This Is Enough

In this edition of I’m an old person in tech, ask me anything…: “What are some advantages of being an older person in the tech industry?”

The main advantage for me: I’ve found it easier to balance ambition and contentment.

Some background: I recently finished Sabrina Little’s new book The Examined Run, and it gave me a new way to think about ambition and contentment. Little is both a champion endurance runner and an assistant professor of philosophy. In her book, she uses competitive running as a way to explain concepts from the ancient Aristotelian philosophy of virtue ethics and show how they can be relevant to people today. I found the chapter on performance-enhancing vices particularly insightful. She describes performance-enhancing vices (PEVs) as “defects of character that assist us to be better performers in running. PEVs result from a misalignment between a good life and a good run, and they are a difficult set of vices to root out because of their constructive impact on performance.” For example, she argues that pride (“an outsized and unbridled preoccupation with one’s own successes”) is a performance-enhancing vice in the world of competitive running. Pride can drive a competitive runner to train harder, work harder, and therefore finish races faster. But pride can also jeopardize the kinds of close relationships a racer needs to sustain herself off the course. Little’s chapter on performance-enhancing vices is a warning: The culture that you immerse yourself in may push you out of the virtuous balance you need to thrive as a human. As she points out, a good run is not the same as a good life. However, you cannot expect the culture built up around races to help you remember that; you’ll have to do it yourself in spite of the culture you are in.

The culture of the technology industry has the same distorting effect on ambition and contentment. The heart of ambition is dissatisfaction with something in the world leading to a desire to change and improve it; the essence of contentment is appreciating and enjoying the world as it is. It makes sense to view them as opposing ends of the same spectrum:

Contentment and ambition on a spectrum with happiness somewhere in the middle

When you work in the tech industry, it’s harder to reach a healthy balance because you are immersed in a culture that supports and rewards ambition. The industry wants everyone in it to obsess over faster / cheaper / better ways to solve problems. It has built a deep and rich mythology around products and people who have “changed the world” to help support your ambition. But the industry has no incentive to help you develop your sense of contentment. For that, you are on your own.

Reflecting back on my career, I remember clearly two perspective shifts that suddenly altered my ambition / contentment balance, like a tectonic plate sliding into a new position on a fault line. The new perspectives helped me see beyond the culture of ambition and build a healthy grounding of contentment.

The first perspective shift came in the mid-2000s. The swaggering Microsoft that I’d joined the 1990s had withered; the upstart company Google had replaced it as the place where young, ambitious people went to make their mark on the industry. I was in a funk and wondering what I should be doing with my life when I was sent on a Microsoft international recruiting trip to São Paulo, Brazil. For Microsoft and many other big tech companies, it was (and remains) difficult to find enough skilled programmers to fill open positions. Sometimes it is more economical to fly interviewers to another country for a week of twenty-or-so interviews than it is to fly twenty individual candidates to Redmond, so I found myself for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere. Somewhere around my thirteenth interview, in the middle of the sprawling megalopolis of São Paulo, as I talked to a candidate who had not only mastered enough programming but also enough English to make it this far in the interview process, it hit me: A job at Microsoft would completely transform this person’s life.

Per-capita GDP in Brazil at the time was less than $5,000 per year. A starting salary at Microsoft was well into the six figures. While I expect that we were interviewing people from families who had enough wealth to afford good education, I still expected a Microsoft job would represent a life-changing amount of money and opportunity for these candidates. Clearly it was enough to them to make it worth leaving family and culture 7,000 miles behind. It altered my worldview to sit in a room with a stranger willing to sacrifice so much to gain what I already had.

The second shift happened many years later, the year I turned 40. I was working for Facebook. Facebook’s Seattle office was on the 17th and 18th floors of the Metropolitan Park building, which itself was on the northern slope of Capitol Hill. A high floor in a high building gave our office an enviable view of Lake Union, Queen Anne hill, and slivers of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. (This was before the Amazon-fueled building boom in South Lake Union brought a new crop of high-rise condominiums; today’s view from the same spot must be mostly glass and steel.) Milestone birthdays invite reflection, so as I stood looking over the distant water and mountains, I was also looking back on my life. That’s when I felt it, for the first time in my life: This is enough. I was a father to two young and healthy boys. Our family had just entered the golden period where we no longer had to worry about the kids dying from toddler stupidity but didn’t yet have to worry about them dying from teenage stupidity. I was married to a remarkable woman. My job was challenging and rewarding. This is enough. Though simple, it was a pretty big change in perspective. Before, it seemed that happiness was something that could only come later, after reaching whatever next milestone I was working for. After, I knew and believed this is enough and that happiness would come more from appreciating what I had than from striving for the next thing.

This is the great gift of age and experience: a perspective that sees more than the simple ambitions of Silicon Valley. Yes, I’m still energized each day trying to figure out new ways to use technology to make high-quality education universally available. Yes, I’m still trying to get better at my job. But the perspective of age gives me a solid foundation of contentment to balance the ambition of the tech industry. I am grounded now. This is enough.