On Opportunities and Opportunity Cost

Photo by Ryan Baker from Pexels.

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.

The Money Season and the Writing Season

Michelle Song is a professional writer and practical idealist in Washington, D.C.

I have spent the past twelve years of my life burrowing deeper and deeper into Corporate America—while resisting taking on an identity as a corporate drone. I’m certain I look the part; sheath dresses cut from the same cloth as men’s suits, jackets, traditional analog watch, closed-toed shoes, groomed brows, complete with a lady briefcase made of calf hair and leather. It still feels like I’m in costume.

My younger self fostered different ambitions. She wanted to write creatively and lead a life of adventure. She was idealistic. She strove for authenticity in all decision-making, from purchasing second-hand as much as possible to casting off toxic and disingenuous friendships in lieu of stoking healthy and nurturing relationships with kind people. I’ve managed to keep this dream alive in its most nascent state for years by convincing myself that I can have everything I want in life—but not all at once, and also, it may look vastly different from my original vision. So I look at my life in seasons. 

You see, I want to write in an ideal, uninterrupted setting. I don’t want to write for money. Or at least, I am uninterested in trading my creative writing for money. I write professionally for corporations and other entities for money and I’m not interested in tailoring my creative work to appeal to anyone other than a trusted editor, my intended audience, and myself. Once you take money, your most meaningful and personal work inevitably shifts in nature and in purpose. You’ll shop your book around and, if you’re among the very lucky, meet with editors and marketing teams and come up with a plan to make your publishing house as much money as possible. Your success will be measured by your publishing house’s return on investment. The end product will likely be carved into a form you no longer recognize to appeal to mainstream audiences. The function? Completely disparate from your original mission. No thanks. I’ll make my money another way. I’ll be my own patron to my future self.


I haven’t always worked office jobs. Growing up below the poverty line and without health insurance, I went out and got a job (any job) as soon as I was of legal age. I’ve worked as a cashier at fast casual restaurants, as a barista, bar back, hostess, retail sales associate, art gallery security guard, and even as a fitness instructor. Aside from the love I harbor for my most cherished people and animals on earth, one of the only constants in my life is my keen awareness of the connection between time, money, and well-being.

A couple years ago, I approached an impasse. Spiritually and physically, I was done. I quit my corporate job on a Wednesday and observed my last day the following Wednesday. Fortunately, I had a solid “fuck you fund.” I was uninterested in looking for another office job, so I worked at a café, lived off of savings, and attempted to write creatively. What a cliché, right? I figured the physical nature of the job that makes a dent in the bills would not deplete the mental energy and stamina required for writing. I learned very quickly that labor is labor, all work is mentally taxing, and a long day doing manual labor and delivering high quality customer service leaves you physically exhausted. Exhaustion, mental or physical, is exhaustion nonetheless. I had never attempted to pursue two paths simultaneously while working physically taxing jobs in the past and I got very little done in the way of creative writing during this season of my life. Instead, I learned that I’m not a person who can work a demanding full-time job for someone else and write for myself in my spare time.


“Just write in your free time,” they say. “Do both. Keep your day job and invest in your creative pursuits in the evenings and weekends,” they say. Right. Perform at a level that keeps you employed at a top consulting firm, at a job that squeezes the work and life out of you, and re-energize yourself afterwards to squeeze more blood out of the stone. Writing is not just intellectually rigorous; it also comes at a great emotional cost. This is my experience as a highly sensitive person: When the muses are on my side, my writing actually matches that of my imagination and I feel wholly fulfilled. But even this kind of activating, energizing satisfaction takes from me. I feel heady and buzzed after a writing session until I unwind and service my lizard brain by zoning out to mindless entertainment. My brain cannot operate at its most enhanced and invigorated state for sixteen hours a day, ad infinitum. It’s grueling and unsustainable unless you’re some sort of superhuman prodigy or genius with boundless energy reserves, and even then I wonder if it’s feasible. Even superhumans are extra-human and have a kryptonite that affects them, them only, and no one else.

The recurring problem is this—I haven’t found a way to save mental energy to pour into my writing after work. So I have given up pursuing two paths in parallel. I’ll run the rat race and then I’ll endeavor to write creatively and share my most human life experiences with others to take what they will from me. Be it relief, ridicule, a feeling of superiority, amusement, entertainment, distraction, humor, caution, connection, solidarity, lessons learned, wisdom, encouragement. This is my aim.


One day, I will walk out of my job with enough savings to generate dividends to support my otherworldly endeavors. Once I have addressed the physical needs of the human condition (air, food, drink, shelter, the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) by conquering the money piece of it all, I will devote my life to other more meaningful (and wildly impractical) pursuits. The only barrier standing in my way is my money story and scarcity mindset.

How does a poor person leave money on the table? How does an underprivileged person with few opportunities leave at the height of one’s career and earning potential? What happens if there are changes in the U.S. tax laws and I miscalculated my financial independence number? It’s not always possible to re-enter the workforce and find employment after a self-funded sabbatical. This is a quality problem that I hope to come upon in the near future.

When I reach financial independence and feel freed up to concern myself with my creative endeavors and pursue other kinds of wealth, I hope to remember my younger, more idealistic self and answer the calling to do something with my life that isn’t measured by numbers, but something… unquantifiable. Writing takes everything I’ve got—so I’ll do what I can now to set myself up to spend a future season in my life worrying about how best to structure my novel. My professional life looks very different from what I had imagined at a young age, but one thing is steadfast: even my more practical strategies are based on my enduring idealism.