Lessons from the Tattoo Parlor

One must imagine Sisyphus happy…

Last Monday, my brother and I decided to get matching tattoos. By Tuesday evening, my skin was freshly engraved with the design we had collaborated on. He won’t be getting his until November, but since hockey season starts in a few weeks I was on a bit of a crunch to make sure it had some time to heal before I was trying to put sweaty pads over it. I’m thrilled with the design and the overall experience was not nearly as intimidating as I thought it might be, and I realized some important things along the way.

Humans have an innate desire to be challenged:

Since I don’t really know anyone in Davis that I would want to bring along to a tattoo parlor, I went alone. This was a miniature challenge in itself because as much of an introvert as I am, when I am venturing outside my comfort zone, I need to have a buddy. I walked through the front door and was immediately confronted with several completely tattooed people, loud heavy metal music, and hundreds of outrageous and graphic tattoo designs plastered wall to wall. It was the exact opposite of my comfort zone. I laid back and braced myself for the worst pain I’ve ever felt, ever. Prepare for the worst, you know? The pain itself turned out to be more of a mild discomfort, and talking to Moe, the artist, really helped. Toward then of the experience, I asked Moe what his favorite types of tattoos to do are. He pondered the question and profoundly answered “Anything that gives me a challenge.” I identify strongly with this statement, but I don’t think it’s a matter of personality that leads people like Moe and myself to crave a challenge.

I believe that there is something that goes much deeper than personality, something fundamentally human, about challenge. There is nothing more invigorating than a good challenge, and nothing more demoralizing than performing simple tasks all day. However, humans also naturally shy away from discomfort. I don’t know why this strange clashing of desire and behavior exists, but I think that to at least some degree it is common to all people. This dichotomy is especially interesting in the modern context. Most people’s lives, especially in rich nations, are designed to mitigate discomfort and risk, and therefore challenge. Where people are now more comfortable than they have ever been, I think in a lot of ways we are also less happy and fulfilled.

Moe’s observation that he craves challenge in his work above anything else forced me to consider how to bring more challenge to my own life. In many ways, I’m excelling in this area. I read because I’m curious and want to challenge my ideas. I take extra classes and excel in them because it’s challenging, and it makes me happy. I am striving toward this goal of financial independence not because it is the easiest route, but because it’s challenging, and I believe it will lead to a certain amount of fulfillment. But in many little ways I am still failing because the world is set up in a way that avoiding challenge is incredibly easy. I tend to read news from sources that reinforce my political beliefs. That is fundamentally wrong! I go to the gym pretty much every day, but I rarely challenge myself there to run faster or lift heavier. I avoid those challenges because they are difficult.

This conversation sparked an idea to tie my ongoing no-spend year challenge into the rest of my life. From this challenge on, I want to set up a big challenge scenario for myself every year. Whether it is eating vegetarian for a whole year, limiting my phone usage to texts and calls, or waking up early. Infusing these challenges into my everyday life, I hope, will be a way to fulfill that innate hunger for challenge and allow me to embrace discomfort and broaden my outlook.

Instead of a cost analysis, perform a cost vs. value comparison:

Once the tattoo was finished, I excitedly sent pictures to my friends and called my parents to break the news. They didn’t exactly jump for joy, and it didn’t take long for my Dad to pose the following question:

“How was this a fiscally responsible decision?”

I’m glad he’s thinking about these things now, and I understand his concern. Tattoos are expensive! But they should be. First, tattoos are a product where quality really matters. Ultimately, the design you pick will be literally attached to you for the rest of your life barring an expensive removal process or spontaneous amputation, neither an ideal outcome. The person you pay to do the tattoo is even more important: they need to be a competent artist, professional, knowledgeable, and responsible. All of these are traits you pay for when you buy a good tattoo. Additionally, tattoos are ultimately a piece of art and I believe that people significantly undervalue art, both in its importance and how much they are willing to pay for it. A professional tattoo is expensive because the artist is a professional and this is how they make their living. Getting a tattoo is an opportunity to support a local, talented artist and to express yourself in an obvious, permanent way.

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about money and budgeting that shaped the question my Dad asked me. Instead of asking yourself, “How is this a fiscally responsible decision?” it may be more appropriate to reframe the question more abstractly: “Does this purchase bring an equal or greater value to my life as the cost of the purchase over time?” This question bears no less weight than my Dad’s original question, but it also forces you to think about your personal values beyond the literal value of your money. Every time money leaves your wallet, you lose not only the face value of the cash, but the value of the money would incur if it was invested instead. However, money is not the only thing in the world with compounding behavior. It’s true that money cannot directly buy happiness but being more intentional about the goods and services you do decide to bring into your life will ensure that you are surrounded by the things that truly bring you joy. This collection of carefully curated, joyful things provides a compounding effect on your happiness. Every time I look at my tattoo, I will think of my brother who had a large part in designing it and will soon have the same one. I will think of 8 incredibly happy, relaxing weeks I spent interning in Davis, CA. I will think back to a winter afternoon my senior year of high school, seated around a Harkness table with soft light filtering through the foggy windows where some of the smartest, most inspiring people I have ever met sat around discussing the Camus piece which served as a cornerstone in developing my personal philosophy about life and ultimately inspired this tattoo. I will think about the inherent, conscious decision I want to make every day to be happy regardless of my circumstances. Every time I look at this tattoo, I will think about how thankful I am to be alive.

If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.

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