The Man With the Big Keychain
An old friend of mine is obsessed with security. He carries a huge bundle of keys and makes his way through each day meticulously locking and unlocking anything that can be locked. He drives his car through the alley into the detached garage, and the door seals shut behind his back bumper. After locking the car, he exits the garage through the door into his back yard (which features locking fence gates) and locks the deadbolt behind him. He climbs the back steps and unlocks the screen door and the interior door, then locks them both behind him. On vacation, he spends a good portion of his vacation time locking and unlocking boats, barbecues and sporting equipment at the cottage, which sits on a peaceful private lake with only a few widely spaced neighbors.
This guy isn’t overly fearful in other ways. Like many of my favorite people, he’s a perpetual teenager at heart who devotes his life to having a good time with friends. He is a great person to invite to a party and he has done very well in his career. But for whatever reason, he has taken up the habit of protecting the living shit out of each and every one of his physical possessions, because “the crime around here is really bad.”
The Other Man with No Keys at All*
Mr. Money Mustache, on the other hand, follows the opposite strategy when it comes to material possessions. I never lock the house when I’m home, and my cars and bikes often spend the night sitting casually unlocked out back as well, while I sleep with the windows open all summer. For quick errands, I’ll often leave my bike just chilling on its kickstand while I run into the market for some avocados, and even when I do lock up, I use one of those stretchy convenient 6-foot cable locks instead of the recommended bomb proof U-lock. Unless I’m on a trip with a lot of strangers around, I keep my phone and my desktop computer password-free so I can get to work more quickly when the mood strikes.
I’ve lived at a fair number of different addresses over my lifetime and some were more crime-ridden than others. But they were all in Canada or the US – two relatively safe, prosperous countries. If you average out all the thefts and other threats I’ve been through over the years, it is remarkably low – and this is of course part of the definition of a prosperous country. I savor this safe environment and use it to live a freer life. After all, higher levels of trust between people leads directly to higher wealth.
My Carefree Attitude Backfires
But all this came crashing down one afternoon not long ago, when I went to grab my fancy Trek road bike from the back patio, and found it was no longer there.
That was weird. I could have sworn I left that thing leaning right there against a chair. I searched the shed, and my side yards, and everywhere else I’d usually leave a bike. No bike.
I felt the bottom dropping out of my stomach as I realized what had happened.
Although I’ve been a victim of theft less than a dozen times in my life, it is always a shocking, violating feeling when you realize somebody unknown has stolen something from you. How could they be so bold, coming right onto my property and wheeling this thing away? At exactly what moment did this happen? Where was I when this dickhead was stealing my bike? Why couldn’t I have seen it happening, so I could come out and dish out some Justice? When you catch someone stealing your bike from your yard, do you just yell at the thief to get the hell out, or do you punch him down to the ground and stand with your foot on his neck while you call the cops and wait for them to arrive, occasionally hurling expletives down at the perpetrator and spitting on his face?
Although I’m not a violent man in everyday life, this swirl of uncertainty and rage quickly combined with immaturity and testosterone and soon I was wasting my mental energy torturing an imaginary stranger. And my practical side started acting on the fear as well. “This changes everything. Do I add cameras and security? Do I build a garage immediately to house all my belongings so they can be safely locked up? Should I move out of the city to get away from crime?”
After calming down for a few minutes, more practical strategies started to emerge. Sure, my bike had been stolen. But this was the first theft in many, many years of very carefree living. The Craigslist replacement value of that bike was probably about $500. What value do I place on a decade of the fearless freedom of leaving shit happily unlocked and not worrying about it? How about the value of my time saved in not spending my life fumbling with an enormous keychain like my friend? 90 seconds a day for ten years is 91 hours, or at least $4500 of my time at $50 an hour. I was still coming out way ahead.
Anyway, it was time to think about a more pressing issue: I needed to get myself back on the road. Not having a bike for me is equivalent to a car person losing all access to motor vehicles. I use a bike several times every single day to get things done. Switching to walking would have me on the sidewalk for 4 hours a day, and switching to a car for local errands would be even worse. Car Clown driving. Why not just squeeze my motorized racing la-z-boy right into the grocery store and reach my hand out the driver-side window to select my produce and canned goods?
The reason I had been riding that Trek road bike around in the first place was that my main commuter bike was temporarily out of commission. I had destroyed a few rear spokes in a careless incident with the big hauling trailer. So I decided to take that wheel over to the local bike shop to have it re-spoked.
It’s More Dangerous Around Here Than You Thought
At the bike shop’s service desk, I ran into the friendly owner and shared my tragic tale of loss with him. His reaction surprised me:
YUP. YUP, THAT WOULD DO IT. BIKE THEFT IS PLENTY BAD HERE IN LONGMONT. IF YOU’RE GOING DOWNTOWN, YOU NEED A BURLY U-LOCK, AND YOU NEED TO KEEP IT LOCKED UP AT HOME TOO. OTHERWISE, YOU’RE JUST ASKING FOR IT.”
YUP. YUP, THAT WOULD DO IT.
And here I was thinking I lived in a low-crime city. The stats say we’re much safer than the US median and my neighborhood is especially chilled out. Anecdotal evidence was backing it up until now: not only had I experienced no crime since I moved here 10 years ago, I didn’t even know anyone who had experienced any crime. It was one of those things you were vaguely aware of from the local paper, but it played no part in the average daily citizen’s life.
Could it be that the bike shop owner had formed his opinion based on a biased sample? Just like a paramedic thinks that cycling is horribly dangerous, a police officer thinks that criminals are everywhere, and a corporate lawyer thinks that painful lawsuits are commonplace, the owner of a bike shop hears from everyone who has a bike stolen, while having much less contact with those of us who still have happy, operational bikes. Even on Mr. Money Mustache articles like this one, we inevitably get commenters piping up that their situation is immeasurably more dangerous. “You can’t ride a bike or leave your garage unlocked in my city. Because things are truly scary here.”
Don’t Confuse Bullshit with Safety
This is a key flaw in human nature that will bring you great profit if you become aware of it: we tend to prioritize our own experience above real science when forming impressions of the world. And we also put more weight on scary and bad news than we do on good news (or an absence of news, which is usually good too).
This form of judgement (along with other great human tendencies such as racism, fear of change and learning through gossip) was appropriate for most of human history since it was the best we could do before we had science and effortless worldwide communication. But nowadays, we can do better. To attain greater-than-caveman wealth, you must make life decisions using smarter-than-caveman techniques.
An impossibly cheap $35 and one day later, I carried my pristine and true back wheel out of that place and fitted it to my commuter bike. It was a joy to ride around again and I wondered what the big deal was: my life was simpler now with fewer bikes. I had more open space in my shed and I hardly ever used that road bike anyway.
I resolved to continue my old life of not being fearful of crime. As any student of statistics knows, it is foolish to base your life on a single, isolated event. If things continued to get stolen from my back yard, I would eventually step up security measures. But for now, why not be free?
And then, as if the Universe had noticed that I absorbed this life lesson correctly, my Trek road bike came back.
The bike had never been stolen at all – I had just left it at a friend’s house. In a zoo-like day of helping him move a few blocks, alternately biking, running, and driving the moving truck back and forth and stopping somewhere else for lunch then celebrating with beers at the end of the night, I had simply ended up walking home late the previous night and going straight to bed with no thought about the bike.
This is not unusual at all for me – although I can’t seem to purge my brain of the complete spec list of most cars in production and every last note of every last 1980s guitar solo, I am remarkably useless at keeping track of objects. One time I thought I had lost my own car for a weekend because I had left it at work. But hey, it was nice of my bike to come back to me.
So I went back to my regular, carefree, unlocked life.
And I still get a little thrill when I walk away from my bike when I’ve left it unlocked in a public place. “I’m breaking the rules! You’re supposed to lock these things up! Is the world really this safe? We’re about to find out!”
I also love the Responsible Adult feeling I get when driving my car, which is insured only for liability against other people. If I crash that thing, I’m aware that it will be me paying to fix or replace it.
Living the Unlocked Life is is both a joyful celebration of living in our safe and wealthy society, and a reminder not to cling to material possessions. Instead of fooling yourself with the security blanket of insurance, you can use it as a reminder not to buy stuff that would be financially painful to lose. If you can’t afford to lose it, you can’t afford to buy it yet – otherwise the object owns you rather than vice versa.
But How Does All This Make Me Rich?
Fear of loss tends to prevent us from doing all the best stuff in life. Investing. Quitting our unsatisfying job or starting a new business. Building a fun and profitable local social network. Trying things that might result in minor bruises or embarrassing failure. Compulsive locking and protecting of our trinkets is not curing this fear – just masking it. Taking away the security blanket and just taking the risk breaks down the fear, and brings much better results over a lifetime.
* It’s true: I have eliminated keys from my life whenever possible. The bike gets a numerical combination lock, and I outfitted my house with a programmable deadbolt which is more secure yet much faster to operate. This also helps me overcome my tendency to lose objects like keys.
**Fearful vs. Prudent: With all this advocacy of danger, how do I avoid doing completely stupid things? I try to keep it in context of “making a profit”. For example, locking my door when I leave home for a month takes only a few seconds and provides a long period of benefit. Likewise for shutting off the water supply, using a seat belt, or having a reasonable password on my bank account. Low cost relative to expected potential benefit.
Compare this to, say, spending 10 minutes every day making sure not so much as a frisbee is left out in my yard for potential thieves. Or avoiding going for beautiful evening walks for fear of potential muggers: higher cost to protect against less likely consequences.