David Heinemeier Hansson

June 27, 2023

Staying in the arena

One of the things that can seem difficult to understand for people who merely tolerate having a job is why anyone would continue working if they didn't have to. You often see a version of this incredulity when the peanut gallery weighs in on the choices of billionaires. Why do these Very Rich People continue to do things – especially things I disagree with! – when they have enough money to live forever after on a beach sipping mojitos and taking pottery classes?! I WOULD NEVER.

It's a curious contradiction in the conceptualization of ambition. On the one hand, the "I WOULD NEVER" sentiment is drawn from a longing desire to have financial freedom. Fantasizing about what life would be like without a boss, without bills to worry about, and without the other obligations of modern life carried by most. And at the same time, it represents a death of imagination to be unable to visualize how someone who've secured the material success needed for life of quiet leisure could intentionally choose a path of continued work.

But these two things are connected! I've never met anyone that made it big who merely tolerated having a job, and who secretly wished they never had to work again. I mean, I'm sure such people exist. It's a big world, it's full of folks with all sorts of different motivations. But stereotypes are drawn for a reason, and that reason is the recognition of common, shared attributes.

I'll go out on a limb here and posit that most successful people actually like what they do. Not in the sense that every moment is met with a big happy grin, but in the sense that The Journey brings purpose to their life. That a destination of financial freedom might well be part of the mosaic of motivating factors, but that it doesn't capture all the light of their spirit.

I've never had big yacht or private jet money, but I've long since stopped having to worry about the material upkeep on a comfortable life. And yet I keep working. In almost the exact same way I did before finances allowed me not to. Sure, maybe the hobbies are a bit more extravagant, but the eight hours a day in front of the computer are virtually identical.

I can thus completely understand why the likes of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg continue to show up for the daily cage match of running high-profile companies. Why the appeal of sitting on a beach is limited to that of the occasional break, not a permanent arrangement. It's because the drive that got them to where they are isn't extinguished by achieving personal, material wellbeing.

There's something provocatively counterintuitive about the fact that the biggest winners in the game of capitalism aren't actually defining their ambitions in terms of money. While many of the most ardent critics of this economic regime can't stop themselves from doing so, even if they aren't exactly hurting for their daily bread. And maybe that discrepancy explains part of the difference in outcomes.

But above all, I just respect the hell out of people who stay in the arena. Who when given the choice by their good fortune refuses to settle for a lesser burden. There's something deeply inspirational to me in such dedication to The Journey, but I can also appreciate what a potentially infuriating mirror it presents to the meager ambitions of others.

None of this should read as a paean to billionaires or other über-successful people. They are as humanely fallible as the rest of us, and their capacity for malice and cruelty easily supercharged by their resources.

But sometimes what appears to the peanut gallery as, say, pure greed or pure evil is but a shallow projection, which fails to account for the fact that some people simply live to stay in the arena. Even after all the victory wreaths have been collected. And thank Zeus for that!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.