‘Better to Reign in Hell Than Serve in Heaven’ is Part IV of the Constraints That Liberate series (there’s no need to read the previous posts first).
In my misspent youth, I slogged through John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost with the vague hope that reading 10,000 lines of 17th century blank verse would make me seem smart and interesting. It didn’t work.
I tried again recently—this time with purer intentions—but still ended up agreeing with Samuel Johnson: no-one ever wished it longer than it was.1
As far as I’m concerned, Paradise Lost has two redeeming features:
- When you get bored, you can look at the lovely pictures by Gustave Doré or William Blake.
- Lucifer/Satan is an example to us all.
Lucifer steals the show and gets all the best parts of the poem. He’s a surprisingly sympathetic character, while God is kind of a dick. This will not be news to anyone who has read the Old Testament.2
God would be the worst boss ever: petty, vengeful, micro-managing everything, always transforming Karen from HR into a pillar of salt. I bet He reheats tuna casseroles in the office microwave. This is enough to turn anyone into a being of pure evil.
And so, Lucifer rebels against God’s tyranny, is cast out into the darkness as the fallen angel Satan, and utters the famous line: “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”
Now, I know that Satan is meant to be the bad guy. He’s literally the Bad Guy!
But honestly… I’m kind of with the devil on this one.
Reigning in Hell
‘Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven’ is the fervently-held belief of many freelancers, entrepreneurs and digital nomads I’ve met over the last few years. They’ve all walked away from overbearing bosses, steady paychecks, and nine-to-five office hours to build their own dominions—with all the risk and reward that comes with it.
Being cast out into the darkness is liberating. There are no rules in hell! You can set your own hours and fire annoying clients and be your own boss and blow off work to go drinking at 11 in the morning.
But there’s a price. You’re no longer part of a heavenly choir singing in harmony. You’re one lone voice out in the wilderness. Your fate is in your own hands. You don’t have the comfort of a monthly salary to draw upon. Or sick leave. Or holiday pay. Or health insurance. And there’s no guarantee that your new boss (you) is any less of an asshole.
In my opinion, it’s still worth it.
I’m a relentless booster for personal freedom, but until recently, even I didn’t realise just how important it is to have autonomy over your day-to-day existence.
Like… life-and-death important.
Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death
Newborns have no autonomy. They are at the mercy of the big people who pick them up, pinch their cheeks, and feed them. About all they can do is flail their limbs around and turn their heads to look at interesting stuff.
But even at three months, babies love to exercise whatever tiny scraps of control they can. In a landmark study, a group of infants were placed face-up in a crib. When they turned their heads on the pillow, it illuminated a mobile of dancing animals. This was hugely thrilling to the babies, who soon learned how to make the animals appear at will, and never tired of the spectacle.
A second group of babies were passive observers. When their cribmates turned on the mobile, they initially enjoyed the show just as much. But without the ability to turn it on and off themselves, they quickly lost interest.
The importance of being in control starts in the cradle—and it follows us all the way to the grave.
Another study: the residents of a nursing home were each given a houseplant to look after. Half of the old folks were told that they were in charge of watering it and taking care of it, while the other half were told that a staff member would be do everything. Six months later, 30 per cent of the residents in the do-nothing group had died—twice as many as those who were given control.
Nursing homes are usually called ‘Paradise Lodge’ or ‘Eden Care’ or whatever, barely bothering to conceal that you’ve been dropped off in God’s waiting room. I’m sure some of these facilities really are heaven-like: the nurses take care of everything and give you sponge baths and listen patiently to your stories about catching the ferry to Shelbyville with an onion tied to your belt (which was the style at the time).
But it might not be worth it. Not if everything is predetermined, the days bleed together, and fussing staff won’t let you do anything for yourself. No wonder so many ‘stubborn’ old people refuse to leave their own homes. Living independently is dangerous and difficult—but it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.
As Daniel Gilbert put it, in Stumbling on Happiness:
The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.
The welcome flipside of hedonic adaptation is that we usually bounce back from misfortune, and return close to our baseline happiness. But we never adapt to losing control.
The likes of long commutes, loud noises, and tyrannical bosses are just as bad on the 1000th day as they were on the first. These things are endlessly frustrating, because they make us feel powerless.
This is why ‘autonomy’ is one of the strongest predictors of job satisfaction—alongside working with good people, feeling like you’re having an impact, and being good at what you do.
If you have a job that ticks all four of these boxes, you’ve won the lottery. Perhaps you’re better off serving in heaven?
Serving in Heaven
In Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb riffs on the fable of the wolf and the dog.
The gaunt wolf lives in the woods, fighting hard for every bite he can find. On the fringes of town he meets a sleek and strong dog, who brags about his warm bed, loving family, and regular meals.
The wolf is enraptured by this apparent paradise, until he notices the worn fur around the dog’s neck. As he hears about the collar and chain, he is so horrified that he runs back into the woods, and is still running.
Personally, I might have considered taking the collar. Lone wolves hunt rats and scavenge rotting carcasses to survive, and often die of mange. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
But the running theme of this series is that there is a third way.
You can deliberately impose constraints upon yourself—say, sign an employment contract—but only on your own terms. In other words, you can be a wolf among dogs.
A Wolf among Dogs
The necktie is the collar-equivalent of male office workers. It serves no function whatsoever, except to gently strangle you all day long and occasionally flop into your soup. It is the least-subtle symbol of subservience imaginable.
In December 1993, Nassim Taleb deposited his last business tie in the garbage can at the corner of 48th St and Park Avenue.
He could get away with this, because he had become so successful as a trader that he was too valuable to fire:
If you were profitable you could give managers all the crap you wanted and they ate it because they needed you and were afraid of losing their own jobs.
Taleb was a wolf amongst dogs.3
When I got my first proper job as a junior business reporter, I took out all my piercings and wore a suit every day and ironed my shirts and shaved regularly and made sure to turn up earlier than everyone.
This was a big effort for me, because I am naturally a scruffy person. But I had to pay my dues. I was a nobody, with zero career capital, on a temporary contract, with no guarantee it would be renewed.
After a year or so, I proved myself, and got job offers from other companies. I slowly started to revert to my natural form: longer hair, earrings back in, jeans most days. My hours became more flexible, and no-one batted an eyelid when I took occasional long boozy lunches.
The unspoken rule: if you deliver the goods and aren’t an asshole, nothing else matters. I’m hardly claiming I was indispensable, but I was valuable enough to leverage some pay rises and get my own column and generally have a reasonable degree of autonomy over my work.
(Later on I was made to write an increasing volume of clickbait and listicles, so I walked away. I was probably going to quit for unrelated reasons anyway, but that was part of it).
In other words: if you accumulate enough career capital, you can get all the perks of being a dog, without having to wear the collar.
This is another valuable asset to add to the ‘fuck you’ independence stack:
Have enough savings to cover your expenses for a year or two, so you can walk away from a bad situation, find a better job, or retrain.
Follow Ben Franklin’s lead, and commit to living simply rather than sell out your principles.
3. Fuck-you career capital
Become such a useful and profitable employee—ideally, the only person who knows how to do some important thing—that you’re difficult to push around.
This doesn’t give you license to be a dick, or strut around radiating an aura of ‘fuck you’. Better to be mild and pleasant and treat people kindly. But it does give you license to push back against things you don’t want to do, gently brush aside arbitrary rules and norms, and maintain the option to go nuclear.
It’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. I believe this right down to my core. But if you can find a way to get the best of both worlds—to rule in heaven, or be a wolf among dogs—perhaps that’s even better still.
Coming up next: Constraints that Liberate V: Exploring and Exploiting
Previously in the series: Constraints that Liberate III: Same Salad, Different Day
Introduction and overview: Constraints that Liberate
The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, the Amazon referral links on this page send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
Taleb is the kind of guy who uses the independence that comes with fuck-you money to loudly say ‘fuck you’ to anyone who provokes his wrath. He’s a belligerent asshole, and makes no attempt to hide it.
In spite of this (perhaps because of it?) I am enormously fond of Taleb, and have learned more from him than just about anyone. The day he blocks me on Twitter will be the day I know I’ve finally made it.
His latest work, Skin in the Game, contains a bunch of useful heuristics for thinking about uncertainty, a section on fuck-you money, and an argument against cheap talk/the importance of taking risk for your opinions.
I was mostly kidding about reading Paradise Lost for the pictures…mostly.4 Several of the books are boring filler in my opinion, and tough going. But this is one of the most influential pieces of writing ever, which gave us terrific words like ‘terrific’, ‘space’, ‘debauchery’ and ‘sensuous’ (Milton coined more neologisms than Shakespeare!). It inspired Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and generally unlocks a treasure trove of references from the last 300 years of literature, film, music, and arts.
One of the best books I read in 2018. Ignore the cute title: this is not a self-help book, so much as a guided tour through the problems with happiness research, the difficulty of trying to predict what our future selves will want, and a deep dive into hedonic adaptation. Gilbert is a terrific and funny writer, which is rare in popular books written by actual scientists.
- Someone has helpfully compiled a collection of Johnson’s sickest burns here.
- I quite like Jesus, but his dad is a bit much for me. I relate to Winston’s Churchill’s son Randolph, whose friends tried to shut him up by betting him he couldn’t read the whole Bible in a fortnight: ‘Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud: “I say, I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible . . . ” or merely slapping his side and chortling, “God, isn’t God a shit!”
- And he still is: a recent thread on Twitter shows he has stuck to his no-tie rule at 10 Downing, the White House, etc, with the only exception being the US Senate: “They refused to let me testify without a tie, so I borrowed one.”
- Narrowing down the illustrations for this post was tough. In order: the first two engravings are by Gustave Doré (Lucifer falling, then reigning in hell), then William Blake’s watercolors (rallying the fallen angels), Doré again (St. Michael kicking demonic ass, Lucifer in the garden of Eden) and finally, John Martin (Adam and Eve starting their new life on Earth). I couldn’t find a way to shoehorn in Thomas Lawrence’s weirdly-buff Satan but will settle for including it in this footnote.