I’m doing a 3 hour workshop on Financial Freedom at World Domination Summit next week with my new friend JD Roth. I'm excited: he’s a big reason why I teach Financial Freedom. Indeed I didn’t know I had financial freedom until I attended his and Mr Money Mustache's WDS workshop in 2015 and did the math on my finances. Our workshop next week is 9am to noon on Thursday, June 28th, in downtown Portland. For more info (or to register), you should go here. (Please note: Although there’s a nominal fee to attend this presentation, JD and I aren’t paid, we’re doing this as a gift to the community. WDS is mostly volunteer run, which is part of the magic of the event)
JD runs a fantastic FIRE (financial independence, retiring early) website at getrichslowly.com. I suggest you subscribe; you get weekly email newsletters that help you keep financial literacy in your inbox. Last week he posted a heartfelt essay called “The death of Anthony Bourdain: Thoughts on productivity, pleasure, and depression” and it's been on my mind ever since. It’s worth reading the whole thing for the deeper issues of how American society expresses the human condition and how that shows up in our relationship with money.
The Productivity Trap
In it, JD talks about the Productivity Trap, linking to a HBS essay “If you’re so successful, how come you’re working 70 hours a week?” As I mentioned briefly in my previous blog post, my ten-week trip around the world gave me a new perspective about American culture. Here’s a little more: Americans are busy. Do you feel busy? Americans tend to pack as many things into a day as possible: a job, a workout, seeing friends, meditation, a hobby. It’s a very full life. Perhaps too full? In the course, we talk about lagom, the Swedish word that is roughly translated to enough. To the Swedes, lagom is better than too much: lagom food is better than overeating, lagom socializing is better than having too many engagements. It’s a mellower, more contained life.
With work specifically, the struggle is two-fold. I think job insecurity part of the reason Americans work harder and longer than we have in a century. But there’s another, more subtle reason: the new demand that our careers provide purpose for our lives. So many of us, including me in my working days, derived so much meaning from our jobs: our work was supposed to express what we cared about. Do what you love. But that attitude, obviously privileged and bourgois, has a shadow side: the subject and quality of your work is a reflection of you, as Parker Palmer says, "let your life speak." When our self-esteem, status, and sense of personhood are tied to what we do for work, and importantly with how corporate culture now pays into it, how can we not feel stressed? There are plenty of platitudes about “You are not your job” and “You are not what you do” but Americans, particularly those with education and status, don’t live that way. I mean, is what you do for 8 hours a day important to you?
The Pleasure Trap
JD continues with writing about the “pleasure trap,” our desire for “experiences” like travel or gourmet food over crass commercialism and the purchase of “things.” All of Instagram culture is predicated on the display of experiences, it is the social currency of modern educated urban Americans. Anthony Bourdain’s immense popularity was based on the of “authenticity” and “experience.” But, quoting JD's essay “... in many ways, collecting experiences is no better (nor any different) than collecting things.”
I absolutely agree with that. After traveling around the world, I consumed the experience of other cultures (which are all catering to tourism and thus becoming increasingly homogenous, but that’s a topic for another day) and I’m not convinced I walked away any better or happier of a person. It reminds me of my friend Harsha, who, after doing a 10 day silent meditation retreat, told me he didn’t feel magically changed by the experience in any long-lasting way. They are just experiences and experiences, compared to the long drip of living, are ephemeral sensations.
I know it’s contrarian and perhaps a little aggravating for me to tell you that the purchase and consumption of experiences aren’t important or worth spending money on. JD writes "a meaningful life doesn’t consist of a series of cool experiences, or traveling or eating cool stuff… It may be the opposite — the continuity and free-time to invest in loving relationships may actually be the key to happiness."
I would go one step further: I don't think that happiness is something we should be pursuing. Back to American fundamental beliefs, we believe in the “pursuit of happiness.” Read that again: the pursuit of happiness. Doesn't constantly pursuing something sound exhausting? Doesn't constantly reaching for something make us uncentered? If we’re always wanting, are we ever settled? I’m reminded of a quote from Eknath Easwaran:
Happiness is an feeling. I think the insistence that we always need to be happy is paradoxically a source of discontent. We can’t always expect to be happy anymore we can expect to always feel full. If we do, we’ll always be disappointed. That’s the paradox of why Danes are the “happiest people in the world,” they, humorously, have the lowest expectations.
Happiness, Depression, and Peace
I suggest that our goal shouldn’t be happiness, In my 30s, I read all the books about happiness. Pursued all the things: meaningful relationships, meaningful career, and sense of purpose. Did the yoga and the meditation. At the same time, I was living through a extended, multi-year stretch of depression. At the time, the depression felt unrelenting and I didn’t know if it would ever end. And then it gradually went away. Without me noticing, that oppressive blanket slowly withdrew. Depression is a complex topic and I don’t know how it went away for me, but I know that all my attempts at happiness didn’t alleviate my condition.
Here on the other side, the thing I’ve found is a sense of inner peace and contentment. In many ways, I spent most of my adult life trying to be good, trying to make the world better. But I’ve come to believe that the desire for “goodness” in both me and the world around me, necessarily meant dissatisfaction in me and in the world around me. I was constantly looking at what was wrong and wishing it were better, more of something else. There is that word more again. It was when I realized that the world was enough, even with Trump, even with poverty, even with loneliness, could I find peace. Being at peace with myself and world, as it is, is the sum of all my wisdom.
So what does this have to do about money? Well, everything. We live in a society that tells us that what we have is not enough that with the purchase and consumption of things or experiences, we can be different and better. As we talk about in the course, the belief in enough vs. more is a spiritual condition. Our external actions, and specifically, how we spend our money, are expressions of our internal worlds. The productivity and pleasure traps are expressions of an internal yearning for esteem and status in our lives. Doing the internal work to address that is more sustainable (and cheaper) than anything else.
Many thanks to JD Roth for his essay. Come see us at WDS on Thursday.