High Earners Adrift
Many of my readers have skills they can apply to earn incomes that are far above average — if they desire to apply those skills for that purpose. A lot of them are programmers or engineers. Some know how to invest or trade stocks. Some are just really good poker players. These people can earn six-figure incomes (sometimes more) without much difficulty.
Many of these people aren’t earning anywhere near their potential. They know this. And for the most part they aren’t particularly concerned about that. Many have found that earning lots of money isn’t fulfilling.
Some of these people made plenty of money in the past. They explored what it was like to have most of their material desires satisfied and then some. They went through that phase of material abundance, and it was fun for a while, but it no longer means anything to them now.
Others in this group never bothered to make much money in the first place, even though they had the skills to do so. They aren’t motivated to bother. The financial gains don’t excite them.
I remember talking to a programmer who was only doing the minimum amount of work necessary to cover his basic expenses, not because he couldn’t earn more but because he didn’t care to make the extra effort. He told me that he used to earn $40K per month programming device drivers, and then he shrugged and said, “So what though… it’s just money.”
Sometimes these people go through a period of mild depression, feeling down on themselves for not doing more with their skills. Some feel they should be earning more. Others feel they should stretch themselves or contribute more, regardless of the money.
Occasionally these people find temporary pleasure in interesting projects. They may still like getting paid now and then. But they don’t feel much ambition to go any further.
There may be still be some growth on this path, but it’s modest. Even learning new sub-skills feels too familiar after a while.
When considering more ambitious goals, financial or otherwise, the question that keeps coming up is: Why bother?
You explored more, and now more is boring.
You explored better, and now better seems pointless.
You explored different, and now different feels the same.
What do you do when more, better, and different are no longer satisfying?
Well… that’s when you get to have an existential crisis.
Finding the growth again
Many people find themselves with the skills to do more, but the motivation is lacking. They don’t care about earning more. They don’t care about contributing more. They barely care about covering their expenses.
Some are able to travel through this tunnel and find new fulfillment on the other side. Some seem to remain adrift indefinitely. What’s the difference between those who pull out of this funk and those who don’t?
I’d say that the main difference, if I may generalize it, is that the people who find fulfillment again perform a different kind of upgrade than those who don’t.
The ones who continue to struggle seem to circle around the same area looking for solutions. They look at their skills. They look at their habits and routine. They look at their projects. They look at their lifestyle. They may make some shifts, but they largely maintain their original philosophy of life throughout these shifts, and that philosophy keeps them trapped.
The ones who move beyond this struggle make deeper changes. They reassess their overall relationship with life, and other changes stem from there. But these people who upgrade their philosophy of life don’t all shift it in the same way. One person’s upgrade is another person’s downgrade.
These people reassess their relationship with reality, and they change that relationship. It’s almost like going through the breakup of a human relationship. The old relationship is finally done, and a new way of relating is envisioned and created.
Since your relationship with reality exists in your mind — as a collection of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs — you can change it. You can reinterpret old events to mean something different. Just as people reinterpret their human relationships before a breakup, they can reinterpret their relationship with life itself.
These people realize that little by little, a breakup has already been underway. They’ve been checked out from this relationship for some time. The effort and investment have been drying up. The rewards have weakened. Life seems dull and pointless. There’s no point in staying. It’s time to move on.
When someone redefines his/her relationship to reality, lifestyle changes often follow. I’ve seen people quit their jobs, go travel, do charity work, explore open relationships, and more. But these changes may have been on the person’s someday/maybe list for many years prior. What seems to flip the switch is the underlying reconfiguration of the person’s philosophy of life.
These profound shifts don’t seem to have a pattern in terms of their direction, at least not one that I can discern. People go in wildly different directions. It’s much like a human relationship breakup. What happens after the breakup is different for everyone.
There’s usually a period of fear, excitement, and resolution all mixed together as the person gets moving. The word relief is frequently used to describe it.
Life is rarely perfect on the other side, but I can’t recall an instance where someone wanted to go back. They know the shift had to happen, but the shift by itself didn’t magically solve all their problems. There’s still more work to be done.
Although I can’t identify core commonalities in the new directions that people take, I have seen some patterns in how they create these shifts. These are essentially the same patterns that people go through when they transition out of a human relationship.
Usually these people begin to pay attention to the resistance and resentment they’ve been feeling. They see that they’re resisting their current situation and wanting it to be different. They resent their apparent lack of motivation. Many feel disappointed that their peers seem to have surpassed them. They begin to notice this resistance.
Next, they begin taking responsibility for creating this resistance. They see that it isn’t helping and is only keeping them stuck. They decide to stop resisting and to surrender themselves to the present situation. They gradually become less stubborn. They conclude that being stubborn hasn’t worked, so they loosen up and decide to be more flexible and observant for a while. They relax more.
In the past, these people saw the road to change as requiring a change in conditions. They needed a better lifestyle. Or better projects. Or a better workspace and tools. They needed more self-discipline. More focus. More control. This is like the person who tries to work on their partner to salvage the relationship. I need you to help me solve problems X, Y, and Z, and then our relationship will be better. How well does that usually work?
Sometimes the other person in a relationship doesn’t identify X, Y, and Z as problems. Sometimes reality doesn’t seem to agree that your problems are problems either. When you try to solve those problems, it may feel like reality is deliberately working against you. Or you may sense that you keep sabotaging yourself. You resolve to make changes, and your efforts have fizzled within a few days.
Eventually the person reaches the point of surrendering to the obvious: This whole relationship is broken. In this case, I’m referring to the person’s relationship with life, the universe, and everything. That relationship has become nonfunctional. You and reality seem to be at odds with each other. You’re not in agreement.
Many people enter into a period of stuckness here. They know the relationship is broken, so they try to fix it. That usually doesn’t work, partly because they’re still running the old patterns that perpetuate this stuckness, even as they consciously try to change it.
Those who succeed tend to do so by abandoning the goal of trying to change their partner. They surrender to another obvious notion: My partner wants something different from what I want. They finally decide to allow their partner to be someone else. And with that comes the realization that it’s time to transition out of this relationship.
How does this play out with your relationship with reality? It’s a similar dynamic. The person stops trying to change reality and finally allows reality to be what it is. There’s no point in fighting, resisting, or trying to solve problems since reality is only going to resist.
How does such a person break up with the old reality? They do this by envisioning a new way of living and a new way of relating to the world, to other people, and to life in general. They envision a new way of experiencing reality. To some it really feels like stepping into a whole new reality — a whole new life.
Surrender is the key. When you stop resisting and surrender to what is, you stop feeding what you don’t want, and the undesirable relationships tend to drop away. But as long as you keep fighting for change, you’ll experience a counter-force pushing back against you, keeping you stuck.
One man decides to no longer relate to life on the basis of fear avoidance. From now on he’s going to face, accept, and welcome what he fears. He’s tired of seeing his reality shrink as he sidesteps his fears. He adopts a new rule for himself: Whatever I fear, I must face. He stops resisting life’s challenges. And lo and behold, he finds that the fear was just an illusion anyway. He was the one feeding it all along.
One woman decides she’s tired of business as usual. Her life is filled with people who look up to her for accomplishments that no longer mean anything to her. She’s done fighting her lack of motivation, so she surrenders to it and lets her business decline, regardless of what people may think of her. Eventually she wraps up her business affairs and starts her own nonprofit foundation. Henceforth her relationship with life will be based on contribution and service, which she loves but could never give herself permission to do before. She had to surrender to the fact that her business was no longer the right vehicle for her future growth and self-expression.
From tolerance to completion
These people all have their Jerry Maguire moments. For many of them, the most powerful part of the shift is when they experience profound feelings of doneness with the old way of living. They’re tired of the fear, the inauthenticity, the disconnection, the shallowness, the indifference, or some other misalignment. They decide it’s time to throw out the old way of living and move on.
One friend described life after the shift with these words: Steve, I feel aligned now.
Another guy said, while going through the shift: I am so fucking outta here.
As people shift, it’s common to experience inconsistent progress for a while. Taking two steps forward and one step backwards happens to almost everyone. That’s okay. The seed has been planted. It may take time for that seed to mature, but it will continue to grow. The more we take an occasional step backwards, the clearer it becomes that the old territory can no longer be called home.
Those who remain stuck don’t seem to reach this point of doneness. The most common reason is that people get stuck in a state of tolerance. They continue to tolerate their relationship with life as-is, even though it doesn’t serve them.
Tolerance isn’t surrender. Tolerance is still resistance. When you tolerate a situation, you permit it to exist but you refuse to surrender to it, so you can’t extract the lessons from it. You can’t graduate.
Tolerance is like not wanting to go to school but going anyway. You show up, but you refuse to be a student. Consequently, you learn very little. What’s the point of showing up if you’re going to resist?
When that resistance finally drops, and the person surrenders to reality and decides to stop fighting, the remaining lessons can finally come through, and the person can progress. Graduation is within reach.
There are lessons to be learned from being broke. There are lessons in a difficult relationship. There are lessons in illness. There are lessons in periods of drifting. If we resist these experiences, we resist the lessons within them.
If an unwanted experience seems to be sticking to you like glue, try practicing non-resistance for a while. Try surrendering to that experience. Give reality the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there are valuable lessons to be learned right where you are. Let yourself complete the experience. Allow yourself to have the experience you’re having without stubbornly resisting it. Let yourself reach the point of doneness. Then you can progress.