The Wealthy Programmer

In discussion today about programming for money – as opposed to programming for the love of it, or helping to change the shape of modern technology – someone made the following point:

I’d have thought striving to be independently wealthy would be an admirable goal – it’s a lot easier to be a philanthropist when you don’t have to worry about the roof over your head and where your next meal is coming from.

You’d have thought, but you’d have been wrong.

The pursuit and acquisition of wealth generally breeds greater stress and worry rather than less. Granted, there is a level of income below which one struggles constantly to manage even the most basic aspects of daily living.

Having lived on both sides of the divide, I can say with some assurance that living in poverty is debilitating, but so is significant wealth.

The one lesson of any value I’ve learned is that if you’re really serious about helping others (or helping make important things happen), you’re doing it already. Opportunities tend to look for people willing to accept them. You don’t have to be rich or powerful to achieve important things. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself pitted against the rich and powerful – at least you will if what you’re doing represents any sort of change. Even then, there are always influential allies to be found. Put in enough hours, demonstrate – no, prove – your abilities and Good Things do happen.

But here’s the catch. To do so is to accept uncertainty and risk as your constant companions. You are guaranteed to fail more than you succeed. Every victory, save a very choice few, will be temporary or mitigated by compromise. Your own needs and satisfaction will always take second place to those of others. You’ll find yourself – as I do – older, wiser, largely contented, but with very little to guarantee a contented, comfortable retirement.

All of this, of course, runs counter to the American myth of Success, where the sole measure of influence and importance is wealth. Rightly or wongly, it highlights people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, relegating Knuth, Woz, Mohammed Younus and countless other more meritorious figures to the shadows. This is a distortion. It’s not false, but it’s fake.

In rare cases, wealth will accompany accomplishment, but that’s not always the case, and if you let the former stand for the latter, that’s all you’ll have. As a wise man once said to me, ‘If you go into the hills looking for gold, all you’ll find is gold.’