In my ongoing and painstaking research on what separates Wealthy Mustachians who feel life is full of abundance, from Consumer Suckas who can’t seem to get ahead because of life’s many expenses, I notice many patterns. Certain behavioral habits tend to make people wealthier, and others provide a grinding pull towards the gutter. Complainypants disease, an obsession with convenience, and short-termitis are obviously bad things, while optimism, putting Muscle over Motor and training your figurative Frugality Muscle are of course good.
One of the stranger patterns that I’ve noticed ever since reaching adulthood, is the tendency of humans to zoom in on increasingly irrelevant details as their material wealth increases. Despite their advantaged position, people seem to become unaware of the wide variety of conditions in the world and their own ability as a human to deal with them. The results are both tragic and amusing.
At first I thought this was a unique characteristic of US residents, since I saw the first examples after moving in with some roommates in Boulder, Colorado.
“You know, I never thought I’d be able to live way out here in the suburbs after living downtown for so long”, said 24-year-old Meredith, “but I guess you have to make some changes when you get older”.
I was confused, because Boulder has no suburbs – the entire town is only 7 miles long in its largest dimension and we were having this conversation 2.4 miles from the center. After living near Toronto, I thought “suburbs” were something you drove 45 minutes down a 16-lane highway to reach. Thus, I thought of Boulder as a perfect little speck of a town, with every area equivalent to every other one.
As it turned out, a discerning culture had evolved to pick apart the different areas of Boulder, arbitrarily deciding that houses on Mapleton avenue were worth millions of dollars more than ones out on 55th. Nobody noticed that they all had the same mountain views or sunny climate or fine culture.
The same effect is evident in Ottawa, Canada, where some extended family live in an old hilltop neighborhood. If you trim your trees just right and peer through, you can see a few miles across the river to some low hills on the other side. In a flat city with no other views or topography, this is apparently a feature to die for, and people are now bidding a million dollars for even the oldest houses so they can scrape them off and build $10M mansions and bask in the view.
And yet it’s about 5 miles from downtown, twice the distance of my old “suburban” Boulder place. The incomes of nearby jobs are no higher, but property taxes are. The climate is punishing for most of the year. There are no mountains. When taking a broader perspective, this area should be priced pretty affordably, but again the local human population has zoomed in on its own tiny world and started consumer bidding wars for the best of the nearby scraps.
Once you are aware of this pattern, you start see it everywhere. Fashion enthusiasts bid furiously for clothes of a certain style or brand. Car shoppers pay thousands more per year for a perceived difference in style, increase in size to carry around unnecessary items, or even for “crash safety“, a concept they likely don’t even understand beyond what they’ve picked up through auto marketing campaigns. Audio enthusiasts write pages about the vast difference between two amplifiers with identical specifications, and wine enthusiasts sniff and snoot about the more expensive wines. TV News watchers get angry and put stickers which protest socialism and high gas prices on the back of their V8-powered commuter pickup trucks, unaware that both of the politicians competing for their country’s presidency represent only slightly different shades of the most unfettered capitalism and cheapest gasoline in the world.
Even here on my current winter trip to Hawai’i, there seems to be a “bad side” of every island, where the singing birds and perfect climate are deemed not quite as appealing, the texture of the beach sand is not quite right, or the neighbors aren’t as rich as we are (often expressed politely as “bad schools”). The result is dramatic and can be measured in the millions.
All of these people are missing the bigger picture, to their own detriment. Almost everybody is. So how do we exploit this loophole to make ourselves wealthier?
The answer, of course, is to watch out for signs of Tiny Details Exaggeration Syndrome in your own behavior, and punch yourself in the face any time it pops up. Ask yourself, “how does this decision I’m making look in the context of all of human conditions in the world right now, and throughout the many thousands of years of human history?” Is there really a big difference between the fancy neighborhood and the normal one now? Between home-brewed espressos or Starbucks? Or even between choosing the 2001 car and the 2013 one?
The answer you’ll come up with is that everything is a tiny detail, and even your biggest spending decisions are really between two shades of a very close bright happy green. So enjoy them, and by all means enjoy a bit of your great wealth as you make these choices, just to remind yourself that it is there. But since everything is such an arbitrary choice anyway, why not make the choices at a level you can actually afford, if you’re not already doing so? Once cured of TDES, you can pretty much write your own ticket, living on almost any percentage of your income that you choose.
With the right percentage, you can get all your time back for your own use.. and Time is one of the few things in life that is not such a tiny detail.