Work is what we do

I read today’s NY Times article on Silicon Valley millionaires who don’t feel rich with a mix of amusement and annoyance. With a few exceptions, it doesn’t feel like the Silicon Valley I know — perhaps it’s just that, when I’m in the valley, I tend to hang out with hard core engineers. I’m astounded by the folks who consented to be interviewed and gave such idiotic-sounding quotes.

There’s one thing that the article does get right, other than the high cost of living in the bay area, which is that it does feel like everyone I know who made money in Silicon Valley credits luck as the first factor in their success. I think that’s right.

But the main thing that I’ve noticed among people who are still working after having made a lot of money is that money does not seem to be the reason they’re working. First, the typical Silicon Valley engineer, regardless of where they’re from, seems to have grown up with a middle class work ethic; absent work, they don’t know what to do. Second, people who work in tech usually have a sense of progress which is very tied to technology; when engineers think about making a contribution to the world, it’s often in terms of new technology — clean energy, a new programming language, organizing the world’s information, etc. Finally, most of us do like our work, at some deep level; how many Silicon Valley engineers do you know who wouldn’t putter around with technology in their spare time?

What in this changes when someone makes money? From what I can see, very little.

And what’s the alternative? Managing one’s estate? I think most engineers don’t want to become full-time financial advisers to themselves. Philanthropy? I’ve heard a lot of admiration of Warren Buffet’s approach, keeping working and giving away money to someone who knows how to give it away well. Playing golf or flying planes? There’s some of that, but it’s hard to get a true sense of accomplishment from most hobbies. I don’t think Silicon Valley should aspire to recreate the English upper classes of the 19th century, which seems to be the vision the Times article had for the wealthy.

As an aside, I know a good number of people who’ve gotten off of the treadmill and are retired. Some are happy, some are not, mostly the same as they were before retiring.