Your life is not an investment

Austin Campbell
Jun 8, 2019 · 12 min read
Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine faced a momentous decision. She could continue to grow in her stable, decently-compensated corporate job. Or she could act on a longstanding desire to become a physician who serves populations in need, which would require the arduous — and costly — path of medical school.

As she was wrestling with the decision, she told me about an exercise that a well-meaning advisor had walked her through.

In a spreadsheet (one rarely makes a decision in the corporate world without a spreadsheet) he plugged in the costs she would incur for medical education, her likely future earnings as a physician, and her current income. After comparing those numbers with a common form of business math called net present value, he showed that even if she were never promoted in the corporate job, she would be better off financially by staying put than becoming a physician.

The advisor did the exercise in jest, to poke at the common idea that becoming a physician is among the most lucrative things one could do.

But many of us perform an exercise like this with utmost seriousness when making major decisions.

The guiding assumption of the exercise is that when making life choices — the kind that fundamentally set the trajectory of our work and who we will be in the world — we should assess our options like prospective investments, weighing their anticipated financial returns and choosing the one with the greatest likely yield. To choose a conspicuously under-performing investment would (according to this logic) be borderline irresponsible.

My acquaintance decided to become a physician anyway.

As someone whose professional decisions have almost never optimized for financial returns, I supported her almost reflexively. But her courage to break with the advisor’s financial logic inspired me to try to articulate why her decision might be far from irresponsible, but actually wise.

Mental models and value

You could think of the investment approach as a kind of mental model.

To people with the good fortune of having several options for what to do with our lives, early adulthood barrages us with momentous choices: whether to pursue higher education and where, what to study, what job to take, where to live, what relationships and other pursuits outside of work to nurture — on and on without end. As we get older, such choices come at us a bit less frequently but don’t go away.

A mental model helps us to simplify what could otherwise be a crippling amount of complexity in these decisions. It allows us to sift through the information at hand, concentrate on only a small part of it, and filter out the rest, on the assumption that the part you concentrate on will be most relevant. We could articulate our mental models in little maxims that serve as guiding personal policy, such as “choose the path with the greatest long-term financial returns.” (I am myself simplifying a great deal about mental models with this description. See the work of Shane Parrish for a deeper introduction.)

Rarely do we articulate our mental models that clearly. But it can be worthwhile, so that we can scrutinize them. These models often guide how we make decisions by subtly — or not so subtly — predetermining what values our life choices should be optimizing for. In other words, they outwardly present as a useful means for easier decision making, but they’re really about our ends. And sometimes they concentrate us with such intensity on one kind of value that we forget others that are also relevant.

This is especially true when we’re surrounded by people primarily using just one mental model. With social reinforcement, a mental model begins to look less like one aid among others, and more like the obvious normative standard for your life.

The investment model is no exception to this need for scrutiny. It’s become pervasive, especially for choices around education.

Trying to pick a major? You can easily compare them by the average earnings of graduates. Need financial aid? There are even new instruments that treat students like stock investments by providing cash in exchange for a percent of future paychecks. Students who pursue less lucrative subjects (philosophy, for example) simply pay a higher percent for a longer period of time. Disappointed that your preferred subject isn’t economically favorable? Don’t worry, faculty in the humanities have developed a stock repertoire of assurances about the value of the skills they teach for a digital economy, and you can even find examples of people who studied things that are (by investment logic) useless and yet turned out all right.

Rarely does anyone say explicitly that people should be making decisions on the basis of financial returns alone. But by couching the discourse in financial terms, it’s easy for investment logic to take over.

It’s also easy for that logic to spread into other kinds of decisions by association. One calculates the financial value of college majors by the jobs to which they usually lead, so does that mean one ought to optimize one’s job choices for economic returns as well? How about things that are not directly job-related but may affect the trajectory of your earning power, such as where you live and the relationships you have?

In a sense, approaching decisions like these with investment logic is understandable.

Higher education now creates a monstrous financial burden for people, especially for first-generation students pioneering new paths for their families. When asked to pony up a pound of flesh, one does well to think like an investor and consider whether the sacrifice could be worthwhile and how to make it so. Added to that is a broader anxiety of this time, spurred by recollections of the Great Recession; political dysfunction; widening chasms of inequality helped along by an economic structure that is capricious at heart, casting people from positions of stability into the “disrupted” underclass with little warning and less remorse.

Against such a backdrop, one’s first instinct might be bare survival: if the getting is good now, get all you can before it isn’t.

While understandable, operating just from an investment model has, shall we say, some serious costs. Unless checked somehow, it can drive us toward an intangible — yet no less abject — form of poverty amid material abundance.

Toward other forms of value

The most serious cost would be a diminished ability to appreciate, much less pursue, other forms of value.

Alongside financial stability — a good thing indeed in money-based economies — are values like artistic creation, learning and personal growth, acts of service, loving relationships, engagement with nature, and so on. What I mean by “values” here are ends or objectives that we could see as inherently worthwhile to pursue. We could see them as good in themselves, irreducible to other goods. Great works of art may contribute to their creators’ financial stability, but that wouldn’t be why the acts of creation, in themselves, were worthwhile. Same goes for learning, relationships, and the like.

This is a fairly basic concept of values. I’ve listed pursuits that strike me as obviously good in themselves, but my list isn’t exhaustive and may differ from one that you would compile. A fuller concept would also delve into the array of ideals that inform what, specifically, we would hope to achieve through these pursuits — the kind of person we’d hope to become through learning, for example.

My point here is simply to draw attention to the plurality of values, the basic fact that there are several of them.

Forgive me if this point seems obvious, but it needs mentioning because sometimes our mental models encourage us to orient our lives so much around one value that we disregard all others. You may or may not go so far as to make life decisions based on net present value calculations. Still less, I think, would most people become vocally opposed to other values in the manner of a parent who scolds their child’s preference for acting over banking. But in moments of decision, moments that will chart our course for several years, the broader spectrum of values can fade like ghosts into a misty background where they simply are not live options for us, exerting no pull whatsoever.

It isn’t just the investment model that encourages this value myopia. I have met people so committed to other models (like the vague, hackneyed, and quite privileged idea of “do what you love”) that, in contrast, they disregard financial matters entirely. But I do think the investment model exerts a special kind of pull, because of the survival anxieties I described above.

I call attention to this myopia because I’m convinced that a truly satisfying life is one in which we make room for — and even pursue — multiple forms of value.

Life offers us riches beyond compare across so many dimensions. And all of us arrive on earth with a capacity to participate in them, capacity that most of us never fully realize. A pang within us calls for “more” in certain moments when left to our thoughts, perhaps as we observe a passerby who possesses something we lack, perhaps as we simply imagine what our life could be with certain details rearranged. Rarely do these pangs point toward what we specifically need. But they do alert us to a tendency within us to expand, to transcend where we currently find ourselves and explore new realms of possibility.

We become more fully ourselves, more fully at home in this world of manifold richness, to the extent that we follow that tendency into the depths of value available to us.

What this looks like in practice will vary. Maybe it means making an unconventional move in your career. Or maybe it means continuing a conventional career but immersing yourself in something unconventional outside your day job. Maybe it means mentoring others within your day job and not merely executing on the most profitable tasks. Or maybe it just means expanding your reading fare into new topics that you’d previously considered unworthy of your time.

The basic point of value pluralism would be to optimize across an array of values.

Overcoming obstacles to getting started

Even if you’ve been nodding along thus far, inclined to agree that value myopia can impoverish, there may be some common ideas — counter-arguments of sorts — that hold you back from a more expansive pursuit of value.

One obstacle may be an idea of finite opportunity.

Sometimes we are aware of the different values we could be optimizing for, but perceive inherent limitations in what we can pursue. It’s as though we have a fixed amount of, say, 100 units to give toward some pursuit or another. You can give them all to one thing or spread them out, but 100 is all you get.

As a result, an inherent competition seems to arise between values. Even if you treat them all equally and (hypothetically speaking) give 20 units to 5 different values, you realize that each one is less than it could otherwise be. And if you feel a strong pull toward one value or the other — as with the anxieties for security that can motivate investment logic — you may be inclined to maximize what you give to that one thing, with perhaps a few token offerings to the others.

This idea can exert influence over us because there is a certain truth in it. If we swap the generic notion of “units” with “waking hours,” it’s obvious that we do face finite opportunity.

But we can challenge this idea, with a little help from investment logic no less, by distinguishing between inputs and outcomes. As any investor knows, you may put the same amount into different things but get wildly different results. It just isn’t the case that the more you put in, the more you necessarily get out. Some investments will outperform others.

This perspective can reduce our sense of competition between values, because by reallocating even a portion of our time and energy, we might find that we gain a disproportionate sense of personal richness and fulfillment relative to where we started.

For example, suppose you have given yourself to a stressful, all-consuming job for the sake of one value in particular. Perhaps it was to make a lot of money (though the analogy could hold for other pursuits as well). You likely will have noticed, over time, a decline in other realms of value — relationships, artistic creation, community engagement, or something of the sort. Now suppose that you decide to make a change. You may not leave that kind of work altogether but instead build just a smidgen of flexibility — two hours, say — to pursue something else besides your job. What you gain from those two hours may be less immediately tangible than money, but feel vastly more enriching than an extra couple hours at the office. Same overall investment of time and energy, different outcomes for personal richness.

Sometimes we need to make radical changes in order to pursue what matters to us. But incremental changes like these can also have dramatic effect.

A second obstacle could be an idea of compounding effects.

This is an idea fundamental to investment logic. Stated simply, it’s that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. If you invest the dollar today, it’s not just a dollar tomorrow but a dollar plus whatever interest it accrues. Then the day after tomorrow, that accrued interest itself accrues interest, making the invested amount worth even more. Over time, the effect can become quite dramatic, which is why financial advisors recommend that people begin saving for retirement as early in life as possible.

Knowledge of compounding, combined with a broader inclination to an investment model of decision making, may conduce to making as much money as one can, as early as one can, so as to maximize the long-term value of whatever one saves.

There may even be a note of contingency in this. Maybe you don’t want your whole life to be about making money, but you’re willing to grit your teeth and make that your dominant pursuit for now, telling yourself all the while that after you’ve earned enough to live on, you’ll pursue the things you really care about. (This is the basic drift of some blogs devoted to the idea of early retirement.)

We can do those other things anytime, the thinking goes, but the opportunity for compounding our investments diminishes with each passing day. And if we invest enough right now, we can later pursue those other things without the distraction of needing to earn a living.

This thinking is compellingly clear, yet blindingly selective. Although it’s most obvious that compounding applies to financial matters, might it not apply to others as well? Might not the attention we give to other sorts of value bear progressively more fruit over time, such that starting earlier would be more fruitful than starting later?

The effect may or may not be mathematically exponential in the same way as compound interest. Perhaps a better comparison would be to planting a tree that first takes time to develop roots, then peeks timidly above ground, then stretches up through its initial feebleness, up and up, out and out, all for many years until it can sustain us with its gifts.

One example of this would be the cultivation of talent. Suppose you have a knack for words and flirt with the idea of becoming a writer. Turning that knack into full-blown excellence will require years of toiling through shitty drafts, learning to identify the gems within the muck, and developing your own style of polishing them into something truly worthy. (Take it from me. I’ve been at this a long time, in one form or another, and am still just getting started.)

Another example would be relationships. Occasionally we meet people and feel as though we’ve known them all our lives, but few would claim that this connection is just as good as having really known them so long. Relationships deepen through shared experience, through accompanying people through the changes of life and getting to know each other again and again as we transform over time.

Like planting trees, these kinds of things can be started at any time. But there is no rushing their maturation. And to put them off while knowing this is to entertain an unreasonable confidence in how long we may have the opportunity. Some talents and relationships, left uncultivated for too long, may actually wither beyond recovery. And there is of course no telling, beyond the abstraction of averages, how long any of us really have to live.

As with mistaken thinking about finite opportunity, the attention we squander in value myopia leaves us poorer overall, not just in this moment but over the long term.

One final obstacle to a more expansive pursuit of value may be confusion about prioritization.

In warning against value myopia, one might hear me saying, despite my remarks above about incremental changes, that we really ought to make equal room for the many values that call to us. And that impression, if true, would rightly discredit my argument. There is simply no way to pursue all values with the same intensity as their call. The richness of life has its shadow side in the tragedy that we can never fully grasp, still less participate in, the full depths of what we perceive as valuable. Make the attempt, and you are likely to land in shallow dilettantism.

The challenge we face is to prioritize among values, to decide on a hierarchy of sorts in deference to our inherent limitations, while maintaining a generative tension. In that tension, we maintain awareness of the choices we’ve made and attempt to make room for as much value as we can, sensitive to all the paths whose tug we feel — the ones we’ve taken along with those we’ve neglected but may take still.

How we ought to prioritize is itself an important question, one beyond the scope of this discussion. For my acquaintance, the soon-to-be physician, and anyone else who feels the tug of value myopia, it can be of immense help in a path of wisdom to know that the choice is not a matter of which value to embrace, but how many we possibly can.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +724K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store