Every once in a great while you feel like things just click, that the many strands of thought and experiences you’ve had suddenly develop a pattern, a commonality that you had never grasped before. I realized this in several aspects of my life recently, but one that I want to talk about today is the idea that there is a “fake world” and a “real world” – one is a world of illusions and the second a world of truth. It was first propounded by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave and has resurfaced since then in places like Christianity, with the mundane world vs. the divine world, or film classics like the Matrix and its virtual dreamscape vs. dystopian reality.
This is an idea that’s frequently dismissed by mainstream philosophy, but the more I’ve seen of the world the more clear its become that this idea is less a “theory” than an actual observation of reality. For there really are two different worlds out there. The fake world is one where things look glamorous and easy, but are secretly treacherous and lead people to their doom. The real world of truth is one that promises hardship, but also real personal fulfillment. In practice, the two are connected because certain behaviors tend to push people to favor one world or the other, and the more they believe in one the less they believe in the other.
For example, when it comes to personal finance there is a fake world of marketing illusions and a real world of finite time, money and energy. In the world of mass media and the popular conscience, everyone can have it all – the a big house, fancy cars, luxurious vacations, status, and a high-paying job that makes you happy. In the real world, you can have the houses, cars and vacations, but will rarely have the time to enjoy them as you work around the clock to pay for it all. We would all love to be millionaires in our twenties, but in reality most rich people are workaholic senior citizens who would gladly give it all up to be young again. Embracing the real world, or truth, is to acknowledge that you will never have everything that you want, nor should you. By embracing your smallness, your finite capabilities, you open yourself up to the larger freedoms that come with limited wants – the freedom of time, the freedom to explore skills and relationships as you want them, and nobody else.
This idea applies to relationships with corporate work. In the fake world, the company cares about you, all employees are equal, and it is the company’s job to drive social change. In the real world, the company doesn’t care about you and HR favors certain people over others. The company may say that it is moral, but few large companies actually stand for something and will change their beliefs with the slightest shift in the wind. In truth, a company simply cannot give you the meaning and connection that a strong relationship with your family and local community can provide. You’re a cog in a wheel, and so is your boss, and so is the CEO in most cases. One day you are there, the next day you are gone, and the day after someone else has replaced you. Don’t expect an exclusive, personal relationship; a company simply cannot give it.
Moreover, even when it comes to those personal, exclusive relationships there is a world of illusion and truth. In the fake world we can attract a mate in the top 5% of all possible mates – sexy supermodel spouses who are intellectually interesting and love us for who we are as people. In the real world though, most people cannot maintain the peak fitness, drive for success, and game needed to attract a top 5% spouse and keep them interested. You cannot attract an Angelina Jolie unless you’re someone who can impress an Angelina Jolie; you cannot attract a Tom Brady unless you’re someone who can impress a Tom Brady. If you want to know what your mate (or prospective mates) are like as a person, take an honest look in the mirror. You’ll see them there.
Similarly, romance novels and romantic comedies promise eternal and undying love and as a result, when people are out on the dating scene they are primarily looking for someone who they think can be “the one” or who can make them “feel” that torrent of emotion they equate with a legendary romance. In reality though, that first rush of passion peters out after 18-24 months. Moreover, people do not love idealistically in the long-term. Depending on the survey, 70-90% of all divorces are initiated by women and the number #1 cause they cite is a lack of money. If a man cannot provide for his wife, she will eventually leave you for someone who can. The number #2 reason is lack of sex or intimacy, often driven by not staying physically fit (for men and women); not staying an driven, ambitious alpha male (for women); or being sexually available (for men). Love is great, but at its base its driven less by who you are to your spouse, than what you are to your spouse. In an ideal world it would be the reverse, but any review of divorce stories will prove otherwise. When your “what” changes from “fit, attractive, wealthy, and driven” to “ill, fat, lazy and poor” then you’ll find that who you are matters much less.
Some may think this as a cynical way of viewing the world, success and relationships, but embracing it offers a lot in terms of personal fulfillment. If you know the fake, seductive world exists you also understand that it will inevitably betray you. Once you know this you can adjust your expectations and take steps to make sure that everything you do is oriented towards those activities, things and people that truly make you happy and fufilled. In particular, personal finance is a key piece in tying everything together. Personal financial autonomy is crucial to personal integrity.
After all, if you live within your means and save your money, would you need to work 60-80 hours a week to support your lifestyle? Would you need to be obsessed with keeping others happy so that you can avoid getting laid off?*
If you were financially free, would you have to accept despicable practices you don’t believe in? How many lawyers would quit corporate or divorce law if they could afford it? Would anybody keep trying to sell credit cards? Or work as a debt collector?
If you were free from debt and high consumption, would you pursue the kinds of work and hobbies that make you happy? Would you be more likely to start your own business, become your own boss, and carve your own path in the world? Would you spend more time cooking health foods and working out the gym? Would you take up that musical instrument that you always wanted to learn? Or travel the world or take up a new sport?
If you were free from debt, free to set your own hours, and free to live your life the way you want, would that make you a more attractive catch to potential mates? Would that rekindle admiration in the eyes of your spouse? Would that give you the time to make your relationships the priority they always should’ve been?
The answer to all of these is a loud “Yes!” The more you can control your money, the more freedom that you have. The more financial freedom that you have, the more you can live a life of integrity. The more you can live a life of integrity, the more you can see the world for what it is and succeed in it. The world of truth is a harsh one, but it is not surprising to those with eyes to see it. Anyone can do well in it if they are not enslaved to the illusions proposed by others. Understanding personal finance then isn’t simply about controlling your wallet, but your life as a whole. All good things flow together, and controlling your wallet is the beginning of having them flow in your direction.
*Here in Minnesota one of our local business giants – Target – laid off a large portion of their staff after a failed expansion attempt into Canada. Nearly all the executives got kicked out. Those employees who managed to keep their jobs were asked to do the same amount of work that used to be done by three people. People who didn’t have a choice worked 60-80 hour weeks. Those who did moved elsewhere and lived happier lives.