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The trades that suck the life out of your bones…

Are you stressed out by money? Are your money fears really founded? This post won’t apply to everyone; there are certainly many people who don’t stress about money. But, I have a feeling this will apply to the great many.

Thousands of years ago, humans struggled to survive. We developed a very strong survival instinct. In ancient times, death was always near. Lack of shelter, food, medicine. If you had just finished dinner and you saw a rabbit running across your farm, you would surely get up, and go kill the rabbit, and store it for another day’s dinner — even if you weren’t hungry when you saw the rabbit.

This behavior is, of course, a good trait when survival is at stake.

However, this survival instinct has run amok. In modern times, even when survival is not at stake, we still often behave like it is.

We make trades. We trade our time and our peace and our energy, for more. And then when we get the more, we keep making trades to get more of more. And on, and on, and on. I’m not talking about more luxury or more material wealth. I’m talking about more security, more nuts stored up for the winter.

Of course, there are many people on planet Earth whose survival is still uncertain. And even in the USA, there are many people who struggle to maintain a reasonable quality of life. But there are also many people who are dreading being “poor,” when really, what they define as “poor” used to be a pretty good lifestyle, before they achieved so much more.

The problem occurs when we reset our barometer for what security is. Each time we get more, we reset that new position to zero, and try to get even more, instead of being grateful for what we have. While greed may play some role in this, I think the bigger culprit is the unrestrained survival instinct of our ancestors. There is simply never enough more to satisfy. More is always needed. And it is greatly feared when more seems out of reach.

The truth is, most people will never have enough earning power to buy total and complete financial security. So with each new milestone of more achieved, of course the next milestone is going to look mighty appealing.

So, we keep trading. We keep trading finite resources like our time and our inner peace, to pursue more. The first few mores we pursue in life may be important — a buffer in the checking account, home ownership, a wardrobe. But each subsequent more gets a little bit less important: a bigger home, more investments, more stored up nuts for further and further out into the future, until the present moment becomes irrelevant.

Yet, even while the subsequent mores get less important, the cost to get them gets increasingly costly, as we pile on the work, the stress, the toil. Adding 10 hours per week to a 20 hour work week isn’t so bad, but adding 10 hours to a 50 hour workweek is a deathblow to the soul.

If the pattern of endless more seeking goes on for too long, pretty soon we forget where we’ve been and we fail to be grateful for what we have.

Reigning in the Beast

OK, enough negativity. So what do we do about this primitive and powerful subconscious survival instinct gone haywire?

I think we need to retrain our brains. We need to use thoughts and behavior to counteract the thoughts and behavior which are the default. One of the exercises I’ve found most helpful is to look at people who have achieved less security than I’ve achieved, and also the people who have achieved more security. Interestingly, both groups of people still seem to be just as preoccupied with getting more security. This doesn’t really make sense…shouldn’t the more successful people think less about security, if security is a linear progression? I mean, when you are mowing your lawn, you certainly feel more accomplished when you are 90% done compared to 10% done.

This exercise shows you behind the curtains of how the human mind works… actually achieving more security does not help control the beast! The beast is irrational and never satisfied. This helps me to reign in the beast, seeing his weakness and that he is really just a wild emotion gone crazy.

Also, it helps me to picture myself in the position of having less security than I do now, and realize that it wouldn’t be that bad. Sure, life would change, but it wouldn’t be as bad as living in constant fear and anxiety over the future. Tim Ferriss calls this “fear setting” (as opposed to “goal setting”).

Another helpful tool for me is to put boundaries around the worry. Force myself to participate in other activities; go have fun with my kids and not check my phone; limit the number of times per day I am allowed to check my email or my stocks or whatever it is that is stressing me out.

Lastly, another very helpful tool for me has been to make a plan. I think endless need for security comes when you lack a plan. If I don’t understand my finances, my expenses, and my true needs, how can I ever feel secure? Having a plan — seeing what my true expenses are on a spreadsheet, and understanding what income is needed to meet them — will give me a true barometer for the level of security I actually have.

Have I solved the problem yet, in my own mind? Not even close. But I feel that just identifying the beast and chasing him down, is half the battle. Keep chasing him, and you’ll win with increasing frequency. One victory I’ve recently had in this mental game is the willingness to spend passive income for living expenses rather than always feeling like I need to reinvest it. The “more more more” mentality says you MUST keep reinvesting investment earnings until you are old and gray and catheterized in the hospital, to ensure you don’t run out of money before you die. Of course, there IS real wisdom in compounding investment returns, but I’ve learned that having a year here or there where I spend the returns to make life better, is just fine. In fact, tomorrow isn’t even guaranteed to any of us, so counting on old age is also a gamble, and for sure by then my kids will be grown and I’ll never get back this time to spend with them. So if I go a year or two sucking down investment earnings to pay for life and my portfolio doesn’t grow, who cares? It was worth it.

My example above is just one of many ways this awareness has affected my life, and of course, everyone is in a different position in life so awareness of the beast will take on different forms in your own life. The most important thing, I think, is to realize there IS a beast in your mind, and that he is harming you beyond what you can even imagine. This realization sets things in motion for healing, whatever healing might look like for you.

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