1.5.4: Triggers

Rewire your reactions: train to hear these as you would your name across a crowded room. Engage your brain. Label the thought. Reframe it. Make a wiser decision

N.B.

  1. Read this first to understand the purpose of these Triggers, how they fit with the Principles and Rules, 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. Occasionally I will edit the list but not update the numbering.

Most investment advice comes from a place of thinking its job is to explain the complicated. It skips over things like these triggers because it considers them too trivial. Space in my important investment book is much better spent teaching you how to budget, it thinks. This ignores Rule #1: it is tidying up what is better discarded. Beat addictions, focus on your wants, and budgeting mostly looks after itself. Budgeting and beating addictions are both hard because they are changing behaviour. But one of them changes the mindset behind those behaviours too. It is therefore infinitely more valuable, even if its tools look a lot more trivial. Tactics without understanding are trivial, because they’re not triggers for real, sustainable understanding and change. Which is why in isolation this list, or anything you come across on Twitter, is useless. There’s a reason it’s at the end of Part One.

We are not changing definitions of words. We’re just using them more precisely and thoughtfully. Precise language shifts us from reacting from our amygdala (the defensively minded fear centre) to engaging the cooler, calmer prefrontal cortex. This is why, incidentally, therapy encourages us to name emotions to tame them.

1. Better

Better, or just more expensive? Better for you? Better than everything else you could do to cultivate your Good Life with the same resources? Do not confuse better with more expensive, because all other things being equal, more expensive is inherently worse, because you’re starting from further back.

2. Having, being

Who you are is important. What you have is not. You know this but you do not act like you know this. Stop and remind yourself. This includes material possessions as well as blind belief in idols.

3. Have to, should

‘Have to’ and ‘should’ are almost always lies. This is not to say you aren’t better off doing what you believe you ‘have to’ do; the consequences of not could be fatal. But you are better off understanding that it, like everything else, is a choice.

4. Needs, wants, addictions

Needs and wants are the same thing; do you not ‘want’ a roof over your head, etc.? Your body no more wants sugar than a smoker’s wants tar. And is some form of meaning or purpose or a hug not a ‘need’? Do not confuse wants with addictions – wants make your life better, addictions, do not, but they’re awfully cunning at convincing you otherwise.

5. Next time

There’s no such thing as next time. ‘In individual moments we all know how the most elaborate arrangements of our life are made only so as to flee from the tasks we actually ought to be performing’[i]. What happened last time you resolved with all your might to stride down a more virtuous path tomorrow? Slow down, think it through, and decide who you want to become. See also Rule #5: How you do anything is how you do everything.

6. On average

The world isn’t short of happiness research. Studies can be great guides for experimentation, but they’re awful prescriptions, especially when it’s only the headline anyone reads. Cultivating certain psychological traits, owning pot plants or gratitude journals may make people 10% happier on average, but that doesn’t mean a) you should follow what worked for someone else without examining how well it’s working for you, or b) preach about what does work for you. You are neither an average, nor a universal representative. Be quicker to run your own experiments than to blindly share the headline results of someone else’s.

7. Overspent

Do not be like foolish gym bros who wear ‘overtraining’ as a badge of honour, rather than admitting that they are ‘under-recovering’. You didn’t overspend. You undersaved. Because you underthought. Do not brush this aside. Remember Rule #5: How you do anything is how you do everything. Overspending is a symptom of an underlying mental problem, which very obviously did not get fixed by the overspending. Find the problem and fix it properly.

8. Security

Security is the most important benefit of finances for a lot of people. It’s also one of the most difficult to think about accurately. Untangling real security from its evil illusory twin is hard, but worth it. When you hear ‘security’, stop and think it through. How do you know you’re receiving what you want (and more likely than not paying a hefty price for)?

9. Freedom

Like security, freedom is an incredibly valuable concept that’s beset by ambiguity. Do you mean freedom to, freedom from, or freedom for?

10. Rich, 1%

Unless you think only modern-day billionaires are worth anything, you are already rich. Stats and stuff here.

11. Success

Success is so arbitrary as to be a completely useless word unless you’re using it with quotation marks, and usually to highlight shoddy life choices on behalf of someone demonstrating how not to live. All success is subjective, and net worth is no guide to self-worth, rendering 99.9% of uses of the word success nothing other than a guide to the lack of wisdom of the person using it. If you hear the word, understand it in the context it’s meant, but do not believe for a second it means what the person who’s said it thinks it means. And never use it yourself.

12. Think, believe

The words ‘I think…’ are commonly a precursor to expressing not a thought, but a belief. There’s nothing wrong with operating from beliefs built on previously having thought something through. Just don’t forget to challenge them now and then.

13. Treat

Treat or trick? Treat or poison? Treat or someone else’s attempt to overlook their own troubles? Why is it that everything we traditionally describe as a ‘treat’ leaves us poorer and in worse health? See also #4: Needs, Wants, Addictions, and Rule #3: The Good Life is the Only Goal.

14. Worth

What something costs is not what something is worth. Cost is calculated by the world’s supply and demand. Worth is determined by a context-dependent contribution to your life.

15. Haves and have nots

What do they have? What do they need? Do they own it, or does it own them? Are you jealous of their possessions and their mental state? See also #10: Success.

16. Good job

Jobs can ruin marriages, relationships with children, friendships, and internal harmony, and ravage physical and mental health and still be called ‘good’. If this doesn’t strike you as dumb, I cannot help you. If it does, stop using ‘good’ when you mean ‘high salary (that comes at an unknown cost)’.

17. X has done well for themselves

Every time you say someone has done well for themselves because of something they own or a titled they’ve earned, you are reinforcing the sort of world that fucks you and everyone else up. A world that equates net worth with self-worth and thinks success is objective and material. If you can say it without mafioso overtones, ‘taken good care of him/herself’ has to be preferable.

18. Get ahead

Get ahead of what? Other people? What does their position have to do with your Good Life? Why them? Why not someone even smarter, fitter, richer? Get ahead of yourself? By definition that’s a poor way to get to know yourself.

19. I can afford it

So what? The ratio of the monetary cost of something to the cash in your bank account is relevant only to rule something out, not to rule it in. Can you afford the time, the energy, the foregone everything else you could’ve done? And remembering just about all of the Principles and Rules, will it add to your Good Life, or detract (or distract) from it?

20. I don’t care about money

If you really didn’t, you wouldn’t be preaching about it. People who assert their lack of fuss about financial matters are also prone to using phrases like ‘filthy rich’, ‘obscenely wealthy’, or ‘bloody bankers’, just to prove that their caring is as high as their envy.

21. I wish…

Wishes are a more socially acceptable means of complaining that despite living in conditions perfectly capable of enabling a Good Life, you’re wasting the opportunity. Wishes are often directed at the tip of another person’s iceberg, ignoring the face that people are humans and humans don’t work like Lego. Feel free to be jealous of someone else’s life, if you want their whole life. Which you should only do if you know what it’s like to be them, rather than to have what they have. Which you can’t. So you can’t be jealous. What you wish for can be a good guide to what you want, however, because it’s usually an unexpected overlap, and usually involves a personality trait you can cultivate way more easily than you can obtain anything more material. Money without being a dick about it. Kind without being wet. Well-read without being a snob.

22. Just in case

The trouble with phrases well-loved by parents, like ‘better safe than sorry’, is that they get so unquestionably embedded from such a young age that it becomes very difficult to keep them to situations befitting of their pithy wisdom. There are people out there with ‘rainy day’ funds big enough to survive a Biblical flood who still panic about making ends meet. Others clutter their cupboards with more ‘on the off-chance’ stuff than stuff that actually makes them smile. Don’t be one of those people.

23. When X is sorted, then I will be able to do Y and feel Z

See Rule #13: Beware the arrival fallacy. E.g. When I start this new exercise class, then I will finally get fit, and feel fabulous; when I get promoted, then I can concentrate on…; when I get over this tough couple of weeks, then…; after I’m back from… etc. They are all self-deception. If you can’t feel Z now, X and Y are very unlikely to change that. See also Principle #4: Does it work? What grounds do you have for your confidence in this chain of change? Are there other people with X, but not in the state of Y? Did you apply this same formulation to past dreams? Some may have worked. Some experiences (rarely if ever material goods) really do level up our lives in a permanent way. What evidence is there that this is likely to be one of those times? If achieving Z right now were possible, what would it look like?

24. Investment returns (anything to do with them)

Ignore investment returns. Past ones and predicted ones. Cast all forecasts aside. When you’ve got a proper investment philosophy, they are an irrelevance. And when you haven’t got a proper investment philosophy, they’re a distraction from getting one. Investment returns are super-sensitive to the timeframe over which they’re measured (and therefore open to gross manipulation by those who would have you believe the return is part of the reason you’ve hired them), no guide to the future (which is the relevant bit for you), a proven pointless tool for comparison, and generally good only for making the wider, ultra-long-term point that there is a reward for taking on investment risk at all. Once that’s sorted, you can safely ignore all of the specifics.

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[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorisms on Love and Hate. The full quote is: ‘In individual moments we all know how the most elaborate arrangements of our life are made only so as to flee from the tasks we actually ought to be performing, how we would like to hide our head somewhere as though our hundred-eyed conscience could not find us out there, how we hasten to give our heart to the state, to money-making, to sociability, or science merely so as to no longer possess it ourselves, how we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think.’