Michelle Song is tired, happy, and figuring it out.
The opportunity cost concept is intrinsically capitalistic, but in that unique intensity that is American in flavor. What other thought exercise implores one to consider the relationship between money, time, risk, return, and optimization so literally? Opportunity cost is all about bootstrap-strapping-up and making hay while the sun is shining because — here’s the kicker — there’s an imaginary cost to every resource you expend and that cost is an abstract and unconceived opportunity that could be.
I worked in Corporate America for years because I believed in opportunity cost. As a young adult, I understood that I would have to be my own safety net; that money would be a problem for me to solve before I could earn the privilege to design the life I wanted. So I focused on the urgent problem of keeping body and soul together and punted the more challenging and existential questions of “what kind of work would I ultimately like to do?” and “what qualities make my life enjoyable?” It’s much easier to focus on numbers and the quantifiable than it is to measure quality of life and progress made towards creative endeavors. This is true for me partly because I haven’t had the time and space to explore in earnest what this alternate life would look like — or how I could make it happen in a real, practical sense.
In the meanwhile, I worked on the practical things. The term “golden handcuffs” is trite, but accurate; the deeper one gets into their chosen field of focus, the better you become at solving problems and working under pressure. As you develop experience, skill sets, and hard-earned wisdom, both the work and the money come more easily. With intentional and consistent investing, the fruits of your labor compound throughout the years. (Years later, you recall reading somewhere that “a dollar saved and invested today is worth $16 in 40 years” and you realize that your investment portfolio might actually follow that anticipated growth trajectory)
While I kept working my W2 job, I dreamed. I dreamed of writing, woodworking, designing, making art, and maybe running my own business.
I view creative endeavors and starting new businesses in similar ways — or at least, I could draw a Venn diagram proving a considerable overlap between the two paths. There are upfront costs in both time and money and no guarantee of a successful outcome. With time and money spent on uncertain pursuits, the opportunity cost for both paths could be directed towards a sure thing like a full-time job with a payroll department that cuts your check on an agreed-upon schedule. And, again, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in my next, and more importantly, intentionally chosen career.
But what if I knew exactly what creative output I wanted to devote my life energy towards? What happens when you do the thing that is in perfect alignment with your values, ideals, motivations, and best qualities? What could come after that? These missed opportunities are even more abstract and unconceived; after all, imagining the qualifiable is nebulous, whereas numbers are straightforward.
So I imagined all the things that could-have-been if I had pursued other passions, and asked myself what still-could-be if I started now. What are the opportunity costs that cannot be measured by numbers and financial statements? What about the people I could meet while carrying out my most valued priorities? The communities to which I might contribute? The ways in which my life would be enriched and maybe even bring value to those around me? The businesses I could grow and — and practically speaking — the money I could make pursuing a different path?
The story I’ve identified with for so many years — that I have to be my own safety net, that I have to prioritize the money problem and that lifestyle design is a true luxury — no longer reflects my current position. I grew up. I worked hard, saved and invested consistently, and am a capable person with valued skills. I know how to make and do money. After I answered the basic needs of survival, different but also challenging queries demanded my attention. How do you like to spend your working hours? What do you want to trade your life energy for? This thinking becomes more and more existential as time passes — and although “time is money” is another common (and very American) expression, the hours we have really aren’t equivalent to the cash we could be earning.
Instead, time is just life.
I still wonder if I’m brave enough. How does a person leave money on the table? Wrong question, again. I could instead consider, How much might my dream cost to realize, and is that a cost I’m willing to pay?
I’ve not yet reached financial independence, but I’ve got “fuck-you money,” so I’m taking a self-funded sabbatical — transitioning, finally, from the money season to the writing season. I’m very fortunate to have learned how money works at a young age and to be positioned to purchase this time to be intentional about how I want to live and work. Now that I have the time to chase whatever curiosities stoke my interest, I think of my younger, more idealistic self and long to connect with her and make her proud.
As for the opportunity cost of this sabbatical? It’s an enormous financial cost, I’m sure. But I haven’t run the calculations and I don’t care. The point of my life isn’t to optimize my earning potential. Instead, I’m learning that life is about something much more… unquantifiable.