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#29: The ABC of money, part 3: financial nobility, step 1
5th April, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that treats you with tricks.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that the same machinery that makes you rubbish with money can be repurposed to make you better.
This is part three of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See also Parts 1 and 2. This part covers the First Noble Truth.
All of life is threatened by self-deception. That’s how life works. You get to choose to succumb or see differently. That’s how living well works.
The crudest, commonest form of the First Noble Truth is that ‘all of life is suffering’, that to exist is to suffer.
Recall that as ‘truth’ is better read as ‘provocation’, ‘suffering’ is better read as ‘self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour’; our concern is not to dwell on some sort of ‘pain’, but to do something about the stuff we choose to do but that, because of a distorted worldview, does not make our life better. Remember that the journey to enlightenment (financial or spiritual) isn’t about relief from pain, but freedom from entrapment.
There’s a further important objection to the suffering=pain reading. As John Vervaeke explains:
Suffering [read as ‘pain’] doesn’t make much sense, because it is a comparative term and therefore can’t be applied to ‘all’. It is more ‘all is threatened by’. […] Buddha isn’t saying everything is painful, because if everything is painful, then nothing is painful.
What’s this got to do with money? A lot.
Vervaeke’s reformulation is to recognise that all of your life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour. And of course as per the whole or Parts One and Two of the book, nothing inspires or entrenches this self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour like your relationship with money.
The forces that shape your relationship with money are a constant threat to your sense of agency over your life… and therefore a constant threat of misery. Yet these same resources should be a source of opportunity for joyful, flourishing, fun.
Our self-deceptive tendencies are a complex, self-organising, adaptative system – a system that adapts to try to preserves itself as you try to destroy it. Change it in one place and it reorganises in another to compensate. Tackle one idiotic expression of unhelpful wiring, and a subtler one will spring up to take its place, as surely as those who’ve lost one faith quickly adopt another, while their underlying faith-seeking psychology remains unmoved.
Damn.
Loss of agency is not your friend. In the game of allocating your resources to whatever your version of the Good Life is, allocating them to stuff that isn’t Good is a loser move, even if (especially if?) you post a picture of that stuff on Instagram with #winning underneath it.
More fundamentally than the resources we allocate to stuff are the ones we allocate to protecting a given worldview. As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche wrote in Joyful Wisdom: ‘This is, perhaps, the essential message of the First Noble Truth: Life has a way of interrupting, presenting even the most contented among us with momentous surprises.’ Stuff-based contentment doesn’t protect anyone from unwelcome surprises.
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Underlying many money problems is the way we unconsciously use ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ to describe (or justify) our life choices. Yet one of the oddest things you notice when you pay closer attention to how these are used – and especially if you’ve asked dozens of clients over the years to categorise their expenditure – is how much of the language used to justify ‘wants’ sounds identical to that used by recalcitrant drug addicts.
‘I’m in control… I can stop whenever I want, I just don’t want to… it makes me feel good…’
We each have our own lexicon of phrases we’d never believe to be a true reflection of wants in a crack addict, but let slide when it’s about our supposed ‘sweet-tooth’, video-game addiction, or oddly vehement attachment to Uber.
A far more useful categorisation – in the context of living an examined life, in a bid to live a better one – is not ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, but ‘wants’ and ‘addictions’. Wants being ways of allocating your resources that makes your life (as a whole, it being a life, and you being a human) better, and addictions being ways that make it worse, whether that’s wasting other opportunities, or literally poisoning yourself.
(See also ‘Treat’ in Maxim of the Week below).
You’re an addict if you do stuff in direct opposition to cultivating character, to becoming who you want to become. Addiction is a loss of agency. A self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour. Something’s hijacked your identity. Which is why one of the best ways to beat an addiction is to get out of the environment in which that hijacked identity is played out.
We fail to beat most of our addictions because we don’t treat them like addictions. Even when they’re trashing our health and raiding our wallets in the process. Yet asking yourself ‘what would a smoker say?’ is sometimes all that’s needed to admit that you’re bullshitting yourself and get back to a less deceived, more honest appraisal of your wants.
Even among those whose job it is to analyse expenditure, the exercise is often wasted. Because it doesn’t see an examination of expenditure as an examination of the unequivocal accounting record of your life choices. It accepts rather than challenges. Sees surface-level numbers as things to plug into a planning machine, rather than clues to underlying motivations to be uncovered, unconscious trade-offs to be reviewed and refined.
We fail to challenge our 'wants', despite the facts that, as humans, they’re guaranteed to change over time, and if we really wanted them, we’d invite challenges, not defensively avoid them.
A major reason we fail to do so is because we forget that they are never the isolated events we kid ourselves into believing they are. That’s not how brains work. How you do anything is how you do everything. Every action makes one pathway in your brain easier to travel down next time, and another one harder. ‘Just this once’ is the mark of a hopeful idiot. We are all in Plato’s cave. We can choose to spiral upwards, or downwards.
Addictions are like unscrupulous salesmen. Recall from Idiot Money #8 that a salesperson’s job is to narrow your view – to reduce your perception of possibilities. To get you to compare House A to House B, but neither to working part-time for the rest of your life.
This narrowing of your worldview is similar to the reduction in cognitive flexibility that characterises an addiction. Addicts don’t choose to do the self-destructive behaviour, they just don’t see other options. Which is why comparing your own blind addictions to more obvious ones like smoking can be so useful – because it breaks you out of the addict-environment relationship for a second and allows you to see it from a more useful angle. To challenge your behaviour without feeling like you’re challenging your self… indeed, to challenge behaviour in a way that protects your core values, not attacks them.
All life is threatened by ‘suffering’ because self-deception arises from the same internal processes that allow us to grow. It’s an inescapable part of being human. It is not to be succumbed to or denied, but channelled.
This starts with recognising the threats to your agency. Recognising resources that are allocated to addictions. Recognising how you are led astray from who you want to become by the language you use, the tribes you pick, and the way you think (or don’t) about income and expenditure, more and enough, value and price, needs and wants, what you crave and what you denounce.
Money is the strongest spotlight we have to shine on such things… but without direction, it’s also the source of our blindness.

Money Maxim of the Week

Train to hear these words and phrases as you do you own name across a crowded room, then stop and check that the belief underlying your automatic reaction is true.
This week: Trigger #13: Treat
Treat or trick? Treat or poison? Treat or someone else’s attempt to overlook their own troubles? Why is it that everything we traditionally describe as a ‘treat’ leaves us poorer and in worse health?
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