#37: The ABC of money, part 7: financial nobility, step 4
31st May, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that tells truth to the power inside itself.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that paths don’t always mean progress.
Bonus news: Want to read someone else on the same sort of stuff I write about every week, but through the lens of having lost millions of dollars in leveraged Bitcoin bets? My friend Vincent’s got you covered. Great reflections in strange and intense circumstances.
If your problem is craving the certainty of narrow paths, it’s better to expand your view, not pick a different path.
I’m not sure who coined the ‘path’ bit of the Eightfold Path, but I’m guessing they worked in PR, not the philosophy department. People love paths. There’s a certainty to a path. A path combines a fairytale narrative with an IKEA instruction sheet. Self-improving self-assembly fun for all ages.
The Eightfold Path’s aim is to help people see more clearly. Especially regarding those bits of their lives they’re pretty damn sure are doingjustfinethankyouverymuch (despite not being examined with the sort of challenge that strengthens the already wise and obliterates the idiotic).
Path, however, is a misleading metaphor. For in playing to the crowd, it plays along with the very parts of the crowds’ stories that the philosophical system of the Eightfold Path seeks to edit. This is important because it’s also the main problem faced when trying to become wiser with money.
There’s a lot to be said for ‘meeting people where they are’, and ‘giving them what they (believe they) want’ but at some point, the personal trainer who promises you pizza is going to do a worse job of helping you get what actually want than the one who kindles a kinship between you and a big-ass kettlebell. This isn’t about ‘tough love’, it’s about simply not enabling soul-annihilating addictions.
The Fourth Noble Truth (aka ennobling provocation) is that the means to ending ‘suffering’ (self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour) is the Eightfold Path. The key to the Eightfold Path is that each element is interdependent. It’s a web-like network, or an ecosystem that you cultivate in conjunction with changing circumstances. Yet ‘path’ suggests some sort of staged escape from alcoholism.
Understanding this beyond surface-level semantics is crucial to making use of this centuries-old framework for thinking and seeing more clearly, whether about money specifically or the life it serves more generally.
- 1.The First Noble Truth is that all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour (key point: you cannot rid yourself of this, because it is a side-effect of the same machinery that enables all the cool parts of being human too).
- 2.The Second Noble Truth is that this self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour arises from the way in which we become attached (key point: this is not about the objects of your attachment, but the way your mind is set to ‘become attached to anything that looks like it won’t change’ mode, and how it literally loses itself – its sense of agency – in a distorted vision of reality).
- 3.The Third Noble Truth is that we can recover our sense of agency; we can overcome this complex dynamical system that is working against us. (key point: you don’t get around the irreducibly complex, self-organising, adaptive, dynamic system that is a human with a simplistic substitute for philosophical examination; you need to let go of the whole system of grasping rather than grasp at a different sort of simplicity).
- 4.The Fourth Noble Truth is that you overcome a complex dynamical system that is operating against you by cultivating a complex dynamical system that acts for you, and that The Eightfold Path is such a system.
The key point of the Fourth Noble Truth is that what you want is not a series of steps, but a system. Which is why advertising it as something (a ‘path’) most commonly read as ‘a series of steps’ isn’t terribly helpful (outside of click stats, I suppose).
The ‘path’ metaphor plays into the misleading pattern of thinking that leads those that blindly crave certainty to live as if the Goodness of a life were measured by a weighted average across a bunch of isolated domains. Health a bit sketchy? No worries! Offset it with more money! Career in a rut? Focus on your relationship! Social life sucking? Use the time and money to redecorate!
You don’t need to be a maths whiz to get to grips with personal finance. Possibly the most important bit of numerical knowledge you need is one you already have: if you multiply anything by zero, you get zero.
Recall too, that by all means break a life down for analysis, but if the aim is the living, not the analysing, don’t forget to put it back together again.
The sort of wishful thinking displayed by the ‘offset’ cultists is what leads people to stick with jobs they don’t like for money they don’t need to ruin the health and relationships they do. Or to try to fix family problems by taking them to a different postcode. Or, more abstractly, to know money only ‘propositionally’ – as a series of independent, incidental, isolated trades – rather than in a more realistic ‘participatory’ way.
Being nudged to waste less money, say, is of limited use if a mind stays unconsciously wired for waste; and it’s no good at all if the avoided waste was seen as a denial, which is then compensated for elsewhere.
There is another sense in which ‘path’ is a crappy metaphor: calling it the path, not a path.
We are led to believe there is one way, and when we drop our discipline, when we ‘stray from the path’, we are ripe for self-recrimination.
Going ‘off the rails’ can send people into ‘fuck-it mode’, and double-down on the self-destruction, all the while slave to the unconscious belief that the one, perfect, way is possible. This is how religions ruin philosophy. And financial advisers can be just as bad as religious zealots when it comes to this sort of approach.
A sound philosophical worldview, by contrast, denies neither our humanity, nor the way our brains work. Perfection may be the prize of the permanent path, but it’s an irrelevance to an impermanent ecosystem.
The key point of the framework of the Noble Truths, culminating in the cultivation of a complex dynamical system that works for you, is that it is not a blind belief-based mode of living, but a practical, human, philosophical one. You may crave flat-pack fairytale certainty, but you want to live in harmony with uncertain reality.
You want a philosophy, in the sense described here: something that is lived, not possessed; something that is deeply practical, not confined to a bookshelf; something you look through, not look at; an encouragement to live an examined life, not an excuse for doing the opposite.
You want to see ‘suffering’ not as a setback, but a stepping stone: an entreaty to face fears, and learn from them. ‘Suffering’ is not something to wish away, but the catalyst of an investigation that, in the words of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, ‘ultimately leads to discovering the source from which it springs. By facing it directly, we begin to use it, rather than be used by it.’
Acknowledging and examining our self-deceptions, and controlling our environment to catch their common expressions with a view to converting them into better ones is how we get our machinery to work in our favour, to spiral up, not down.
When we stop fobbing ourselves off by pretending these expressions are isolated, independent, incidents, we start to see the flow of life, not the stagnation of an object.
When we stop running from money because we see it as scary, complicated, and boring, we start to realise it’s none of these things.
When we begin to see our unhelpful resource allocations as addictions, we begin to treat them as such, uncloud our vision, and move towards enlightenment rather than entrenchment.