#52: Do what only you can do

13th September, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that’s one year old!

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that financial frustrations are universal, so it’s better to face them than flee from them.

Dear readers: happy anniversary to us! A big thank you to both all those that have been here from the start, and that have joined along the way. Especially those that have told me it’s made them feel like less of an idiot with money, for without you this newsletter would have something of an existential crisis on its hands.

Because I have those sort of friends, plenty have asked me along the way what I’ve learnt from writing this. However, focusing on personal lessons doesn’t feel especially helpful.

So instead, herewith some lessons from a decade of face-to-face financial planning: stuff I’d dearly love everyone to somehow internalise before ending up with ‘everything they ever dreamed of’ doing a dodgy impression of anything they ever actually wanted.

Beneath the surface-level stuff like ‘wanting to sort out the finances’, or ‘because it’s what other people like me seem to be doing’, there are two almost universal reasons people come to a financial planner, and they’re both bullshit.

They’re also lessons I’ve been reminded of in the year of writing this newsletter.

1. People – rich or not – want to believe being rich makes things different. Promising ‘secrets’ improves sign-ups but worsens souls. All clients are a little disappointed when they discover that there are no ‘secret’ superior investments that they get special access to, like buying your way into an exclusive club. We forget that ‘exclusivity’ isn’t about standing out, it’s about fitting in – playing the same game, desiring the same stuff as everybody else. We may openly brag about how ‘well’ we’re doing, or envy those doing ‘better’ but it’s the unspoken way all our life choices feel justified by others that matters so much more.

2. People are much happier to pay for technical investment advice than to be challenged on what those investments are for. For some, there’s a certain pride in not knowing about tax technicalities, or even having made suboptimal investment choices. But dare to suggest that someone may have, on occasion, made poor earning or spending choices – even if they’ve still got decades in which to make better ones – and you’ll make an instant enemy. Challenges that leave you either more confident in your existing good life choices or to scrapping your poor ones should be met with delight, not defensiveness. If only.

The clients that get the most out of financial planning are the ones that get over these mistakes.

Clients who get the most value from financial planning always look really pissed off at some point

These mistakes are rooted in a belief that it’s external circumstances that determine the quality of a life, rather than how well one is set up to dance with those circumstances. This belief leads people to dedicate their resources to changing the quality of their lives by changing their worlds, rather than their worldviews.

This never works, but because no one understands why it doesn’t work, we all keep trying the same damn-fool things over and over again. We’re all stuck in the Somme, vision so distorted by mud and the ghosts of our poor, psychologically screwed-up ancestors, that, hyped up by hubris and hope we keep hurtling blindly over the top, mutilating our potential rather than making anything meaningful out of it.


Doing something about this is far from easy.

In both giving financial advice and writing about it, there’s an inverse relationship between what’s actually important and what most people crave consuming.

Tell someone that the only ‘secret’ the rich are hiding is their regrets, and they’ll slump off to someone who promises them otherwise.

Tell someone that you’re less impressed, in the role of their financial adviser no less, by the financial ‘success’ they’re bragging about, and more concerned that maybe it wasn’t worth the sacrifices that have left them with a life that’s both crammed full of everything, and yet completely empty, and they’re more likely to hit you than hug you.

The best clients, however, always – after a few weeks, months, or maybe years – have a revelatory moment.

The penny drops.

‘Oh! It was never about the money!’

Not only ‘not about the money now we’ve got X million’, but – assuming they were never actually impoverished – never about the money.

‘Not being about the money’ isn’t about having ‘f-you’ money, of course. That’s literally still all about the money. Being driven by denunciation is also the opposite of living well.

The size of the potential rewards is irrelevant. You can bribe people to do anything except live in a world where bribes don’t work.

Those that have the most financial resources do have more opportunity to flourish, but also more opportunity to waste. Because we can only ever do so much, and because diminishing returns on empowering what we can do kick in pretty quickly, this is a hugely asymmetrical equation. The focus therefore has to be not on the making, but the making the most of.

Living a flourishing, flowing life comes from doing what only you can do

Just as there’s an inverse relationship between what’s actually important and what most people crave consuming, a year of this newsletter has made it clear that there’s a negative correlation between how important I think a post is and how popular it is.

And the further I drift from spelling out a point – for example highlighting some silly thing a rich person once did and leaving the reader to see the mirror – the more it gets missed. Mirage trumps mirror every time.

This newsletter is not optimised for clicks. If it were, half the time I’d probably say the exact opposite of what I want to say. I wouldn’t take the piss out of the peddlers of fortune-cookie crap, I’d join them. I would click-bait the titles, and listicle the content. I would, in short, bombard you with tactics for playing the same silly game, only better.

  • ‘Five things financial professionals won’t tell you!’

  • ‘How to halve your expenditure AND live a more luxurious life in the process!’

  • ‘The surprisingly simple maths behind retiring in your 30s!’

At some point, of course, however important a message is, if it reaches no one, it’s no good. But silence is better than the unintended consequences of commercially conscious compromise.

Financial advisers would do better to shut the hell up than pretend that clever-sounding market commentary was anything other than a disingenuous veil concealing the lack of value of an inordinately expensive service.

The greatest value of a financial planner is that they’ve got access to the hidden parts of the heads of the people that are ‘winning’ the silly game, and can report its silliness back to everyone else. They see what works and what doesn’t, across a wide range of people with the resources to try just about anything.

Importantly, they can see (assuming their own vision isn’t also distorted, which, alas, for reasons we’ll explore another day, it almost inevitably is) that what doesn’t work is pretty much the exact same stuff that everyone who aspires to have what the planner’s clients have dedicates their lives to obtaining.

Financial planners are best-placed to help their clients question what game they’re playing. And in one important respect, being rich enough to be one of these clients does make you different. Because ability = responsibility. Freedom to do anything is one thing. Freedom from feeling the need to is another. But freedom for is the one that counts, even if it’s the freedom we flee from.

Planners are best placed to hammer home the message that everything you do is all that you are, so it’s a life-or-death decision to take the time to choose your game wisely, and that if you sacrifice your soul to participate, you’ll never win a thing, no matter how well you play. Because they’ve seen the alternative play out hundreds of times, and it all counts for shit.

This can be hard to accept.

But hard to accept doesn’t mean hard to do.

Those that spend hours a day moving, meditating, and contemplating will tell you that it doesn’t take time, it creates it, because they’re now able to easily and happily ignore all the distracting, de-energising crap that blinds other people into believing they don’t have time for anything else.

Playing the right game for you is playing life on easy mode. What’s hard is going through the motions for 30 years in a job you do only to earn money to fund a lifestyle full of stuff you don’t really care about.

This isn’t about ‘tempting people in with what they want, and then giving them what they need on the sly’. The distinction between needs and wants is bullshit; the distinction that matters is between what we need/want and what all the crap we self-deceptively believe we want, but is actually not making our lives any better.

To proclaim that no one cares about your solutions, they care about their problems is true, but limited. A crack addict only cares about crack. Do you ‘solve’ that by giving them more? By letting them be because ‘that’s just the way they are’? What do you do when the problems that have hijacked someone’s attention are pretend ones, and the more fundamental problem is one of self-deception… and therefore by definition invisible?

Feedback is crucial, but it’s irrelevant if you’re not clear what you want to achieve

My book rests on the assumption that everyone, in their own way, wants to live well, and that therefore the task of a life is to take our resources – our money, time, and energy (with money being the easiest to measure and manage) – and use them for stuff that makes life better, and not for stuff that makes life worse.

With life choices being made all the time, you’d think we’d be better at this than we are. All that feedback!

Of course, as wise types from both West and East have been pointing out for a couple of thousand years, feedback is only helpful if you pay attention to it – live an examined life – and if you pay attention to how you pay attention – if you’re seeing clearly both the world and the means by which you are looking at it, and interpreting it.

Unfortunately, all that pointing out hasn’t led to much tuning in. We remain more idiotic child than wise sage.

And while money should be the best bridge over this abyss of idiocy, it’s far more likely to further muddy our vision and supercharge our self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour.

If you’re not clear on what game you’re playing, the feedback you will get on your performance is pointless.

Paying someone to make it more comfortable to continue playing a game you don’t want to play, let alone ‘win’ is as pointless as a like, a share, or a comment on a post you’ve missed the point of.

The best feedback I’ve received for both in-person advice and in-Internet ramblings is the same.

  • ‘I’ve never thought about money like that before.’

  • ‘Every page slapped me in the face.’

  • ‘I thought I was pretty aware of the role money played in my life. So much for that.’

  • ‘Since you’ve pointed out X, I now see it everywhere.’

  • ‘You bastard. I feel personally called-out.’

As I wrote here:

If you know what a thing is, how it works, how it sits in context, and how it works with who you are, there’s no excuses for not using it well. This book is about cultivating a philosophically grounded conviction within you, rather than the old-school sales model of trying to persuade you of something for long enough to guide an action or two until a more persuasive idea comes along.

The best planners do this. They help people know money not only as a sign of membership of some bullshit club, but as a symbol that shows how someone is living and how they can live better. This newsletter tries to do the same.

As Jung wrote: ‘The artful denial of a problem will not produce conviction; on the contrary, a wider and higher consciousness is called for to give us the certainty and clarity we need.’

The world of investing has been optimised for artful denial of problems, not for solving them.

It’s a large part of why those that have ‘won’ the game that everybody believes they want to be playing don’t feel all that wonderful for the ‘winning’ and why – when devoid of challenge for decades – the citadel of their life choices crumbles under the slightest interrogatory siege.

If this newsletter helps someone avoid sleepwalking into the same frustrating fate, it’ll have done its job.

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