A lesson in path dependency

And Hunter S. Thompson's Ninth Path

I started 2019 with a cushy job that allowed me to work 95 percent from home, paid handsomely, provided outstanding benefits, and required far fewer than 40 hours of my time each week to do well. It was also possibly hollowing out my soul, bit by slow, unnoticed bit.

And then I lost that job. The decision was made for me, brought about by forces outside my control and through no fault of my own. It would have been insane to quit, but once the decision was made for me, it was the thought of going to find another job just like it that struck me as insane. That’s not a contradiction. It’s just a lesson in path dependency.

In the six months since leaving the aforementioned cushy job, I have had to learn and relearn that lesson. My fear then, as now, is this: that I would take all the easy ways out, that I would fail to lead an intentional life, that if the choice was to be or not to be, I would choose the latter by default.

A Letter from Hunter S. Thompson

That choice is not, in Hunter S. Thompson’s estimation, a suggestion that we all commit mass suicide. Rather, it’s a choice to be intentional with our lives, or not. When Thompson was 22 and already far wiser than me, he wrote a letter of advice to a friend in which the Bard’s to be or not to be featured heavily. “That IS the question,” Thompson wrote: “whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal.”

The first option is to assume that the paths you are on are the paths you must continue on. The second is to realize that you can leave those paths at any time. We are never “stuck,” at least not in the way it can so often feel. There has almost never been a complaint about a job, a career, a home, or a relationship that can not be altered by making a different choice.

If you need convincing of this, I would put money on the fact that what you think of as being stuck isn’t actually being stuck - it’s just a choice you’ve settled on and are unwilling to revisit, perhaps based on values you choose not to interrogate too closely. The classic, uncontroversial example is the person who stays in a career they hate because of the money. That’s not being stuck: that’s a choice to value money more than your own mental state. You can always go work at Trader Joe’s if you hate your current job so much: they offer health insurance and viable career paths and you get a discount on your groceries.

On being effectual

So, you can always make a different choice.

But what choice to make? If we get off the path we are on - or we’re kicked off - then what? That is the question I have struggled with for months. I still don’t have an answer. This newsletter is part of my investigation into that question.

If life is a matrix, it is an exceedingly complex matrix, full of competing values, difficult tradeoffs, and endless options for how to spend our time and attention. And as Thompson wrote, we can choose either to expend those precious, non-renewable resources of time and attention floating with the tide, or swimming for a goal.

Unfortunately, Thompson is less clear when he explains how to find the goal toward which one should swim. In fact, he is rather down on the concept of goals generally. “We should not strive to be anything other than ourselves,” he writes. “We must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.” He continues:

In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires - including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

This is not too far from what Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, in a section on work. Haidt points out that we have a deep-seated need to be “effectual,” that is, to have an effect on our environment. That need has been selected for by evolution - it goes back a long way, long before the days of factories and offices and Slack channels.

This need to be effectual is why the monotonousness of factory work - and often office work as well - feels so dehumanizing. It’s why I have felt a certain loss of satisfaction ever since I left my job at a daily newspaper to go into marketing. At the newspaper, every morning I saw the fruits of my previous day’s work in literal printed paper - huge stacks of them, in fact. They were left outside our office each morning for us to touch and unfold in our hands, and read, and I did so knowing that newspapers just like those had, overnight, been shipped to every corner of the state for other people to touch and unfold and read. And my name was almost always right there on the front page: by Russell Max Simon.

The ninth path

Unfortunately, the newspaper industry is a shell of its former self. Newspapers in the U.S. employ 25 percent fewer people than they did ten years ago. But even that statistic masks the severity of the multiple crises the industry continues to face. Suffice to say that I don’t view re-entering daily newspaper journalism as a particularly viable option for financial stability moving forward (Though - God bless them - Substack is certainly trying to help by reinventing the model.)

For me, whatever comes next is not likely to be quite like anything that came before. But what does come next? Again, here’s Thompson:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

I have read and re-read that passage many times over the past few years, hoping to glean additional insight, something more actionable, a nugget from which I can extract the definitive answers to questions about work, meaning, and purpose. Once I even googled “The Ninth Path,” and I found websites and businesses and YouTube channels devoted to and inspired by the concept.

I think that I haven’t come to any clearer or definitive insights because those come not from thinking but from doing. If you think, for example, that you want to be a graphic designer, and arrange your life to become a graphic designer, you won’t know whether this is a path that will bring you purpose or meaning or satisfy your need to be effectual until you have done graphic design for many years. This is because it takes many years to become good at nearly anything that is worth doing, while impact, meaning, and purpose, cannot be achieved until one is quite good at the thing itself. Becoming a working musician can satisfy many of our human needs for transcendence, creative pursuit, and impact. But damn, learning an instrument well enough to achieve those things is the long, grueling work of many years.

We must do the things, and in so doing we discover our passions and find meaning. Too many people think it’s the other way around.

In fact, I hear there is an entire generation of young people coming up behind me which hasn’t yet learned that all good and satisfying things in life come from struggle and work, and that this generation is called Gen Z. Supposedly, they are depressed and feel purposeless and a large part of this is because they expect good things to come easily to them after trying hard for a few days (or weeks, at most).

Instead, what we need is to cultivate patience and also to do things and make things. Eventually, we get to a place where we can evaluate whether the path we’re on (if you must stick with the “path” metaphor) is the one on which we want to stay. Then, we can make a choice to get off or continue on. Eventually, we may say that we have found that thing called purpose.

Being and nothingness

These are all abstractions of course: concepts we have invented to make sense of existence. To quote Thompson’s letter one last time: “I’m going to steer clear of the word ‘existentialism,’ but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts.”

There’s a good reason Jean-Paul Sartre titled his book Being and Nothingness. There are no actual paths or callings, and meaning only exists to the extent that we humans choose to imbue it. As I wrote last month:

Events happen and seasons turn, but they are only a narrative if I choose to make them into one. They only have significance that I attribute. And, as is often the case, the truths I like to remind myself of are as liberating as they are scary.

I may yet go get a job at Trader Joe’s. I really like Trader Joe’s - I think they’ve reinvented grocery stores for the better by zigging (fewer choices, smaller stores) when everyone else was zagging. Besides, the only decent olive oil I’ve been able to find mass distributed in the U.S. is the Tunisian brand in a tin can found in Trader Joe’s, and having decent olive oil in your life is fucking important.

Until then, I will continue searching for my own Ninth Path. Even if it’s just a concept invented by Hunter S. Thompson.