Freedom isn’t Happiness, and the Importance of Purpose – Lessons from Traveling the World

I’ve always wanted to be free, especially since I started working and realized how lame office life is.

I hated working in an office from day 1. I still remember when one of my colleagues complained that we were all being chained to our desks like zoo animals, and everyone kind of awkwardly laughing to acknowledge the truth while restraining themselves so as to not potentially get themselves in trouble. He was not wrong.

But since I didn’t have much money, I grinded it out for another 3-4 years until I had about $100k saved up – not enough to retire, but enough to not have to stress about money for a couple years or so.

I figured this would be my mini-retirement (from Tim Ferris’s “4 Hour Work Week”), while also giving me time to reset and figure out where I want to go from here. I yelled “FREEDOOOMMM” and bought a one-way ticket to South America.

It’s been an awesome time. The first 6-8 months or so for me were like a fantasy. Or at least that’s how I remember it know – we tend to look back at our memories with rose-tinted glasses.

But one of my main lessons has been that freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. In fact, freedom can be downright depressing.

Remember summer vacation as a child? Every year we’d have 3 months off during the summer. In theory that should be the funnest time – in reality, with nothing to do, I’d be bored out of my mind. If you just play videogames all day, then it’s downright depressing. Even though school sucks, I’d say it’s actually more fun than aimlessly playing videogames all day.

That’s kind of what world travel and freedom became to me. Doing the same kinds of things over and over. Going to the same kinds of places, meeting the same kinds of people, doing the same kinds of activities, going to the same kinds of parties.

If I had to sum up a single lesson from this trip, it’s that no matter how great anything is, you eventually get used to it.

Now matter how much money you make, you’ll get used to it and it will no longer give you the happiness that it did in the past. Dan Bilzerian summed it up pretty well:

The one thing about spending a lot of money and doing a lot of pleasure buying is that it just ups that bar. When I got into the military for instance, going to Outback Steakhouse was like a 10. Now I can’t get to a 10 anymore. If I go to the best restaurant in the world I’m only at a 6.

Dan Bilzerian

This means the goals that we spend the most of our lives chasing will only bring us at best temporary happiness.

Like a repeat drug user, the old dosage isn’t good enough to get us high anymore because our bodies develop a resistance. So we just have to keep upping that dosage, which ultimately isn’t healthy or sustainable.

Perhaps it’s premature of me to conjecture here because I’m not financially independent, but I don’t think financial independence brings happiness. It certainly helps give one the means to find their happiness, but if mishandled can equally create someone’s hell.

Just look at the many anecdotes of older people who retire, travel the world for a year or two, and then are so bored out of their minds that they desperately try to get back to work again – whether that be through finding a job or starting/investing in businesses.

Ultimately I think the main thing a man needs in life to feel fulfilled is a purpose.

I’ve always felt happiest when I had a strong purpose, whether that be coding all night on some business idea or pursuing some artistic medium as though I was going to change the world.

Conversely, I’ve always felt most depressed when I lacked a sense of purpose – when I felt like I wasn’t working towards anything meaningful, when everything I wasn’t doing felt meaningless.

In today’s society, I think it’s more difficult than it’s ever been to feel a sense of purpose and meaning.

Part of the reason is because we’ve moved away from self-organized manual labor and towards office work. Working on a farm has a clear purpose – you grow these crops or you and your family starve to death. Sitting in an open office writing scripts to help advertisers stalk you online doesn’t exactly have a clear purpose or sense of meaningfulness. Knowing that your company’s owner is worth billions of dollars and posting selfies from his yacht in the Maldives while you have to submit yourself to a passive aggressive boss everyday and only have $10k in the bank doesn’t improve one’s sense of purpose.

Despite the increased opportunities of connecting that social media has afforded us, we paradoxically spend less time interacting in real life (IRL) with human beings. Instead of living our lives and connecting with humans, we passively watch other people live their lives on TV/Netlflix/Youtube through the comforts of our own homes. This is fine in moderation, but a serious problem when becoming an entire substitute for real-life human interaction.

Going back to my travels:

At a certain point I got tired of moving around all the time to a brand new place, having to find a new place to stay, make new friends again, etc. It used to be a thrill, but now it felt like more of a hassle. And without good friends, it started to get very lonely.

I spoke to someone who’d been traveling for 3-5 years about this, and he told me that in order to stay engaged with it, you have to incorporate it with some kind of hobby. For him it was photography, hiking, and urban exploration. Without some kind of hobby accompanying travel, one was bound to get bored and burnt out.

This made sense to me. At this point I’d started vlogging a lot and making videos about my travels, and that had suddenly rejuvenated my interest in travel.

But then after 4 months or so of that I got bored of that. Maybe it was because the channel growth was slow, maybe because I’d lost a sense of meaning in it, likely a combination of both.

At this point my life felt pretty meaningless. What the hell was I doing everyday? I’m just living here in this foreign country, waking up, and doing what?

I actually started to miss having a job. Although jobs can suck and be miserable, at least you’ve got some responsibility and are doing something. At least you’re making money and not just losing it.

Since I’m not financially independent, I knew I’d have to start working at some point anyways, so I started applying for jobs.

Interviewing is downright demoralizing and can feel degrading. I remember feeling a bit depressed applying for and interviewing for jobs and getting rejections. Especially when you left 2 years ago because you weren’t interested in your work anymore, getting ghosted/rejected can make one question whether they really belong in this industry.

Luckily I found a remote contracting role not too long after. Although I like to think I’m pretty good, I want to make it clear that I lucked out here. They just as easily could’ve chosen any of the other applicants. (My point is that if you’re in the same boat, do not give up. All it takes is one offer)

I was really happy because for whatever reason I really wanted this job. And so I dedicated the next couple months mostly to this job, doing my best to be useful and make a great impression.

Although at my last job I was burnt out to the point of considering a career switch, in this new role I was extremely engaged and interested in the work.

After having lulled around in meaningless for some time, having a purpose again filled a void that had vanished. Maybe I wasn’t changing the world, working towards building a business, and was ultimately doing the same kind of work I was doing before but had become so bored and disillusioned with – but it was awesome having responsibilities again and having people counting on me to do things that were presumably of somebody’s benefit.

I was not only engaged in the work itself, but I had re-sparked my interest in the tech industry as a whole that I had become so disillusioned with at my last job. I started researching technologies, writing blog posts, etc.

In the back of my mind I knew that this was the same pattern as before, but who cares? It’s better than trying to brainstorm how I’m going to get to a measly $1k/month in Youtube ad revenue money making stupid self-indulgent videos.

Funnily enough, some unexpected unforeseen events in another business unit have resulted in the project being defunded, so all of our contracts will be ending soon. Ever since I heard this news, I really lost all motivation to continue working on the project, and have certainly questioned the full extent of the effort and dedication I put over the last couple months just to have the project unexpectedly ended. But ultimately there was nothing I could’ve done, and it’s a good lesson in not taking one’s job too seriously since it can be taken from you at the drop of a hat.

As I write this I’ve applied to some jobs and have been passively interviewing for them. I’ve certainly lost a lot of the motivation I had had before, and I think a lot of that is due to the combination of losing purpose from the contract ending, the demoralizing process of interviewing. and perhaps some fundamental questioning of what sort of role/path I should take next. Although for this last role I was desperate to take anything because I hadn’t worked in 2 years, now I can afford to be more selective, especially to mitigate anything like this happening again.

So I write this from a random hostel (was in AirBnBs the month prior, just happen to be in one for a couple days to meet a friend) feeling less motivated than I did before. But this was very similar to how I felt before when I was interviewing.

I’ve always found that lack of motivation and unhappiness is generally a sign that something needs to change. For me personally I think I just need to more clearly define my goals and strategy. For example – whether to immediately try to find another job or take 1-2 months off to work on something else first (being in an Asian timezone it’s a pain to schedule meetings with U.S. companies), whether to seek contracting or full-time, front-end vs. full-stack vs. backend, 100% remote vs. partially remote, FAANG-type companies vs. any company, how to carry myself in interviews + interview prep, how to handle and delegate work for my side hustles, where to live.

I’ll figure these all out on my own, I’ve found that simply writing them down has certainly helped. Ultimately they all boil down to defining a clearer purpose, goals, and a strategy of achieving them.

Do we really need goals to be happy? Are we like machines that need a task to pre-occupy ourselves and avoid existential depression? I don’t know. I’m just bullsh**ting here writing from this empty hostel. It’s 2:14am. I should probably go to sleep.

To recap:

  • Having a strong sense of purpose is fundamental to living a satisfying, meaningful life
  • Lacking a sense of purpose is strongly associated with depression
  • We are robots that must have a carrot on the stick to chase (goals), otherwise we feel like our lives our meaningless and fall into existential depression.

Wait, is that right?

Someone can correct me if I’m wrong. I just write off the top of my head and don’t really know wtf I’m talking about.

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