Thoughts On Atlas Shrugged

Back when I was still in corporate America one of my co-workers recommended that I read Atlas Shrugged. She thought I’d like it. And I did. It resonated for me. It’s part of why I left the job I was in at the time.

But I hadn’t been a writer long before I learned that liking Atlas Shrugged was short-hand to some of my fellow writers for being a cruel, uncaring asshole who is completely self-centered and willing to watch the world burn as long as they get ahead.

Which is why I’ve never talked about why I liked that book and why it resonated with me even though it’s a large part of what led me to where I am today.

But I think there’s finally a real-world example of what I found in that book that I can point to for others to understand what that book said to me.

(And I think it’s important to stop here for a moment and explain that what readers find in a book is not always what authors put into that book. So people who know Ayn Rand and her philosophies may have seen very different things in that book than I did because they came to that book with a different background. I knew nothing about her before I read the book so I took from that book the parts of the story that resonated for me.)

This is how I would summarize that book (bearing in mind it’s been about ten years since I read it and this is what I took from the book): A woman is trying to hold a business together and giving everything she has to do so while the people around her are not. And even worse, some of those people who are not putting in the effort to hold things together are demanding more and more and more for themselves. As this trend progresses there are fewer and fewer people keeping things together until it finally becomes too much and things start to fall apart. Planes crash. Train tracks fail. Finally, at the end, that woman who was trying so hard to keep her part of things together, stops trying. She leaves. She retreats to somewhere where other people who went through what she did have created an enclave. And yes, she leaves the world to burn. Because she just can’t carry the burden for everyone else anymore.

The modern-day equivalent of this would be nursing in the United States right now.

I follow a number of nurses on Twitter to keep informed of the current state of COVID and they are incredibly burnt out. They keep showing up to work because they know if they walk away people will die, the system will collapse without them. But they are underpaid and understaffed and showing up to work now to care for people who call them names and tell them that the disease they’ve dealt with for the last fifteen months is a hoax. People who didn’t have to be there in that hospital room dying because there’s a fricking vaccine they could’ve taken for free.

These nurses are trying to make an unfair system work because they are the type of people who step up when the times are hard.

But at some point in time things get so out of balance that it just isn’t sustainable anymore. When that happens Atlas shrugs.

These nurses give and give and give and instead of someone saying “thank you” the hospital management says, “We need more” while collecting massive profits off of their backs. Or says, “Great, you can do that with X resources, now do it with 1/2X.”

And as each individual nurse finally collapses and leaves, the burden on the remaining nurses becomes that much worse and it takes out more and more nurses until there’s no one left standing.

The U.S. healthcare system is at very real risk of this happening in the next six to nine months. Because you cannot take and take and take from people forever.

Which brings us back to the lesson I took from Atlas Shrugged. That as long as I was willing to stand there and carry the burden and be the one that picked up the slack when others didn’t do their part that my management would continue to add to the burden I was carrying while enjoying the results of my efforts and paying everyone else the same (or better) than me.

Because why should everyone pull their weight and why should management make things fair if I was going to step in and make it work every time regardless?

I finally realized that my only choices were to live under that incredible crushing burden or to leave. Because when you’re the type of person who steps up you can’t just stay where you are and decide not to care anymore, that’s as painful as taking on all the burden yourself. So I shrugged, I walked away. Not because I didn’t care, but because I cared far too much and it was going to crush me if I stayed.

There Is No Right Path Or Wrong Path

I recently sold my house and was beating myself up for stupid decision-making because while it was a good time to sell (my market was a 99 out of 100 according to Redfin and my house still only got one offer the first weekend), it wasn’t a good time for me to buy. Which means depriving my elderly dog of her own yard because not many houses like to rent to 125-pound dogs.

That of course led to the “what have I done with the last decade of my life” death spiral. I could’ve made millions if I’d just stayed with that job I really didn’t like.

And I was especially beating myself up because I did like the work itself when I was on good projects (give me a ton of information to analyze and absorb and then let me tell people how to fix their shit and I’m in my happy place), it was more the lifestyle and who I was becoming in that job that I didn’t like.

Fortunately, I don’t stay in those death spirals for long. I seem to have this automatic defense mechanism that kicks in and points out all the reasons I shouldn’t be down, depressed, and upset.

Like how I was able to live in New Zealand for the better part of two years and learn how to skydive and get to have a dog in the first place. Not to mention the fact that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last seven years in a very emotionally peaceful place writing whatever I wanted to write which has included 14 novels and way too much non-fiction.

And realizing that even though I quit my job way too soon to start writing full-time that I am still somehow better off right now financially seven years later than when I first made that choice. (Not as good as I would’ve been on that other path, mind you…)

Even though that other path would’ve been the more financially successful path, it wasn’t the more emotionally successful path to take. And that’s the lesson I have to keep learning for myself over and over and over.

There are a million paths you can take through life. Some lead to more money, some lead to more adventure, some lead to more love, or more fame, or more “success”. But none of those paths is the “right” path. The one true path. There is no one true path.

Because we’re always balancing a series of competing priorities. I want to have enough money to live comfortably and buy what I need when I need it. And enough to splurge on things at times. I want to have time to spend with my dog and my friends and my family. I want to travel. I want to be healthy. I want to be safe. I want to be stable enough in my own life to have grace when dealing with others.

But sometimes to have A you sacrifice B. I love my dog and I know she likes having me around, so I don’t travel right now. Those trips to Ireland and Malta and Argentina and wherever else strikes my fancy have to wait.

And because I don’t have a crystal ball, I don’t know where I’ll be health-wise when she’s gone. I don’t know where the world will be. Maybe I will never get to see Argentina for one reason or another. I went to Guatemala years ago and loved it, but four years later there were consular advisories about people being robbed on their way from the airport to the main city which would’ve kept me from going. You just never know.

And you can think you’ve made all the right decisions and that you’re on the perfect path and then life can come along and upend everything. It’s a very rare person who gets through their entire life thinking they’ve made the perfect choices. (Or a very self unaware person.)

So if you think you’ve made mistakes and everything is shit and you’ve done it all wrong, take a deep breath. It’s okay. Change what you can. Keep moving forward and find that new path. Learn from what you did. Accept that sometimes you can’t have it all and value what you do have.

And if you’re not happy with where you are, try to bring more of what you wish you had into your life. It may not work, but it may take you someplace you never even thought was possible that’s even better. You never know.