It’s worth questioning the beaten track.
“You’re never going to get rich renting out your time,” Naval Ravikant says. “Earn with your mind, not your time.”
And it’s true: people can become wealthy by establishing systems that make money independent from time. They build products with no costs for selling additional units such as books, online courses, media, movies, and code.
And so I did. When I became self-employed last summer, I said no to trading my time for money. I declined freelance gigs and job offers from previous clients and focused on building scalable online income streams.
Within a few months, I made 4x the amount of my previous full-time teaching job. Yet, something felt odd. After two months of a $10,000+ income, I felt less happy than before. Passive income didn’t make me as happy as I thought it would. Here’s why my life became richer the day I stopped optimizing for passive income.
Activities exist in hierarchies.
When you focus on building passive income, your time becomes your most valuable resource. Pretending your time is worth $1,000 can make you 100x more productive.
You hire freelancers and focus on the strategic tasks that push your business forward. You evaluate how you can use your time in the best way to multiply your returns without putting in more hours — but it comes at a cost.
Chasing passive income will downgrade all activities that don’t push you towards your goal. You’re trapped in a logic of material productivity, competition, and greed for money. Things and actions that value love, enjoyment, empathy, mindfulness, understanding, and care have less value.
You won’t be able to enjoy a hobby such as reading because you’ll become obsessed with work.
“There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.”
Passive income makes you greedy.
In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that people stop striving for more as soon as their needs are met. Once they reach this point, they prefer to live the good life.
But his theory was wrong. Even though economies reached all-time highs, people don’t work less. In ‘How much is enough?’, Edward and Robert Skidelsky describe how the rich world has so much less leisure than Keynes suggested.
Why? Material desires are limitless.
Once you make a few thousand bucks a month, you don’t retire and live the good life. You see your growth trajectory, and you want more.
Maximum income ≠ maximum impact.
The people most in need are not the ones who drive your sales. By focusing on and optimizing for your target audience, you overlook those who need help but can’t pay for it.
In ‘I spend, therefore I am,’ Philip Roscoe argues that the justifications of economics make you set aside any social or moral obligations. Instead, you act within a limited, short-term definition of self-interest.
This mindset is responsible for the gravest problem we face: the empathy gap.
The ones who belong to the dominant groups — white, heteronormative, without disability, cis-gender — don’t learn to develop empathy for those who do not belong to the norm.
And maximizing income with digital products widens this gap. You lose touch with reality. You’re not challenged to question your worldview. Instead, you remain in a neat online bubble.
When I think back on my best workdays, they don’t include screens or income. The happiest moments always happened with people around me — helping the local community or doing things nobody wanted to do.
Passive income delays doing what you want to do.
When you’ve built passive income streams, you can do whatever you want with your life. But why not do what you want in the first place?
Oh, yes, right. You first need to ‘achieve it’ before you can allow yourself to do what you love.
Optimizing for passive income is like taking a consultancy job. You take it because of the promises that await you after you made it. But taking any job is not about what you’ll get as a result. It’s about who you become on the way.
Chasing after passive income is just another way for delaying the most important question: How do you want to spend your life?
Once I answered this question, my priorities shifted. I work 5–10 hours a week for an education NGO without earning a cent. I traded time for money and accepted a part-time project for fostering entrepreneurship education at schools.
Does that mean I don’t know the value of my time? On the contrary — I know what I want to do with my life: improving education.
You tie your self-worth to your net worth.
With internalized capitalism, it’s easier to measure your worth by what you have instead of who you are. Your self-worth depends on your performance.
The online world celebrates people for making a specific amount of money a month. But when you seek external confirmation, you lose sight of what really matters.
Instead of running in the corporate hamster wheel, chasing promotions, you’re chasing the next number. You built the very hamster wheel you wanted to escape. In the pursuit of passive income, it’s easy to forget what you truly live for.
On days I made $400+, I felt great. On the other days, I didn’t. And in both cases, I looked for ways to accelerate monetary growth. But as Edward Abbey says:
“Growth for the sake of growth is the motto of the cancer cell.”
Do I want people to stop chasing passive income? No. But we should stop idealizing it. The passive income chase can be destructive. It can make you self-centered, greedy, unhappy, and possessive of time.
Focus on finding a job you genuinely enjoy. And if that means working in a kindergarten — by all means — please do it. You’d be my hero.
True heroes are the ones who are generous with their time. The ones who give back to society without expecting anything in return.
Whether your goal is passive income or not, it’s about you finding your own way. But I bet you won’t lie in your death bed regretting the dollars you didn’t earn. What you might regret is supporting a system that discriminates against minorities.
My life became so much richer the day I stopped chasing passive income. I hope yours will too.