Monday, March 18, 2013

On the Merits of Living a Small Life

Life is just a game - if only the stakes weren't so damn high.

As is not surprising, being a new parent is doing weird things to me. But the phenomenon I've been observing in my own life is a change that has been happening over the past few years - it's just become much clearer since becoming a parent.

The punchline: my life is (or at least it feels like it is) getting smaller and less impressive than it used to be, and I'm far happier for it.

Recognizing this transformation in my own attitude has been extremely bizarre for me - after all, I'm the guy who, when asked "what do you want to be" when I was twelve, usually answered with "benevolent world dictator." I always had big things in mind for me when I thought about my future.

And for a while, I lived what felt like a very "big" life - for several years, I was the #2 guy at an international non-profit organization in Europe. I got to travel all over the continent, and I spent my days (and nights) hobnobbing with government leaders, community leaders, and other non-profit executives, and we talked about big ideas - ending poverty and injustice, fighting racism and intolerance, and so on.

Then I went to Harvard, where a typical day consisted of going to class with some of the best and and most famous professors in the world, having a small group lunch with the ambassador of some small country, and listening to a lecture by the Secretary of Defense in the evening. And, of course, all we talked and thought about at Harvard were big, huge, world-changing ideas.

Wowzers - a big life indeed. And, in retrospect, I recognize that I was profoundly unhappy in that life. I was almost completely burned out after my gig as a non-profit executive - and while I enjoyed my time at Harvard, I'm still not sure how truly fulfilling an experience it was for me (though my Harvard education definitely played a roll in getting me my current job, which was/is important, and I will always be thankful for all of the excellent friends I made at Harvard).

When I think about how grandiose my aspirations were (and sometimes still are), I compare my current life very unfavorably with my past life and education - after all, now I'm a bureaucrat, work an office job (half at home and half at the office), never travel for work, and only rarely meet "important" people (and practically never in intimate settings such as at Harvard). My job "feels" much smaller than my old job used to, even though I know that the work I do helps feed 75+ million hungry Americans and affects how billions of taxpayer dollars are spent - nevertheless, I mainly work on financial, statistical, and program analyses, so it "feels" small. I occasionally look with some jealousy at the Facebook feeds of some of my friends from Davidson, CEU, or Harvard who are always traveling for work, meeting "important" people, spending all their time talking about "big" ideas, and all those other things that I used to do. And I know I'm not alone in occasionally falling prey to this kind of existential uncertainty and discontent.

I try not to be like these people, but sometimes, I fail. Comic source.

But, at such times, I have to remind myself how much happier I am now than I was then!

After all, I really do enjoy an amazing life - I have a wonderful wife whom I love immensely (and who loves me immensely); I have the cutest baby in the world; and I have a flexible, low-stress job that pays me well. No wonder I'm happier than when I used to be incessantly stressed out, jetting all over the place, and sleeping too little.

So, to all of my friends who are still living "big" lives - I hope you're happier in them than I was in my "big" life. Perhaps one day I'll even figure out how to return to living a "big" life that won't make me miserable - I certainly wouldn't mind returning to living a "bigger" life, but I do not think that I will again be willing to sacrifice my happiness (or my wife's or baby's happiness) in order to achieve a bigger life. So, honestly, I have a hard time seeing how that will come about - but I guess we'll see what the future brings.

But in the mean time, living a small life definitely has its advantages, and may, on balance, be better than living a "big" life. Consider living a smaller life yourself if, like me, you find yourself unhappy or burning out.


  1. Understand that you are much more in the drivers seat of your life than you can imagine. The work / life balance is now in your favor. True you (in theory) do not sit at the head table, but you enjoy a wider choice from the menu. As an individual once stated, "I moved from investment banking to the Federal Reserve and my salary was cut in half, so are my hours." AC2usn

    1. Anonymous: Thanks for your thoughts. I'm all-too aware that I'm in the drivers seat of my life - it's just difficult to try to decide what's going to maximize my (and my family's) happiness over the course of our lives, or at least over the course of the next year or two ...

      -The Angry Bureaucrat