Flourishing is a wonderful word. I first
encountered it during my philosophy classes, while discussing its Greek
translation, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία). The Greek word can also be loosely
translated as happiness or welfare. As Aristotle says :

[Ch 9] …Happiness (eudaimonia) comes to one by means of virtue and some
sort of learning or training… [Ch 5] virtues are neither feelings nor
predispositions…they are active conditions (hexis). (Nichomachean Ethics,
2002)

Flourishing is not permanent—you may have it now but can lose it later.
Rather, it is an active condition (ἕξις) you have to maintain. As an engineer,
I always think of it as a steady-state: a state brought about by your system of
actions, habits, and decisions. It reminds me of this graph from my control
systems days:

When a change is introduced in a system, its response oscillates for some
time until it reaches steady-state. However, it’s not final. New
disruptions can cause it to oscillate again. Steady-state is a condition a
system should actively maintain.

With that as a jump-off point, I tried to come-up with a simple framework to
determine if I’m flourishing.
After some reflection of my past experiences, I
arrived at the following:

I know I’m flourishing if I can answer ‘yes’ to these three questions: “am I
building?,” “am I playing?,” and “am I earning?”




Building, playing, and earning.

In this blogpost, I’ll talk about my personal framework based on these
pillars, and how they guide my decisions— both in career and life. I am
aware that this may not work for everyone, but I hope that it resonates with you
in some way.

The three pillars

First, I want to talk about what each pillar stands for, and why they are
important to me. My rule of thumb is that when choosing a career or a long-term
investment, it should satisfy at least two of the three pillars.

Building

Building is a pillar that I’ve attached myself early on. Heck, even my
Twitter bio says “I build things.” I
appreciate the joys of my craft
, and I’ve
come to see the world through its lens. Building something tangible sometimes
speaks to our primal desire to outlive ourselves.

Right now, software is my medium. It has the capacity to make significant and
positive impact to many. Moreso when you’re building in public and working in
open-source: the presence of a community drives your growth.

As an aside, open-source has definitely been a multiplier for me—and
I long to work on it in a more frequent basis. It just started with a small
project
, then this blog, and it
resulted to a lot of opportunities that I don’t think I’ll be able to get if I
didn’t build or learn in public.1

Lastly, creating caters both to utility and self-expression, especially for
software. I was able to create functional artifacts like search
engines
and
optimizers to something more
artistic like generative
art
and games. Building
is a verb that I’m betting on, and I think that I’m getting good returns so
far.

Earning

Earning is a pillar that I’ve come to appreciate recently. Living in the
Philippines during the height of the COVID pandemic sucks,2 and I got lucky to
have the financial cushion brought by my previous software development job.

I’d like to think that I have a healthy relationship with money. I try not to
attach my self-worth on it too much, and keep a certain level of
detachment

as I accumulate it. Instead, I see earning as wealth, something more innate, not
just what’s written in my annual tax returns. I always think that creating
wealth is a combination of skill and luck.

  • Skill: I like what Naval said that if he loses his money and be dropped on a
    random street, he can be wealthy again in a few years because he has the skillset to
    regain it. Wealth is created through leverage and skill.
  • Luck: Chance often plays a huge part in creating wealth. Sometimes, it’s just
    being in the right place at the right time. However, it’s possible to
    create luck
    , i.e., to sniff out where
    the
    potential
    right place and right time will be.

Inasmuch as I scoff at the overt seriousness and cult-like following of most
tech personalities, their ideas on
wealth
often have
a grain of truth. It’s useful, and highly-adjacent with respect to my field in
tech. And yeah, I also need to pay the rent.

Playing

Playing is a pillar that feeds into what I do. It’s the idea of following
my whims, blue-sky
thinking
,
and doing things just for fun!
We often get caught up with outcomes, taking
the process for granted. Although I like achievements, too much fixation on
output without the space for creativity and variety will inevitably tire me
out.

Looking back, I also learned my craft by playing: building Pyswarms isn’t a
requirement,3 it’s something that I did for fun! This blog also follows the
same principle: I write about anything whenever I want. There’s some level
of attention brought forth by playing— directionless, yes, but
meaningful.

One of my favorite anecdotes is on how Feynman got his Nobel prize:

“So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never
accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching
classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for
pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without
worrying about any importance whatsoever.” (Feynman, 1985)

That’s when he came across the wobbling plates in the cafeteria, which led him to
figure out the motion of mass particles, that paved the way to our
understanding of electrodynamics today.4 Sure, I’m far from Feynman,5 but
I believe that I can benefit from this attitude too.

Lastly, I’d like to mention that my view of playing may be adjacent to the
act of betting or prospecting. Having multiple possibilities (variety) and the
freedom to explore them (prospecting) can lead to serendipitous acts of
innovation.

Pillars in tandem

Earlier, I hinted about my go-to decision framework using these pillars: it
should satisfy at least two of the three. In this section, I’d like to explore
the dynamics of each pair. What happens if I’m in a position where only two
exists?

Build and Earn

Building and earning sounds like a nice combination. For me, it’s a classic
example of “what if your hobby becomes your job?” However, there’s often a risk
of falling out of love from your hobbies because your livelihood is attached to
your creative output.

Oftentimes, a day job is like this: I get to build and earn. I’m definitely
one of the lucky few whose obsessions are highly valued by society today.
But without play, the fire of delight, carefree, and joy might extinguish
—it’s something I want to avoid!

I’ve come to realize that I just need to accept it, as this is going to be the
case 99% of the time. My go-to strategy is to set boundaries, find play
outside of work
, and
separate the programming I do for my job from the programming I do for
myself.6 During these moments, I was able to build a
game
and write more in my blog while being
productive at work!

Build and Play

Another interesting tandem is building with unabashed creativity. It reminded
me of grad school.7 There’s building in the form of research and
open-source, then there’s playing in the form of freedom and the variety of
topics you can work on.8

I’m a bit biased because my best experiences came from these moments. Perhaps
it’s because I didn’t assign much weight on money back then—it’s
different now.

However, the combination of building and playing made me prolific in what I
do: publishing more than my
peers
, starting
an open-source project
, landing on good
internships
, starting this
blog
, finishing my thesis ahead of
time
, and more! It was
a good experience!

Of course, money is still a good indicator of value. I may have published a
lot, but their impact is gated behind paywalls and what-not. I may be proud of
my thesis, but I guess only my panel has read about it. My previous consulting
experience has tamed my building frenzy: it directed my
energy.

Earn and Play

Earning and playing in tandem is something that I haven’t done, so I can only speculate.
I always imagine this as working on things that are lucrative, yet doesn’t involve creation.
Moreover, the prospecting and betting aspects of play become more apparent.

In my opinion, investing on crypto falls under this category: you don’t
necessarily “build” something, but the game itself can net you some wealth.
Investing involves a lot of speculation, blue-sky thinking, and risks. However,
unlike Build and Play, you are measuring your moves with an outcome.
Your financial returns depend on when you hold and sell.

Perhaps it’s the reason why I’ve never gotten into it yet— I value
building so much. To be honest, crypto-trading feels dodgy at the moment.
With all the memes, laser-eyed profile photos, and cult-like facade, it just
sets off all my alarms. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting concept to entertain.
From a build standpoint, I like its promise: a decentralized financial system
ran by the public, just like open-source! I’ll probably write about this again
in the future.

In this section, I’ll talk about how I navigate this threefold framework.
There’s a common approach in Venn diagrams where you always want to be in the
intersection of all three—it’s ideal, but not practical.
Nevertheless,
moving oneself to that center can become your north star.

Ideally, you get all three. A misconception we’re often fed is to find that
one job or one career that will allow you to flourish. There will always
be tradeoffs in build, earn, and play. Moreso if you factor in your priorities
at your current life-stage.

I’ll talk about two realistic strategies. The first works on a micro-level,
based on your primary career. The second takes things holistically, and
requires you to evaluate all aspects of what you do.

“Take two then till the third”

Here, I expand upon my go-to strategy of “choosing an option that satisfies two
out of the three pillars.”
I call this Take two. It’s practical, for most
options within your horizon won’t necessarily cater to all three. Again, this
doesn’t mean you settle for the first two, getting all three is still the
aspiration.

But as we’ve seen from the previous section, there are tradeoffs when a pillar is
missing. Building and Earning without Playing may lead to fatigue.
Building and Playing without Earning is directionless. Earning and
Playing without Building is uninspiring.

Just like in our steady-state graph, we need to course-correct. That’s when you
till the third. Like tilling the land, you prepare a space to cultivate the
missing pillar. It may be outside of work or during the weekends— just
something to nourish your soul. With that said:

“Take two then till the third:” choose an option that satisfies two, then
cultivate the missing third

Hobbies are definitely a perfect example of this. Most jobs give you the
opportunity to build and earn, but not much room to play. You can’t
really just introduce any other tech, or any other framework in your next
sprint, but you can in your weekend projects. Making art, having fun, and
“directionless” work is
soulcraft
(Crawford, 2006). You can just make
nothing
, and
it’s fine (Odell, 2020).

Holistic view

Finally, it’s also possible to look at all your activities in a more holistic
manner. Each one— your day job, side-project, side-gig, community work,
etc.—contributes to your total build-earn-play account. Think of this
as an adoption of Bentham’s felicific
calculus
.

This is not an exact science. I don’t even think this is a science at all! It
is simply
guesstimation based
on your personal experiences. What this holistic view tries to impart is that:

  • Each activity provides varying degrees of build, earn, and play (high positive value).
  • Some activities don’t provide one of the pillars (zero-value), and
  • Some activities even hamper you from experiencing some of these pillars (negative-value).

You can then take the aggregate of those values and compute your net
build-earn-play score. You’re free to set the scale and the thresholds where
things may be considered critical. Sometimes, our life-stage forces us to
prioritize one pillar over the other.

In the end, it’s up to you if the values you’ve arrived at is enough for you to
flourish. Personally, I don’t overdo this, it’s more of a napkin-math
computation

that I keep in my mind.

A word of note

As always, treat these frameworks as guideposts. The worst is that we get
obsessed asking ourselves if we’re building, playing, or earning, that
we cease to flourish in the process. The structure we’ve built from these
pillars can also turn into self-imposed prisons.

Perhaps unhappiness can have its own
dignity

and may also shed light to who we are as much as happiness (Popova,
2013). I truly believe that. There’s no better way to put
this than Camus:

It is not true that the heart wears out — but the body creates this illusion.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be
happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.
If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be
deprived of their unhappiness. (Camus, “Notebooks 1951-1959”,
2008)

Conclusion

In this blogpost, I reflected upon my personal framework to determine if I’m
flourishing. I treat it as a steady-state system consisting of three pillars:
building, earning, and playing. I talked about how they work in isolation and
in tandem.

Then, I discussed how I approach this framework in a micro and macro level. My
first strategy is to always take-two, then find means to cultivate the third.
My second strategy is to perform a back-of-the-envelope computation to see my
“levels.” Note that these are all guesswork and estimation, not an exact
science.

These things may not apply to you. Perhaps building is not your thing, and
there’s another verb that resonates with you more. No worries, I think even just
the three-fold structure can help you form your own framework.

I write this during a transition period of my life, as I have always done
since
. I think it’s a perfect time to
reflect and reevaluate my views on work, career, and hobbies. Of course, I’m
still young, and this is not perfect.
Perhaps the 30-year old me will cringe
at reading this, but I hope . . . that he never stops building, earning, and playing.

Many thanks to Avic, Reena, and Jason for reading early drafts of this work.

References

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Joe Sachs, Focus Philosophical Library, Pullins Press, 2002.
  • Camus, Albert Notebooks 1951-1959, translated by Ryan Bloom, 2008. Note: if you read the References section then lucky you! Trivia, the “Notebook” section of this blog was inspired by this title!
  • Crawford, Matthew B. “Shop class as soulcraft.” The New Atlantis 13 (2006): 7-24.
  • Feynman, Richard, Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!, W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.
  • Odell, Jenny. How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy. Melville House Publishing, 2020.
  • Popova, Maria. “Albert Camus on Happiness, Unhappiness, and Our Self-Imposed Prisons”, Brain Pickings, 2013. Available: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/07/albert-camus-notebooks-happiness/. [Accessed May 17 2021]

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