The (Un)Reasonable Life
Featuring both Smeagol and Gollum!
Dear wonderful Jambalaya reader,
Today I have just a short, informal note spawned from a conversation over the holidays (Thanks Sophie, Thomas, and Joanne!) It’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks so I thought you might enjoy it as well. It goes like this:
A reasonable life is the product of many unreasonable decisions.
An unreasonable life is the product of many reasonable decisions.
Warren Buffett living in the same house he paid $31,500 for in 1958 is downright unreasonable given his personal wealth. It’s something nearly nobody else in his position does, making it seem unreasonable to those people.
“Why don’t you build something bigger and nicer, Warren? You wouldn’t even notice the cost!”
But the result of this (and other) seemingly unreasonable decisions is a happy, reasonable life that makes it easy for him to spend time on the things that are meaningful to him.
On the other hand, Jeff Bezos buying a $500m superyacht is quite a reasonable decision in the context of his personal fortune. It’s actually a less extravagant purchase (proportionally) than the average American his age buying the average new car.
I’m sure fellow billionaire superyacht owners called him up to tell him how much he’ll enjoy the very reasonable purchase.
These decisions don’t just exist in the domain of billionaires, either. Here’s an old example from Ben Franklin:
Our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my breakfast was a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a two-penny earthen porringer, with a pewter spoon. But mark how luxury will enter families, and make a progress, in spite of principle: being called one morning to breakfast, I found it in a china bowl, with a spoon of silver! They had been bought for me without my knowledge by my wife, and had cost her the enormous sum of three-and twenty shillings, for which she had no other excuse or apology to make but that she though her husband deserved a silver spoon and china bowl as well as any of his neighbors. This was the first appearance of plate and china in our house, which afterward, in a course of years, as our wealth increases, augmented gradually to several hundred pounds in value.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The enormous sum of three-and twenty shillings! What a lavish expense.
And that’s exactly why these decisions are so dangerous. They can come for anyone, at any time. They always seem reasonable in the moment, because as Ben Franklin, unsurprisingly, put it best:
So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
What Franklin is saying is that when we want something (usually because we see that someone else has the same thing), our brain immediately goes to work inventing reasons that we need that thing too.
The antidote is both simple and difficult: be unreasonable when these decisions come your way.
It might be a decision to not take an expensive trip even though you can easily afford to.
Or an insistence to keep drinking the same inexpensive wine you always have, when all your friends have leveled up to something more fitting of their age and peer group.
Or the decision to automatically save instead of spend any pay increases or bonuses you get, so your personal wealth grows while your living standard stays the same.
This is hard because the reasons we invent to do these things are really damn believable! That’s where the unreasonableness comes in. We have to stare those really good reasons right in the face and refuse even to entertain them.
Be like Smeagol, desperately trying to ignore Gollum’s reasons for wanting to murder the Hobbits and take back The Ring. Though you may struggle with the reasons for a time, eventually you just have to yell “Leave now and never come back!”
Nice line-in-the-sand drawing, Smeagol!
The reason is because although indulging in these things does bring some temporary benefit of comfort and convenience (eating with a silver spoon is better than eating with a stone one. I think?) it does so at the cost of your personal freedom. You get used to the new thing almost immediately, but the money you spent on it is gone forever. In other words, you end up running faster and faster only to stay in the same place.
They See me Rollin’
To give an example, Sophie and I made the very unreasonable decision to sell one of our cars and commute by ebike most of the time. I ride it to work whether it’s 10 or 100 degrees out.
This strikes a lot of people in town as very unreasonable. Why not just buy a second car? It’s much more comfortable and convenient.
Of course it would be more convenient, that’s exactly why not to do it!
If you don’t draw very definite lines in the sand and keep to one side of them, someone or something else will inevitably draw you to the other side. This is usually done with reasonable sounding exhortations that “this product is just amazing” or “that’s just what people your age do“
To take this even further, it takes a certain degree of unreasonableness to accomplish anything worthwhile: build a great company, raise great children, or just establish a strong personal financial foundation. In fact, as I was writing this, I realized this idea was already captured much more eloquently by George Bernard Shaw:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
It’s very reasonable to be satisfied with whatever you have accomplished to this point in your life.
But to insist on creating something new and enduring years of emotional turmoil to attempt it, all the while not knowing if you’ll be successful? That is downright unreasonable.
So there you have it: the path to an unreasonable life is paved with very reasonable-sounding compromises. Instead, make it a habit to unreasonably draw lines in the sand and do things that strike other people, and yourself, as unreasonable.
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Currently the average cost of a new car is about $48,000 meaning it represents ~4% of the net worth of an average American family the same age as Bezos. A $500M purchase, on the other hand, is only about .4% of Bezos’ net worth at time of writing.