Why Nassim Taleb Calls a Monthly Salary an Addiction as Strong as Cocaine

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

When I shared this quote by Nassim Taleb on LinkedIn, people were suddenly motivated to react and comment more than usual.

With every subsequent word in this single sentence, Taleb seems to get on the nerves of people more and more. First, he terms heroin as an addiction, which people have no problem accepting.

Second, he mentions carbohydrates as an addiction that can get some food lovers raging but, still, it’s a widely known fact that carbs can be addictive and harmful.

As a final nail in the coffin, he includes in the category of harmful addictions as a monthly salary. This, more than anything else, aroused tons of distasteful comments from readers on my profile.

Keeping carbs aside (for that’s a totally different discussion), one cannot help but question, why did Taleb put a monthly salary in the mix?

Let’s see if we can explore the deeper meaning behind this statement.

Similarities Between Jobs and Drugs

Since the majority of people work (and will work) as salaried employees, it’s crucial to understand where Taleb is coming from.

First, let’s state that working at a job means trading time for money. You work for a set number of hours for your employer and as a reward, you receive a salary at regular intervals.

It’s easy to understand why a monthly salary can be addictive — as long as you show up for a certain amount of time every week, you will continue to get the paycheck. The results you deliver at work may be important or inconsequential, depending on the kind of job you have. But rest assured, for a base level of performance, your payment is guaranteed.

Since a majority of people work in such a setting, it’s often assumed that the world functions like this. Growing up, I, like many other children, thought that a job is an indispensable part of life — you can’t live without it.

Unless a parent or a guardian explains a child otherwise, he grows up to live in a world where jobs are compulsory and where there’s no other option for success or even sustenance.

Therefore, on close analysis, it’s easy to see why our predicament resembles that of a drug addict.

Both, a salary and drugs, give us a “high.” Whether it’s the high of drugs or the high of getting a certain sum of money in your account every month, the brain releases the same hormone — dopamine.

You might cringe for a month about how you hate your job but the next day, bam! There’s your salary which releases dopamine in the brain and causes you to keep that job despite all struggles.

Just like a drug addict who, after some time, can’t live without his regular dose, many employees can get accustomed to their salary. If this is taken away from them, just like a drug addict, they will flip out, not knowing what to do. The only thing they can think of is to run and get another job.

A Job Can Numb Your Spirit

One of the worst aspects of a job can be the numbing of the mind and creative faculties. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. But if you work in a cliche corporate setting with hundreds of people above and below you, it’s likely that you get too comfortable to come up with any new ideas.

Getting addicted to this simple life where you can earn money without much mental effort is extremely easy. And getting out of that mindset can often take years.

Earlier, when I worked in a company with 150+ employees, there was nothing creative for me to do. My role was software engineering where I had to write code according to the specifications of the product team.

I hated being in that team. But at the same time, I liked it. Why? Because I had to do nothing but simply write code without giving much thought to what the end product will look like.

I soon got fed up with this cycle and resolved to shift to the product team. To my surprise, I realized that they too were simply obeying the directions of the CEO and the management of the parent company. They didn’t really decide how the UI was going to look. All they did was prepare mockups for the designs that the CEO or the CTO had in mind.

Seeing this plight, I left altogether to join a much smaller startup of hardly 30 people where I had a lot of ownership and the hard task of applying my mind to solve challenges daily.

Most people I meet are working in the former kind of job. Do you see how easy it is then for a job to numb your spirit, courage, creativity, and determination?

The more you get addicted to the security, the harder it becomes to do anything in your life.

Here’s another thing — a monthly salary makes you too comfortable to create anything else in life. When you have all the money you need to meet your needs and some more, there’s no incentive for invention. If you had less money, however, you would wake up every week with the determination to find new ways of being prosperous and helping people around you.

You may think that a secure job is financially beneficial. But the comfort of a salary actually forces you to consume more than you create which stands against the prime principle of wealth creation. To earn money, you need to give and give a lot to people.

When you give enough to solve people’s problems, that energy inevitably comes back to you in the form of money. Being in a job, however, we focus more on consuming than producing. We get accustomed to receiving than giving.

Young Lads Who Peak Early, Suffer Later

This brings me to an important point that needs to be addressed as a part of this conversation.

I’ve seen many people who got high-paying jobs right out of university. These were the kids who everyone was jealous of. It seemed they had all figured out and that they’re going to climb the corporate ladder to the very top.

Many young professionals who find themselves with a high-paying job in management consultancy or investment banking may find themselves being able to afford all luxuries of life — a nice car, flying business class, suits, an expensive condo, etc.

This makes them believe that they’ve hit the jackpot.

But the cost of all this luxury is devastating — you pay for it with your autonomy, creativity, drive, and yearning to grow. This can cause even the most ambitious people to become complacent. And when the demon of complacency strikes, a fall is not far away.

People, especially these kids, need to know a simple fact — pressure creates diamonds. If you’re given everything in a silver spoon without a sweat, then life will be very difficult in the future. This means, that the seeming failure of not driving a nice car at 23 as your friends do, is a blessing in disguise.

How to Get Rid of It

Getting rid of the addiction of a job is easier said than done. I will not even try to pretend that I’ve done that completely. For even though I work in a startup where money is tight and equity is the prime mode of compensation, I still am, for lack of a better word, a salaried employee.

I do realize, unlike most people, that this is an addiction. And I do everything I can to not let it rob me of my creativity and drive.

To quit the rat race, you need a lot of skills. Attracting money, using it for good, creating wealth in the process, investing, etc are just some top-of-the-head ideas. But let’s ask Taleb, who’s the originator of all this mess.

Back at the end of 2014, he apparently tweeted his resolutions for 2015. One of these resolutions was:

“Use courage and wisdom, not labor, to make money”

This I think sums up a lot of how we can get rid of this addiction and make the shift. To put it simply, we need to learn how to make money and live our lives without trading our time and energy.

This means using our mental strength, knowledge, and experience instead of physical effort to generating wealth. This is hard because it’s a lot easier to labor for money and get back into the trap of having a job. But if you think in this manner, you might just hit the right strategy for your life.

If you’re looking for a step-by-step approach, I’m sorry for I don’t have one. This is too personal an issue for me to comment on. But let the above statement by Taleb be a source of realization to reassess and perhaps redirect your life.

It might just give you a ticket to coming alive as a human being and reaching your potential.

Join 1000+ others to receive similar insights in your inbox

Written on September 7, 2021