#96: Deep wealth v shallow wealth

18th July, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that everybody fears the depths of personal finance, but that’s a reason to plunge into them, not to spin about on the surface pretending you’re doing something clever or important, including:

  • The one personal-finance thing people are most terrified of.

  • Evidence that however smart we think we’re being when we chat about personal finance, we’re missing something major.

  • And how to see your relationship with money in a way that changes everything.

This is the penultimate instalment of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here. This week we look at why it’s impossible, in the sense people tend to crave, to ‘apply’ all this to your daily life in piecemeal, ‘takeaway nuggets’ fashion. The final part will be an attempt to do that anyway.

Because money is so inextricably woven into the fabric of your life, as soon as you overcome the hurdle to engage with your personal finances at all, you run into the temptation to do it in a shallow way. Your past demons, your present decisions, and your future dreams are all in play, and can all be haunting. Yet how do you dive into depths you don’t even fully recognise exist?

What’s the one thing people talking about personal finance are most terrified of?

Is it knowing which investments to pick?

Is it missing out on the next Google?

Is it falling victim to a scam?

Is it running out of money?

No, no, no, and no.

It’s depth.

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

From paupers to princes, I’ve had thousands of conversations with people about what their money means to them.

Sometimes the answers are material: ‘It allows me to buy things! Things made of gold! So many golden things!’…as if the story of Midas were meant as a guide to the Good Life, rather than a warning about wishing yourself into a wretched oblivion.

Sometimes there are tears, as stories from own childhoods concluded and other childhoods currently being cared for collide in a way that both transcends money and yet becomes more intimately attached to it.

Even when there are tears, and even when those tears reflect lifelong fears, there’s a comforting therapeutic quality to them: the crier is still broadly at ease. (That is, as I wrote here, the point of fears: to put a comforting face on an otherwise uncontrollable existential anxiety.)

Unease, by contrast – discomfort, resistance, and bodily contortions suggestive of a sudden and very localised outbreak of hives – comes only with the realisation that the way in which one lives with money is far more deterministic and expressive of how well lived a life is, than what one does with it on the surface.

This is terrifying.

People like talking about the whats. They show off the whats. Yet of course we show off only our insecurities. Insecurities that are rooted in the deep knowledge that our way-in-whiches are often way off where we feel they ought to be.

I’ve poked enough financial psychologies to know that the merest hint that making something of one’s money should outrank simply making it can trigger someone to snap from boasting about their CV to squirming like a politician trying to defend the indefensible on the morning news. You needn’t even directly elicit what they’ve actually made out of it for decades; that knowledge is riotously rattling the bars of the itching cells in which it’s imprisoned.

The best questions are quests, not journeys

Last time, we looked at a list of personal-finance puzzles. For example:

  • Why do we struggle to make more out of our money? How did we end up making more and more money while making less and less out of it?

  • How is it possible to ‘have everything’ and still feel like something important is ‘missing’?

  • Why do we believe that achieving the same result with fewer resources is better, except when it comes to the only result that ultimately matters: living a good life? Why do people brag about spending 10,000 a month to live as happily as someone spending 1,000?

  • Why do we want money so we ‘don’t have to think about money’, as if we make better decisions when we do so without thinking about them?

  • Why do we sacrifice our best time and energy in jobs we don’t enjoy, to earn money to then waste in ways driven by our perceptions of other people’s perceptions of us – people we don’t even care about, and probably don’t even know?

And so on. The full list is here.

It’s not like we’re short of evidence that the way we live with money (as exemplified by the fact these puzzles aren’t completely trivial) doesn’t work. And yet we keep playing the same game anyway.

This suggests that there’s something we’re not seeing that’s more fundamental than the evidence we are.

Something that requires not looking at our circumstances, but looking at the way we look.

Something that requires the exact sort of depth that most would rather pretend didn’t exist than dive into.

Deep > deepity

It’s tempting to give pithy solutions to all the above puzzles. You can easily bring in some psychology, some economics, some philosophy, some sociology... and say something that sounds sane and insightful enough to excuse jogging on to the next issue lucky enough to get your hot take on it.

Heck, with a big enough following, you could probably sell thousands of books ‘answering’ just one of them.

There are lucrative careers to be made selling fortune cookies stuffed with ‘deepities’ – Daniel Dennett’s term for propositions that seem important and true and even profound, but that achieve this effect by being ambiguous. Trying to define ‘wealthy’ or ‘rich’ or whatever in a Tweet will always find a bigger audience than questioning what the point of doing so was in the first place.

Create or consume these fortune cookies, and sure, you’re just spinning in circles, but ever-more smugly so.

(See also the distinction between trivial and profound.)

But what if that very desire for pithy answers is precisely the problem?

What if the direct, explicit answers are what’s keeping us stuck in the same bonkers behavioural loops despite apparently having ‘solved’ these puzzles?

The value of the ideas we’ve covered in this series is in showing not only that this is the case, but also that the typical way we attend to money in our lives worsens this narrow, trivial, and addictive pursuit of explicitness. For what could be more explicit than a price tag? What collapses complexity into certainty more than money?

My hope is that having worked through this series, you will feel the answers to the above puzzles are so obvious as to not need spelling out, but – moreover – you will realise that there’s only so far direct, explicit answers can take you.

You will realise that what you want isn’t the psychological, economic, philosophic or whatever ‘knowledge’ to ‘solve’ these puzzles, but the deeper understanding of what the questions are pointing to in a way that by definition can’t be spelled out, but is far richer for that.

You will realise that while the journey is obviously more important than the destination, most of the time when you hear that phrase, it’s being uttered by somebody desperately transforming the journey into a destination – a thing to be acquired – rather than just enjoying the damn ride, thereby both missing the point, and staying stuck playing the same silly game as the one they’re denouncing, without, of course, even realising that they’re doing so.

Unresolved anxiety leads to decadence and decay

To return to where we came in…

The very fact that somebody can find the words to voice their fear of running out of money is a good indication that they may fear it, but they’re not terrified by it. The really terrifying stuff goes deeper. It is the intangible fear of fear. Fear happens when we put a face on this deeper sense of unease. It is by definition a sign that something scarier lurks in the depths.

Let this terror rule your life, and you get decadence and decay.

Decadence, by the way, despite being the surface-level ‘goal’ for oodles of lost souls dreaming of sun-lounger retirements, is not a good thing.

As John Kaag wrote in Hiking with Nietzsche:

You will realise that decadence goes hand in hand with, yet also shrouds, decay. It is the denial of life, not its pinnacle. ‘To choose instinctively what is harmful to oneself,’ Nietzsche wrote, ‘is virtually the formula for decadence.’

Let that sink in. To choose. Instinctively. What is harmful to oneself.

That is, what doesn’t make one’s life, when seen as a whole human life rather than an inhuman sum of its parts, better.

What more instructive examples could there be of this than how we instinctively use the word ‘treat’ to describe something that leaves us physically and financially worse off, and how, in the typical-yet-nonsensical categorisation of our expenditure, we talk about our ‘wants’ like a smoker talks about tar.

Don’t do this. The first step to choosing to use your money in a way that is instinctively Good for you, rather than harmful, is to not do this.

Embrace the anxiety. Rip off its comforting mask. Get below the surface. It’s really not as bad as you think it’ll be. As Henry Miller wrote: ‘On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface.’

See your relationship with money like that, and everything changes.

Next time, in the final post in this series, we’ll look at five real-life examples that dance around what we’ve covered in a way I hope engenders or reinforces such an understanding.

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