Note: It’s weird to publish this article now. The world is going through some terrifying times.
Weirdly, those terrible things unfold slowly, and mostly distantly from our family. So in the present, life goes on. Kids go to school, work gets done, lessons are learned. A little different, but a lot the same.
I am not oblivious to how tone-deaf the following might sound: to be in a position to think about the relative luxury of either houseboats or yachts is massively privileged.
Still it’s an important realization for me, that I wanted to write down and share.
I worked at Google for 10 years: 2004–2014. After a few years, I’d developed a small social group and we went on some trips and adventures together, mostly snowboarding related: Weekends in Tahoe, birthday trips to Whistler. As Google grew more successful, our trips grew more extravagant: limo wine-tasting in Napa, heliboarding in Alaska, etc.
Summer came around one year, and I suggested we go houseboating. It was something I’d done when I was younger and had extremely fond memories of. I wanted to share it with my new friends.
I was surprised, and a bit embarrassed, to learn that none of the group had ever gone houseboating before. They didn’t even know what it was.
I became pretty nervous as the week approached. Houseboating is a fairly low brow activity. I urged them to keep their expectations low to match.
I explained: “think RV boat, not house boat”. When they asked what we’d do for the week, I tried to explain: “well, you rent this big, slow boat, go out on a reservoir, swim, cook, eat, drink beers, etc.
It’s dirty, sweaty, muddy, and there’s a surprising amount of manual labor (beaching the boat on the shore each night, and adjusting it in the morning). And there’s no mobile service.
It was a huge hit. We rented a speedboat so we could wakeboard, but a majority of the time was spent floating in inner tubes, talking, cooking, reading, just … hanging out. Everyone loved it, even those accustomed to much finer things. We went back year after year until people started having children.
The thing about houseboating is it’s just so cheap. At Lake Shasta, where we went, you can rent a boat for 14 people for four nights for like $4k. That’s $285 per person. Throw in a speed boat, food, and beer, and you’re still $500 per person for a whole adventure. That’s like a single nice meal at Alexander’s in SF.
A comparable trip in Tahoe might be 10x the cost, but the houseboating trip is just as fun.
I’ve seen this pattern come up over and over throughout my life.
Stupid human brains can’t distinguish cheap happy and expensive happy. Happy is happy.
When I got my first real job as a programmer, it was during the dotcom boom. It was way more money than I’d ever made in my life. I bought myself a BMW M coupe. I was into autocrossing at the time, and it was one of the best cars for that. I think it was about $40k. I financed it over six years, and it was overwhelmingly the most expensive thing I’d ever had access to.
I loved that car and babied it. I parked it at the edge of the parking lot. I never ate or drank in it. I drove slowly over speed bumps. It was fun to own, but also contributed a lot of stress to my life.
Eventually I moved to a bigger city and got rid of it. The stress wasn’t worth the happiness it generated.
Later on, when I needed a vehicle again, I bought myself a used stick shift Tacoma for $5k. It had 100k miles on it, but the previous owner had taken good care of it and made some improvements.
I won’t say it was just as fun as the BMW. But pretty damned close. Maybe 90% of the fun for 1/8 the cost!
And even now, where we live in Hawaii, is not the best place we could live on any measure. It doesn’t have the best schools, it’s not the best tropical location, it doesn’t even have the best surfing (that would be Bali I suppose). But it’s great, and much cheaper and easier than any of the bests by a long shot.
What I’ve come to realize is that the best is a scam. The best gets you into a pointless race with other people that can’t be won, because life can’t be scored. And even if it could, the scoring is different for each person.
The best distracts you from enjoying what you are doing by constantly forcing you to compare against what you might be doing instead.
Happiness isn’t quantifiable. You’re happy, or not. A week on a yacht feels happy (assuming you are wealthy enough to afford it so it’s not stressful), but so does a week on a houseboat, or a good book, or an ice cream cone, or a hug from a friend.
And thankfully, it doesn’t take a huge amount to make humans happy: security, people to love who love you back, a purpose, and some hobbies.
I’m officially giving up on best. Instead I’m focusing on good. Take away all the comparisons, and focus on just the present in isolation: Is this moment good? Is this work good? Is this life good?
I find that when I do that, things get a lot easier to understand.
My life feels good to me, and for the first time, I think that’s enough. I think it might actually be the best that is possible.
I hope for a good life for you too.