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Overpaid Syndrome

18 Oct 2013

It’s no secret that in this current day and age, people in tech make a boatload of money. What might not be as well known, however, is that interns also have it quite good. This is at least the case in the Valley; I can’t speak for the rest of the world. Depending on the company, some interns can make close to six figures annualized. For the privileged students without mortgages or dependent family members, it’s quite a bit of disposable income.

As a young adult in the industry, I am extremely grateful to have a shot at these kinds of opportunities – not just because they let me pay my way through college, but also the real world experience helps me identify early on whether I’m on the right track. At the same time, due to such internships, my friends and I developed what we called overpaid syndrome.

Overpaid syndrome is the embodiment of the “you only live once” attitude. You feel like you can do whatever your heart desires and live without worries. This results from the dramatic change from living off of ramen to suddenly having abundant spending money. If something exciting got suggested, we had a group of people committed instantly. This led to things like a weekend bungee jumping outing to a week long Hawaii excursion. Even some of our more frugal friends ended up developing the syndrome after interning for a couple months.

Our work was relatively low stress physically, thus the primary limiting factor on our fun was time. Work took the energy out of weekdays. Adventures were mainly saved for weekends not spent doing overtime. When an idea was brought up, what went through my head was, “How many hours do I have to work to make up for this trip?” If I deemed that the adventure justified the hours, I was in without giving it a second thought. Conversely, if I was forced to do something I didn’t enjoy, like shopping, I applied a similar mindset: “Next time I’ll minimize this torture by doing it online… Sure it’ll cost a bit more, but if I spend the hours that would be wasted looking for the best deal doing work instead, it’ll make up for it. 3 hours working instead of shopping equals a lot of new clothes!”

Essentially, overpaid syndrome turned time into a commodity to me. It is just as limited as everything else, and we only need to hoard so much wealth to be secure in ourselves. I figured if I was lucky enough to be secure, why not live a little? Never mind that I can actually only work so much, so those future-hours might not even occur. The thought process was totally flawless. Life was grand; it felt like we owned the world. It seemed like money really could buy happiness.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The clock struck midnight and our internships ended. I returned home to my first generation Chinese-American-Canadian household, where I was reminded how that $500 ski trip could’ve bought just about every electronic device in the house, and how my parents didn’t spend even a tenth of that when they were my age. It’s sometimes good to put things in perspective. I realized sometimes I may have gone too far and was foolishly wasteful. Can’t let overpaid syndrome justify all my reckless spending.

Even though the cash flow was gone, the overpaid syndrome seemed to still have residual effects. I’m in school again, but it’s not quite back to the ramen life. Future-hours are now completely imaginary, yet I can still think in that fashion. If I get cheated out of a buck or two, or I don’t do quite as well as I hoped on an exam, life moves on. I can spend my time on better things than freaking out and getting upset over the little things. I no longer stress as much and am overall happier because of it. My friends and I still try to have adventures when we can as well. We call it “bringing back the Cali”. I may not have the money to blow on ski trips anymore, but many of the wonders in life are free or cheap. Hiking, for example, can be done on a budget practically anywhere and there’s always sights to be seen.

A friend shared this quote with me, which I find rings quite true:

Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course? Each of us has such a bank. Its name is time. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to a good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no over draft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no drawing against “tomorrow”. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness and success. The clock is running. Make the most of today.

It took overpaid syndrome to show me how to enjoy more of life, and I came to see it wasn’t actually the money that made it better. It was entirely the thought process – thinking about how time is a valuable commodity in itself, and minimizing the amount that I wasted when possible. I don’t think you have to be overpaid to apply it (of course it’s always easier to make such claims when I’m on the other side of the fence). Ten years down the line will you actually remember how you got that one percent higher on the calculus exam? Or will you remember the great times you had with your loved ones?

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