#97: What seeing your financial life more clearly looks like

25th July, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding how to see, including:

  • The limited role of your eyes in your experience of seeing as a metaphor for life.

  • What seeing the world in a wiser way looks like in real-world practical applications.

  • And a grudging listicle 😊.

This is the final part of our series on using the framework of Buddhist philosophy as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here. This final instalment looks at some personal financial puzzles (and ranges of dealing with them) to see how your relationship with money could show up differently in practice when the changes this series has tried to inspire are applied in the real-world. It’s twice as long as normal; I believe if you treat it to your attention, it will treat you in turn.

Your money is worth nothing without a philosophy. Philosophy, whether eastern or western, isn’t an arcane academic exercise, but a way of living. It’s worth nothing if it doesn’t make your life better – if it doesn’t make you wiser with money. However, to conclude this climb around the framework of Buddhist philosophy with a bullet-point list of ‘takeaways’ would be to miss the point of the series entirely. A listicle linking each spoke of the eightfold path to a well-worn way to invest like less of an idiot would be of negative use to the world. The value is in seeing whole lives more clearly, not in extracting clearly compartmentalised fortune-cookie conclusions.

‘Vision,’ writes Donald Hoffman, in Visual Intelligence, ‘is not merely a matter of passive perception. It is an intelligent process of active construction. What you see is, invariably, what your visual intelligence constructs […] your visual system intelligently constructs useful visual worlds based on images at the eyes.’

Vision, in other words, is a complex, embodied experience, not a simple function of your eyeballs.

This goes not only for the physical experience (let’s not call it a mechanism) of seeing. It goes for the philosophical one too – i.e. what we’re on about when we talk about a worldview, the way in which you see yourself, and other people, and the world, and the interdependent integrated interactions between them. And of course how you can ‘see more clearly’, which in essence is what this whole series has been about.

The physical experience of vision described in Hoffman’s paragraph above is an instructive metaphor for understanding how to see the money in your life more clearly, and therefore for making more of it. There are three key points, each of which is vastly more important to internalise than anything you can find in the FT:

  • ‘…an intelligent process of active construction…’Context matters! Money has meaning only in its interactions with your life. You construct this meaning by the way in which you pay attention to it. This process of paying attention is active, and participatory.

  • ‘…useful visual worlds…’You construct not only isolated snapshots of meaning, but your entire worldview. How you see the money in your life is both shaped by and expressed by every interaction with it. This is why it’s so damn important to both start with a financial philosophy, and to take it seriously.

  • ‘…based on images at the eyes…’ – Based on. Just as the signals received by your retinas are merely one of many inputs into a process that determines what you ‘see’, so numbers are mere circumstantial scene-setters. They may be more in-your-face (sorry 😉), but on their own, their importance is vastly overrated.

As promised last time, what follows is a response, of sorts, to the ton of people that have asked me to spell out what all this Buddhist-framework stuff looks like when applied to real-life situations.

I hope those that have been paying attention for the whole series will understand that, by definition, to answer this with a list of ‘do this’ / ‘don’t do this’ bullet points would risk being massively counter-productive.

Equating seeing more clearly with a series of step-by-step instructions is emblematic of precisely the sort of thing that leads people to make less of their money than they really should. This is not a piece of information that can be simplistically transmitted through a bunch of words; it is an understanding that can hopefully emerge as you attend to those words.

Operating manuals are for machines and the sort of brain-damaged productivity-obsessed tech bros that wish they were built of cogs and silicon in order to more reliably run their morning-routine programmes. They are not for beautiful, complex, humans. Believing otherwise is to believe that you can force falling in love, or meditate by telling yourself to relax.

This warning is necessary but insufficient. As we saw last time, the more Deep Down You is in need of depth, the more Surface Level You is likely to not only run from it, but not even know what it is it’s running from. The brain wired with typical responses to all things money is not the brain that sees that the typical responses to all things money are f-ing stupid.

With all that said, onto the listicle.

1: See your addictions: understand that giving up the framework of grasping beats giving up the objects grasped

Idiots hear that life is ruled by desires and decide that the answer must be to keep trying to fulfil them, by competitively and conspicuously consuming the shit out of everything.

Clever people see that this is idiocy. They consume instead the fortune cookies about not being possessed by possessions. They say things like: ‘I’m not extravagant’. By believing that the problem of ‘attachment’ is about being attached to specific objects, they can justify anything, like spending mindless millions on their children because it aligns with a ‘value’ (however narrowly framed, and however ineffectively this works), or on yachts that are fine because they aren’t as big as Abramovich’s.

Wiser people understand that no one thinks they’re extravagant. They understand that the problem isn’t attachment to specific objects, but the whole framework of attachment: the worldview that is stuck seeing quality in quantity terms, that can become attached even to the identity of being someone that isn’t attached to stuff. Attachments to possessions are unhelpful. Attachments to patterns of thinking are dangerous. And the most dangerous are the patterns we don’t see because we’re busy congratulating ourselves for not being attached to possessions.

Wiser people realise that grasping for a certain type of car is really to try to grasp an ungraspable certainty. So they dig deeper. They see cash-flow modelling not as an appreciation of uncertainty, but as a subtler means of appeasing a craving for it, and a dangerous means not of modelling life, but of forcing life to fit a model.

Wiser people don’t play the same game better; they play a better game.

2: See ongoing complexity, not simple conclusions: understand that all of life is threatened by self-destructive, self-deceptive behaviour

Idiots hear that the noble truths are something about ‘suffering’, decide they have no suffering, and therefore no use for such truths.

Clever people break complex concepts down for analysis. They dodge particular pitfalls. They catch enough isolated ‘biases’ to fill an infographic. They jump to sane-sounding conclusions. Every problem is only some spreadsheet-fiddling away from being solved. Before buying something, they ask themselves if they need it, or if they merely want it, believing the two are different.

Wiser people take those conclusions and put them back into the context of the life they should be serving. They understand that you cannot reasonably talk about (let alone tackle) any common behavioural misstep without understanding that its roots are irreducibly complex, and therefore no hack, however hot, is going to help. The same system that spirals you down also spirals you up. It’s an inescapable part of being human. It is not to be succumbed to or denied, but channelled.

‘All of life is suffering’ tells you nothing. Not least because ‘suffering’ is an incredibly unhelpful choice of word. However, dig a little deeper, and understand that this has nothing to do with ‘pain’, and it tells you something ridiculously important: it is not the fact you are self-deceived that is relevant, but the way in which you become self-deceived. And that therefore your starting point for becoming wiser is not what you’re attending to, but the way in which you’re attending.

Wiser people don’t ask ‘Do I need this, or do I want this?’ They recognise that needs and wants are the same thing, because do you not ‘want’ a roof over your head? And is some form of meaning or purpose or a hug not a ‘need’? They understand that a more helpful distinction is between ‘wants’ – things that make your life better – and ‘addictions’ – things that make your life worse, but which you continue to choose to do anyway. They ask: ‘Will this make my life better or not? Do I want this, or am I appeasing an addiction?’

They realise that what matters most – love, connection, whatever actually makes a life ‘Good’ – can’t be quantified, nor pursued directly. Moreover, they realise that if something can be measured, it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Wiser people are masters of side-effect living. They have to buy ‘things’ of course, but the ‘thing’ is never seen as the ‘answer’, rather an imperfect means of circling around whatever cannot be bought directly.

3: See your shoddy substitutes: understand that ‘things’ do not meet needs

Idiots see money as a scorecard, a measure of everything from their intelligence, their worth as a human being, or how much they love their children.

Clever people see money as a scorecard too, they just do so on the sly, not admitting it even to themselves, even when it’s as blatant as swapping income = goodness for savings rate = goodness. Clever people don’t talk about money directly like idiots do. Instead, they say things like: ‘provide for my family’ to justify never being present with their family because they’re too busy providing them with holidays designed to embed the idea that the value of a destination is measured by a per-night price tag.

Wiser people see money as a better reminder than a scorecard. A tool to examine a life, not as an excuse not to. They realise that if you’re not careful, you start to construct a world in which your entire view of value becomes beholden to the mechanics of the world’s supply and demand, and ceases being anything to do with you. Right up to allowing De Beers to dictate how you demonstrate your love for someone.

The most common form of silly substitution is ‘having’ a thing for ‘becoming’ somebody. Wiser people see the danger of living as if something doesn’t really exist unless it fits in a cash-flow forecast. Wiser people keep the analysis in its place.

4: See a system, not a path: understand that the ‘arrival fallacy’ is an ever-tempting trick

Idiots design their lives around step-by-step instructions towards a fixed destination. As if they were machines. Even when that ‘destination’ is something like ‘security’ or ‘freedom’ that cannot in any way be ‘arrived’ at.

Clever people say things about it being about the journey, not the destination. Clever people have plans. Savings plans. Investment plans. Retirement plans. They ‘do’ mindfulness. They control their environments, sometimes so expertly that they achieve states, be they physical, professional, or financial, that are genuinely impressive, and often result in achieving valuable psychological states as a rewarding side-effect too.

Wiser people are conscious that it’s maddeningly easy to talk about ‘the journey not the destination’ in a way that simply turns the journey into a destination. As if the journey were about answering a series of questions, rather than being a quest. As if ‘here and now’ were about hedonism, rather than a realisation that it’s the only place you ever are. Wiser people know that the problem with plans is that the way most people see them is misleadingly mechanical: clearly defined inputs that lead to a clearly defined output. Life becomes about waiting, and Goodness gets tied to ‘arriving’ somewhere. A ‘planning process’ can be a bit better. It at least hints at conscious engagement. But as 99% of uses of cash-flow models demonstrate (albeit sadly apparently not obviously enough for their dispensers nor subjects to realise) a ‘planning process’ can easily be the same nonsense repackaged. Exposition does not always equal internalisation. One’s good for profit. The other’s good for Good. Ever caught a Ryan Holiday interview?

Wiser people realise, as per the first sentence of the first post in this series, that: ‘To see money more clearly requires a systematic approach to insightful vision, not mental shortcuts.’ They use environment control, too, but the ticks on the wall chart are a tool to help expand consciousness to embrace an embodied experience anew everyday, rather than an end in themselves.

They do mindfulness too, but don’t confuse it with relaxation, or contemplation. They see it as neuroplasticity and attention-paying training that highlights the opportunities to become wiser with money, all day, every day. They see that financial advice that doesn’t lead back to how your worldview of money is mapped in your brain, while it can be helpful in several ways, is always, always, always, going to run into a dead end long before your life has been remotely transformed.

5: See your faulty take on financial freedom, understand that responsibility and ability are intertwined

Idiots chase ‘financial freedom’ in the ‘freedom to…’ sense, believing it to be the pot at the end of the rainbow that will rid them of their money worries, at which point they’ll live happily ever after.

Clever people are more inclined to think that being able to say ‘f-you’ to your boss, or indeed anyone else, is a pretty dumb-ass life goal. They’re more about the ‘freedom from…’ From worry and unwelcome obligations and whatnot. They grasp for the sorts of freedom that enables wasting resources and not having to ‘worry’ about doing so. Though of course they don’t see this.

Wiser people know that part of growing up is developing the courage to challenge self-deceptive beliefs, to become comfortable with increasing levels of complexity, rather than continually rushing back to the fortune cookies and cognitive stabilisers. Wiser people realise that pretending ability (be it having loadsa money, loadsa brains, or loadsa followers) doesn’t entail responsibility is the way to ‘have everything’ and still feel like something is ‘missing’. The Four Noble Truths are a means of cultivating calm and kindness within yourself so that you may better help cultivate them in others.

Symbolic sight

You can’t see what you can’t see. But you can act as if something is true, do what that suggests you should do, and see where that leads you. You can fake a view until you make a view.

If it leads you nowhere, what have you lost? One of the aims of this series has been to persuade you of a few things that, while you may have no way of experiencing them immediately, there’s certainly strong enough evidence for thinking that maybe there’s something worth exploring in them.

For example:

  • Assume that you are probably self-deceived in some way when it comes to how you view the money in your life. How you relate to it, what it means to you, and so on. Ask yourself: in what ways might this be true?

  • Examine your language. Do the words you use around money mean what you think they mean? Here are some example words and phrases to start with.

  • Examine your actions. What picture do the priorities as shown by your calendar and credit-card statement paint of who you are becoming? If this isn’t who you deep down want to become, if this doesn’t vibe with your soul, duuuuuude, what needs to change? And when is it going to? Are you pretending that what needs to change is something external? Or falling for any of the other mistakes in this post?

  • Assume that you are probably addicted (in the sense that you dedicate resources to things that do not make your life better because for whatever reason you saw no better alternatives at the time). Ask yourself: in what ways might this be true? What role does money play in narrowing your vision?

  • Expand your vision. Pick any use of money that wasted your time, or energy, or had a deleterious effect on your health, or a relationship. What underlying need were you trying to meet? What else could you have done?

  • Ask yourself: In what ways do you try to ‘fix’ problems in an isolated way, e.g. by buying a thing, blaming some specific set of circumstances? What if this were actually a vision issue? A systematic way in which you attend to the world that doesn’t actually work as well as it feels it will in the moment? 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.

  • Challenge everything. For a bit. Language. Actions. Thoughts. Assume they’re all possibly wrong. Challenge them. The right ones will survive. You know what to do, you just don’t pay attention to the fact that you know. Do the next right thing.

I can see clearly now the left brain has gone

In Idiot Money #85, we asked: Where do you go for wisdom?

If you’re after information, knowledge, or even understanding… it’s clear enough where to look. Wisdom? Not so much.

In the world as run by a runaway left hemisphere, because wisdom is not something that can be certificated, measured, and managed, it may as well not exist.

‘Fear not!’ The Bay Area bros cry, on their way back from Burning Man, ‘We’ve designed an AI that has allowed us to really understand wisdom. It’s spat out a checklist, and got a neuroscientist to sign it off, so we know it’s right.’ When you try to ‘solve’ the hole you’ve dug yourself into by swapping your spade for an industrial digger, you get entrenchment, not enlightenment.

Knowing how to invest well takes maybe a couple of hours to get comfortable with the relevant processes, and then ultimately a couple more hours each year to manage it. That is it. And no I’m not being flippant.

You should totally do this. But it’s possible to do it perfectly and still live terribly with money. And assuming you’re more interested in making more of your money rather than merely making more money, knowing how to live well with money is vastly more valuable. Getting to grips with how to do that also takes maybe a couple of hours, though because it’s a way of life for a human, rather than a recipe for a robot, it is something you continually step into, rather than something you set up and then step away from.

‘In the view of all philosophical schools,’ writes Pierre Hadot,

mankind's principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions. [...] Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound transformation of the individual's mode of seeing and being.

‘Such a transformation of vision,’ Hadot continues, ‘is not easy, and it precisely here that spiritual exercises come in. Little by little, they make possible the indispensable metamorphosis of our inner self.’

Little by little. By paying attention to how you pay attention, your vision, and therefore your life – your worries, your fears, your joys – are profoundly transformed. That is the message of this series. It’s one I hope everyone gets to experience.

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