#84: The value of (almost) everything to you is nothing

25th April, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that money cons you into believing in a world of unconstrained time and energy, a belief that’s ironically unnecessarily constraining the goodness of your life, including:

  • The dumbness of ‘dream homes’, owning what is better rented, and stuffing your ears with endless podcasts.

  • How letting price tags make decisions for you is insane.

  • And why if you find yourself declaring the benefit of money as ‘opportunity’ you probably want to think a bit harder.

The value of almost everything to you is nothing because there is a finite amount of time or energy inside you to care for more than a handful of things. An implication of this is that the common craving for ‘more opportunities’ – for so long a main motivation for letting money drive your decisions – is a deeply deceptive, and downright dumb, determinant of your life choices.

At some point during your childhood, I expect you made plans for your ‘dream home’.

I know I did.

Tennis court here. Home cinema there. Kitchen bordering on everywhere.

Everything I’d ever enjoyed – or at least the environments in which the enjoyment took place (not that child-me would’ve understood the implications of the difference) – all under one architectural marvel of a roof.

Many mature out of this. Even if they don’t understand it consciously, they harbour some inkling that maybe who one is becoming is more important than what one has, and, moreover, that ‘having’ is a block to ‘becoming’, not an effective enabler of or substitute for it.

Many others dedicate their entire lives to making their acquisitive ‘dreams’ a ‘reality’.

This is a huge shame.

Because the end of the majority of acquisitive dreams isn’t to ‘one day’ wake up in paradise, but to live asleep.

Acquiring a thing doesn’t end the dreaming. It sustains it. Even in the face of each expression of these endlessly acquisitive desires failing to deliver on its promises.

If being inside the heads of the people that have what other people believe they want teaches you anything, it’s that the reality of those that have ‘lived’ these dreams is marked more by frustration than fulfilment.

Most common ways rich people use their money without making much difference to the goodness of their lives are characterised by privatising things. Owning what is better rented. Just like immature dream-home designers and their cerebrally perilous desires to own everything they’ve ever enjoyed.

Usually if not always, it’s not the ownership, or even the activity that makes for the enjoyment. It’s the companionship. Or the mastery. Or the chance to feel like a f-cking hero. This is all sadly – and foolishly – forgotten when one is afflicted both by the disease of mistakenly believing one can ‘own’ experiences, and by having the money that provides the devilish opportunity to try.

Gone is the automatic camaraderie of the tennis club and in is the frustration of not getting as good, or getting as much use out of the private court as expected (not to mention the maintenance).

Susan Wolf, in Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, speaks to the same point:

Even if basketball, removed or abstracted from its now established place in our culture, is not an objectively valuable activity in itself, it provides an opportunity for much that is of value. It provides an opportunity for the cultivation and exercise of skill and virtue, for the building of relationships, and for the communion that comes from enthusiasm for an immersion in a shared activity.

None of which is enhanced by ‘owning’ the activity. Yet because we blindly bound from knowing something is good to trying to own it, we burn resources on ineffective attempts to meet inadequately understood needs.

Being a junkie doesn’t become wise just because the drug is information

This isn’t only about houses, of course. Mansions are just magnifying glasses.

Consider too the insatiate information-scoffer, life choices at the mercy of the stupid half of their brain, ‘struggling’ to keep up with all their favourite podcasts.

The struggle isn’t to ‘find time’. Failure to ‘find time’ is everywhere the mark of a fool, albeit sometimes a delightfully optimistic one.

The struggle is to recognise the reality of the time there is.

To acknowledge that if you could somehow be aware of every single podcast in the world, such that you could choose to listen only to those that really rocked your intellectual world, you’d still be left with more truly great content to listen to than was in any way sane to do so in the context of a moderately well-functioning human life.

Or consider the person who sees all the subscriptions and all the supplements as substitutes for their respective underlying needs. Or talks about how many books they’ve read rather than talks as if even one of those books had transformed them in some way. Or that goes to a talk so they can claim to use a crossed path as a proxy for a moulded mind. And so on.

The starting point – as it must always be – is not ‘what parts are good in isolation?’ but ‘what does a good life look like, and what role do the parts play in that?’

Consumption, even of the inherently good, is not inherently good for you.

Which leads us to a more general point, that all the opportunities in the world are useless if you’re so busy creating them that you miss creating something with them.

This goes far beyond a casual idea of ‘explore, then exploit.’ For those not trapped in the ‘arrival fallacy’ mode of believing that making the most of life is something that happens after they’ve made life out of a series of somethings, be that a job title, or a bank balance, or the acquisition of a fancy piece of exercise equipment, some sense of purpose runs through both exploring and exploiting.

Ask a ton of people – as I have – what money means to them, and a percentage bordering on ‘all of them’ will say something about ‘opportunity’.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with such an answer. But there’s a lot wrong in how this answer is usually applied in context, as, of course, it must be.

(And how strange – and incredibly sad – it is that appending to the question words you’d hope were naturally implied, so it becomes ‘what does money mean to you in the context of your life?’ changes both the answers and the thought behind them).

Typical applications betray an infantile simplicity, that takes ‘opportunity’ to be inherently good, and therefore anything you do to increase the opportunity for its own sake, for example, making more money – and also more obviously foolishly, but following logically from the same premiss, consuming more things – must be worthwhile, with no need to ask further awkward questions like ‘So what?’

No one consciously chooses to live in a world where price tags are indicators of value, and that therefore there must be an inherent goodness to all consumption, regardless of its experienced effects upon the actual goodness of your life. But just about everybody creates this world through their choices all the same. It’s suicidally stupid. The value of almost everything to you is necessarily absolutely nothing, regardless of how much some other people are prepared to pay for them.

Of course there are things out there that are good in isolation, just as there are podcasts that will offer you an interesting experience for an hour or two. And in analysing a good life, you can break it down and see that it contains these ‘things’ and maybe a decent handful of interesting podcasts (or your chosen equivalent). But a Good Life isn’t – cannot be – built up from the things and the podcasts. It – literally, metaphorically, and neurologically – doesn’t work that way.

This enormous error permeates so much of financial planning. It’s a poison that not only infects the process, but also affects the recipient’s ability to see the poison. This is something we’ll return to plenty of times as part of the McGilchrist series.

The limits of opportunity are smaller than you think

You can care about everything. You can’t care for everything.

Yet money cons you into thinking that you can.

Because money makes you care about it.

But also not about it directly. It as a means of limitless opportunity.

Some element of opportunity is obviously important. But left unexamined, it’s unhelpful. How much ‘opportunity’ do you actually need to live well?

Caring about infinite opportunity in the context of a finite human life is foolish.

It’s tempting, for sure.

There’s a good argument that everything anybody does is in service of a reaching for immortality, an attempt to deny death.

But many tempting things are foolish. And denying death is perhaps the most foolish of them all.

However, a warning to ‘Don’t deny death!’ is likely to change precisely zero people’s lives in precisely zero ways.

But maybe a call to catch yourself when tempted by ‘opportunity’ and just check whether the opportunity is really one of direction rather than distraction… maybe that has a chance.

This is also at the heart of what it means to become wiser – to become better at valuing what is actually valuable. We’ll see how in a future missive.

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