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Satisfice Money, Maximize Freedom

4 min

On the fine art of serious play.

Welcome to today's issue of Other Life. If you received this from a friend, subscribe here. Instead of paywalling posts, we offer a unique community membership.

Nota bene 1: We just announced cohort #3 of the René Girard Course with Geoff Shullenberger, starting March 20. If you'd like an email when enrollment opens, download the 18-page study guide.

Nota bene 2: Brandon Van Dyck has volunteered to host a 2-hour writing session every weekday morning (9am Central) for the next 3 weeks in the community. I strongly recommend if you're trying to get your habits/output up; totally open and free to members, just RSVP in the events channel.

In the three years after I left my academic career, I was obsessively concerned about money. And for good reason: My decent, stable income disappeared and my volatile, precarious income from the internet took its place.

But here's one of the most surprising and counter-intuitive lessons I learned... In the periods where I was most myopically stressed about optimizing cash flow, the overall growth of my operation was actually stalling. And in the periods where I forgot about money (usually after a significant inflow, easing my anxiety), I was advancing and accelerating my operation way more than I realized. And obviously, I was happier, healthier, etc.

So why was I finding more success when I was disregarding money? The reason is that genuine, passionate, creative, and soulful work really does rise to the top. But to produce that work consistently, you need to be relaxed, confident, joyful, and generous. And optimizing for money prohibits all of these creative virtues. It makes you tense, fearful, stressed, and selfish.

I've been thinking a lot about how to implement this lesson more rigorously. Here's the main idea that's been brewing in my mind for many months now, like a little mantra I find myself organically reciting to myself:

Satisfice money, maximize freedom.

Frankly, I feel like I've always done this, and it's never failed me. But as I get older and the responsibilities mount, it's hard to really trust this. Hence writing it out today.

The concept of satisficing was first introduced by the economist Herbert Simon in his 1947 book Administrative Behavior. A portmanteau of "satisfy" and "suffice," the term describes a decision-making heuristic that saves time and energy by aiming for an adequate outcome rather than an optimal outcome.

Aspiring writers often find themselves consumed with the desire to build an audience, earn money, and eventually win fame and status. It's natural enough; serious and competent individuals often want to achieve greatness in their fields, and these can be external signals of growing greatness (noisy as they are). However, these desires can also be utterly fatal traps.

Instead, I think the goal of a writer should be to secure minimum financial viability in the first instance and then maximize freedom for long-term research, reflection, and creation. If you're like me, you might oscillate a bit between these modes, but I think that's fine, too.

Relatedly, as I wrote in We Still Don’t Understand the Attention Economy:

...greedily obsessed with winning praise, insight, and money—and lacking any ethical framework for understanding the intrinsic value of attention—most people are unable to access the free riches immediately available to them.

Focus on taking pleasure in your craft. Hone your conviction in your vision. And count your blessings, for it's a privilege to be called to your vocation (many would love to be, but are not). The ability to produce great work is not dependent on popularity or remuneration, but rather on the capacity to engage in deep thinking and generous, fearless, joyful experimentation. You simply cannot measure your success by likes or followers or money in the bank. You can reliably measure your success by how often you are consistently exercising genuine creative freedom. Rewards will follow, eventually, but only if you write them off at first.

One must be capable of serious playscholé—to produce meaningful work. Scholé is maintained by satisficing on finances, decreasing dependence on social and political institutions, and ruthlessly protecting a certain amount of time every week to think, read, and write.

To learn more about scholé, you can find many exemplary practitioners of it on the podcast. Off the top of my head, my conversations with James Ellis (Hermitix) and Paul Millerd (Pathless Path) were both illuminating and inspiring on this front. Each of these conversations strongly pushed me in this direction and helped me understand what I've written here today.

Money and influence may come as a byproduct of writing but if they ever become the goal or focus, you're toast. It is the pursuit of the work itself and the joy of actualization (entelecheia) that must always be the driving forces.

So that's one of my rules for now. Satisfice money, maximize freedom.

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