It was a demoralizing feeling, staring down at my paycheck.
It was a lot of money.
I thought about when I was a kid, the first time learning what my father’s yearly salary was. At this pace, I’d make that in less than three months.
I thought about my job just two years prior. It would have taken me three months to make what I had just made in two weeks.
I was making lots of money. I was designing things. Why did I feel so shitty?
I thought about what I had been working on in the previous two weeks. What was this paycheck made of?
I had designed some buttons, written some code, designed some other stuff — I had sat in on some meetings. I had definitely been “working” the whole time. Quite hard, in fact.
But where did that work go? The objectives of the company were unclear. The metrics were inconsistent. What were we really producing?
I thought about where the money in my paycheck came from: The CEO going around, talking to people with money. Then they’d write some check — kiss the money goodbye — but hope that they’d make some more money.
My job was a dream job on the surface: making lots of money doing work I loved, a kitchen stocked with all sorts of organic goodies, massages for employees, lavish parties, and fun times. The product manager once spent an entire afternoon potting plants.
But still I felt like a shell. I tried to crunch the numbers in the little calculator in my brain: “Well, that button will do this, and that’s $X, and also this intangible thingie,” and “no, well, that code actually won’t be used.” It just didn’t add up.
Nothing could fill in enough earth underneath this shell to make it seem like it sat where it belonged.
Sure, the money was speculative money. The investors had to reasonably assume that it would disappear into thin air. But in that process, my time and talents and efforts — and those of dozens of others — had to disappear into thin air as well.
We were operating on false mechanics. Allowing our actions to be guided by the whims of others; and by the dangerous false sense of importance that can result from getting paid lots of money.
As I walked to work the next day, I passed the place where people line up to ride the cable car. Some of them were elderly tourists. I imagined that they had worked their whole lives to come visit this city — to come stand in this line and ride this famous cable car.
Yet I got to walk by this every day. Two years prior, this was a place of fantasy — like it only existed on TV and in movies. Why did I get to live this life? Why did I get this big paycheck and to live in this city?
I looked around at all of the people going to work, and thought about their paychecks. I imagined many of them also got paid lots of money to ultimately produce nothing. They didn’t have any earth underneath their shells either.
When I finally got laid off, I didn’t feel a sense of despair. The fog of fear floated above a feeling of rightness, freedom, inevitability, and certainty. Like it feels to be strapped into a roller coaster, listening to the chain pull it up that first incline. I didn’t want to be a shell anymore.
I wanted to earn it.
The months and years since that day have been filled with trying to gather earth.
From the beginning, it was gratifying to dig into the dirt — to constantly have to be resourceful, to constantly evaluate what I had. How could I collect all of this into one solid pile and keep building on it? I dug into nooks and crannies trying to find whatever I may have missed the last time around.
I had more big paychecks waved in front of my face. One CEO literally begged me to come work for his company. It all sounded like it should have been enticing, but I surprised even myself at how uninterested I was. I just didn’t see enough earth there.
The process of gathering earth has not been easy. It has not been massages and organic fruit baskets and lavish parties. Much of it has been fear and paranoia and anxiety and loneliness and doubt.
The satisfaction that I’ve gotten along the way hasn’t come from big paychecks, or getting to tell people at parties that I worked for a cool company, or really having any sort of straight story about what I had been doing at all.
The satisfaction came from the comfort of dark walks home, after 16 cafe laptop hours of tinkering with nothing in particular, thinking to myself about how I hadn’t made a dime that day, but still feeling like the earth was swelling beneath my feet.
It came from the very thought of an idea making my blood pump harder — as if that force were what powered my fingers.
It came from the repeated realization that the way I had imagined things would be, weren’t how they were going to be. It came from the constant knowledge that I had a lot left to learn.
It manifested itself in the form of a smile that came from within and shaped my lips without their conscious will.
When the paychecks did return, tiny though they were, the satisfaction came from thinking about where they came from: the things I had learned in order to make things, the things I had made, the things that those things I made did, the things I had learned making those things, and the things I had yet to make.
This isn’t a story about how money is the root of all evil. I couldn’t be convinced of that. This isn’t to romanticize the path of the starving artist, as if money doesn’t matter at all. It does. It just does.
This also isn’t a story about how there is no better metric to guide one’s actions than the almighty dollar. As evinced by my own experiences, that doesn’t make sense.
And this isn’t a story about the virtue of lone wolves — as if anyone can operate without others; or of the justness of the world — as if we all always get what we deserve. The Universe is clearly too fickle for that to be true.
But there is some place in the middle of all of these things. When you strip away the artificial structures that harbor you; When you dig your fingers into the dirt, and salvage even the soil under your nails; When you do that every day; When that becomes your way of life — eventually you’ll have a mound, then a hill, then a mountain that no shell can contain.
And it will feel right, because maybe, you might be able to say…perhaps…
…you’ve earned it.
Originally published at kadavy.net.