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Baseline Happiness and Delayed Achievements

Published 6/25/2020

If you think about most achievements awarded, they are handed out over a period of time when the dues are paid and effort put in. 

In today's episode, we're talking about pictures of achievement and taking a moment to reflect on what it means to live a full and satisfying life as a developer. 


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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
When do you expect to achieve your goals? When do you expect that you will have the feeling that you have arrived where you've been trying to be? That's what we're talking about in today's short episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and my goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. If you grew up like me, then your picture of achievement, your picture of success, was earned over a period of time. In fact, if you think about most achievements that are awarded, they are given out after some period of time where kind of the dues have been paid. You can think about high school and the graduation that happens at the end of high school. And you don't really get the achievement of having finished high school unless you go through that whole process, the same with any kind of graduation. This is true for winning a race. The achievement doesn't come unless you cross the finish line. And in fact, even the picture of retirement, working hard for your whole life so that you can stop working at the end of your life. These are all pictures that have very similar storylines. In fact, even many religions follow the same storyline. If you behave properly or if you follow this particular religion with enough fervor, then your reward will come at the end of your life, perhaps in the next life. This is not a commentary on religion and it certainly isn't a commentary on how you should view achievement. But rather, it's a moment to stop and reflect on what it means to live a full and satisfying life as an engineer. If you are going through your entire career, waiting to be satisfied at the end of your career, and it's possible that you'll benefit from a slight perspective shift. And we're going to support this with some basic research on happiness. I want to give you a visualization for this. And a graph. This graph is very simple. It has x, y coordinates. There's no 3D plane to consider here. And on that graph, the x coordinates are representing time. Then the y coordinates are representing your happiness. Now, imagine that in the middle of this, let's say, you know, we have y, the max y, is something like a hundred. Now, imagine that you draw a line straight across the middle. 50. And this line represents your baseline of happiness. And we have this perspective that our baseline of happiness is something that we want to continuously push upward, that we want that line to go up and to the right as far as we can possibly make it. And in fact, if we can make it stay at a hundred, our entire lives, that would be ideal, right? And so we view our careers in a very similar pattern. We imagine that we can increase our baseline happiness over the course of our careers until we reach the very top of our happiness at the end of our careers. And then we call it quits, we retire. The reality is much different than this. In fact, most people's baseline happiness tends to return back to a common middle ground. We might have some things that change our baseline happiness slightly. But for the most part, we end up returning to the same kind of baseline happiness. Now, to be clear, happiness is not a very scientific concept. It's a self-reported happiness that we're referring to. And there's plenty of studies that explain this phenomenon. One of the things that you might expect is that if you increase your earning power, in other words, if you build your wealth over time, that your wealth and your happiness is going to be highly correlated. And that's true, but only up to a certain point. And that point is generally much lower than you might expect. Most people who are listening to this podcast, if you have a job as an engineer, then you're likely to be above or near that point. Much of our lives, we experience spikes and then we experience dips in our happiness. These are moments, even if it's a one-day spike, for example. We can experience intense moments of happiness and the opposite, intense moments of sadness or depression or frustration. And this is our variation away from that baseline. But it's important to remember that the baseline doesn't change drastically. However, it might change if you are doing something different on a regular basis. Take, for example, a new job. One of the reasons that many people who are listening to this podcast and engineers beyond this audience, while you get into engineering in the first place, especially as a second career, is to escape a job that you don't like. And this can absolutely change that baseline. Now, it's not going to change it drastically. Once again, humans are very adaptable, even under high amounts of stress, even under really seemingly tragic circumstances. We tend to adapt to those circumstances quite well. But if you are in a job that is consistently causing those downward dips, right, it's not changing necessarily a strong change in the baseline. If you move to a job that isn't causing those strong downward dips, it's very possible that your average over time will be much better. So what is the point of all of this discussion about baseline happiness? And why are we talking about this with reference to graduation or winning a race? Well, if you're spending your whole career making compromises with the expectation that eventually your baseline happiness is going to skyrocket, the science isn't really on your side on this one. Now, that's not to say that you're wrong and certainly different people have different kind of responses to their environment. You may be totally fine making those different sacrifices for yourself. But it might make sense to change your perspective away from this deeply embedded mental model that we have of achievement. Instead of viewing achievement as something that happens at the end, after you experience all of that pain, it might make sense to view every day as an opportunity to be happy, not that you can force yourself into that happiness. But certainly your behaviors and your situation that you have on a daily basis over the course of your whole life are going to change your overall happiness level more than any one achievement. The feelings that you get, the sense of accomplishment that you may have at the end of your career, is very unlikely to make you significantly more happy than something that happens today. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope today's episode was at least somewhat insightful. I gave a little bit of perspective on how we have this view of happiness and how we might change it. Today, I'm going to ask you to do something a little bit different. Instead of asking you to go to a sponsor page or subscribe to the show, I want you to go and encourage another engineer that you know. Someone that you know, whether they are a beginner or maybe you know that they're having a hard time maybe as a result of this pandemic that they've had a difficult time in the past couple of months, I'd love for you to go and have a simple conversation with them. Ask them how they're doing and encourage them and let them know that you're there for them. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. This episode was produced by Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.