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#51: Align what you care for with what you care about
6th September, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that cares about your caring.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that avoiding the siren call of accumulation-at-all-costs is all in the preparation and why, despite feeling like it's awfully important and clever to do so, making plans, talking about needs v wants, and even aligning your use of capital with your values are all a bit bullshit.
Good financial planning focuses on alignment rather than accumulation. Yet so strongly and so subtly do we want to believe that it’s the hoarding that leads to happiness that we passively parrot the idea more than we actively live its truth.
Most decisions we make don’t feel like decisions.
Most money decisions we make don’t feel like they have much to do with money.
When we do the rare work of reflecting on our decisions – financial or otherwise – most of the time we’re wasting our time, and likely making future decisions worse, not better.
Picture the last time you were in an especially reflective mood. Perhaps you were conjuring up a cunning plan for a work project, or an exercise routine, or world domination.
I’m guessing your picture is a shining example of cool-headed clarity. Everything so obvious, so simple. Of course you’ll do more meditating and moving, and less eating of crap. And of course you’re never drinking ever again. For realsies this time.
In these more thoughtful times, we kid ourselves that it is we that’s changed, rather than our mood.
We’re all wiser in our plan-making moments, though not wise enough to remember that the person for whom we’re making a plan is an idiot. That’s why they need a plan.
The you that wakes up full of energy doesn’t need help. And the you that wakes up with a head full of fog needs more help than last night’s determined dreaming has ever provided. Cool-headed plans melt in the hotter heads they were allegedly designed for.
We don’t stick to our plans for the same reason we struggle to make more of our money. We just don’t feel like it. We don’t care.
We may remember an intention, but we don’t remember – or rather relive – the energy to act on it.
In the moments that matter, intentions without energy lead nowhere, save maybe to guilt.
There’s a reason we say we are ‘moved’ by what we care about.
Your body is moved by what moves your mind. The trouble comes when you’re set up to remember where you want to go, but not to remember what moves you… so you get blown around by any old bullshit instead.
Living an examined life is a tricky topic to write about. Because there is no perfect phrase, no motivational meme, that can work some psychedelic-esque magic on your brain, untangling your wiring so the way you see the world is instantly cleaner, clearer, and more under your control.
It’s something we want to think about constantly. It’s an entirely different way of seeing the world.
But to think constantly isn’t the same as to calculate constantly. This isn’t about performing lifetime cost-benefit calculations of every purchase. It’s about cultivating the sort of wiser wiring that means you don’t have to.
This is living life on easy mode – weighing up if a choice (and its consequences for our character) is helpful or unhelpful so rapidly that it’s basically automatic; and never even (con)fusing meanings and events, so we don’t need to bother with the hard work of defusing them.
When the patterns we want to challenge are so well embedded, and do well reinforced by external influences, getting going – remembering to respond to cues with polite challenge, not blind obedience – is hard. But it quickly gets easier.
When it comes to in-the-moment remembering, subtly of language is so important, because it is through our language that we understand, create, and change and our worlds.
Sometimes this could be simply using a different word to evoke a slightly different response. Consider how you’d answer: a) ‘What’s important to you?’ and b) ‘What matters to you?’ Or think about the classic therapist trick of turning ‘Why’ questions into ‘What’ questions (follow the link for a ton of reasons why ‘ “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question.’)
Sometimes it could be rewriting what certain words mean to you. The most important example for making better financial decisions is doing something about the dogshit differentiation we tend to apply to ‘needs’ and ‘wants’.
Our senses are alerted and our attention is captured by certain words and phrases more than others. Like hearing your name across a crowded room. Or the name of your personal political enemy number one. Or ‘tequila’.
These super-salient hooks are disproportionately important when it comes to shaping our worldviews, and by extension, the quality of our lives.
We know that ‘developing greater control over your attention is perhaps the single most powerful way to reshape your brain and thus your mind’. We also know that ‘you pay attention by optimising some other process’. The process we need to optimise is that of the lexicographical inner-circle that already has the greatest control of your attention-grabbing machinery. We need to add to the ranks of words that make you stop in your tracks those that can most effectively enlighten your money mindset, so they can punctuate the flow of unthinking with moments of active, structured, purposeful, thought. This is how we get unstuck and break free of the circular troughs of self-deception.
Hard-wired habits begin as fragile intentional attractors of attention. With a bit of work we can add to the special inner circle of our lexicon – train ourselves to use other words and phrases as triggers that make us stop and think at the exact moments we’re most in danger from not doing so.
But what should we use as a trigger? What do we want to be reminded of?
Asking yourself ‘Do I “need” this, or do I just “want” this?’ when on the brink of a potentially idiotic spending decision isn’t helpful. Not only is the distinction dogshit, but we know diets based on denial don’t work: we don’t want to temporarily spend less by fighting defaults, we want to dance along with better defaults.
So what about a reminder to focus on alignment rather than accumulation?
If there’s one thing that broadly differentiates good financial planning from its infamously salesy, exploitative, commission-cowboy evil twin, it’s that good financial planning prioritises alignment over accumulation.
But focusing on alignment is a bit trickier.
An accumulation focus not only doesn’t require conscious thought, it actively discourages it. An alignment focus not only relies on such conscious thought existing, but also requires the interest in it and intention to remember it being continually refreshed.
Alignment is also harder to measure than accumulation. Especially when the things you want to align – the Goodness of your life, and the overall application of your money, time, and energy – are basically immeasurable.
An accumulation focus on the other hand offers a comforting objective reality. There’s an objectively best investment, and the game is to try to find it. Raw numbers are the only things that matter, which is wonderful news, for KPIs don’t really work otherwise, and there’s no such thing as a key performance if you can’t indicate it exists.
Yet you may also have noticed that there are plenty of miserable accumulators, which at least calls into question the wisdom of dedicating one’s life to having what they have (and being obstinately blind to the risk of becoming what they have become).
Those that choose instead to recruit their resources towards becoming who they deep down, with undistorted and undeceived vision, want to become, don’t tend to be so dissatisfied with their lots.
However, sticking ‘alignment not accumulation’ on a wristband is likely to work little better than telling yourself you don’t need something shiny when you’re in magpie mode.
We need something a little more specific.
One common option is to talk about ‘aligning your use of capital with your values’.
However, an aim to ‘align your use of capital with your values’ is a bit like one to ‘align your eating and drinking choices with your health goals’. It is absolutely what you should do, but saying you’ll do it does not get it done, and may even work against it.
‘Align your use of capital with your values’ is the language of the planner. The you with a cool head. As above, cool heads rarely need plans. Hotter heads do, but they need ones made to withstand the heat. Plans centred not on reasons, but on reminders, restrictions, and emotional resonance.
‘Your use of capital’, and even ‘your values’ are not emotionally resonant. And here’s the most important point: there aren’t words alone that are.
This is why it’s so important to treat the resource-allocation problem of your life as a way of life, and not a way of allocating resources – i.e. focus on the philosophy, not the plan, or even the planning.
With this understood, there is a better rallying cry for your remembering self: align what you care for with what you care about.
It is by no means a perfect solution. But it’s a small step in the right direction, because it’s a step closer to talking in language your hot-headed self understands.
Consider caring for an ill friend. What emotions and actions arise?
Consider caring about an ill friend. What emotions and actions arise now?
When we ask ourselves what we care about, we tend to inspire a subtly but significantly different set of responses than when we consider what we want, or what’s important, or what matters to us.
It’s easier to find a bullshit justification for ‘wanting’ a thing, or a thing being ‘important’ to us, when that thing, when fully thought through, is unlikely to make a sustainable difference to our lives.
The lens of caring isn’t vehemently anti-materialistic. It’s rather to recognise, to remember, that deep down, we simply aren’t very materialistic beings. It’s putting material desires in their place – as servants of a Good Life, not the definition of it.
Like anything we could do with remembering when we’re least likely to remember, this change is difficult to make directly. Recall the shortcomings of the spotlight metaphor: the Good Life emerges as a result of paying attention to the right things, yet this happens not by ‘willing’ attention, but as a side-effect of mindfully engaging in other activities.
When we focus on cultivating the conditions that afford meaning-making, we align what we care for with what we care about as a side-effect.
The traditional tactics-based approaches – step-by-step guides to greater saving, and less insane spending and investing habits – are great, but we want to go from blind to not only seeing, but insight.
That’s an entirely different thing.
And because our problematic actions have deep problematic roots, often the very tactics we use to stamp down the most obvious weeds of our unhelpful wiring can make it harder to tackle the underlying anxiety whence they spring… and whence they will spring again.
Nothing inspires blind ignorance like money. Given its fundamental role in living well, this is a catastrophe.
Blind accumulation is what Sartre and his moody band of existentialists were on about when they talked living with ‘bad faith’ being how to live badly. It’s bad faith to say you care about something but then not care for it. This is what eats you up from the inside.
If we remember to reflect only when we’re sat on a cushion or staring at a credit-card statement and promising we’ll do better next month (forgetting that next-month us is a hot-headed idiot) then we’ll get sucked into a cycle of recklessness and remorse.
Financial reflection isn’t an act, it’s a way of seeing. Which is why living in a more consciously constructed world is so important.
It’s not a task to be ticked off. It’s something we need to feel. To care about. To remember. To live.
If you want to make better decisions by default, the answer isn’t to pay greater attention to every decision. It’s not even to make your decision-making better, e.g. by carrying around a checklist that you crack out on special decision-making occasions. It’s to make your decision-making machinery better. To develop flexibility of attentional scaling, to zoom in and zoom out at the same time, to enable you to better remember what you actually care about and continually refresh your attention on it, and your intention to align your resources with it.