#53: Money for many means happily ever after… but after what?
20th September, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that waiting isn’t living, including:
being on high alert for anything of the form ‘when X is sorted, then I will be able to do Y and feel Z’;
how you may be exceptional, but you’re probably not the exception; and
the dangers of letting Disney’s dreamworlds dictate your decisions.
As with all such simple solutions that poke at pernicious perennial problems, there is a dark side to the mantra that ‘life is a journey, not a destination’.
Just last week I was talking with a smart, switched-on girl, a trainee psychotherapist, no less. Let’s call her Anna.
Anna is easily in the top few percent when it comes to examining her life (albeit she, like all of us, has work to do turning the difficult, reflective periods of life-examining into the easy-mode living an examined life by default).
Anna was describing the personal journey that had led to her coming career change, and how it was something of a prerequisite for helping others in turn. All hearty, healthy, life-affirming stuff.
‘I still have a lot of personal work to go, of course,’ Anna said.
‘Until I’m ready.’
And just like that the focus flipped, without fanfare, from the in-the-moment journey to the destination to be arrived at: the secure foundation from which then, ‘the Good Life’, whatever that meant, could come to the fore and flourish forever more, happily ever after.
Box ticked, life simplified, one less thing to worry about.
In narrow contexts, such as being legally allowed to practice psychotherapy, or losing weight, say, quantification and qualifications are tremendously helpful.
However, as has been remarked a few times in this newsletter, 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.
All too easily the way we look at specific goals seeps into shaping the way we look at living. Especially when it comes to money.
It is arguably costliest just when we think we’ve got it nailed. When we talk of journeys, blind to the fact we’re acting on arriving.
The ‘Arrival Fallacy’ is my name for the idea that the Good Life is something we arrive at. It has many different expressions, all of the structure: ‘when X is sorted, then I will be able to do Y and feel Z’.
It’s a belief that underpins so many of our idiotic financial decisions, such as believing there’s a ‘number’ which, when obtained, unlocks the ‘financial freedom’ levels of life’s great game, where all worries whoosh away, and where unicorns frolic in the garden.
If you find yourself thinking this, then stop.
Be it a bigger house, a job title, a family situation, or even an investment reaching or returning to an arbitrary value, in every instance other than ‘when I’ve escaped the prison of being so poor all my decisions are necessarily about money’ such beliefs, however intensely felt, and however well reinforced they are by both your ancestors’ demons and current society, are irrelevant to the Goodness of your life.
All journeys start with objectives or ‘goals’, but too often the way we think about and plan our lives around these goals leads us somewhere other than where we want to go. The Arrival Fallacy tricks us into treating a human journey like a robotic production line. It’s oh-so-tempting, but oh-so-futile.
‘Arriving’ can often make life easier. But this is to mistake standard of living with access to comfort. Engaging in challenging-but-not-impossible activities is the hallmark of ‘flow’. Things are rarely impossible without the fancy exercise equipment or the few extra dollars (or the drugged-up deer). Miss the challenge, and you miss the point.
We say the Good Life isn’t a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but live as if it is
To understand the Arrival Fallacy, let us take a trip to Agrabah. A street urchin named Aladdin is talking to Abu, a monkey.
‘Some day, Abu,’ says Aladdin, ‘things are going to change. We’ll be rich, live in a palace and never have any problems at all.’
It’s the fairy tale ending that drives as near as makes no difference everybody’s life choices.
Sometimes it’s riches – when I have this much money, then…
Sometimes it’s palaces – when I live in this postcode, or have this many bedrooms, or space to myself, then…
Sometimes it’s having no problems – when I’ve dealt with this work thing, or that family thing, or that other illness, then…
And sometimes it’s something subtler. When I’ve got this piece of exercise equipment… Starting Monday…
When Google announced an imminent clever-sounding improvement to the way its ‘tasks’ app integrated with its calendar, I remember seeing a message from someone who could not have been more sure that this was what they needed to finally fulfil their potential. The missing piece of the puzzle. They could not have sounded more passionate about this belief if they’d lost all their limbs and their senses and some hot-shot medical company had announced a means of growing them back.
I think it’s fair to assume that his frustrations remain. And also that he believes it’s Google’s fault, not his.
Part of the reason we root for Aladdin is because he doesn’t spend his time bemoaning his lot. And he’s not only in it for the money. He really does love the princess. They could be happy together outside of the palace.
But of course they are happier in it. Certain levels of happy living are open only to those with sufficient square footage. And servants.
We don’t begrudge Aladdin like we do the evil Vizier Jafar. Aladdin has ‘earned’ his reward by the personal growth he displays when his acquisitive dreams are ultimately overridden by true love, and when he unselfishly frees the genie.
We forgive Aladdin his thieving on account of the injustice of the world. And because he not only steals to stave off starvation, but does so as part of a jolly song-and-dance routine. And because he is a hero, and unrelatably flawless heroes are an oxymoron. If we didn’t on some level want to be Aladdin, we wouldn’t care about him, or for him.
His story also helps the blind, dehumanising, eyes we turn to street urchins sit more comfortably in our sockets. Here is ‘proof’ that karmic justice will find its way to fundamentally good people in unfortunate situations, so we need not worry too much about helping redistribute the fortune ourselves.
More tellingly for our purposes, Aladdin’s dreams of riches are justified by Jafar. Jafar’s already got money, high office, and sodding magic. His craving for wealth and power is insatiable. He’s not righting wrongs; he’s exploiting the shit out of them from an already unfair position. He’s not a lovably roguish street rat regrettably taking what he needs to survive; he’s a total bastard. Aladdin wants only to be rich enough to not have problems. Jafar wants to rule the whole damn world.
Jafar is the comforting strawman version of the Arrival Fallacy. The one we can all point to and say ‘well obviously I’m not so obsessed with craving wealth and power that I’d still crave it if it meant being an evil tosser. I don’t want to rule the world; I just want to never have any problems at all. Therefore my cravings are perfectly fine. A sign of healthy ambition, even.’ (See this bit of the book on how everybody’s ‘threshold for “rich” is reliably about 20% or so higher than one’s current position.’)
Everybody’s fault but mine
The oddest thing about the Arrival Fallacy is that we all know it’s nonsense… in others. Yet we also all believe we’re the exception. Sure, a big house, a few million, and a hotel suite with its own postcode wouldn’t make anyone else happy, but we’d spend it all so much more wisely… if only we had the chance to prove it.
Money wouldn’t change me, we each tell ourselves, because I’m obviously basically perfect (though naturally too modest to admit it; and where others’ imperfections are irritating flaws, my imperfections are further evidence of the humanity of my perfection). It’d change something, of course, because otherwise I wouldn’t want it. But it wouldn’t change me. Except for how it’d change my wanting. I wouldn’t want it if I had it.
This train of thought relies on ‘wanting’ being a function not of one’s mind, but of one’s circumstances. Perfect circumstances = nothing left to want. If this were true, there would be no warnings to sound about the consequences of letting cravings for changes in circumstances dictate one’s life choices, I would’ve had no reason to write this book, and The Buddha would be so embarrassed.
For a decade, my job was to be inside the heads of those that by any objective measure had arrived where everyone else wants to get to. It turns out, however, that objective measures do not make for subjective reality.
The no-more-problems-happy-ever-after world is a myth. It’s not even a helpful myth, where the journey to get there and the friends we made along the way were the real prize. Because the major lesson anyone who ‘gets there’ learns (if indeed they ever do) was that a fixation on the certainty of the destination was a damn-fool thing to dedicate one’s life to.
The easy response to this is to say something like ‘it’s okay, I’ve defined what “enough” looks like’.
Believing the Arrival Fallacy is only a problem if you go too far is a foolish, dangerous, mistake. It’s characterised by Nassim Taleb when he writes: ‘Life is about early detection of the reversal point beyond which your own belongings (say, a house, country house, car, or business) start owning you.’
As if it’s good to crave stuff for a bit, as long as you know when to stop.
Yet you’ll never see when to stop if you don’t see that the thing that got you started was never the stuff, but your self-deceptive patterns of thinking.
Taleb should learn from Genghis Khan: ‘It will be easy to forget your vision and purpose once you have fine clothes, fast horses, and beautiful women… [in that case] you will be no better than a slave, and you will lose everything.’
The key insight of Buddhism’s Second Noble Truth is that ‘suffering’ (by which is meant our self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour) can be understood – and that it is caused not by ‘having attachments’ but by the way in which you become attached.
The difference is crucial.
The point is not to know what your ‘number’ is, but to forget about the ‘number’ entirely, and cultivate the conditions that provoke you to remember what you care about.
Becoming wiser – less blind – with money isn’t about spotting some strawman surface-level silliness as a means of justifying continuing to play the same silly game, but about seeing the silliness of the game itself.
Despite their Disney denominated differences, Aladdin and Jafar are playing the same game. It would’ve been culturally unacceptable for the audience to see Aladdin, having concluded that he didn’t need the riches and the title and the palace after all to actually give them up. It’s one thing to admit that they’re not everything, it’s quite another to admit that they’re irrelevant.