The following question comes up often enough that I think it’s time to devote a blog post to the topic. It goes something like this:

If you’re really retired, why are you still trying to make money?

Actually, I was going to write the question in a somewhat more nuanced way, but I think this line sums it up very nicely. I’ve thought about it and in the process discovered that the questions isn’t easily answered in one line.

First, I’ve long realized that “retirement” is a really bad choice of words because it brings up all kinds of images for different people. Rest assured that I’m not currently spending my “golden years” at the old age of 35 sitting in an assisted living home and taking my medicine at regular intervals while receiving visiting relatives every three months and playing a round of golf every Monday. I have not taken to what many people would like to do in their retirement, namely traveling; because I just don’t find it worth the hassle. I have not moved into a cabin to meditate in search of a simpler life.

It would probably be helpful to study this definition of retirement, which concludes that you are retired if you can do whatever you want (within reason) with no obligation, financially, economically, contractually, or socially, to continue doing so.

If it helps on your semantics, just think of me having changed career from being a scientist to being a writer. In fact, don’t be surprised if I someday change careers again. I wouldn’t be doing it because I need the money. I would do it because that work would be more interesting than anything else I could spend my time on. Work isn’t necessarily an evil necessity and it is certainly not always done in a mercenary way exclusively for the money. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt that I was only working for the money. Lame as it sounds “I work to make a difference.” If I ever get the impression that I’m not making a difference, I’m outta there.

Of course this begets the second question:

If you supposedly have all the money you need, why are you trying to make more?

While money has never been the ultimate goal, it can still be a goal even if you don’t need it. I recommend reading the post in the link. Money is another way of keeping score. Bizarre as this may seem to people struggling to “make a living”, people who easily have enough money and don’t need more still get paid or charge money for their effort. Stephen King isn’t giving away his books for free even though he probably doesn’t need the money.

Money is the universally accepted token of value. If accumulating polished conch shells acted as a secondary currency of approval, the book would be priced at production+distribution in dollars plus one conch shell. The primary use of the price is feedback. Using the internet it’s quite easy to give things away for free. Properly hyped, a free pdf can easily be downloaded a hundred thousand times. The question is whether anyone will read it. I got plenty of free stuff in my download folder I’ve never read. I have, however, never bought a book with money and proceeded not to read it. Paying money (or conch shells) shows that something has value.

If you could have anyone of the following, which one would you rather have:

  • Your work was downloaded 5000 times.
  • Your work grossed $6000.
  • Your work received 7 thank you notes.

I’m (not) sorry to say that I’ll take the money. Much as I appreciate the thank you letters, they’re roughly $1000 a piece. Maybe there’s some ego there too. I have a need to demonstrate the validity of my ideas. And it’s a lot easier for me to show the impact of my writing in terms of sales numbers than in terms of appreciative emails, much as I enjoy reading them. Traffic numbers provide some feedback, but it’s hard to tell exactly what those mean and explain their significance due to their virtual nature.

Now it’s possible that a great idea sells itself, but it only took me a few days to discover that promotion, much as I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of having to sell, has a significant impact. It shouldn’t be surprising: A “good idea with great promotion” far outsells a “great idea with good promotion”. Now try a “great idea with no promotion”; it might as well not exist at all; something which I discovered 6 days after the release when I had my first day with no sales followed by a day with only a single sale. Talk about depressing.

This is just a fact of life that we idealists have to get over. Otherwise, the world will be swamped with “get rich quick”-promotions which people will keep buying up like hot cakes. Consequentially, much as I haven’t learned to enjoy it yet, I am now engaged in the second step of successful communication, namely convincing people to buy into the idea I developed in the first step.

I’ll go ahead and anticipate a third question:

Why aren’t you donating all your profit to charity?

For the same reasons as Warren Buffett didn’t do it for the longest time. I’ve seen how charities work. Someday, when I’ve found the right charity, I probably will. I’m very reluctant when it comes to the idea of unearned *free money*—I think it’s far more likely to be spent frivolously than earned money. Ever heard of the term “funny money”? I don’t want to turn my money into postcards, mailing stickers, and administrative fees. It seems to me that too many charities are in the business of handing out free fish instead of teaching people to fish. Incidentally, it is the same with *free time*. People working for free are too often taken for granted compared to people who are paid even a small sum.

Being financially independently wealthy, I can be very selective about what I do or even do nothing at all, but I’ll still charge market rates.

Originally posted 2010-10-23 17:37:49.