#62: Balance isn’t stillness

22nd November, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that not chasing ‘more’ doesn’t mean standing still, including:

  • why it’s a mistake to think of balance as a passive counterpoint to active ambition;

  • why ‘finding your enough’ flows from the same flawed premise as chasing ‘more’; and

  • an actual transcript of me on a dating app.

This week’s newsletter was inspired by Brian Portnoy’s Twitter thread here. You may like to follow him on Twitter. You may also like to follow me.

Balance is active, not passive. Yet the common money worldview says otherwise: it confuses balance with stillness and sloth, and thus sets it up as an inadequate alternative to blindly chasing ‘more’. This is important because it is your financial worldview that determines your financial choices and your financial choices have a monumental influence over the quality of your life.

Allocating money in ways that make your life better is wise. Allocating it in ways that don’t, isn’t.

Yet we commonly do rather more of the latter than the former. Because we both fail to formulate our problems properly and fail to reason our way to sane solutions, we fail to see the roots of our more wasteful allocation decisions. And the more money we are in charge of allocating, the wider this gulf becomes.

Far from filling the gap between where you are and where you want to be, money multiplies it, because the gap comes largely from how you see the role of money in your world.

If you fail to see that all your attempts to solve something spring from the same flawed premise, you’ll not only keep making the same mistakes – while not seeing that they’re the same – but rather than learning from them, each mistake will make it more likely you’ll make the same mistake again.

It doesn’t matter that the previous thousand attempts didn’t work… if you keep believing the ‘answer’ is ‘buy something’, then it doesn’t matter what you’re buying. The sixth Ferrari is different to the fifth! The latest bit of fancy exercise equipment is different to the ones gathering dust in the corner!

If you don’t see that you’re still searching for a solution not because the previous answer wasn’t as conclusive as you’d hoped, but because you’re looking in the wrong place, you’re doomed to never find anything, while always believing you’re on the brink of doing so.

And – even more importantly – even if you do see the silliness in option A, if option B also feels a bit wrong, and you’re not really looking for C, D, or Z, then you’re likely to keep entrenching your belief in option A all the same.

One strand of this deceptive web is our curious attachment to ‘more’. And how even those that easily reason that ‘more’ is a flawed default, don’t so easily reason themselves to a wiser alternative. I’m sure you’ve all met someone who is both doing something only for the money while at the same time acknowledging that they should really think about it a bit harder… later.

Much has been written about ‘more’, often in contrast to ‘enough’. I’ve done so myself.

We’ll return to that in a second. But first, once upon a time, this was me on a dating app. Because, yes, I am odd enough to have both written these things, and kept a screenshot of doing so.

Me: ‘I do wonder if the plate-spinning model of trying to “balance” career, creativity, and companionship by looking at them largely in isolation isn’t a little flawed. Doesn’t feel very… human 😊. A life can be productively broken down for helping with certain constrained examination, but we mustn’t forget to put it back together again when making decisions!’

Lucky girl: ‘[…] to be super good in what you do, you need to invest a lot of time and energy so by default other things in life will slip.’

Me: ‘What if that thing you wanted to get super good at were (to quote Bertie Wooster) “to just exist beautifully”? Then you’d be investing your time and energy on the balance, rather than the individual components and then thinking about how well they’re balanced afterwards 😊.’

You see this sort of story (the belief that when it comes to living a Good Life, charging ahead in one area can offset falling behind in another, not how I behave on dating apps) everywhere.

From the careerist cycling between burn-out and resort reset to every ‘successful businessperson’ that walks into a financial planner’s meeting room beating their chest about their bonus and their latest set of wheels, before beating a retreat at mention of their mental or physical health. And of course the common belief that more money offsets less everything else.

When you see something everywhere, chances are it’s embedded in a shared philosophy. And when that thing you see everywhere expresses itself in all sorts of silly ways that philosophy is probably flawed.

Which is where ‘more’ in contrast to ‘enough’ comes in, and how while it’s commonly done, it’s uncommonly done wisely.

More blindness or more sight?

People pointing out the flaws of a blind pursuit of ‘more’ sometimes feel as numerous as those doing the blind pursuing. Not least because people have been doing it since at least the Ancient Greeks. As Will Durant informs us:

The change from landed to movable wealth produced a feverish struggle for money, and the Greek language had to invent a word, pleonexia, to denote this appetite for ‘more and more’, and another word, chrematistike, for the ‘busy pursuit of riches’.

‘Busy’ in any arena is rarely a sign of wisdom. For busy forgets the crucial step of checking if what we’re being busy about is actually worth it.

Assuming you can do it without embracing immorality in a manner suggestive of a Tory MP, or perpetuating a planet-ravaging worldview, there’s nothing inherently wrong with chasing riches. But as we saw with the three levels of freedom, you probably don’t want to be so busy chasing riches that you forget why you’re doing so in the first place.

Despite humanity being defined not by succumbing to the siren call of simplicity, but by getting comfortable with complexity, the craving for simplistic certainty is one heck of a drug. And money – by reducing everything to an apparently universal, objective, measurement (however flawed this is) – is one heck of a delivery mechanism.

The common lens through which we view the role of money in our lives deceives us into latching onto shoddy substitutes that promise an easy certainty but deliver only costly disappointment.

This is the problem with ‘more’ as it’s commonly seen: it enables a worldview that says money can be converted into actually meaningful stuff later, so if in doubt, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of tunnel vision now (and let’s forget that there’s always some sort of reason to doubt, right up until the point doubt flips into regret).

This reductionist view can con us into thinking we’ve seen the problem, and are therefore immune from its effects. As we saw with the difference between good and bad rules, defaults are often good but they’re always dangerous.

In short, ‘more’ is a driver not of wiser default decisions, but of poor problem formulation. And we know what happens when we ask silly questions.

You can spot this happening when you hear things along the lines of the following:

  • you’ve got two options: ambitiously chasing more or settling for enough; or

  • stop chasing more when you’ve found your ‘enough’, then you’ll live happily ever after; or

  • something akin to the trouble we saw with Nassim Taleb’s take on the extent to which it’s okay to be possessed by possessions: ‘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.’

All such beliefs are packed with the potential to mislead.

This trap is baked into your relationship with money. Which is why it’s so vital to look at your relationship with money before you blindly look through it.

If you find yourself flicking between ‘more’ and ‘enough’, you’re constantly looking through, not at. The flicking you want to be doing is not between ‘more’ and ‘enough’ but between through and at.

The contrast between ‘more’ and ‘enough’ should not be seen as a spectrum, along which we need to find some sort of balancing point, or two modes between which we should flick depending on our circumstances. To do this would be to make the same mistake I ranted about in Idiot Money #40: believing that ‘advice’ to ‘Always say yes!’ or ‘Always say no!’ or ‘Say yes to everything when you’re young and exploring, then say no to everything when you’re exploiting your exploration!’ is anything other than a terrible waste of everybody’s time.

There are no circumstances in which using ‘more’ as the default for both earning and spending decisions helps you become wiser. No, it doesn’t work ‘for a bit’. It just doesn’t work.

This isn’t about ‘finding enough’. It’s about asking: Why do we dedicate so much of our lives to unfulfilling ends? And why do we keep doing so in the same ways?

The answer must be because we’re deceiving ourselves somehow.

However, much of what is written on the topic of more v enough entrenches this self-deception: it both comes from and further encourages a worldview where:

  • money’s importance is measured in numbers not its role in your narrative, which encourages us to compartmentalise, seeing isolated decisions or periods of time when we would be better seeing a whole human life;

  • what matters most (our desire to cultivate the conditions in which we can participate in a process of becoming a certain somebody) can be met by having stuff; and

  • money is good partly because it saves us from having to think about how wisely we’re using it, either temporarily or permanently.

As I wrote here (the whole section is relevant):

Hitching the power of self-deception to the power of default has implications beyond a bit of thoughtless spending. When we live our lives as if we’re in one of those meetings that, deeming it too difficult to reach a conclusion there and then, concludes to have another meeting instead, we do more than just delay decisions.

No human is an island

When we look at a self-deceptive money worldview, what do we see?

We see transactions when we want to see trades.

We see isolated ‘one offs’ that compare the predicted benefits of a thing (be it earning, spending, saving, investing, or whatever) with usually always the immediate cash in our bank balance, sometimes the longer-term cash-flow consequences, and almost never the effects the decision has on expressing and shaping who we are in the process of becoming.

As I wrote last week:

all expenditure is inherently and inescapably ethical. Because all expenditure is a trade-off that expresses how we want the world to be.

More of something is always less of something else. So why do we so easily dress one side up as ‘better’? Anyone else think that ‘less is more’ is a really weird rallying cry for those advocating minimalism? Because it’s basically saying ‘less stuff is better’, but using ‘more’ in place of ‘better’, thereby tacitly agreeing with the very mindset they’re allegedly against? Denunciation is still attachment.

The contrast between ‘more’ and ‘enough’ should be seen as a means of becoming more aware of the self-deceptive forces that lead us to make such screwy financial decisions.

In a bid to better understand this, let’s consider a common conception of the contrast between ‘more’ and ‘enough’ that looks like it’s saying something sensible but may end up sustaining self-deception on the sly.

Balance is active not passive

Characteristic of the deception-enabling approaches is to see ‘more’ as ambition (good to get going, but don’t take it too far) and ‘enough’ as settling (good to enjoy now and then, but beware stagnation).

(We’ll look at the shortcomings of ambition relative to aspiration another day, mostly because Agnes Callard’s book on it is so good it demands loads of space).

In this context, ‘balance’ is a lovely place to holiday, but a poor place to live, as anyone cycling between burn-out and beach-reset, or that’s waiting for the bank balance to hit ‘the number’ or the external stars to align in the pattern that unlocks ‘happily ever after’ will tell you.

In this view, balance is passive. Pleasant, but passionless.

However, as anyone who’s ever stood on a slackline knows only too embarrassingly, balance is active, not passive. Balance isn’t about not moving; it’s about incredibly refined, skilful movement.

As Jana Kingsford wrote: ‘Balance is not something you find, it's something you create.’

Importantly, balancing in life, like balancing on a slackline, happens as a side-effect. All good outcomes do. You don’t balance by trying to balance. You balance by making the right movements that each in-the-moment set of circumstances require. Wave your arms, clench your toes, tune in to your core. Just do the next right thing.

Do this often enough, and you start to do it automatically. Whereas when learning it may be helpful to break down those movements into each arm, or foot, or toe, or core, it works only when you put it all back together and see the body as a whole. Moving from seeing isolated numbers to a whole human is at the heart of living better with money.

‘Enough’ isn’t a passive relaxation in some coma-like contentment. That’s still looking through the same self-deceptive lens that craves an inhuman simplistic certainty. It’s a continual refreshing of your attention and intention.

Believing enough is something to be ‘found’ doesn’t contrast with the ‘Arrival Fallacy’. It commits it.

Hang around financial advisory circles and you’ll hear a lot about the importance of ‘knowing your enough’ or your ‘number’. As if you know that, then you will be happy. Can we see how this is playing the exact same game as those chasing ‘more’?

(See Idiot Money #19 for the foolishness of ‘knowing your number’.)

Enough isn't settling

As I wrote about here, the Greeks had a word, sophrosyne – which conceptualised an idea of excellence of character and soundness of mind. When combined in one well-balanced individual, this combo naturally gave rise to other virtues – such as decorum and self-control – as side-effects.

Though often translated as ‘temperance’ or ‘moderation’, these suggest ‘settling’, which sophrosyne shouldn’t. Sophrosyne – like ‘enough’ in the context of its contrast with ‘more’ – has nothing to do with settling. It is a form of self-control, but in the sense of rejoicing in control by yourself, not by others, as opposed to desiring and then denying something.

It is an active understanding and embracing of the balance that makes for a Good Life. It is a means of tempting yourself into the Good Life, by engaging with the actions that cultivate it. It is a bridge between where you are and where you want to be. It links the apprehensive feelings associated with the short-term discomfort attached to any sort of desirable growth with the excitement of doing that growing. It is the thrill a fearless child feels on going to a music lesson to spend an hour being crap at playing an instrument.

The aim of a human life can never be to ‘settle’. As if a stagnant pond were more beautiful than a waterfall. Nor can it be to blindly accumulate. Nor can it be to flick between the two. It can’t be about the decisions as destinations. It must be about the continual process of refining your decision-making machinery as an end in itself, with a better sort of balance as an inevitable side-effect.

Contrasting more and enough is important… as a process of remembering the mode in which you’re living your life, and the clarity with which you see the trades that express and shape it.

And finally, something that can never be repeated too often (taken, as it happens, from the same dating-app chat above):

‘I think possibly the best thing about a job being inside the heads of rich folk (as I had for a decade) is that it’s a continual reminder to check in on whether what life choices you’re making every day actually work.’

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