“What do you desire?” asks the great philosopher, Alan Watts. “What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?”
We hear these words, and we recoil slightly. We’re immediately suspicious. It’s rare in our lives to encounter someone audacious enough to prompt us to consider a world without money.
If money didn’t matter? Fairy tales! Balderdash! Poppycock! “Be practical,” a voice in our head says sternly. “Think about the future. Do what’s safe. Be secure. Take the sure thing.”
We brush off Mr. Watts, assure ourselves he’s full of hooey, selling nonsense and pixie dust. But perhaps, in the back of our minds we wonder, What would I do?
The Most Magical 3-minute Video With Watts’ Advice
180 seconds. That’s how long this is. Watch it now, and really think about what he’s saying.
A Powerful Message
“Forget the money,” Watts urges. “Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living — that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid.”
What a profound truth Watts has woven here. He summarizes so succinctly the fruitlessness of turning one’s life into a money chase. He spells it out so clearly that it seems irrefutable, obvious even.
And yet, the vast, innumerable majorities of people on this planet do not follow this simple wisdom.
Why is this?
In a sentence, we’re afraid and we’ve been tricked.
Our cultures, the status quo, the media, and the people around us condition and coerce us into following an entirely different paradigm.
We’re shown a fancy, glittering image of everything that can be ours if we just have money. We’re taught to emulate and idolize the rich, the famous, the “beautiful” people.
We’re hoodwinked into believing that wealth, status, and “upstanding” appearances are the supreme achievement of one’s life.
We’re told that the world is a dangerous, harsh place, and that we ought to follow the path of least risk, lest we be ground under by the mighty mammoth of destiny.
So we do as we’re told. We work jobs we don’t like for years and years, spending all of our wages adopting phony identities, trying our darnedest to look like affluent, attractive, important people with all of our ducks in a row.
We buy and buy and buy things we’re told will make us happy to compensate for an ambiguous feeling of dissatisfaction, a void in our lives.
“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way,” Watts says.
What if the answer is that basic? What if we should stop living our lives for money and appearances and material things, and instead ask ourselves, “What would I really like to do?”
What if we should reflect on that question daily, experiment boldly with different things, pursue what excites us, and do whatever it takes to spend our lives doing what we enjoy?
Why I’m Moving to South Korea
I first saw this Alan Watts video a long time ago, heard him ask me, “What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?”.
I listened to him. He certainly wasn’t the first to tell me to follow my bliss, to pursue my dreams. My parents had told me to do so since I was a little kid.
But as you grow older, society starts to clamp down on you, starts to get in your head. You doubt that feeling you once had that you could do whatever you wanted.
We need people like Watts and others to remind us that we don’t have to settle. We don’t have to live someone else’s idea of a good life. We can live our own.
Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, once wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I love this quote. It seems to me the most incomparable tragedy to live one’s life only to realize at the end of it that one never truly lived it at all.
In four days, I’m boarding a plane to fly to South Korea.
I’ll be teaching English and doing some traveling in Asia for at least one year. I feel this enormous life change warrants a statement of purpose, similar to the one Thoreau penned over 150 years ago. So, I leave you with this:
I went to Korea because I wished to live adventurously, to zealously encounter regions and individuals entirely unknown to me. I wished to write, to teach, to wander, and to learn more of this life and the world that bore me. I went to Korea to shatter self-imposed limitations, to be the hero of my living myth, and to behead the dragon named Fear. I went to Korea to follow the inscrutable, beckoning passion that I found whispering softly in my heart. I went to Korea for Love.
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About Jordan Bates
Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.
I wish you all the best! I hope one day soon I can make a decisive decision like this.
Thanks a ton for the well-wishes. It might seem that I’ve made a mega-decisive move to teach English abroad, but it’s only for one year (more if I decide to renew my contract). I’m still experimenting and learning about myself all the time, but for me, just committing to *something* has proven most useful in the past. Best of luck to you; I’m sure you’ll hone in sooner or later. Until then, get your feet wet and enjoy yourself!
Do you come from a middle to upper middle class background?
Hey AmethystTulips, My family is working class. I’d probably call us lower-middle. I had to pay for my own education, if that says anything. I see what you’re getting at though, and I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over this idea: Is it right to encourage people to try to do what they love when some people’s circumstances make it much more difficult or next to impossible to do so? I’ve decided that it is. I think that even if people have to work a job that is “just a job” but still make their free time into ‘do… Read more »
If you don’t have plans to marry, have kids, or get sick then yes money doesn’t matter.
Hugo, I see your point — future family life or the plain ol’ unexpected are likely to occur, and we need money to deal with these things. Watts didn’t say that we should *actually* live as if money were no object. He said to imagine your life in the absence of money to gain a clearer understanding of what you would *do* with your time. Then you can be sure to make time for whatever that thing or those things is/are, and organize your life around what you like to do. Watts is saying that money should not be the… Read more »
Hi Jordan, thank you for this post. I don’t write comments ordinarily but I felt compelled in this instance. Thank you very much and all the best in your endeavours.
Hey Jack, you’re welcome, man. Humbles me to hear that you felt especially compelled to leave a comment. I write these things for others, so it really gets me to hear from people who appreciate them. Take care, and don’t be a stranger.
Hello Jordan. I really need to say something. I’m a 16 y.o. boy living in Romania Bucharest. I truly found your post insipring, given the fact that I already know some of Alan Watts’s recordings. I cannot detach myself from the unwritten rules of the modern society. I love the idea that I can do something that really matters to me and thinking without bounderies. But when it comes to fact, I am not able to do what I like, but only what I “need” to do and what will assure me a normal life . I feel like the… Read more »
Hello friend, I’m glad my post inspired you. What I’ve found to be true about breaking away from society’s unwritten rules of conduct is this: slow, deliberate, small steps. Make a habit of doing little things that you don’t really feel comfortable doing. Eventually, the things start to feel more comfortable, and you realize the world doesn’t come crashing down when you defy society’s expectation and your own. I definitely think it’s a “crawl before you walk” type of thing. If you’re someone who has “followed the rules” pretty strictly throughout your life, then imagining the complete opposite — a… Read more »
All I can say is Thank you! You really opened a door in my mind and made me feel the reality. I also read your post from the link, and I found it perfect to make order in the confusion I have. Belive me, I really can’t find my words right now, you helped in such a big way you cannot imagine. I really can’t say anything more. Thank you again for clearing my present and making me realise what truly matters. I wish you all the best, and I hope you would keep going with these life advices to… Read more »
You’re totally welcome, Daniel (okay to call you Daniel? That’s my dad’s name!). It makes me feel great to know that at least for now, I’ve been able to help you see things in a new way and see more possibility. Truly, that means a lot to me, so thank *you* for the kind words. I wish you all the best too. Keep in touch. I’ll keep on writing, but do remember that I never want to give the impression that my advice is golden or the only way to do something. Life is complex and can be lived in… Read more »
Old post, but this one bothers me perpetually. I’ve done, many times in my life, things I simply want to do. From throwing raves, to traversing Southeast Asia by motorcycle, to DJing in all of the major clubs in Tokyo…and yet I perpetually run out of money…I perpetually have become a master in none of it and end up doing work that I simply don’t enjoy doing to make time to become a master in that which I do. I feel as if some of this is misleading, and I love Alan Watts. I want it to be so true… Read more »
hey Love Travel Bass, i’m totally with you on feeling that Alan paints a bit of an idealistic picture here, and i think that 22-year-old me was also a bit swept away by idealism. part of me feels that way at least. another part of me still totally agrees with the message here. even if trying to do what one loves ends up amounting to doing it in one’s spare time while having a job that is “just a job,” it’s still better to ask oneself what one would do if money were no object and try to make time… Read more »
Thanks for the heartfelt reply. And yes…part of me definitely still agrees with his message. I just wish it was a bit more comprehensive. It’s why, even after 5 years of not being able to DJ professionally (by professionally- I mean a sustainable income to fund my lifestyle), I continue to give it time, energy, and love. Congrats on the new opportunity though (HighExistence), and also for your honesty about the uncertainty of what one would do “forever.” I am doing freelance “content marketing” right now, and it’s the first hint at remote working I’ve ever had. Clearing about 1500… Read more »
no problem man.
also, are you joking?! hah, 1500/month is easily enough to live on in many places in the US and abroad. if you really want to, and are willing to be minimalistic and frugal, you can easily make that work.
Was not joking, as for me, 1500 a month is borderline poverty (according to US standards, I think it’s technically poverty). One of my business projects is still alive (Tokyo Night Owl) and it’s in Tokyo. I am just barely keeping it afloat; stresses me out and I’ve almost “gave up and let it go” multiple times. I would return, but monthly income is way too low (1500/month- I’d be going in the negative). I bring it up- as an example- of why 1500/month can be very limiting. Additionally, it allows for little headroom to “invest.” Whether it’s actual investments,… Read more »
Hey man, Just wanted to comment to say that I liked your post, and that I too was quite familiar with Alan Watts’ video and this great piece of advice he imparts. Without going into any depth on how possible/plausible his suggestion is today (though I do agree that it is powerful, and feel strongly that it SHOULD be possible and plausible, in a society that was oriented the right way up), I just wanted to note the irony in this — that your “following your bliss” at the age of 22 was to go to South Korea and teach.… Read more »
Anyone who takes this career advice, Alan Watts made an assumption on that video ‘what if money was no object’ and unfortunately that’s not how the world works today.