#5: Idiot Profile: Private-Jet Guy

19th October, 2020

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that isn’t afraid of public transport.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that what your super expensive stuff says about you behind your back wouldn’t put a smile on your face.

Don’t let billionaires bugger up their lives to no end. Use their big mistakes to save yourself from smaller ones. Money can buy happiness, so having more of one should lead to more of the other, but we’re wired for waste, not wisdom.

A week or so ago, a noble member of the Personal Finance Twitter aristocracy wrote: ‘My friend just bought a private jet and I asked him what he’s learned in the process of achieving this goal…’

In an answer more befitting of a parody LinkedIn account than a real human, the friend, we’re told, replied: ‘The trick is to set really big goals. Then work towards them as if you want to achieve them in under a year. But accept that it will actually take 10.’

The Friend is either a psychopath or a fool. Heeding the age-old advice to never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, I’m going to credit The Friend with the latter.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps The Friend’s apex aim in life really was to own a private jet. However, this would assume he’s not human, which feels like a stretch. Humans are always after an underlying emotional reward. And to live an overall ‘Good Life’ of which jets, jacuzzis, and jewel-encrusted pet clothes are potential contributors, not substitutes.

Perhaps also I am wrong in thinking that The Friend isn’t the exception to the end-of-history illusion. Perhaps who he was when he achieved his goal is who he was when he set it. Maybe his ten-year tunnel-vision trip towards his younger self’s dream was an appropriate way to spend a decade.

Perhaps also I am wrong in thinking that the ‘arrival fallacy’ is a universal error. Maybe happiness is a destination after all, and the pot of Good Life gold does lie at the end of a checklist of material, marriage, or business-card acquisitions.

It could be that the jet was the single finest means The Friend had of converting that amount of resources into a better life.

Money can buy happiness. We say it can’t as an excuse to shirk the responsibility of having it, before trying our little hearts out to buy it anyway, blind to the reasons it didn’t work last time being the same reasons behind what we’ll try next time.

[Side note: it’s not about buying experiences, or time, or clichéd crap like that, as explained in ‘How not to buy experiences’.]

As explored in this section, objective measures of success are as pointless as a miserable millionaire; and while traditionally wealth is defined not by worth, but by waste, for money to truly enrich your life, you must understand, and then shake, this belief.

The Friend probably isn’t a total idiot. But he probably is prone to the same self-deceptions that screw up each of our relationships with money. Having more money than most, his idiocy is demonstrated in a more illuminated – and we can but hope instructive – way.

Our monetary self-deceptions make us do idiotic things by narrowing our vision, or making us look in completely wrong directions. It’s simpler, but stupid. For we are complex, and while simplistic shortcuts can sometimes be sane, they aren’t when it comes to what we do with money.

Retail therapy is a short-term shelter from psychological storms, but it doesn’t eradicate problems, it incubates them. We level-up the cost of our lives without levelling up the quality, and we bolster the very blindness that got us into trouble in the first place. Not to mention the knock-on effects such as reduced savings reducing the options for finding a more fulfilling job.

Any joy The Friend experienced from the jet was not because of the jet. And, again assuming The Friend is at least partially human, there were undoubtedly more effective ways to achieve the same joy. Probably ones that don’t contribute to climate change, or eschew the chance to save, or otherwise transform, hundreds of lives. Or to which he will hedonically adapt in way less time than it took him to ‘achieve’ the goal in the first place.

It’s not just jets, of course. As I delve into in greater detail in this post:

In every other walk of life, intelligence is signalled by putting in less effort for no shortfall in the quality of output […] Yet when it comes to living a Good Life, we act as if achieving it for £10,000 per month is better than doing it for a tenth of that.

I’m guessing The Friend is some sort of businessman. If one of his employees dedicated an enormous amount of his company’s resources to an ultimately arbitrary goal, The Friend would’ve fired them, not promoted them to CIO.

An often overlooked aspect of hedonic adaptation is that bad news is better in batches, but good stuff should be drip-fed. It’s not the jets, but the little stuff, that shapes us. We act as if we’re capable of feeling a million times better when something costs a million times more. We’re not. [We’ll look at the wider problem of how we’re screwed by the scope insensitivity of our brains another day.]

The short-sightedness of those with oodles of money isn’t only about not seeing better ways to use it. It’s about not seeing what they could have won.

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