Give, give, give, me more, more, more

Our words may say we value quality over quantity, but our actions say otherwise

The Midas Mirror

To avoid sacrificing life in the pursuit of ‘more’ takes more than seeing the stupidity of doing so

Were I to read the title of this section, I’d be tempted to skip ahead. No one is a stranger to the silliness of forever chasing after ‘more’ – be it more earnings, more surface-deep status, more… stuff. The very definition of the word guarantees that a mindset fixed on ‘more’ can never be satisfied.

I’d be bracing myself for an annoyance of anecdotes about modern-day Midases, with mansions full of gold and minds full of misery. I’d be worried about having to read that Joseph Heller anecdote again.[1] Yet all the world has heard the story of Midas and no one lives as if they’ve learnt its lessons.

My aim here is not to point and laugh at already visible idiocy, but to engender a better appreciation of the dangers hidden in the implications of that idiocy. Why do we smile at the logic, console ourselves for not being as bad as the bankers, and then continue to ignore the lessons? Why are we so enchanted by the very dream of more that we don’t see the subtler ways we live under its spell? How can we see more clearly, and act more sanely?


As with all self-deception, ‘more’ is so dangerous because it seems so sensible. And because it seems so sensible, it becomes a default. In isolation, more money is good. Whatever we want to do requires resources. Not always money, of course, but money is seen as a universal convertible resource, so if in doubt, we grab as much of it as possible so that when life isn’t happening in quite so lively a way, we can distribute that money towards living. Trading a temporary excess of money for more stuff that contributes to the goodness of life is good. Saving more when we’re not sure of what will contribute to the Goodness of life right now is also good.

But that’s not how it works.

Just as turning everything into gold made Midas miserable, so turning your time and energy into gold with the intention of turning it into a Good Life later doesn’t work. Because the mindset that believes it wants ‘more’ will always do so. I’ve met too many clients decades into careers that don’t light them up, living in houses they own largely for their perceptions of others’ perceptions of them, and who squander their sky-high earnings on mirages… what starts out as seemingly sensible slowly, surreptitiously, self-deceptively, but very surely, turns into shit.

While we remain set-up to earn to signal not what we’ve earned, but what we’ve lost, in a grand performance of deliberate, but unconscious, wastefulness, when we pursue ‘more’ we subtract, not add, value to our lives.

Unexamined saving is just as much a waste as unexamined spending. For saving is simply a subset of spending – spending on your future self. This can be a conscious constraint on wasting resources in the present, or an unconscious kicking of a can into an indeterminate, imaginary, future. It’s common in financial advice to see people accumulate a ‘rainy-day’ fund large enough to cope with a Biblical flood, and yet when a bit of drizzle arrives, they still worry about trying to cover the construction of an Ark from current income.

Delaying resource allocation is more commonly done not because we’re working out how to do it well, which would be wise, but precisely to avoid having to work it out at all, which is idiotic. When we do idiotic things with money, it is (usually) not because we are idiots; it is because we’re self-deceived.

The myopia of ‘more’ reinforces the view of the value of money being about numbers, rather than narrative. It focuses on money’s incidental quality of convertibility, rather than the integral meaning associated with what we do both to gain and use it. Dreaming of ‘more’ promises us external stability, yet delivers an internal void. It suggests it will create space for examination, while enabling a lack of it. It deceives us into thinking we’re being sensible, when our actions are nothing of the sort.

It’s sensible to have a default, but it’s dangerous to have a bad one. ‘Life happens’ should be an inspiration for examining our lives, not an excuse for why we didn’t.

If others set your goals, whose life are you living?

If we don’t examine our expenditure, we’re prone to being told what to do by those trying to sell us something… anything

Hitching the power of self-deception to the power of default has implications beyond a bit of thoughtless spending. When we live our lives as if we’re in one of those meetings that, deeming it too difficult to reach a conclusion there and then, concludes to have another meeting instead, we do more than just delay decisions. We delegate them… unthinkingly. We can’t delay the decisions that wire our brains, and shape our lives, so when we don’t make them, we create a void for someone else to. And that someone else is rarely going to lead us towards the fulfilment of potential that makes life flourish most delightfully.

We’re so busy chasing riches that we forget why we’re doing so in the first place. It’s a story as old as the concept of riches itself. ‘The change from landed to movable wealth,’ historian Will Durant tells us, ‘produced a feverish struggle for money, and the Greek language had to invent a word, pleonexia, to denote this appetite for “more and more,” and another word, chrematistike, for the busy pursuit of riches.’[i] ‘Busy’ in any arena is rarely a sign of wisdom. For busy forgets the crucial step of checking if what we’re being busy about is actually worth it.

When it comes to this busy pursuit of more, we’ve got at least two millennia of case studies, and the results are far from debatable. Sadly, the proof that this is no way to live is matched by the depth to which the belief it is runs through our cultural grammar. Once you train yourself to catch the ways in which you and others use ‘more’ to mean ‘better’ without challenge, you’ll understand how much this is part of everyone’s worldview.

This is why we get stuck in self-deceptive cycles: we think we’re thinking, but we’re really only believing and parroting back centuries-old cultural conditioning, when something doesn’t work, we don’t question why; we just try again.


Self-deception is a question of substitutes. When faced with an indissolubly complex situation (as life tends to throw up) rather than work out something that may work, we grab for a simple substitute that won’t, but that we can kid ourselves might.

Need a lift? Upgrade your car, or your wine choices. Feeling empty? Buy a house with more empty space (and then fill it and repeat). Not sure what contributes to quality of life? Start with quality of craftsmanship. The two do sometimes go hand in hand. However, quality craftsmanship is everywhere. Anything can be well-made. Well-made choices start with prioritising something over anything, regardless of how pretty it is. When we substitute something made with care for something we care about, we get stuck in an endless cycle of unsatisfying consumption.

Our epidemic of unexamined expenditure means we substitute what we want to buy with what we’re sold. The former has a good answer for ‘why?’ The latter doesn’t have a good enough answer for ‘why not?’

The difference is profound. And it’s a reason why having more ability to buy things doesn’t lead to a better life. There’s only so much stuff you can own that reliably adds value to your life. When you buy blindly, the more you can afford means you accumulate so much shit that the truly valuable things get lost in the storm. In the words of Nassim Taleb, ‘When people get rich, they lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, triggering their own misery. And these are the preferences of those who want to sell them something.’[ii]

‘Generally speaking,’ wrote Alan Watts, ‘the civilized man does not know what he wants.’[iii] This leads us to strive for ‘by-products’ of ‘real things’… they look the part, but are ultimately unsatisfactory. ‘Money,’ says Watts, ‘is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.’[2]


A salesperson’s job is to reduce your perception of the universe of possibilities open to you for allocating a given pot of resources. It is to make you consider only the monetary cost of whatever they’re selling in comparison to something else it’s clearly better than. However, your basis of making a good decision is not the monetary cost, but the opportunity cost – which is precisely what the salesperson is trying to get you to overlook.

You want to be convinced of something before you buy it. The salesperson seeks only to persuade you for a moment. You want to meet a need. The salesperson wants you to keep trying. Because our belief that the price of something to the world is a valid proxy for the value of it to us,[3] then more stuff or more money must equal more value… so for a better life we must keep on spending and keep on earning. When this doesn’t work, it’s not the fault of the stuff, it’s just a sign we need yet more. Because we want better, and better means more. It never ends, because it can’t.

Life choices never end. Not making them for ourselves creates a void for someone else to. In the land of the money blind, the shopkeeper and the marketer are kings. If we don’t open our eyes, we’re asking to be guided not by our wants, but by the most persuasive pusher of their own.

Once upon a time, substituting the tribe’s wants for your own was probably wise. Chasing personal wants was a fast-track to ostracism, and consequently death. However, nowadays you should want to escape tribes that would cast you out when your values don’t align with theirs.

Outsourcing your thinking is often good. Because in most aspects of life, you’re an idiot, and you’re better off listening to someone who isn’t. But when it comes to what to do with your money, time, and energy, it pays to keep control.

Are you a human being or a human having?

What your stuff says about you should be supplementary to something less superficial

I had a client once, let’s call him Matt. Matt was cool. Rogueishly handsome, with the sort of unruly blond hair some folk pay hundreds of pounds for but which on Matt came as standard. He made TV shows for a living. You’ve probably seen at least one of them, and heard of a dozen more. He was far too cool to care about money. And this was a problem.

In making these shows, Matt spent a lot of time in the natural home of ratings-winning wacky lifestyles: America. Keen to share his adventures with his family, remind them he was still alive, and reassure them he hadn’t got sucked into a cult, Matt called home. A lot. From his mobile. In the days before WhatsApp. His basic mobile contract was for £40 a month. He regularly racked up bills of over 10 times that. Of course he didn’t have to. It would’ve taken 10 minutes to sort a more sensible deal. But sensible isn’t cool.

As we learnt earlier, we signal our worth by wasting it. Wealth is not so much possessed as it is performed… and in the majority of cases, we are blind to the performance. Matt did not deliberately waste his money. Like most people who think about money in profoundly unhelpful ways, he isn’t an idiot. But he does idiotic things. And, because we see these things as isolated outbreaks of idiocy, rather than a chain of consequences of a self-deceptive worldview, we pay too little attention to wising up and doing anything about them. Even when the stakes – the potential for living a more flowing, flourishing, life, and making every moment money comes into our minds that bit more marvellous – couldn’t be higher.


‘Men,’ wrote Schopenhauer,[4] ‘are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes more to his happiness than what he has.’[iv]

Matt’s phone-contract insanity was not a calculated means of showing off. Bragging about the cost of something is, after all, the least cool thing you can do. But you don’t need to be a Hermès-tie-wearing braggart for your mind to operate in an unhelpful mode. Built by brains evolved for a different era, and reinforced by societies haunted by tribal ghosts, it is the default setting for all of us, including the sort of hippies that preach about how we’re human beings, not human havings, duuuuude.[5]

Matt believed the odd few hundred, or even few thousand (when rolled up into an annual amount) didn’t really matter. He could afford it. It was a little uncomfortably extravagant, but what was the point of earning all that money if he had to bother about searching for a better phone deal?

What Matt didn’t see was the connection between a paltry phone bill and every other way money played a role in his life. Every other purchase, and every other thought. Each interaction with money was both an expression of, and a reinforcement of, a wasteful mode of existence. We saw in the introduction the difference between a relationship with money based in the having mode as opposed to the being (or becoming) mode. The difference between seeing money (or the things it buys) as something you ‘have’ that is incidental to who you are, or as an integral part of who you are – a means of both shaping and expressing the story you tell yourself about yourself, and your place in the world.

The problem with the having mode is that it traps you in the casino, playing a game you can’t win, while tricking you into believing you’re always moments away from doing so. The giveaway sign of someone stuck in the centrifugal shitstorm of the having mode are the words ‘I don’t know what to spend it on’. The having-mode person wears their expensive tastes as a badge of honour, hoping you will believe as they do, that their worth is measured in the quantity of their money. The becoming-mode person’s worth, in contrast, is measured in the quality of their choices.

We have an intuitive understanding of what we want – we feel we’re living the Good Life when who we are and who we want to become align. We desperately seek this alignment in all of our actions. Which is precisely why we bugger it up: desperation drives us towards shoddy substitutes. We substitute owning some things for becoming something, and simplistic short-term salves for long-term comfort with complexity. However, tailoring can only do so much to hide a gut, and it can do nothing to hide a git.

We want to learn and grow – we want becoming – but we’re so desperate to do so, that we buy the ‘answer’ – the having – as a substitute for the learning, even though this leads to stagnation, rather than growth.

The having mode isn’t all bad. It’s getting stuck there that’s the problem.

Working out what you really care about can be hard. A big data set of past expenditure to interrogate can help. What value was each item in aid of? And did the attempt to express it work?

page2.2.2.2 If less is more, then more is also less

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[1] For those yet to encounter it: Joseph Heller was at a party with a wunch of Wall Street bankers. Heller was pointed to a twentysomething trader, and told ‘See that guy? He made more money last year than you will make in a lifetime of writing your books.’ Heller, casual as you like, replied: ‘No doubt. But I have one thing he never will.’ Heller’s companion laughed. ‘Oh yeah, what’s that?’ ‘Enough’.

[2] We are all, in some way, like the quantification-obsessed orthorexia sufferers, that, after embarking upon a strict dietary regime in the name of becoming healthier, focus on the quantification over the health, and make themselves stressed and unhealthy because of it.

[3] This is the subject of the next section.

[4] We shall assume in the earlier ‘humankind’ definition of the word.

[5] We’ll revisit the dangers of denunciation as a form of attachment in the next chapter.


[i] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 2

[ii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Facebook post 16th January 2016

[iii] Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

[iv] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays, “Wisdom of Life”

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