1.4.2: Is success for sale?

The difference between success and failure

The difference between success and failure is actually doing what you want to do (and most of the time you already know how to do it well enough to get started)

Success may be subjective, but what makes the difference between success and failure is the same in every case.

No one considers they’ve failed to achieve something they were never remotely interested in. And if you’ve an interest in achieving something, you probably know more or less how to do it, at least how to get started. Nor does anyone consider they’ve failed to achieve something they were genuinely incapable of achieving.[1] Failure is therefore a result of not doing what one wants to do, is capable of doing, and to a decent-enough extent knows how to do. Success is actually doing it.

Actually doing what one wants and knows how to do when one is well-rested, undistracted by addictions, and unburdened by fighting fires requires no effort. Conversely, taking the same action when the sunshine of intrinsic motivation is hidden behind the clouds of akrasia[2] can require more effort than a mortal can muster. Working out how to take action anyway – cracking the code that unlocks all doors, and sets frees the fulfilment of one’s potential – is the central problem of most people’s existence. It’s not like we want for trying. Enough tired people have drawn more lines in more sand than a planet-sized Japanese Zen garden raked by gnats with fine-toothed gnat-sized combs.

Success with money – with allocating our resources in successful service of our Good Life – is the same. Daily life is one long chain of resource allocations. Where it goes wrong – when we don’t do what we want to do – it looks less like a chain anchored to a guiding philosophy and more like a chaotic mess of broken links. The strength of a guidance-less link is nothing compared to that of the chain. In the face of attacks of akrasia, floating links get hijacked and hooked up to unhelpful habits, enslaving your resources to an unwanted end, and slaying your success in the process. Recall that every action is voting for one habitual way of being over another, whether you want it to or not.

Better money decision-making is a combination of avoiding our addictions and supporting our wants. Not doing what doesn’t serve our Good Life, and doing what does. To recall our cognitive-science model, it is avoiding misunderstandings and fallacies (mistakes in problem formulation and solution reasoning) and taking right action.

Avoiding mistakes – especially those that we’re subconsciously wired or overly tempted by our environments to make – is the first step to success in most realms. Money is no different. Therefore Part Two is about moulding our minds into mistake-dodging machines by examining the lens with which we look at money, and the language with which we talk about it. Parts Three and Four are about actively using this machinery to make better financial decisions.


The same errors that mess up our view of the world also screw with how we see ourselves. Addictions both stop us achieving what we want and being clear about what it is we want in the first place.

The process of understanding our wants is often depicted as a neverending journey down a yellow-brick road that reaches out into eternity. This is a misleading metaphor. Beyond a certain level of lived experience, while the journey is neverending, it is less a lurching towards down an ever-more assured path, and more a spiralling around on an ever-more refined one. We are too prone to think in ladders (property ladders, career ladders). Yet any idiot can climb a ladder. Non-idiots check it’s against the right wall.

This is also why you shouldn’t set too much stall by specific directional tactics, as opposed to principles of discovery. Because even if a map works for who you are now, it may well not work for who you’ll be in a bit, and blindly following does nothing for training your compass-reading abilities.

Despite the spiralling around, and the fact that you will likely know your Good Life when you feel it, this is not about gut instincts. Instincts can be infiltrated by ideologies that lead us away from insights, not towards them. As Alain de Botton wrote in Status Anxiety, ‘Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and can distract us from the careful, arduous task of correctly tracing our priorities.’[i]

To understand our wants is to understand ourselves. Understanding ourselves is understanding the story we tell ourselves about ourselves – our centre of narrative gravity. Fortunately, with the right philosophical self-care,[3] you get to write the story to your spec. This makes the writing harder (which is why most people run from it) but everything else easier, and orders-of-magnitude more meaningful.

Successful stories require knowing where you’re going, and (roughly) how to get there. And while there will be obstacles to be overcome, they are stepping stones, not derailing or unduly delaying distractions. Stories fail when we delegate their authorship (deliberately or otherwise), when we try to tell too many at once (thereby telling none with sufficient focus to make it worthy of being told at all), and when we forget that what makes a story is learning something important along the way (so if we start off thinking we already know the answer or otherwise never face the discomforting realisation of our ignorance, there is no story and ultimately no meaning to our existence… which sucks).

If we want to live as well as possible, we need to challenge our worldviews, not assume that we’ve found the answer. A worldview[4] that doesn’t stand up to challenge doesn’t become stronger if we simply choose not to challenge it. As Vervaeke et al wrote in Zombies in Western Culture, it is ‘necessary to have our sense of the world pulled periodically from underneath us. Insight emerges from the wreckage of this experience. It allows our perspective to reframe itself around a fuller appreciation of reality.'[ii]

Because of the central role of money in all our major and minor life decisions, the story of our relationship with money is intricately related to the story of ourselves. A successful relationship with money – using it to help you do what you actually want to do – is possible only when the story you tell yourself about yourself, your centre of narrative gravity, is conscious, clear and under your control.

The difference between anxiety and fear

We seek security in money, but security derived from money is impossible if it’s not founded on the sort of security that exists without it – from a firm centre of narrative gravity

If you visit a half-decent financial adviser for the first time, you’ll likely be asked what it is about money that is important to you. And you’ll likely answer something to do with security and freedom. A little digging will likely reveal that ‘freedom’ in the sense you’re likely to have used it is in fact also about security.[5]

While it may take on some elaborate, if not excessive, expressions at the edges, our idea of money ‘success’ is centred on security. This is a shame, because money does a terrible job of providing security. To understand why, we need to understand what we think money is securing us from. We need to understand the root of our fears, or, more precisely, our anxieties.

Anxiety is untethered fear. The fear of fear. The easy familiarity of the phrase ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’ has blunted an edge that cuts through to an important truth, that we’ve known since at least Epictetus (‘For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.’[iii]).

We can cope with fear. Fear has a defined object. An object allows us to focus, to formulate plans. It may take a while for a plan to take shape, and it may be crap when it does, but it saves us from the uncontrollable recirculating terror of a ruminatory whirlpool. As Paul Tillich explains, ‘Our anxiety puts frightening masks over all men and things. If we strip them of these masks their own countenance appears and the fear they produce disappears.’[iv] Being eaten by a lion causes far less anguish than expecting to see one around every corner. It is not lack of money, but anxious predictions of its consequences that causes us chronic pain. In the words of Julian Jaynes, ‘Anxiety [is] the knowledge of our fear. We see a bear, we run away in fear, and have anxiety. But anxiety as a rehearsal of our actual fear partially occasions the emergency response at least weakly.’[v] Our brains are wonderful prediction machines, but the same ‘capacity for conscious imagery’ that makes helpful predictions also makes unhelpful ones. The same machinery that once saved us from being eaten now more often stops us from being appropriately relaxed.

Money is a magnet for anxiety because just as it is a universal medium of exchange in goods and services, it is also a universal means of turning anxiety into fear. Worrying about something? Must be money. Need a plan? Get more money. Difficult? Maybe. Directionless? No. Sometimes this is a suitable response. More often, however, we’re suckered by the streetlight effect: in the position of the drunk who lost his keys in the park, but is looking for them in the street because it’s better lit.

We fixate on money as a means of eradicating anxiety, but it doesn’t work. Because it cannot work. Anxiety belongs to existence. It cannot be eliminated, with money or anything else. As Tillich continues:

Immediately seen, anxiety is the painful feeling of not being able to deal with the threat of a special situation. But a more exact analysis shows that in the anxiety about any special situation anxiety about the human situation as such is implied. It is the anxiety of not being able to preserve one's own being which underlies every fear and is the frightening element in it.

This may feel like a stretch in relationship to the failure of a new pair of shoes to alleviate an itch, let alone level-up our life, but it’s at the core of our screwy relationship with money. It is why what we think will work never does, and why it not working doesn’t stop us trying the same thing next time, with the confidence of General Melchett before another bold push over the top of the Somme’s trenches.

When Thomas More prophesised in Utopia that ‘At the very moment when money disappeared, so would fear, anxiety, worry, toil and sleepless nights’,[vi] he was of course pushing polemical boundaries, but he had a point.


If we can’t do anything about the roots of our worrisome financial weeds, and if spending a ton of time and money on ineffective weedkillers feels like a shitty solution for our security issues, what should we do?

If you can’t kill it, be cool with it. Anxiety asks for courage. Courage comes from character. Specifically the character that’s the star of our centre of narrative gravity. The strength of our narrative gravity is a far more reliable source of our sought-for security. And courage in this case comes from consistency.

External financial security is a poor substitute for the internal security that comes from knowing what your Good Life looks like and using your resources consistently in support of it. It’s the internal security we’re after anyway, and while we may have been led to believe the direct route is harder, or impossible, this just isn’t true. It’s the only way that works.

Our need for a consistent narrative has two sides: the need to feel as though there is actually a meaningful thread woven through our enigma of existence, and the need to actually follow this thread, to live a life that feels meaningful.

‘Human beings have a very strong desire to have reasons for what they do and find indeterminacy hard to accept’[vii] wrote social and political theorist Jon Elster. So strong, in fact, according to neuropsychologist Professor Nicholas Humphrey, that ‘People’s overriding need to maintain a consistent narrative can trump the memory of what has actually occurred.’[viii] These roots reach deep. As psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt explains: ‘When adults talked about their emotional lives and their important relationships in growing up, it didn't matter whether they had a “happy childhood” or not. Their current emotional security depended much more on having an internally coherent and consistent narrative than on the actual story they had to tell.’[ix] At first glance, Gerhardt’s discussion of the translation of feelings into words in a way that makes a human feel like ‘a coherent whole’ may look like it has no place in a book about money. But that’s precisely part of the problem.

When we forget or ignore that money is one of the most emotional topics there is, that every one of our purchase decisions is an attempt to obtain an underlying emotional reward,[6] when we try to repress the very real emotions that money inspires, rather than put them into language and integrate them into the grand decision-making edifice of our lives, we end up in a massive money mess.

The difference between accumulation and alignment

Know thyself and live in accordance with that knowledge is – and always has been – the universal motto of a successful life

The starkest lesson from my time inside rich people’s heads – and something we’ll revisit consistently throughout this book – is that while living well isn’t correlated with the amount of one’s resources, it is correlated with how one uses them: aligning one’s actions with one’s preferred story of one’s self, aligning one’s string of isolated experiences with one’s vision of who one really is, one’s centre of narrative gravity. ‘It is not truth that rules the world, but illusions’, wrote Kierkegaard[x]. All success is subjective: stay true to your preferred illusion.

As Lynne Twist wrote in The Soul of Money:

When people were able to align their money with their deepest, most soulful interests and commitments, their relationship with money became a place where profound and lasting transformation could occur. […] When you let your money move to things you care about, your life lights up. That's really what money is for.[xi]

And as Matthieu Ricard pointed out, what unifies the various ways we experience some form of lasting, meaningful ‘happiness’, is a ‘momentary disappearance of inner conflicts’[xii] leading to feeling in harmony with the world and with oneself.

When Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote ‘Real life is doing something which you love to do with your whole being so that there is no inner contradiction, no war between what you are doing and what you think you should do. Life is then a completely integrated process in which there is tremendous joy,’[xiii] he could easily have been writing about our relationship with money. For what better signal is there about how well what we do is aligned with what we want to do?

This is a two-way relationship, rooted in participatory knowing. You learn what you are by doing, and you mould who you are by those same actions… assuming you’re paying attention. The roads of what we are moulding – the behaviours we are changing, the habits we are forming, the character we are cultivating – all lead back to the brain. As Will Storr wrote in The Science of Storytelling, ‘ “We” are our neural models. Our narrator is just observing what's happening in the controlled hallucination in our skulls – including our own behaviour – and explaining it. It's tying all the events together into a coherent tale that tells us who we are, why we're doing what we're doing and feeling what we're feeling.’[xiv]

Anxiety arises when these stories go awry. When we’re living in alignment with someone else’s story, or when we let someone else – or something else – write our story for us. We do this all-too-often. Unwittingly, perhaps, but outside of genuine cases of oppression, always willingly. We sometimes even pay for it.[7]


Because anxiety is inextricably linked to our existence, it cannot be eliminated. But its more pernicious effects can be overcome. Money worries can be kept in check. Listen to advice, but do not blindly follow it. This is done not by padding the pain with more money, but by strengthening the philosophical immune system – the centre of narrative gravity, the story of our ‘self’. ‘Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition,’ wrote Daniel Dennett, ‘is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others – and ourselves – about who we are.’[xv]

We saw earlier the protective shell-like function of this story. When we talk of strengthening it, the immediate temptation is to thicken the shell. However, it is not a fatter fortress we want, but a more flexible one. We see fortresses and spring into a story about strength. To do so is to forget that the fortress’s strength was an adaptation to its environment, and it is the adaptation – the fittedness to its environment – not the thickness of its walls, on which we should focus. When threats change, thick walls are not easy to change with them; the signs of domination can become the seeds of decay. The perfect shield against medieval weaponry becomes the perfect screen for being blind to opportunities.

page1.4.3: Editing your life story

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[1] For real reasons, of course. Like missing a prerequisite limb, or being born after the role you wanted to play has died. Most excuses may get passed off as real reasons, but popularity is not an antidote for bullshit. It's telling, I think, how deep down we're all motivated by a desire to see potential fulfilled. No one criticises a child for being an idiot or a cripple for not playing for Barcelona. Equally, no one gets defensive in reaction to a total lie – it's only when we feel a visceral reaction to being called out on how we should or could be living differently. We need to listen to these cues, not shy from them.

[2] Recall from earlier that akrasia is ‘the unhelpful force that prevents us from doing what we deep down want to do, know well enough how to do, know we ought to do, but for some reason don’t do. It’s our procrastination, our misprioritisation, and our falling prey to distraction all in one.’

[3] Look out for the concept of epimeleia heautou in the following section.

[4] In the sense described by Brian Walsh (quoted in Vervaeke et al Zombies in Western Culture), a worldview is not about ‘ideas’ that are held but about ‘worlds’ that are inhabited. Recall the primacy of participatory knowing.

[5] We’ll revisit this throughout, including a more helpful notion of freedom in chapter [TBC].

[6] Something we’ll explore further in chapter [TBC].

[7] We’ll return to this in Part 3.


[i] Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

[ii] John Vervaeke, Christopher Mastropietro, and Filip Miscevi, Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis

[iii] Epictetus, quoted in Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

[iv] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

[v] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

[vi] Thomas More, Utopia

[vii] Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences

[viii] Nicolas Humphrey, answering the Edge.org annual question in 2017 (‘What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to be More Widely Known?’)

[ix] Sue Gerhardt, Why Love Matters

[x] Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, quoted in Walter Kaufman, Existentialism

[xi] Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

[xii] Matthieu Ricard, Happiness

[xiii] Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think on These Things

[xiv] Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling

[xv] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

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