Why I turned down nearly $10,000 to teach for an Ivy League school for a week in Shanghai

Columbia University offered me nearly $10,000 to fly to Shanghai to teach an entrepreneurship class, block-week style, meaning a semester in a week, 9-5 each day. I’ve taught that way before and got great results.
I love teaching entrepreneurship. I’m not bragging to say that my reviews say I’m exceptional at it.
I love my alma mater, Columbia, and as an adjunct professor, experience teaching at Ivy League schools helps my career.
I had developed the relationships with the department that offered me to teach with them for years.
I had worked on making this opportunity happen for years and could expect more offers if I did well.
I like making $10,000 doing what I love.
I loved living in Shanghai for a year in 2011-12. I miss my friends in China. I would love to take short trips in Asia after the week.
I love Chinese food in China.
I had the time on my schedule to go.
I could go on, but the point is I had a lot of reasons to accept.
Instead I declined.

Why decline a lot of money to do what you love?

Before continuing, read “I Just Gave Up $4000 Per Month to Keep My Freedom of Speech,” the first post I read in the Mr. Money Mustache blog (which I discovered through a post on Hacker News), which I’ve read ever since.
For him, what looked like giving up money at first was actually keeping his freedom to say what he wanted. If all you see is the money, you don’t see the point.
If all you see about flying is the parts you like, you don’t see the point. If you look at only the good parts of anything, anything is good.
A few years ago, watching this lecture, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air at Harvard with Cambridge University’s David Mackay, which I highly recommend, I learned that flying across the Atlantic and back polluted about what a year of driving did.

I thought living in New York City without a car meant I polluted a lot less than I was. I didn’t realize how much flying polluted. Looking back, I realize I suspected flying polluted more than I would have felt comfortable with and purposefully didn’t look up the numbers.
In other words, I purposefully kept myself ignorant. I lowered my self-awareness. I’ve never heard anyone suggest lowering self-awareness improved your life.
Learning the numbers meant I could never blissfully ignorantly fly without taking into account my externalities. What I do affects others. I live in a world polluted by people before me. I don’t like the pollution and global warming they left me with and I don’t want to do the same to others.

Responsibility, accountability, empathy, and compassion

As a child I avoided responsibility and accountability. I no longer say “It wasn’t my fault” or “It wasn’t me.” Contrary to what I would have expected as a child, I’ve found that responsibility and accountability improve my life—mainly by improving my emotional well-being and my relationships.
People can trust you more when you’re responsible and accountable. Taking responsibility, enables you to act to improve problems. Accountability motivates you. Figuring out whom to be responsible and accountable to leads you to develop empathy and compassion, looking at the world beyond your own limited perspective.
Isn’t expanding your horizon the point of travel?
Doesn’t reinforcing ignorance undo the point of travel?
Since learning Mackay’s perspective, I’ve since also come to visualize how much flying pollutes in tons of CO2 compared to what the IPCC recommends for each person to keep global warming below 2C. In particular, here are the CO2 emission flying round trip between New York and Shanghai per person, not per flight.

New York Shanghai coach
CO2 emissions per person for a round trip flight between New York and Shanghai, flying coach

That’s for coach: nearly 2.5 times the emissions the IPCC suggests a person should produce per year in just the flying. I looked up the IPCC 2014 report. It recommend 1–2 tons so the graph above shows the upper end of their limit. So it’s nearly 5 times the lower end.
First class would be more since fewer first-class seats fit in a plane:
New York Shanghai first class
CO2 emissions per person for a round trip flight between New York and Shanghai, flying first class

How can you criticize someone for pulling out of the Paris Accords if you did the same?

If you’ve flown across the Atlantic or farther, you’ve gone over the Paris Accords. How can you criticize others for doing what you did?

A better life polluting less

I know the value of $10,000, the value of visiting Shanghai, and the value of everything I declined. I chose something I value more.
If you like something in your life and you choose something you like more over it, that’s nearly the definition of improving your life.
If your first reaction to not flying was to associate it with sacrifice and deprivation, I recommend rereading I Just Gave Up $4000 Per Month to Keep My Freedom of Speech, asking yourself if he sounds like he’s sacrificing or depriving himself. On the contrary, he sounds more happy for living by his values when tested.
In my mind, I didn’t choose to give up the money. I chose to embrace living by my values. Before my experiment of a year without flying, I would have seen not flying as deprivation and sacrifice, but my experience taught me that my happiness, joy, adventure, cultural exploration, and so on didn’t depend on flying. I improved my life more by staying in one place than by traveling.
If you haven’t deliberately tried a year without flying, you haven’t had the experience to learn from.
However you see the situation, from Mr. Money Mustache’s perspective he chose freedom. What price do you have for your freedom?
I’ve put it this way lately:

How much would someone have to pay you to vote against your conscience?

For example, slavery was once the law in the U.S., so

How much would someone have to pay you to vote to reinstate slavery?

or, closer to modern times,

How much would someone have to pay you to vote for Trump or Clinton, whichever you didn’t vote for last time?

I suspect you answered something like, “There isn’t enough money in the world.”
That’s how I feel now about flying. Well, I expect I’ll fly again some time, but only after seriously considering my effects on others.
However you see the situation, from my perspective, I’m acting with responsibility, accountability, empathy, and compassion, all things that have improved my life. For that matter, in the 14 months or so since I started my 365 days without flying, I’ve learned to create more joy, happiness, adventure, cultural exchange, and so on by staying here.
Mr. Money Mustache, who wrote I Just Gave Up $4000 Per Month to Keep My Freedom of Speech, sounds like he improved his life more keeping his freedom than he would have with the money.
I have no doubt I will improve my life more by staying here.
I’m living better, by my values, than ever, and my year-and-counting without flying contributed as much as anything to that improvement, decoupling my emotional well-being from the ignorant craving I succumbed to before, and creating more reward here.
Personal growth happens through overcoming struggle. When you look back after, you’re glad you did.

Other people who didn’t fly

Here are some other people who didn’t fly:

Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, …

Get the picture? They lived pretty good lives by most people’s standards.
I can too. It’s what I’ve chosen to do, all the more so for this choice.

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