for what you want” isn’t necessarily static. I can change over time. And it should — it should involve your family, because they may be suffering with you, should your goal involve your sacrificing some of your time with them.

Take a moment to think about what you’re currently driving for. Be honest about what goes into that goal, and the process it takes to get from where you are now, to where you want to be. If you’re really honest, your list of “takes” and “process” should include both good and bad things. If you’re really honest, through this process, you may find you may not actually want what you thought you did. Or, you’ll find you still do. Either way, you’re better armed to handle any pain the process may bring.


This post was inspired by a colleague of mine posting a link from Time magazine. The conversation that ensued covered what I posted about, but in about 1/16th the word-count. My thoughts on this stuff are largely inspired by my reading of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”, which I’m (at the time of this writing) not finished with, but still I highly recommend reading.

Here’s one of my (currently) favorite excerpts:

Who the fuck are you, anyway?

Why should you care what I think? The honest answer is I truly don’t give a fuck if you do or do not. But… I feel that it’s still good to post a summary my experience/expertise so you can know how large of a grain of salt to take my thoughts with.

I received my education at Cal Poly SLO, where I was Vice President of the Linux Users Group, TA for the Operating Systems class, and member of the Delta Chi fraternity (hey man, I like beer and parties, too!). I graduated with honors from Cal Poly SLO with a degree in Computer Engineering in 2005. I started my career with an internship in Performance Engineering at Apple, which I then converted to a full time job. I helped create the first iPhone in that role. I remained engineering performance for about 3 years before switching jobs (still at Apple) and working as a firmware engineer for Matt Rogers (founder of Nest). I worked that job for an additional 4 years or so, quickly becoming one of the technical leaders on that team. In that role, I worked on every iPhone from the 3GS to the 6 plus. Finally, I made the jump to management, still on that team, and started guiding the careers and technical work of 4–7 engineer colleagues (depending on which point in time we’re talking about). I was in the management role for just under 2 years. The connections, friendships, and professional reputation I built in my time at Apple allowed me to turn it into a spot on the Founding Team at Pearl Automation, where I took on leading the firmware team, and again managing 5 super-talented engineers.

And that’s about where I am now, and I’m happy.

Manager, CoreOS @ Apple