1.4.3: Editing your life story
Using your resources to reinforce your best life story is hard, so it makes sense to get help; be sure to know what you’re looking for, because good help is harder to find than a well-meaning mirage
Finding yourself on the right sides of the divides between success and failure, courage and anxiety, and alignment and accumulation all rely on the story you tell yourself about yourself, specifically your participatory relationship with money in the service of your Good Life. Expecting this story to perfectly mould itself into magnificence is madness – not least because if you’re capable of magnificence, you’re also capable of many tempting-but-distracting varieties of almost-magnificence. When it comes to writing your story, you need a good editor. Unfortunately, good editors are hard to find.
In the narrative of a life, like the narrative of a novel, script and structure are different skills. One is playing, the other coaching. One is writing, the other editing. And just as even the best players use coaches, even the best lives could use an editor.
These roles can exist within the same person, and to a certain extent when the subject is shaped by your almost incessant interactions with money, they have to. And at least learning how to be a good editor is vital to making the most of your introspective endeavours. But the eyes of external editors can see things introspection alone cannot.
The editorship of your life story is where the centre-of-narrative-gravity model meets the difference between success and failure of the previous section. A good editor helps you more effectively tell the story of the life you want to lead, know how to lead, but for some reason aren’t leading. A bad editor pollutes your process with their own projections, tilting the tone of your tale towards their truth, doing nothing to bring clarity to your own.
Good editors help authors tell their (single) story without getting side-tracked by subplots. Supplementary stories usually feel important to those whose identity they are supporting, and they’re often beautifully written, but they ultimately dilute and distract from the one tale their author really wants to tell, the core potential they want to fulfil. Good editors reveal, bad ones rewrite. Good editors cut what doesn’t contribute to the core. Bad editors cut what they don’t like the look of and add on what they do. Resisting the urge to be a surrogate script-writer rather than a sculptor, and having the ability to do it, is a rare skill. Like resisting the urge to slack off rather than do what you want to do even when in the moment you don’t want to do it. Good editors make a story truly yours, bad ones make it theirs.
Great writers can be troubled storytellers; they risk becoming a Christmas tree burdened by excessive baubles. Each one may be small and beautiful, but the beauty of the whole is lost in the weighty twinkling chaos. The optimum amount of anything is never everything. It’s the gaps between the notes that make the music.
Just as majestically minded people still benefit from therapy, everyone can benefit from an editing stress test of their life story. Your story may already be superb… but there’s no harm in testing it. The same script told with a new confidence is still a better story. The point is not to tell you what to do, but to tell you to stop and think through what you are doing – or about to be doing. If you then do the same thing anyway, and assuming that thing isn’t as time-sensitive as escaping from an alligator, the thinking it through is a good idea.
A recurring theme of this book is that I’m not here to suggest specifics about what to spend your money on, or what to invest it in, or even what to think about it. This is instead a framework for how to think about money so that it easily and effortlessly plays a positive role in your life, rather than one defined by anxiety, scarcity, and other unhelpful associations. These are the qualities you should seek in an adviser, if you decide to hire one. Get that right, and the specifics should fall into place as side-effects.
The ability to do everything is a barrier to doing the right thing, not an enabler of it
Good editors are so valuable because the hardest task for any writer is not writing, but discarding. Once written, it’s harder to imagine a world without those words, even if the point (or effect for more poetic writing) was made just as well without them. The same problem is a big part of how we get so screwed up with money. Because we believe money has an objective value, it’s easy to think there can be no limit to the value of its accumulation. Yet this forgets that both the act of accumulating and the act of hoarding come with unseen and often incalculable costs.
The fact is, there is no objectively ‘correct’ path to pursue. Don’t waste energy looking for it, and definitely don’t waste money on those who advise you that there is, and whose job is ‘finding’ it for you.
This is tricky to internalise with respect to money. Money is seen as a cold, heartless, universal medium of exchange. Which it is, in isolation. But in the context of your life, which is the only interaction you ever have with it, it’s never in isolation; it’s an amplifier of emotions, not an eradicator of them. As two Professors of Psychology explain: ‘It is difficult to use money properly, particularly if you are unfamiliar with it’[i] and ‘Thinking about money the right way is one of the most challenging things for human nature.’[ii]
Money can make it feel like no editorship is needed. If in doubt, opt for ‘more’ and the story will sort itself out along the way. As if unworn clothes maketh the man and unused private tennis courts maketh a better life than enjoying the company of a local club. Resources used for the insecurity-laden insurance of ‘more’ can also be used for a meaning-laden ‘something’. The opportunity to do anything is injudiciously transfigured into the enticement to do everything… which leads to unconsciously doing nothing meaningful, save by accident.
This links to the importance of fulfilling one's potential. Extremely high potential in one area usually means very high potential in plenty of others. When it's possible to be great at something, it's all too easy to be good enough at lots of things. But effort expended on the good enough is effort not expended on the great. And it is the uniquely great on which we judge ourselves (and others). It doesn't matter if the root of this responsibility is money, intellect, or a specific skill. If you're capable, you're culpable.
The ability to do everything is always a barrier to doing the right thing. The right thing is usually about prevention rather than cure, and prevention requires action that only being in need of a cure creates, so we don’t move until it’s too late. Recalling that this is ultimately a book about behaviour change, this is unhelpful. From forbidden fruit to bottled-up bereavement, the backfiring effect of enforced repression replicates well.
Warnings against unthinking accumulations of more should not be read as directives for how – or how not – to spend money. This isn’t about being inflexibly frugal any more than it’s about being obstinately ostentatious. I believe, with the Messenger in Sophocles’ Antigone, that ‘when a man has squandered his true joys, he's good as dead, I tell you, a living corpse.’[iii] It is the unthinking we must avoid. Theoretically at least, if spending millions on the multi-year construction of an underground lair is the conclusion of a thorough examination of the best use of such resources, then go forth and build your lair, the enjoyment of doing so inevitably strengthened by having considered the opportunity costs and concluded they were worth paying.
This applies not only to the extremes, but also to everything in between. For want of knowing what we want, each of us yo-yos within ourselves. More one minute, abstinence the next. This is why we need a grounding philosophy: to know where enough lies and to regulate our lives around that. To see ranges rather than spuriously precise targets that, once missed, flick us into fuck-it-all mode, thinking that we were on a tightrope, and that all ways of falling off are equal. But we’re not on a tightrope, we’re on a concentrically spiralling journey. Responding to heading slightly off course by flooring the accelerator is just silly.
To practise is to be constantly ‘failing’ but to see it as an act of self-care, not self-criticism
Hiring an editor is not the same as buying a solution. An editor is a guide, not the seller of a map. A coach to structure your practice, not to excuse the need for it. Because your relationship with money is a process, not a product, it is always a practice, not a performance. Viewed as a series of snapshots, it is a process of constant ‘failure’. From a more lifelike vantage point, it is a glorious self-developing refinement. In this respect it is exactly like meditation, where each ‘failure’ of attention is a precursor to its ‘successful’ return, in a practice with the potential to powerfully transform who you are. Seen in the context of your relationship with yourself, this sort of ‘failure’ is about caring, not criticism. Your dialogue with your editor (be they external or internal) must embrace the ‘failures’ of your practice for how they refine your world, not obsess over ‘failing’ to reach an impossible end goal.
Plato didn’t write dialogues because he was a frustrated playwright. He wanted us to practice using precise language and patterns of thinking in a profoundly practical context. Recall the purpose of phronēsis – of practical wisdom – this is philosophy as a tool for shaping the Good Life. Life becomes better by thinking things through to right action, which, as proven by everyone’s inability to do it automatically, needs practice.
This is philosophy as ‘care of the self’. This is where practical philosophy meets warm and fuzzy feelings. The philosophy of right action, as determined by the very simple test of whether it actually makes your life better or not. Such therapeutic philosophy cannot exist only in theoretical, or narrowly numerical worlds. All advice on living the Good Life is necessarily at least a little bit spiritual. This terrifies most providers of financial advice, which is why most financial advice skips the practical implications of what it’s all about and whether it actually works.
However, working in service of the money, rather than the owner of the money (i.e. you) is as helpful as knowing how to predict the winning lottery numbers from a machine that’s never used. It doesn’t matter how clever the model, nor how big the potential payout if it’s a practical impossibility.
Philosophy can be frightening to the would-be receivers of advice, too. Or if not frightening, then irrelevant; a misguided attempt to reduce a life full of love and madness to a logic puzzle. Yet it shouldn’t be. The philosophy we’re discussing is the inescapably practical wisdom of thinking through how to live as well as possible. Philosophy may mean, in the words of William James, ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’,[iv] but the Good Life towards which it aims, is, to borrow from Bertrand Russell, ‘the one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.’[v] 
Self-care relies on understanding when to follow rules, and when to write them
Because we’re so delightfully flighty and contain complex multitudes, caring for ourselves requires rules to keep any one of those multitudes from getting ideas above its station and ruining things for the whole. Everyone knows this, of course, which is why everyone makes rules for themselves all the time. The ubiquity of these rules (and their rewrites) is also an indication that they don’t always work terribly well. What distinguishes a good rule from a bad one is difficult, because to a large extent what makes a rule work is also what makes it fail.
Barry Schwartz, who’s studied the effectiveness of rules more than possibly anybody else, warns us that a bad rule can be worse than no rule at all. ‘What I think is true is that rules and incentives kill wisdom.’[vi] Rules can however also kill the weeds that suffocate wisdom. We need wise rules. We want to cultivate practical wisdom. Rules are practical. But they’re not wise if all they do is shuffle the chairs on our unthinking sinking ship.
Rules rank reactiveness over reasoning. This is why they work but also why they go wrong. We don’t always have the time or the energy to reason through every decision. And often the ‘we’ that is making the in-the-moment judgment is not the ‘we’ we want to be doing so. Wise rules recognise this. Wise rules are built when powers of reasoning and will are at their peaks precisely for situations when they are likely to be absent. Relying on decision-making machinery to function at its best when the energy that fuels it is at its lowest doesn’t stop being dumb just because everyone else is doing it.
The best of both worlds is a reasoned rule-making process that’s trusted, but verified, such as that set out in the next chapter, which places rules between principles and triggers. Principles provide zoomed-out perspective and triggers provide zoomed-in just-in-time reminders. Simple rules make great conclusions, but terrible starting points.
Principles verify if rules are actually working – if the actions they guide still look wise when we zoom out. Are we atop a real peak, or a false one? Triggers remind us of our rules. Despite their in-your-face, in-the-moment modus operandi, triggers are about slowing down and about turning on the lights, not getting more comfortable in the dark. As Schwartz explains, ‘you need rules, but I think rules are like a road map that gets you to the right city but not the right street […] throwing out rules, that's a nightmare, that's a disaster. But this notion that you have to slavishly follow rules is also a disaster.’[vii]
Editors operate on rules; good editors operate on wise ones. Ones that bring clarity to your story and check that the plot is actually contributing to the telling of the main story. This is an iterative process; feedback is key. Pull a plot string in one place and it’s going to have consequences.
Fortunately, money decisions are a ‘kind’ (as opposed to a ‘wicked’) learning environment. One that lends itself to feedback-inspired course corrections.[viii] In a kind learning environment, patterns – and challenges – repeat. This means using pattern recognition to overcome challenges (in this context statements with reliable and transferable applicability, i.e. rules) works. Feedback is fast and accurate. Consequences are quickly apparent (assuming one is looking for them). In a wicked learning environment, the opposite is true. Rules are unclear, patterns are illusory or non-existent, feedback is delayed and inaccurate. A major trouble of finance is that we think the randomness at a macro level is reflected in an inability to control anything at a micro level. This book aims to show that this is not true.
Traditional sources of help choose to not challenge unthinking and to perpetuate myths as a means of short-term comfort, at the expense of longer-term quality of living
I have a fundamental disagreement with the investment industry. I think hiring a guide dog when you’re not blind, only misinformed, is a silly thing to do. The investment industry wants you to believe that it’s actually awfully sensible. Anyone who remembers the Simpsons episode where Mr Burns tried to block out the sun so he could sell nuclear-powered illumination understands the motivation.
Despite being in the position to act as editors of life stories, most financial advisors forego the opportunity. They play by a set of rules, but they’re bad ones – beset by the misunderstandings and fallacies that hinder our attempts at solving problems. Their model is not one that appreciates the participatory nature of an individual’s relationship with money, favouring instead to protect the status quo of supposedly objective status games.
In many areas of life, from elaborate storage systems for our stuff to our consumption of the news, we all waste resources tidying up what is better just ignored or discarded. It doesn’t matter how well organised your troops are if you’re fighting a battle that shouldn’t be fought.
The advisory industry well understands how discomforting darkness can be. Especially if you can’t find the light switch. Or know that one exists. But give a human time and it’s good at creating comfort. We create comfort by creating certainty, or at least the appearance of it. That could be panic-selling an investment or attaching an aimless anxiety to a face we can fear, even if it’s made up. An evil overlord is an antidote to the anxiety of chaos. Demonic delusions should not be dismissed out of hand. The succour they provide is as real as the suffering they alleviate. Religions would be an awful lot less enduring otherwise.
The advisory industry knows we get a kick from watching straw men burn, so rather than telling us to walk away, it sells us a lighter. This is unfortunate, for it directs resources to sustaining the system rather than reforming it. The status quo can be a source of short-term comfort even when it’s not in the long-term interests of the people paying for it. We seek an enlightening, emotionally rewarding relationship with money, but we stop looking when we find reassurance with staying in the shadows.
If you’re looking for status-quo preservation, it’s easy to find. Any adviser will do, so feel free to put down this book and let Google take it from here. This book is different. I want to inspire not increased comfort with unthinking, but a much deeper and more meaningful comfort from thinking, from taking back the authorship of your centre of narrative gravity. And at the same time to encourage help that’s actually helpful.
‘There are people who are attracted by the durability of stone,’ wrote Sartre, ‘since they are afraid of reasoning, they want to adopt a mode of life in which reasoning and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never seeks but that which one has already found, in which one never becomes other than what one already was.’[ix]
In the previous section, I noted that the importance of money to most people was initially expressed as something to do with ‘security and freedom’ (with ‘freedom’ meant in a security-centric sense). Because so many advisers got into financial advice due to an obsession with money that stops them knowing it beyond a propositional and procedural way, after eliciting that security is what the people want, they go about getting it with money, rather than with better direction of the role that money plays within a life. Morgan Housel provides an example:
I’m surprised how many good investors I know with terrible personal finance habits. Maybe I shouldn’t – they are completely different skills. The ability to uncover an undervalued investment is not associated with your propensity to avoid lifestyle bloat. The irony is that people who will move mountains to gain a few basis points of return bleed ten times that amount on personal spending that all science says adds little to their net life happiness.[x]
‘The security of the neurotic is unrealistic,’ wrote Tillich. ‘He fears what is not to be feared and he feels to be safe what is not safe.’[xi] In the words of Richard Lovelace:
Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for a hermitage; If I have my freedom in my love And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.[xii]
What we want is security and freedom from thinking, not the lack of it. We’ve seen above that such strength comes from paying attention to the right things, while not obsessing about them, or being blinkered by them – being ‘mindful’. ‘If we only care about the breadth of information, and not the depth,’ wrote David Cain, ‘there’s not much distinction between “staying informed” and staying misinformed.’[xiii] What that means in the context of money is the subject of the next section.
 Telling one story is not the same as focusing on one component of your life to the detriment of that life as a whole (think of the CEO that forgets they have a family). This is about your life’s work, not your work life. It’s about not misallocating resources to stuff you can merely do well and away from stuff that only you can do. Focus not on what you can do, but on what you can’t not do.
 Recall how where other investment books go awry is by starting from the organisation of your money, rather than the organisation of your mind, even though it’s perfectly possible to invest ‘perfectly’ and for money to still play a net negative role in your well-being. Owning better investments is not an automatic route to a flourishing, flowing, life.
 See, for instance, the examples in Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote.
 Plato was also as keen a trainer of his body as his mind. Plato was wise. Be more Plato (in process, if not perhaps in all philosophical specifics).
 In the sense embodied in the Ancient Greek concept of epimeleia heautou.
 See Principle #4: Does it work?
 See also Karl Jaspers, in slightly less user-friendly terms, ‘The purpose and therefore the meaning of a philosophical idea is not the cognition of an object, but rather an alteration of our consciousness of Being and of our inner attitude toward things.’
[i] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
[ii] Dan Ariely, at a talk in London to promote Small Change: Money Mishaps and How To Avoid Them
[iii] Sophocles, Antigone
[iv] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1
[v] Bertrand Russell, What I Believe
[viii] Terminology borrowed from David Epstein’s Range
[ix] Jean-Paul Sartre, Portrait of the Antisemite (abridged version of Réflexions sur la question Juive, quoted in Walter Kaufman, Existentialism)
[xi] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be
[xii] Richard Lovelace, To Althea, from Prison