The Value of Unavailability

Let’s roll the clock back to a particular weekend in the middle of 2006. Sarah and I had just begun our financial turnaround, but that’s not really what I want to talk about here.

That weekend, Sarah’s parents had come to visit – I think her youngest sister may have been there, too. We were going to spend an afternoon in Des Moines together looking for a few items for our infant son and then going out to eat at a nice restaurant that was tolerant of babies. I was looking forward to it.

At that time, I was employed in a research lab where I spent my time doing data analysis and aiding in data sharing. Most of our data was stored on two mirrored computer servers, one of which was available to the public when they wanted to access the data we shared.

That morning, a disaster happened. Within a few hours of each other, the main server ran into a software problem and the backup actually crashed.

Someone had to fix the problem. Normally, my job didn’t revolve around server support, but I had a panicked email from my boss detailing how the other people couldn’t be found and I was the only person that might be able to fix this.

Like it or not, it was on my shoulders, and with that single move, my nice weekend went out the door. I spent most of the day getting the main server into a fully functional state. I came home stressed and exhausted, having not only dealt with a challenging and urgent professional situation, but also from having missed a personal event that was important to me.

Although a long night with my infant son was the genesis of my financial turnaround, that day had a huge impact on me as well. I began to really notice how often I had to choose between my job and my family (and other aspects of my life) and it made me really question whether the salary I was earning was truly worth what I was sacrificing.

Part of the reason I chose to become a full-time writer – a choice that involved a rather large pay cut – was that I could choose when I was truly unavailable. It also led to my decision to sell ownership of the site in 2011.

To me, the ability to simply say, “I am unavailable right now, no matter how big the professional crisis is,” has enormous value. As long as I’ve met my professional obligations beforehand, I can turn off my phone and not worry about the urgent email or anything else for hours or days or weeks. That has tremendous value.

One of the biggest advantages of a lower-wage job is that it typically offers “unavailability.” You have certain hours during which you are expected to work and, outside of those hours, you’re free to do as you please. You don’t have to watch your phone or check your email constantly. If you want several hours to spend with your children without interruption and without worry that it will affect your job, you have it.

The lesson here is a simple one: money isn’t the only form of compensation we get from our jobs. It’s not just a race to the highest salary. Often, the more we’re paid, the more personal freedom we give up.

“But what about the money?” The catch is that the more control you have over your spending, the less income you actually need. Does that cable subscription or those fast food meals provide enough value in your life to make up for the freedoms you give up? Is an extra 300 square feet in your apartment worthwhile if you come home so tired that all you want to do is watch television or surf the web?

When work chases you home and keeps drawing you back in, you devote more and more and more of your life to your job. Constant availability might earn you a nice salary, but it peels away a lot of freedom of choice and leaves you with a bunch of “stuff” that you don’t have the time or energy to enjoy.

Live to work, don’t work to live, even if it means earning less money.

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