#87: Sum malfunction: a sure-fire way to spot if you’re being a financial idiot

16th May, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that while you can break down a whole life for analysis, you cannot build one up from its parts, despite the typical money worldview believing that this is exactly how to live well, including:

  • If you believe successfully living full of belonging and connection and whatnot is something to focus on AFTER acquiring lots of stuff, then you could not be doing it more wrong.

  • The goodness of a ‘thing’ is borderline irrelevant when seen in appropriate context.

  • Money manifests not only as a form of brain damage, but also masks the very damage it causes.

You know money with only half a brain. And it’s the stupid half. This prevents you making more (a lot more) of your money. By mapping Iain McGilchrist’s work to our relationships with money in this series of lessons, I hope to both introduce you to the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and help you do something about this.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, or The Matter with Things.

Whole-Brain Personal Finance, Lesson #4: You can break a whole into parts, but you cannot build a whole from parts

Look at the picture above. The ‘B’ side is what happens when you ask a patient with right-hemisphere brain damage to build a human from bits.

Hilarious, right?

It’s less funny when you understand that money damages your brain in a similar way.

That crazy kid on the right is basically how people put together their financial lives.

When it comes to money and its role in living well, people act like they’re toasters, rather than people: that the way to optimal living is to optimise every part. To a Western mind at least, this couldn’t be more tempting. It also couldn’t be more misguided.


A few weeks ago, we looked at the fundamentally different ways you pay attention to the world, and how those different ‘takes’ are responsible for the reality you experience.

In humans, just as in animals and birds, it turns out that each hemisphere attends to the world in a different way – and the ways are consistent. The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’: something very different.

Central to this – and with jolly important implications for helping you understand how everybody ends up being so silly with money all the damn time – is that your left hemisphere (when it comes to living with money: the stupid half of your brain) builds a model of ‘reality’ by building things up from each component part it lays its narrowly focused attention on, while the right hemisphere (which despite it being the wiser half, money makes you basically ignore) takes in the whole.

The right hemisphere doesn’t care for collapsing things into categories so they can be modelled, because it understands that reality doesn’t work like that, and it’s cool with whatever heretofore unexperienced way unique things present themselves, without needing to make shit up so it can pretend it knows what’s going on, and what’s going to go on.

Although you may imagine that you construct the world by putting together the bits that your gaze lands on, adding the pieces one by one and recognising that this must be – tada! – your living room, in fact it is the other way round: you take in the whole first, and then your gaze is attracted by particular parts. […] This correlates with a shift of activity from the right to the left hemisphere.

‘So what?’ you may ask. ‘What’s this got to do with being better with money? Money is literally the most building-blocky thing there is. The whole value of money rests upon its universality, its divisibility, its fungibility: the fact you can swap one bit of money for another bit of money of the same size without affecting anything. It’s all just numbers in a spreadsheet.’

This is true, as far as it goes.

But it’s irrelevant.

Because you don’t live in a spreadsheet.

And because making the most of the money in your life is about your relationship with it and its role as an eye-opening accounting record of your life choices. It’s not about what you’ve made out of it in its role as a blinding bunch of building blocks.

The relationships between the parts don’t go to make up the whole, but derive from the existence of the whole.

While there are certainly those that try (and hell, I’ve flirted with it myself, before a few mind-jigglingly transformative experiences woke up the wiser bits of my brain), if you can’t feel the quality of your relationships, your health, or your life, without consulting some quantities banged into Excel, then you’re probably missing something more serious than a few unsynced data points. It’d be like thinking the quality of a date were determined by ‘optimising’ every part from the venue, to your clothes, to your insightful roster of questions (and yes, pre-mind-jiggling, I’ve been there and done that embarrassingly often).

(Not that the quantities are pointless – of course they’re not! But their place is as an assistant in the analysis part of the ongoing examination-and-refinement process, not as the judge!)

A way of life, not a way to life

The silliness of seeing life as the sum of some parts is seen in every expression of the ‘Arrival Fallacy’: my name for the idea that the Good Life is something we arrive at, usually found in the formula: ‘when X is sorted, then I will be able to do Y and feel Z’. The Arrival Fallacy derives from a belief there’s a ‘number’ (or a size of house, or a job title, or a flash new gadget) 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.

As I wrote here, ‘The Arrival Fallacy tricks us into treating a human journey like a robotic production line. It’s oh-so-tempting, but oh-so-futile.’

Your left hemisphere does exactly the same thing. It turns you, the human, into you, the machine.

To the left hemisphere, all that matters is the object in front of you. Use all the objects in the ‘right’ way… follow all the procedures ‘correctly’, and the life they add up to will be all right too. How could it not be?

To the left hemisphere, there is no zooming out. Only zooming in. Look after the details, it believes, and everything else not only will fall into place, but must do so.

Yet, as I wrote about here when looking at construal level theory, and here when looking at attentional scaling, wisdom (and making the most of the money in your life) requires doing both zooming in and zooming out concurrently: seeing your whole life when acting on each next few decisions, like a chess grandmaster conceptualising piece movements within a wider vision (a right-hemisphere skill, by the way; novice chess players are left-hemisphere dominant).

This is obvious when taken to extremes – the billionaire who buys all the things just because they can afford them is manifestly not improving their life. Yet how many people basically run the same script that says being able to afford something is a valid input into a purchase-making decision? (Not being able to afford something is a valid input, as I wrote here.)

When you live in a world where money is seen as the only constraint worth worrying about (as opposed to mundane human constraints like time, energy, values, and so on) you not only do idiotic things, but you make it more likely you’ll do more idiotic things next time too.

This ties back to the core importance that your two hemispheres pay attention to the world in two very different ways. And if you pay attention in the narrow-focused way, you miss all the good stuff.

Attention, however, intrinsically is a way in which, not a thing: it is intrinsically a relationship, not a brute fact.

How you live – how you relate to things, not how many things you have – determines how well you live. The way in which you become somebody matters; the things do not.

Next post in the Whole-Brain Personal Finance series:

page#89: The tell-tale signs of a poor financial worldview

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