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On Living And Dying well: Neither are about the money…

Date: 11th October 2012

A friend of mine recently put up a youtube link on Facebook. I almost didn’t click on it as most links on Facebook lead to some cat eating a cheeseburger, and I lose five minutes of my life freaking on it. But I’m really, really glad I clicked on this link. I realized as I listened to it that it perfectly encapsulated many of the things I believe about life, sport, education and death. This is it:http://youtu.be/siu6JYqOZ0g

I think that as a child my parents must have read the text of the video to me over and over at night. The voice is that of Alan Watts (not the climber, though he is cool too), philosopher Alan Watts. The big quesiton Watts poses is, “What would you do if money were no object?” I’ve spent most of my life trying to answer that question with actions. When I was 29 I walked out of the best job I ever had as measured by enjoyment, money, peers, atmosphere, etc., in order to make far less money but to do what I wanted to do: Climb and fly. I still greatly value the experience I had with John Winsor and others at that job, but fundamentally I was following Watts’ idea of doing what you really love, and ultimately mastering it and being able to make a living doing what you love… I do not think my actions were spontaneous; without my upbringing and mountain childhood and even professional experiences  I would not have been able to do what I have. But that moment of going, “Fuck it, I’m going to try something wildly different” is a small crystal of courage I am proud to have found, at least occasionally in life. For I often can’t live up to the ideal Watts writes of; I do do things for money regularly. But I know when I’m on the path and off it, and that is important knowledge.

A friend of mine and I recently spent a week climbing sea stacks in Newfoundland. Neither one of us made a penny during the week, but I think for both of us it was one great week. But we could not have gone on that trip without spending many, many thousands of hours doing what we liked in order to get the mastery that Watts talks about, or at least enough of it to figure out how to go and make a TV show about climbing towers sticking out of the ocean… More on that trip soon, which was a failure as a “climbing” trip but was a success as measured by doing something you really love.

A corollary to the “Do what you love” idea is that I believe no real effort is ever wasted, it just builds force behind our actions. The past creates the future. If I had not learned how to write through working at magazines I could not do what I do today. Those hundreds and thousands of hours spent hanging onto little plastic holds allowed me to climb a crumbling sea stack. Watts is not espousing laziness, he’s espousing real courage and doing something really difficult: Following your real, genuine interest in life. That is a huge leap completely out of what we’re told to do. I’ve read so many editorials telling the youth to stop messing about and go get degrees that will pay well. These are ridiculous statements; we should be telling the youth to go do what they love. So here’s a big fat kick in the ass to all the people who would have us be “responsible” youth. That path is sure to lead to the garbage heap of despair, to quote KMFDM. Watts is right, most of the people in the world are just wrong.

I got so fired up I transcribed a few lines from the video above and hung them on my wall. Here they are:

“What would you do if money were no object? You do that, and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important part then you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way. And, after all, if you do spend your life doing what you really like doing then you can become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much; somebody is interested in anything you’re interested in. But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like so you can continue doing things you don’t like, and to teach your children to follow in the same track.”

-Alan Watts

You know what? That is fucking awesome! Have a great day.




Posted in: Blog


  1. jf   October 11, 2012 8:50 am

    That’s one of my favorite Watts quotes. I also like this one, same vein:

    “We’ve simply cheated ourselves, the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy was a journey, was a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.”

  2. jc   October 11, 2012 9:09 am

    I’d give anything to make half (or less) of what I currently make, and be able to spend the majority of my time pursuing my life long dream/goal of becoming an ACMG.

    The tough part is that most jobs that would allow me to make half of what I currently make, would likely still require the same time commitment as my current job. I believe that balance is out there, however as a parent, there are still other responsibilities that have to be factored in.

    I love the quote:

    “Do what you love first, everything else will fall into place”

    However, from experience, I think a more accurate quote is:

    “Focus and pursue what you love first, everything else will fall into place, just be prepared to be extremely patient because it doesn’t usually happen overnight”

    Great article though, thanks for inspiring us all.

  3. Ryan   October 11, 2012 10:11 am

    This is a great article, Will, thanks for sharing… My 5+ year desk job comes to an end in the next few months and I am getting ready (both logistically and mentally) for some time spent on the road climbing. I’ve never done anything like before, but posts like this one and the Alan Watts video you shared at least help to quell some of the doubts that creep up. Thanks for passing it along!

  4. Alison   October 11, 2012 11:35 am

    I quit my corporate job in July because I realized I wasn’t having any fun. The only benefit was stability and money. I realized ‘what’s the point in that?”

    I quit with an inkling of a plan. To work on what was a hobby rock climbing site (about gear). It’s definitely been a roller coaster of emotions since then, but I wouldn’t take the old job back for anything and I’m definitely not looking for another job.

    I don’t make any money (yet?!), but I’m meeting a ton of awesome people, and I’m learning more than I ever have before. It’s absolutely amazing.

    I watched the youtube video you posted, twice, with a huge smile on my face, and hope in my heart. You made my day.

  5. gene pires   October 12, 2012 3:42 pm

    I love the advice but once I thought more about it, what would the world be like if even 30% of our population did follow their dreams? Maybe I am being pessimistic but I think the society we live in needs people to do the unsavory jobs. (which is really almost all jobs) Who will collect the garbage? Who will drive the busses? who will cook in the school cafeterias and teach the classes? I am not even sure if the mountain guides would work if they did not need the money. Sure there will be a small fraction of folks who enjoy there jobs and would stay, but the majority would pursue something else that is not productive for the normal workings of society. Society as we know it would crumble and the things like roads, running water, electricity and media (for what it is worth) would slowly disappear. Like a crazy hippie commune that leaches off of the working folks. (BTW, I am self proclaimed modern hippie and mean no distain to hippies in general)
    so my take is great advice for friends and family but not something to tell the world about. :)

  6. Lynn Martel   October 13, 2012 9:43 am

    Thank you Will, you finally nailed it for me.

    In my 51 years I’ve watched a lot of people drop their day job to follow their passion, and seen some of them succeed not just at following their passion, but at figuring out how to make a good living doing so. What those people appear to have in common is that earlier in their lives they were motivated by money and achieved a significant level of success following that motivation. No doubt, they learned some skills along the way related to both their passion and to growing money, and when they found chasing money as a priority to be lacking and soulless, they switched their focus toward their passion. And for those people, the money does seem to follow because they possess that ingrained skill to make that happen.

    I would, however, caution anyone who has never been motivated by money to imagine that following their passion will translate into earning a living. People who have never been motivated by money to begin with, and who have always chosen work because it is interesting and rewarding on a soul level rather than for how much a job pays, and who might have struggled with money prior to deciding to drop the regular paycheck to focus on their passion, will quite likely continue to struggle with the financial end of things. People who have never had a natural ingrained knack for good money growing skills will quite possibly find that trying to figure out how to feed themselves doing what they love is an eternal struggle. Food and shelter in this part of the world are not cheap, and they might just find all they have is their passion and a massive stack of debt. The money may never follow – or they might be Van Gough. Everybody has basic skills they struggles with – managing their weight, their time, cooking a tasty meal, keeping the house tidy – that appear ridiculously easy to others. If money management is not something a person is naturally included to be good at, following their passion will not change that reality.
    Not that they shouldn’t follow their passion…

  7. Lance   October 16, 2012 12:21 pm

    Alan Watss philosophy on how to approach life is great. The fact that you managed to live your life following these ideals is even more awesome. Still, it is important to realize that there exist only a few people on the planet that can enjoy the privileges that emanate from freedom of choice, talent and intelligence.

  8. Nicolai Michel   October 17, 2012 5:18 am

    Thanks for the link to the video.

  9. Chris   October 17, 2012 6:05 am

    “Do what you love” is a wonderful, romantic notion, but like Gene points out, it’s not necessarily practical for the masses. What if what you love is something you are hopelessly mediocre at? To apply this to climbing, there are many out there who if they pursued climbing zealously seven days a week, would not be able to surpass what some “weekend warriors” are capable of achieving. I recall reading about a dermatologist who climbs 5.14c in a magazine not too long ago, and he certainly didn’t get into that line of work by spending the majority of his time climbing (and he was 60ish to boot). That’s a 12 year educational commitment in the US, some of which is guaranteed to be 80-hour weeks!

    I have no doubt in my mind that a large majority of people whose passion is climbing might not reach a level of success that would lead to paying the bills, so it would come back to cycling between low-wage soul-killing work that takes away from their true passion, and the passion itself which offers no ability to survive.

    This doesn’t even cover those passions that are customarily paid, but for which there is supply that far, far outstrips demand. How many people out there want with all their heart to be fighter jet pilots? Astronauts? Even without a list of disqualifying physical attributes, how many positions are available at either of those two jobs? The answer is not nearly enough for everyone who wants to do them. Those things are so dependent upon a pyramid of resources, where it takes hundreds or thousands of people to support even one “top position”, that it’s virtually impossible to have a real chance to do it, and you are entirely at the whim of administrators and committees who get to decide which person fills each and every one of those positions.

    Everyone wants to be an astronaut, and nobody wants to be a garbage collector. Maybe one day we’ll have robots performing the vast majority of mundane jobs, but the total number of astronauts isn’t going to drastically increase anytime soon.

    This is something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about.

    P.S. As long as large corporations are producing and managing those robots, the jobs will simply disappear, without any corresponding positions to offset the balance. There are inherently fewer high-level jobs than low-level jobs in an economy like that. I can imagine a future where only 1% of the population need work to accomplish all of the same tasks we do today, but because our world is increasingly “winner take all”, those who control production will not be compelled to provide for the remaining 99% that have no useful purpose that would allow them to earn a living. A world with this much automation could be a real utopia that leaves freedom for individuals to think, invent, and pursue their true passions, but because power tends to become consolidated, I can’t imagine a scenario in which this would actually come about.

  10. Pete H   October 19, 2012 12:57 pm

    ‘to do what I really wanted to do, climb and fly’.

    But shouldn’t that really read ‘to do what I really wanted to do, make money from climbing and flying’ ?
    Because really that’s what sets you apart from thousands of people who have also mastered climbing/flying and who also love it without having (or wanting) to make a living from it.

    Or are you honestly telling me that, when you originally quit a job and decided you wanted to ‘just go climbing/flying’, you envisioned being perfectly happy with just living like a bum without any prospects of making enough money to own a house, truck, support a family? If all you claim to love is ‘climbing and flying’, then that’s truly what ‘doing what you love’ means. I suggest there’s a difference between ‘loving climbing’ and ‘loving making money from climbing’ and that one doesn’t naturally lead to the other except in some people, like yourself.

    Money forms a foundation which allows free choices to be made – not having money usually means fewer, not more, options to choose your own path in a capitalist world. No coincidence that so many of the top rock climbers I know come from relatively stable family backgrounds in terms of wealth, which allows them time and space to climb and not worry too much about the wolf at the door. They definitely aren’t living rough eating out of garbage cans (at least for any prolonged length of time…) and if they do it’s only until they get back to a house and a stocked fridge.

    Mastery of climbing/flying/baking cakes or whatever isn’t dependent on quitting a job to become a professional. Mastery, unless we’re talking about Ondra-levels here, comes from prolonged practice and doesn’t rely on devoting every waking moment to the thing to be mastered. Again I’d suggest ‘making money from a mastered skill’ is the real goal in your case. Thousands of people pursue their climbing, which they’ve mastered to the same level you have, whilst working in unrelated professions which fulfill them in different ways. No offense meant but you’re not ‘that’ good a climber compared to people I know who have full-time professions and who climb 14c sport and top-level trad and mixed.
    The French word Amateur means ‘lover of’ and comes from the Latin ‘Amatorem’ – to love. Climbing has a long history of amateur mastery, and amateur masters strike me as more remarkable than an increasing number of ‘professional climbers’ who only operate at the same level as amateurs, yet are bound to their ‘passion’ partly by their need to make a living from it. My passion is amateur mastery.

    p.s. I honestly don’t know that many guides who love their job 20 years down the line, but I know plenty who feel a similar way about it to people who work in construction/an office/anywhere – it’s what they know and they’d change if they had the courage.

  11. Calum Neff   October 21, 2012 6:40 am

    Just saw this quote and it ties in perfectly…

    The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

  12. Doc   October 28, 2012 5:53 am

    Good stuff Will. If I’m still around, lets chat on it again when you are, oh say, 63 or so and see how its all gone ’round.

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