What follows is my personal philosophy on money and materiality. Really, it’s about way more than money.
This piece is something I wrote for myself a while back in a moment of clarity, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to document some of the thoughts that were flying through my head that day.
It has provided me with critical perspectives on life, money, and achievement. I hope some part of it helps you as well.
Please note, this began as a self-directed rant. Accordingly, it is a little disjointed and wandering, just like a typical rant.
Not everything in this will apply to every person out there. I am very fortunate and thankful for the blessings in my life, and this was an exercise in gratitude and perspective.
Generally, I would say that if you are reading this type of blog, you will be able to relate to many of the sentiments expressed here. But if you don’t, please keep in mind that I was essentially talking to myself and didn’t plan on ever sharing this at the time.
Think about this for a second – you currently “own” all that is possible to “own” in this life.
You have a healthy, able body. You have an intelligent and adaptable mind. You have a network of family and friends to rely on for support. You have a loving wife and child, both of whom are just as healthy, intelligent, and supported as you are.
You live in a temperate climate, free of predators and harsh conditions. In fact, it is one of the easiest (cheapest) places to live in the United States, a country which is considered the gold standard in quality of living all its own.
In this climate, you own a spacious home which is more than enough to provide shelter and space for you, your family, guests and all your belongings.
In this home, you maintain a year-round perfect temperature, keeping you or your family from having to adapt to seasonal weather patterns.
You have devices which connect you to the instantaneous stream of information and an aggregated knowledge base to which inhabitants from all over the world have contributed and continue to do so.
You enjoy comfortable clothing, bedding, and furniture, along with a collection of books with all kinds of useful and entertaining content.
You have both a front and back yard, and enough space to shield two cars from the elements.
This home is within walking distance of a park at which your son loves to play, as well as a park dedicated to your dog’s enjoyment. Additionally, you can walk, run, or bike on miles of trails within a short distance from your home.
Speaking of which, you and your wife both own hunks of steel which are the design of some of the keenest engineers in the history of mankind, which can transport several people thousands of miles in mere hours.
These cars are also equipped with safety equipment which will keep you from dying in the event of a crash, as well as entertainment via listening to any kind of music or stories in the world as you drive.
While you drive, you can make sure you stay warm/cool enough to your liking. You use these vehicles mainly to transport you to your places of vocation.
Your vocations include full-time jobs which take up almost the entirety of your mid-day waking hours. You are paid to benefit others with your skills, in exchange for giving up these waking hours.
You live in an economic system which makes it easier than anywhere else on earth to earn more money, learn new skillsets (which can, in turn, be leveraged to earn more money), and continuously be paid higher wages.
Sometimes, you travel to new places to see new things and meet new people. Mostly, you travel to see your extended families, and even more often, you simply spend hours each evening after work watching TV and catching up on the information streams on various devices.
Your health. Your mind. Your family. A comfortable home. Good paying jobs. Cars, friends, travel opportunities. Love and laughter.
What could possibly be added onto this pile of blessings which significantly enhances the total benefit?
DON’T LOSE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES
Think of the average Joe B. Jealous making loads of money at Goldman Sachs or wherever else.
That person has a healthy body and mind, a well-paying job, a loving family, a comfortable home, a vehicle to transport them wherever they want to go, and presumably friends and travel opportunities.
They could make 50x the salary that you do, but what do they have that really makes a difference in the experience of living in this world?
Maybe some more high-roller travel experiences. More exotic destinations, or luxurious accommodations. But it’s doubtful that they would have any fonder memories of their experiences than you have of yours.
They probably have a nicer car, which is still used to get them to and from work, the grocery store, day care, etc. just like your car is used for you.
They may have a larger home in a nicer neighborhood, but do they get more utility living in it than you do living in yours?
This is a very “meta” viewpoint, but I will maintain that the only significant addition to the blessings I’ve laid out is the awareness of the limits of ownership.
What I mean is, beyond these fundamental luxuries, there is nothing else to be had by any person. Anything besides these would simply be an “upgrade” over the base model, and may improve experience or comfort marginally, but never significantly.
To somebody who does not have a car to get to work, a 1992 Toyota Camry means just about as much as a 2012 Toyota Camry.
There is a sense of diminishing returns when evaluating these types of “upgrades” in each element listed.
Bigger, nicer home = still just a home.
New job with higher salary = still just a way to pay the bills.
The idea of diminishing returns, and marginal benefits in general, can change your life.
When you see the fact that everything I’ve mentioned illustrates the Pareto principle of the 80% benefit resulting from 20% of your effort, is it still tempting to double your effort for a 3% improvement?
In my mind, I am tempted instead to see how much of my 20% effort can be reduced while maintaining the 80% result. It is inefficient to suffer hardship knowing that the return won’t be more than commensurate.
I firmly believe the statistics that show once a person earns above a certain salary, there is relatively little feeling of additional wealth or prosperity.
When you can afford food, shelter, transportation, and then move on to entertainment, travel, and leisure, then you’ve already achieved 99% of what’s possible.
The thrust of all this is that if you are the typical middle-class American who has those things I’ve listed as “possible to own,” and if you cannot be happy with those things alone, you will never be happy with more.
I realize that it would be nice to have a bigger house on land. A home with a gym, a wine cellar, perhaps a home theater and a bar. A pool outside and a luxurious master suite. All on enough beautiful wooded acreage that I never have to hear another man’s dog bark or car start.
But if I cannot recognize that my current home is already more than I need, then even such an upgrade in standard of living will not satisfy me for long.
There’s still a mortgage, property taxes, and utility bills to pay.
There’s still the need to lock it up and later wonder if you left a light on when you leave.
There are still floors, counters, and bathrooms to clean, and a yard to mow.
There are still repairs and weather damage to deal with.
It’s a house. It may be nicer than the last one, but at its core, when you have your same family and live your same life, it is no more of a home than you had before.
Remember that there are degrees of health, relationships, intelligence, vocations, travel experiences, etc. But fundamentally, there is nothing more for people to own in this life.
Remember this, whenever you are feeling out of alignment. Whether you are feeling overwhelmed or ready for more, and this idea will bring you back to baseline.
Before adding any complexity to your life, consider what you will get in exchange, and whether that benefit is truly worth the extra effort.
And before you feel down when comparing yourself to “The Joneses” down the street, consider how much more enjoyment they could possibly get out of their nicer things, which are used the same way you use your things.
It’s probably not much.
What do you think? Does any part of my old rant resonate with you?