The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 04. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.
I quit my engineering job in 2014. I was good at it and it was good to me, but it wasn’t the future. I was still working out my plans, so I hit the gym, pursued the most interesting and important ideas I could find, and started looking for a wife.
I met her at a party. I liked her hair. She liked my name. I made fun of her career. She gave me her number. Her friend, who was into prophecy, told her I would be her future husband. It still took work, but it helps to have Providence on your side.
It also helped that I was unemployed. I had time to court her properly. I’ve heard that middle-class people with respectable jobs have fewer kids than people who don’t work as hard. I’m not surprised. She believed in the virtue of poverty and also believed in me, so we didn’t worry about money. A little over a year later, we were married with a little help from our friends. It’s surprising how many more resources you have than you might think, especially when you have a good purpose and you bother to actually call them in.
When I wasn’t lifting and courting, I was building a network of intellectuals interested in problems of governance from beyond the established liberal democratic paradigm. I didn’t know why it was interesting. In fact, I thought it was a vice. “This is bad for your career,” said the little wage-slave voice in my head, “you should be focusing on more lucrative projects.”
The little voice was wrong. It was through those intellectual networks that I got my next job and built the social capital which allows me and my friends the freedom to pursue the important problems we have been tasked with. You’re reading one result: Palladium Magazine.
The next job I got was unorthodox. Someone had asked one of my friends to refer them to the most ambitious, open-minded, and public-spirited people he knew. He introduced me. The job would give me the freedom to pursue what was most important. I was a fit, but I felt I hadn’t been unemployed long enough yet.
I debated with my collaborators over the next year or so. Is this what we really wanted to do with our lives? Or should we get safer hobbies like drunken rock climbing? If we were in, we should be in with our whole lives and deaths, and with all our resources, because this stuff can’t be pursued by anything less than the whole person. We were in. We moved from around the world to the center of the universe in California. Once there, we got jobs where we could pursue our project full time.
By 2018, the incubation had been successful. Almost exactly four years after I quit my last real job, we launched Palladium Magazine as the discourse center and beacon by which we would develop our intellectual project and attract more talented collaborators. It’s been going well. The people we’ve met through Palladium are among the best we know.
The reason any of this is worth sharing is because it’s my example of what you might call “active unemployment,” or if you prefer the traditional term, “leisure.” The Romans called it “otium.”
The Space for Exploration
There are investments you can’t make from a structured, nine-to-five, narrowly teleological environment. You have to let your life go fallow sometimes, like a crop rotation giving the land time to bring forth new fertility. This is actually a consequence of a fairly general theorem about how to find treasure in complex search spaces: The best search strategies for complex problems like life generally don’t seek out particular homogeneous objectives, but interesting novelty. The search space is too complicated and unknown for linear objective-chasing to work. Biological evolution, in practice, works through a diversity of niches which it explores in parallel to find unpredictable advances.
The key implication is that while you have not yet found the unique opportunity that will be the engine and purpose of your empire, you have to adjust your sense of value. Value is very legible within a clear plan to reach a clear objective. But you cannot pursue interesting novelty—things that no one else is doing or which you have never seen before, or the little threads of nagging curiosity or doubt—by chasing along known direct value gradients. But that’s where the treasure is. That’s how you will find the place where you need to build. To get the biggest and most interesting payoffs, you have to start by chasing merely interesting novelty in an open-ended way.
Working even a good job cramps your sense of possibility, imposes narrow objectives, and eats away at the little things that could grow into big things if they weren’t so oppressed by the rigors of existing structure. I’ve seen this with my friends, in how they are full of ideas and adventurous spirit a few months after I convince them to quit their jobs. The world is full of ideas and opportunities to explore, but it takes time outside of structure to even adjust your eyes to the landscape of possibility. You are cramped by your job, unable to make the class of investments that is necessary for a life beyond the existing tracks.
If your role in the universe is structured work within order found and built by someone else, those off-road investments are pointless. This conventional work is usually more immediately valuable than anything you could do on your own and it does not require much open-ended exploratory leisure. This efficient pursuit of predictable value is the quiet dignity of the mass of working people. But if we are to solve the bigger structural, spiritual, and intellectual problems which aren’t addressed by existing institutions, someone needs to be exploring off of the established road, where there is a high probability of failing to accomplish anything at all, and a significant probability of discovering and exploiting the next big breakthroughs.
This is part of why we need an active leisure class in society. Productive exploration requires the application of skilled personal judgment to chasing hunches and interesting problems without narrow material and objective constraints. It is generally unfair and wasteful for this to be anything but voluntarily self-funded, though some well-designed research institutions can effectively simulate productive leisure and accelerate the exploration process. Thus, speculative exploration is a special duty of those with means.
Relatedly, it’s unfair and wasteful for the people who could be out there exploring and building the future on their own dime to be either working normal jobs or simply managing their money for profit. This is a key part of what it means to be a responsible elite. You use your privilege and your personal judgment to explore and solve problems that no one else can.
If you have the resources to spend some time exploring, if you are on to interesting threads of novelty that few other people have, and if you have the spirit to tighten your belt, throw out your map, and explore off-road, then your real job is to do so. It is a grave sin to neglect that kind of cosmic duty. But many more people have the means and privilege to quit their tracked careers than ever realize it and act on it. You need far less than you think to live in monk mode and pursue this kind of exploration. What this means in practice is that at some point far before you are or feel ready, you need to quit your job.
The Leap of Faith
But this isn’t really about your job. It’s about your relationship to resources and value. It’s about whether you are building a conservative nest egg along the conventional tracks or a bold empire on the frontier. This is, after all, the point of quitting your job and exploring: to find the new lands of opportunity in which you will build an empire.
Even if you are rich and have no nominal boss, statistically speaking you are still effectively a wage slave. If all you end up doing is nursing the money, without ever exercising the authority to decide on which future it shall be spent, it might as well be someone else’s. People miss that escaping this meaningless servitude to our own capital was Thoreau’s main point in Walden. You don’t actually need the money; in reality, the money needs you to give it a worthy purpose, but everyone gets this backward. And if you don’t need to work very hard at managing the money, that’s just because your job is protected by the union. What is capitalism but the overgrown trade union of the idle rich?
Spending the money on private jets, mansions, and fancy meals is hardly much better without some driving higher purpose to give them meaning. What good does that do for society, or even for you? What grand future are you building thereby? Or is it just someone else’s desire you picked up by mimesis from Instagram? Keeping up with the Joneses, chasing the validating promotion, and slaving away at a job for material trinkets that ultimately mean nothing are not vices limited to the middle class. Or really, they are limited to the middle class, but the middle class includes most of our supposed rich—“upper-middle class,” indeed. The American dream will not free you from this cursed dharma.
True ascent beyond the kept life comes only from taking bold, determinate leaps of faith on real constructive projects. When Elon Musk pocketed his Paypal winnings, he turned around and plowed all of it into a handful of his own projects, designed to produce not just further wealth, but particular concrete futures. If he was wrong, or he didn’t perform, he easily could have been blown out and left with nothing. He very nearly was.
To make such bets you must be indifferent at some level to whether you end up a king or a monk, or even dead. The indeterminate hedge-trader with his logarithmic utility function assigns infinite negative utility to ruin. The man of action serenely regards ruin as the most likely possible outcome, mitigates it where he can, and leaps anyway. He rejects the comfortable half-existence of drifting with the indeterminate human tide and manifests his bold vision into the world. Ruin is largely an illusion in the modern world anyway. If you lose everything you own, you generally still have your network and skills. Even a nominally risk-loving financial utility function is overly conservative in practice because it’s hard to lose these intangible assets.
Life necessarily involves these fatal leaps of faith—bets which you have no certain way of knowing will work out but which define your whole existence and require your intense effort. The squirrel has no way of knowing or checking that his instinct to bury the nuts will lead him to new life in the spring; he can only trust that God has given him what he needs. Any low-risk bet comes likewise with low returns. The highest returns of life and glory come from taking hard bets on your best visions of the future and being able to make them work through dedicated struggle.
A key difference between the job life and the empire life, besides having a literal wage job or serving your money as if it were your boss, is in whether you take full responsibility for the question of ends. Are you plugged into someone else’s assumptions about value, and deferring to the existing structure, or are you maintaining and defining your own understanding of what must be done that other people can plug into?
No one can or should be the lone overman who defines all value for himself. We need to cooperate with and defer to each other to make society possible. But even if we individually can only bite off a small piece of the overall purpose structure of our society to manage ourselves, we need to actually do that far more than we do now. For any given question of ends, someone, somewhere, must be taking responsibility. Someone must make that leap of faith to define ends for the rest of us to work towards. No one else is going to do it. Why not you?
When we must we defer to a master who teaches us what to value, let us do that consciously and explicitly and personally. Let us aim to be uplifted thereby as we take responsibility for more and more of the task we are given, until the student surpasses the master to receive their visions directly from God.
You can do this before you quit your job. Transform your perspective thus: rather than seeing the job as carrying out someone else’s will in exchange for money, see it as itself your sacred cosmic duty. What important task do you do for the project you work for? How does that project fit into creating a more glorious future? How is that future pleasing to God, the proper order of things, and your own felt value instincts? Your wage is just a budget given to you to help you carry out this sacred duty; give your whole life to the task at hand, and take responsibility for its whole logic. If something in that entire chain of purpose back to the highest purposes isn’t right, fix it. You own the task and the task owns you.
First, this will make you better at your job, because you will now see the logic of the task more clearly and will make moves that disrupt the incidental form for the sake of the essential substance. By your lack of self-attachment, you will be able to inspire and enable others to work independently alongside you and pick up the slack where you fumble. Of course, you will also realize, in an unfortunate majority of cases, that the job simply isn’t that important. You are, in fact, just doing someone else’s will in exchange for money. It is not worth your life. Then you will quit to strike out on your own.
But what will you build? A business empire designed to make money with which you can buy yachts? You will have only escaped back into the metaphysical wage-cage. Haul yourself back out and take your appointed sentence of years of hard leisure while you search for inspiring purposes that are truly worth your life and for the skills and secret knowledge you will need to fulfill them. You will find them only in the strange and unjustifiable curiosities you have when you’ve been freely following informed instinct for months.
In practice, this is the hard part in actually betting your assets, privilege, and life on some grand leap of faith: you haven’t built the faith. You nurse your money in investments and imitative yacht-chasing because, like Eric Schmidt when Peter Thiel roasted him for keeping too much cash on Google’s balance sheet, you actually have no ideas. Where will you get ideas? You’ll find them out on the un-tracked frontier while playfully chasing hunches for novel value. You get good ideas from years of hard leisure.
When the time comes to take your leap of faith and build, any empire worth your time needs to be financially sound. Healthy life grows and becomes looked upon with envy. This is, after all, the only meaning of market capitalization: how much do others want what you have built? But we mustn’t confuse this financial growth for purpose. The purpose of your empire is some higher task that you have built it to accomplish. Its nature is not its market capitalization and financial flows, but the whole system of machinery that gives it a very particular strategic position and animates it towards that particular task. Financial growth is simply one operational constraint among many towards the accomplishment of its visionary ends. Ironically, it is these focused strategic empires that display the best financial performance. But don’t let the venture capitalists confuse you: that is not what is important about them.
God’s Trust Fund
The reason taking responsibility for the question of ends involves a leap of faith is that you actually have no sure-fire way to ensure that your visions are sound and good. You have only your own gut-check intuitions to provide a ground even under all your most sophisticated philosophy. But it’s either that or someone else’s ultimately ungrounded intuitions. Where the others are proven by experience, they are also tapped out as common knowledge. Life is necessarily a leap of faith.
The other reason is that to actually accomplish at your full potential, you have to start doubling down on particular bets long before you know that you can follow through. You won’t see the whole path when you begin. You will have no way of knowing whether it exists, or whether what you are pursuing is even possible. If you have more certainty than that, you aren’t aiming high enough. You have to bet your life on faith that the universe will provide if your vision is good enough.
And by and large, it will. People fear the just-world fallacy, but in practice, most supposed fallacies work just fine—especially this one. We’re actually dealing with what we might as easily call just-world providence. The universe has provided us with a certain system of natural justice.
Looking around us, we see a world filled with beautiful creatures. Everything that has flourished has done so by fulfilling some niche in its ecosystem, embodying some novel virtue, and striving hard to bring its vision of life into the world. Where a beautiful status quo is corrupted or overcome, it is often for some internal lack, or by something that has developed new virtues that will enable even grander beauty after the disruption. The preponderant beauty of the things that survive implies a justice to the logic of survival and thus providence for the virtuous.
Yes, even the bane of Darwin’s faith—the humble ichneumon wasp that lays its maggots inside the living bodies of caterpillars to eat them from the inside and burst out on maturity like some alien xenomorph—is a beautiful creature with a sacred task. Like many parasites, its role in the great chain of being is to test the health and defenses of its caterpillar host population. Its predation weeds out the sickly, preventing the much uglier injustice of collective weakness and disease, and spurring the evolution of stronger and even more beautiful life. Even fearsome Nemesis, born from chaos via night and darkness, is ultimately the hand of God and the minister of justice. Even the supposed exceptions to justice prove its rule.
There is a surplus wealth endowed in the universe to those with the virtue to win it. This is not just resources won in competition, but more importantly also the random providence that falls on you simply for thriving in novel ways. The general availability of this providence is due to the difficulty and incompleteness of the project of life. If you are going to have some faith, have faith in this: the universe finds ways to appreciate novel exploration.
If your vision is beautiful and sound, it will flourish. Resources will unexpectedly come out of the woodwork to support it. If your vision doesn’t have that virtue, you will be struck down for its lack. That’s life. It is also justice. Where this justice conflicts with our own human desires, perhaps it is we who are wrong, not God.
But even our human desires are mostly good. When we see evil in our midst, that is mostly not a failure of our own moral perception, nor of an unjust world, but just another problem that we have yet to solve. We are young in our reign and despite our occasional lapses into evil and failure we have been rewarded richly thus far for pursuing our best visions of flourishing futures and charitable goodwill. There is no reason to lose faith that this providential bounty will continue.
So take the leap, and have faith that God’s trust fund will come through with what you need. You already have the “fuck you” money and the privilege to build a better future. You just need to overcome your fears and turn to the great tasks that might inspire you if you started acting on that privilege.
Growth Through Struggle
Besides reaching its proper form in the leap of faith, life reaches its highest development in the bold struggling attempt. You will find it beyond the comfort of tracked existence and in the curiosities and inspirations one finds in the wilderness.
Adaptive systems only grow by the application of intense will against intense but surmountable resistance. This is why you learn best on the job, especially in existential situations when your head is in the crusher and you must improve to survive. A comfortable, certain, and tracked-out existence is necessarily one of little vitality and low growth. This is a key reason to quit especially “good” jobs where you have become comfortable.
This poses a slight problem for the concept of “leisure” as we have inherited it. Isn’t leisure supposed to be easy and playful? Yes, but it is also deadly serious. Life at its highest is playful, free, and leisurely as it explores a rich land of bountiful surplus. It puts most of its time into rest, training, exploration, and curiosity. But winning that land and taking full advantage of opportunity when it is found requires periods of intense struggle. Sometimes this is adversarial competition against rivals, other times it’s the exertion of building something great. Either way, a background of leisure is properly punctuated by intense high-impact projects and crises.
This is related to why man became stunted with the dawn of agriculture. We traded a life limited by the occasional violent struggle over bountiful surplus for a more predictable life limited by grinding labor after barely sufficient nutrition. Scale won out, but not health. Quitting your job, in the full sense I have described here, is a bit like quitting that agricultural life to return to a life of adventure on the wild frontier. It is a much less certain existence and a more violent one. But the combination of leisurely surplus, mortal intensity, and demand for novel virtue is where you will find life at its healthiest and highest. It is where we will find the most important destinies.
After all, it wasn’t the farmers themselves who continued to define history, but the wilder chariot-men who ruled over them and lived lives of leisure and empire.
Perhaps this is why our society has been so stagnant and uncreative in some ways for the past 50 years. We chose the path of comfort, certainty, measurable progress, and indeterminate hedging of bets. In our cowardice, we turned away from the uncertain leaps of faith of collective struggle after fatal ends that would have demanded us to truly live.
To get back on track, we must quit our comfortably lazy routines and leap back into the unknown wilderness. We must first set our curiosity and then our fatal determination on the biggest problems of our collective existence and functional justice, without assurance that we will get it right.
So quit your job and become the wild and ambitious elites you wish to see in the world. Live by instinct in the untracked frontier, shoot your shot, and live or die by your intuitive visions of what must be done. You can carry out your cosmic duty and win glory only in the bold attempt.