You must unlearn what you have learned

This classic clip from The Empire Strikes Back is rightly famous for the line: Do…or Do Not…There is no Try.  But, great as that line is, my favourite quote from the clip is actually:

You must unlearn what you have learned.

In the Prison Camp we pick up ideas from other people all the time. The trouble is that many of these ideas are rubbish: half truths, propaganda and Chinese whispers.  Some of it is deliberately designed to persuade us to spend hard-earned money, some of it is just random noise.

The problem comes when we act on assumptions that aren’t true. Garbage in, garbage out.

As someone smart once said: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

So lets take a closer look at some things that just ain’t so.

1. You don’t always get what you pay for

Marketers, advertisers and economists have lead us to believe that we get what we pay for. But this is a half truth.

The full truth is that price is what you pay, value is what you get. But when we don’t know the value of something, we often use price as a guide. So marketers use pricing and product features to create a consumer hierarchy (bronze, silver, gold etc) that we will slot ourselves into, based on our self image and desire to signal status.

Take cars as an example. I realised that when I chose between a Skoda or an Audi I was getting essentially the same car. This introduces the radical idea that we choose how much we pay for most things.

Remember that when investing in funds, you get what you don’t pay for. Fees saved compound so more of your money continues to grow like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill.

2. Spending does not equal happiness

The reason most people are doing it wrong when it comes to money is that they think spending will make them happier. But scientists have shown that spending does not equal happiness.

We evolved over millions of years in an environment where there was no money, no luxury goods shops and no drive through McDonalds.

So the things that bring happiness are the things that would have helped us to survive and thrive in our natural environment. Like real food, exercise, walking, community, sex, being outside in the sunlight etc. Note that these things do not cost money.

3. Leisure time needn’t cost money

I used to think that my spending would go up if I quit work because I’d need to be entertained. This turned out to be another idea I needed to unlearn.

Yes, its true you have a lot more time after you have quit The Prison Camp….but you can use that time to reduce your spending and find ways to earn other streams of income that are fun.

4. We are not all doomed

The idea that we are all doomed is beamed at us everyday via TV news and other forms of media.   This breeds fear initially and, over time, a kind of depressed resignation that its not possible to improve our situation.

So, to make ourselves feel better, we might just as well spend like there is no tomorrow…like it’s Berlin in 1945 and the Russians are fighting their way in via the suburbs…right?

Wrong.  If we can accept that maybe, just maybe, we are not all doomed, that allows us to think a bit longer term. We can then try not to fuck up the planet by covering all the fields and forests with shopping malls and suburbs full of SUVs.

5. Shares might be safer than you think (and property might be more dangerous)

Here in Britain we’ve been led by TV clowns to believe that you can’t go wrong with property. And yet we’re always told that shares are risky and we might lose our money etc.

We have a cult of property where we borrow as much as the bank will lend us and vote for politicians that hold interest rates down and print money. This has the effect of reducing mortgage interest costs and artificially inflating house prices.  What happens when interest rates go up?

The Bankers Jar

The Escape Artist is all for owning your own house. But if you still have a mortgage, you don’t yet own your house, you are renting it from the bank. And remember they’ve got something of yours in The Banker’s Jar.

When you owning shares, you own slices of businesses with productive real assets like factories, computers, warehouses, production lines, forklift trucks, vans, stock (inventory) etc etc.

Houses are not safer than shares over the long term.  If you own a house, its price can fall due to interest rate rises, closure of a local employer, flooding or subsidance. But when you own Vanguard tracker funds, you are diversified from local risks.

6. Sometimes less is more

I hope that we can all agree that less is more when it comes to STDs, concentration camps and heart attacks.

If we agree that, then perhaps we can also accept that less might also be more when it comes to SUVs, holiday homes, ab-rollers, home shopping catalogues, unused home workout DVDs, TV channels and shopping malls?

I also hope we can agree that sometimes more is more. More is more with love, freedom, happiness, natural wilderness and money stored in The Cloud.

7. Sometimes its better not to stay “up to date”

If you want to get rich whilst improving your mental health, I suggest you stop watching TV news, adverts and infomercials.

How will you cope if you don’t know what some politician said? Or what is fashionable in Milan this spring? Or who won X Factor? Or what the latest igadget is. Hint: Probably pretty well.  If something genuinely interesting happens, someone will bring it to your attention via good old fashioned word of mouth.

And, unless you are a diplomat, general or world leader you probably don’t need to watch distressing footage of natural disasters, terrorism or foreign wars.

If, having cut out the news, you are missing your regular dose of apocalypse, gore and violence, can I recommend you try The Walking Dead?  Its way more realistic than the news.

8. Convenience is not always good

If you think that convenience is always a good thing then here’s a thought experiment for you.

Imagine an iphone app for a service that delivers sugared doughnuts to you 24/7, wherever you are. Lets call it Diabetes DirectTM . You subscribe for a monthly payment debited automatically from your bank account. When you have a blood sugar crash or your boss shouts at you and you are feeling unloved, you hit the button on your iphone.

Diabetes DirectTM then send an attractive nurse (you get to choose which sex) in a white coat to hand deliver your doughnut to your house or your work. Diabetes DirectTM offers a key holding service, so they can let themselves in.  You don’t have to get out of bed or out of your chair.

With the bronze service, they leave the donut by your bedside or desk. If you’re lucky, they won’t steal anything on the way out.

With the silver service, they mush up the donut in a little bowl with some warm milk and spoon feed it to you whilst gently humming your favourite nursery rhyme.

With the gold service, they will come to your bedside, mush up the donut, dissolve it in a fizzy drink and inject donut solution straight into your intravenous drip before emptying the contents of your catheter bag onto your pot plants and turning the TV channel over for you.

9. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat

Sugar makes you fat. All through history, starvation was a threat and sugar was very rare. Sugar did not exist in the forms and quantities we are now exposed to.

You can think of processed carbohydrates as just concentrated forms of stored sugar. If you eat a bowl of pasta, your body turns that into a bowl of sugar in a couple of hours.

As sugar spike hits, hormones carry the message to to the rest of your body: BINGO! We’ve hit the sugar jackpot! This won’t last…so lets get busy storing the surplus energy as fat RIGHT NOW!

Eating fat does not make you fat. If you want an argument about that, go find a naturally ripped native Eskimo warrior that lives off seal blubber, poke him in the six pack, call him Mr Fatty and see what happens.

Let me know how you get on with that.

10. Frugality is not mean (and waste is not generosity)

Why is frugality often mistaken for being mean?

Imagine you are a caveman hunter. Some days you catch more food than you need for yourself. But you have no way of storing the surplus meat….no freezers, no preservatives, no warehouses, no money, no ability to export the meat around the world.

The only way you can store the value is via social capital. You hand out the surplus meat to the other members of the tribe. This makes you popular with the other males and doesn’t do you any harm with the caveladies either, if you know what I mean.

If you’re generous with the other members of your tribe, then on the days when you have struck out hunting, they are much more likely to feed you. Everyone wins from this set up and it explains why we are hard wired for reciprocity.

It may also help explain why we’re not very good at encouraging each other to save. Saving is just the storage of surplus resources. Is it possible that in the modern world we mistakenly confuse frugality and saving for meanness because it somehow reminds us of the tribe member that holds on to their surplus meat for themself?


  1. If those who are excellent find no preferment,
    The people will cease to contend for promotion.
    If goods that are hard to obtain are not favoured,
    The people will cease to turn robbers or bandits.
    If things much desired are kept under cover,
    Disturbance will cease in the minds of the people.
    –Tao Te Ching (Blakney 1955)

  2. dawnmartyne · · Reply

    again, excellent article. Thoroughly enjoyed reading and found myself agreeing with all the points made.

  3. SuffolkShandy · · Reply

    Nice summary post to take us all into 2016 looking onwards and upwards. Happy New Year to all and lets stick it to the Man throughout 2016. As TEA would say, value is not always monetary, time is precious. Here’s to taking back control, dont get mad, get even……..

  4. Point 10 is one that really gets my goat, and I have a whole post half written about it in draft in fact (must try to complete that!).

    Worse still I have “friends” who frown upon frugal behaviour (i.e. conserving money and resources where possible) as tight while wasting their own money on absolute sh!te and act as if that is somehow generous. Mate… if you are buying BMWs for yourself while giving f*ck all to charity or whatever then you are basically the tightest person around, not I!

    It’s like they have taken the phrase “charity starts at home” quite literally.


    OK I’m back to normal now, promise 🙂

    Cheers for the post, made me chuckle and enlightened me in equal measures as usual.

    1. Anger Management is down the hall mate…Room 101…you can’t miss it 😉

      Thanks for the comment

  5. meglinson · · Reply

    I’m surrounded by friends and family who are in debt to a greater or lesser extent. What they fail to realise is that it is not a victimless crime as their problems then become your problems. Whatever choice you make when your brother or sister comes knocking for money you will pay either mentally, financially or both. Getting into debt is a truly selfish act.

    Love the post BTW – I often think that most of society’s problems could be solved if:
    1). Bike was transport of choice
    2). No credit
    3). No processed carbs & sugar.

    1. Good point re debt having potential knock on effects to others….and not one that is widely recognised. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Survivor · · Reply

    Hi. I don’t know if this tide of brainwashed, consumerism-induced, financial indentured labour can ever be turned. The lifestyle [& the mentality that ensures it] is just so dominant in every aspect of everyday life that it is on the whole now accepted as the only system possible, or at least the most ‘successful’.

    A couple of examples – through work I met 4 young guys working lousy jobs in London & sleeping 2 to a room in a dive flat – so they’re obviously the least able to afford to waste, yet cannot accept the slightest level of inconvenience. So if the dishwasher is broken, they demand a new one asap instead of waiting a few days to see if it’s possible to repair – the landlord then increases the rent to replace breakages of all sorts that occur in a fraction of the time normal in most people’s own homes. They however, were utterly oblivious of the connection between these two issues, they didn’t even try to think about it ….. while lamenting their relative poverty & lack of opportunity.

    At the opposite end of the ‘success’ spectrum, my friend – the only one I have in the 1% that I know of, is highly educated, wealthy & has all the trappings of status, including an awesome job. In a recent conversation he couldn’t see that there were alternatives to ”everyone must consume asap or the world’s economy would crash”. Amazingly, at the same time he understood that the current consumption rate is already massively unsustainable for our planet & we are unable to get off to trash another at this stage in our ‘civilization’ …..yet somehow that contradiction didn’t register.

    An excellent point in the earlier comment about how even painstakingly self-educated people who also have the discipline to curb their own wants are then pressured to bail out those they care for. Though as old as time, that is indeed under appreciated & so, so unfair – many a family must have lost it’s communal w/health that way in history.

    As individuals, we can only rescue ourselves by being open to constant learning & self-discipline, but as a whole, I don’t see an effective way of reaching the general population. The various types of leaders in states will always have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo & the power to negate anyone acting for progressive alternatives.

  7. I would like to comment on numbers 2 and 9 that impressed me a lot! ”Spending does not equal happiness!” and I totally agree that! If we think better we will realize that things that make us happy are not…things! Friendship, love, compassion, kindness, positivity,respect, admiration, some good company, a walk by the sea at a sunny day! Simple things that are given to us for free are those that make us happy! When you buy something material, at the same times you ”buy” all the worries that are related to this material thing! Number 9 talks about sugar and fat and the wrong opinion we have about those two! Me too, I thought that eating fat could make you fat, but on the other side I thought the same about sugar too! When we are completely sure about knowing something, it is the time we realise we did know nothing at all!

  8. “Is it possible that in the modern world we mistakenly confuse frugality and saving for meanness because it somehow reminds us of the tribe member that holds on to their surplus meat for themself?” I’d have to agree that savers are almost akin to hoarders who have no life.

    It’s also funny/bizarre that buying toys and “not sharing” them is not only accepted but expected (we get funny looks when we lend our car to house guests) but not sharing wealth or spending lavishly is seen as selfish or self-absorbed. It seems almost backwards. No wonder talking about personal finance with friends and family is still taboo.

  9. I agree with #5 – Stocks don’t scare me anymore than any other investment. It is all about balancing your risk using your asset allocation. Whether you are 20 or 60, if you use the proper allocation you shouldn’t need to be scared if the market dips. If the market goes down and it scares you, your allocation doesn’t reflect your true risk tolerance yet. Great post!

  10. Really like this list. The wife and I just watched Empire Strikes Back a couple of days ago and it’s just as good as it ever was. It’s funny how often we assume things are true without really challenging them. Everyone says it, it must be true. This is a nice reminder to think things through for yourself. Cheers!

    1. PhysicianOnFIRE · · Reply

      I just watched The Empire Strikes Back along with Episodes 5 & 7 with our boys a few weeks ago. Fun to see my kids enjoy the same movies I enjoyed 30-some years ago.

  11. moneycounselor · · Reply

    Seems most of what we think we know today is derived from non-authoritative, often self-serving, sources and therefore is dubious and useless. “Facts” are created by the marketing people, and a greater and greater proportion of messaging–approaching 100%–is a form of marketing. As you suggest, tuning out is recommended.

  12. Frank Murphy · · Reply

    Appreciated # 6. So much marketing focused on convincing us to buy items for our ease and convenience. Learning, striving, collaborating together and overcoming challenges leads to happiness, not seeking and finding ease and convenience. Mr Money Mustache stated it well in a post I read earlier this week. “…but the fundamental recipe for human happiness: you must remain challenged and keep learning throughout your lifetime. People who miss this recipe end up chasing ever more desperately after passive entertainments and pleasures. But they never find the happiness, because it was in the other direction.”

  13. PhysicianOnFIRE · · Reply

    #s 1,2, and 7 go together nicely for me. I used to be an early adopter when it came to electronics and gadgets. I had one of the first digital cameras, one of the first flat screen monitors, and spent several hundred dollars on a DVD player / 7″ screen I could place on a shelf. This was before I had a decent income, of course.

    All of that stuff was neat for about a year or two, until something much better came along at 1/3 the price.

    10 years later, I have an abundance of spending money, but I usually buy technology that’s a couple years old. At 1/3 it’s original price. And that makes me happy!

  14. Enjoyed the post, I have to put a plug in for #9, our society needs to be a lot more proactive in the food we consume and being more active, even if it’s walking more. The extent of processed foods that are now prolific has to be addressed to better address the cost of health and chronic disease.

  15. […] Yoda to Consumers: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned [The Escape Artist]: I love this one; particularly the fifth point. […]

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