1.5.2: Principles

Our guiding stars: the long-term inspiration behind our short-term actions

N.B.

  1. Read this first to understand the purpose of these Principles, how they fit with the Rules and Triggers, and how reading them in isolation from the rest of Part One is a waste of your time.

  2. Though presented as lists, these Principles, Rules and Triggers are like the fruiting mushroom bodies sprouting from the underground network of a gigantic fungus. Each idea in this book is inextricably linked to all the others via the magical and mysterious web of human wiring and the societies in which it expresses itself.

  3. This list is subject to change as I write the rest of the book.

The Principles

1. Overarching framework

Everything comes back to transforming your resources – your money, time, and energy – into your version of the Good Life. You are always using your resources; try to always use them right.

2. There is only one goal

Every short-term goal is a subgoal of living a Good Life. Achieving a specific aim is a tree; living well is the forest. Don’t waste time on trees that don’t add to the health of your forest. For example, doing something simply because you can, or because your parents want you to (or specifically don’t want you to). The flourishing state of flow we want comes from fulfilment of our potential – doing what is uniquely expressive of our souls and at the edge of our abilities. All ‘having mode’ goals are ultimately misleading.

3. Think it through

Thinking shit through is a tiny hurdle at which none have fallen, but many have turned from without attempting to clear it. Business consultants and executive coaches like to dress up thinking things through properly with phrases like ‘second-order thinking’ and ‘using mental models’ so it sounds complicated enough to charge for it. Recipients like to let them because complexity is just as good an excuse as it is a sales tool. But it’s just thinking. A ‘second order’ thought is just a thought done properly. Anything else is unthinking.[1] You’re human; you were born to think. And while bothering to do it is hard, it’s never as hard as we believe it to be when we’re dodging it or delegating it. How you do anything is how you do everything (see Rule #X), and shoddy thinking makes everything terrible.

4. Does it work?

A mystifyingly overlooked aspect of any action is whether it actually works. Given that there is only one goal, judging by quality of results not quantity of attempts should be easy to assess. And while all success is subjective, it’s still fair to ask, in the concept of turning resources into a Good Life, when the same thing has been tried a million times, did it work? And if it didn’t, is a reasonable response to double-down and try for the million-and-first? Did it work last time? Does it work ‘on average’, or for you? If the success of something relies on an assumption, think it through: is the assumption true for you? Does it need to be true? What does the world look like if it’s not? Is there a better way?

5. It’s not about the numbers

Financial success is very rarely anything to do with numbers. There is an underlying emotional reward behind every use of money, every thought of money. Pretending there isn’t blocks us from working out what it is we really want to achieve and subsequently whether what we did to achieve it worked or not. Focusing on the numbers simply doesn't work. I don't care how strongly you think it will for you. It won't. Everybody thinks they're the exception. And everybody is wrong. I've seen them all. Money sourced from inheritance, employeehood, entrepreneurship, and lottery winnings. It makes no difference. Having money on your mind does not stop blood running through your veins. Money amplifies your emotions, not eradicates them.

The strange silence of ‘Does it work?’

Checking whether your actions achieved their aims should be a source of confidence, not fear

The job of face-to-face financial advice is asking questions.[2] Many of these questions are roundabout means of asking ‘does it work?’ (or ‘did it work?’ or ‘is it likely to work?’) in a way that prompts a client to ask themselves whether it does or not, that if it were asked directly would risk a defensive reaction that suggests it probably doesn’t, but that slams the door shut on realising this.

‘Does it work?’ is the bridge between the theoretical and the practical, and the inspiration for this book. If the screwy way most of us obsess over money, and the gap between its accumulation and its application in service if the Good Life actually worked, there would be no need for me to write, nor for you to read, this book.

‘Does it work?’ should go without asking. And it does. But not because it’s second nature. Asking if something works should be welcomed as a source of validation, but it more reliably triggers vilification. You’d think questioning if the objects of someone’s major spending decisions were worth the sacrifices made to obtain them would be met with glee at the chance to celebrate one’s wisdom. After all, you’re asking if they were right, not suggesting they were wrong. This never happens. You don’t need to naively try this line of questioning very often before you abandon it entirely.[3]

There’s a concept in psychology called the ‘focusing illusion’. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman sums it up as: ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it’.[i] Which is a looser definition of ‘thinking’ than we’re using. Because it’s less thinking and more unthinking belief. As Kahneman explains elsewhere, ‘When people are induced to believe that they “must have” a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that this good might make to the quality of their life.’[ii] The upshot is that by focusing on one aspect of an event at the expense of the more realistic whole, you make shitty predictions, and shoddy decisions. You blindly believe something will work, when a bit of thinking would’ve strongly suggested it wouldn’t.

Falling for the focusing illusion once does not confer immunity to it the next time. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes. Other times – often when the stakes are higher – we double down instead. Some mistakes are so hard to stomach that rather than admit to them and learn the lessons for next time, we scratch around for justifications of how things may not have turned out perfectly, but we are still perfect all the same. As Rory Sutherland wrote, ‘Give people a reason and they may not supply the behaviour; but give people a behaviour and they’ll have no problem supplying the reasons themselves.’[iii]

So how can we get better at learning? Step one: reframe. If you work for a company and something has been proven to fail every single time when other companies in your industry have tried it, do you make it your main company priority to do the same thing, praying that this time it'll be different? That you'll be different?

Step two: enlist extremes. I learnt more about the ways our relationship with money messes with our lives in three months in a country[4] populated almost exclusively with people both with lots of money and driven by an obsession with wanting more money than I did in almost three decades prior to that.

‘The true man is revealed in difficult times’.[iv] The 2020 coronavirus pandemic was for many a test of whether being a billionaire works. Being a billionaire is a burden. As soon as you’ve enough money to serve every possible source of meaning you could ever dream of, everything on top is just some more shit you’ve got to deal with. And rare is the person who can’t live an abnormally satisfied and meaningful life with a cool 999 million.

One of my earliest client memories is that of a man who had sold his private-equity firm, with him and his colleagues each pocketing about £25 million. This man was perfectly happy in his current home, had few hobbies, had already set his children up to be able to do anything, and didn’t want them to be able to do nothing. He wasn’t the most charitably minded man, but he did want to be there for his friends should they ever need him. So he refused to invest in anything other than cash. He knew the price he was paying for this in foregone returns ran into the tens of thousands a year, and millions cumulatively. But if he invested in the same stuff his friends did, if they ever needed help, he’d be in no position to provide it. It was like his wealth were a ramped-up rainy-day fund for those he cared about. If a rainy-day fund isn’t used when it rains, it’s not a rainy-day fund, it’s a wasteful signal of rampant insecurity and poor life choices.[5]

Come the coronavirus crisis, some billionaires saw the rain, and responded by answering the call to try to save the world, in a way only someone with their resources could, their burden relieved by the chance to bring meaning to it. In short, having that wealth finally had a chance to ‘work’.[6] Others looked to protect money they couldn’t spend in 1,000 lifetimes, at the expense of people without enough for next week, let alone next life, their burden only increased by a world-sized mirror being held up to their self-loathing.

*

The journey of self-knowledge is defined by deception. It is knowing what doesn’t work, to reveal an ever-more-refined vision of what does. It is stripping away attachments to delusions until you become comfortable in your own skin. It is, to return to the opening quote of this book, becoming what you are, having learnt what that is. We learn what is by understanding what is not. You want to live, not just exist. ‘Would you say,’ asks Seneca, ‘that a man who had been caught in a fierce storm as soon as he set sail, and, buffeted to and fro by a series of winds raging from all sides, had been driven in a circle around the same course, had had a long journey? It was not a lot of journeying, but a lot of tossing about.’[v]

Too often, despite all its fancy modern modelling, financial planning is like trepanning – cutting a hole in someone’s head to let out evil spirits. It ‘works’ in a way. There’s plenty of evidence of post-operative survival, and if it never relieved any symptoms, it would have stopped way sooner than it did. That doesn’t mean it ‘worked’ in a more serious sense. Sometimes, like insurance, or facing a fear, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Sometimes it’s just stupid. A head with a hole in it is weaker than one without.

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[1] This comes back to participatory knowing: you can know something in a propositional or procedural sense, but to think it through is to apply it to real life, to the real world, to think through how it will affect your life, those around you, the world… As Niels Bohr apparently once told Einstein, ‘You are not thinking; you are merely being logical.’

[2] Despite many clients coming seeking answers and many poor advisers being all-too-keen to supply them.

[3] I naturally found this out the hard way. At least defensive vitriol is a pretty persuasive answer. Defensiveness is both the admission of a problem and the further admission that we’re not ready to admit to it yet.

[4] Qatar.

[5] For what it’s worth, unlike my boss, who considered this man a paragon of nobility because he left his children enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing, I thought the man was a fool. Prioritising potential tiny comfort for one’s millionaire friends over definite transformative experiences for the millions of friends he didn’t allow himself to be aware existed was probably not the best way to live. But this isn’t a book about lifestyle judgment, and from the perspective of his narrow minded outlook, his decision made sense.

[6] I assume those that stood up didn’t feel totally shitty for having done so, but I can be corrected on this.

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[i] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

[ii] Daniel Kahneman, ‘Focusing Illusion', Edge.org

[iii] Rory Sutherland, Alchemy

[iv] Epictetus, The Discourses

[v] Seneca, On the Shortness of Life