Imagine we have a time machine like in Back to the Future.
Let’s get in the DeLorean and go back 300 years to visit The Escape Artist’s ancestors. It’s a short journey…only a few lifetimes ago, an evolutionary blink of an eye.
Boom! We’re in 1716. I warn you that, what with this being Eighteenth Century England, it’s not a pretty sight.
This is not some aristocratic scene out of Pride & Prejudice with posh frocks, decolletage and country dancing. There is no Downton Abbey style house, no butlers and no chandeliers.
No, the family lives in a small uninsulated timber framed hovel. It’s winter in England, its raining and the family are huddled round the fire. It’s not been a great day. They’ve just buried another of the children that has died of smallpox. With no hospitals and no antibiotics, the family live in fear of sickness, injury and infection.
Supper tonight will be turnip soup. It was turnip soup yesterday. The plans for tomorrow include back breaking manual labour followed by turnip soup. Which is pretty much how every day pans out.
The house is dark and smoky from the fire. The smoke is a bit of a blessing for us as it helps masks the smell: there is no bath, no shower, no deodorants, no washing powder. Its dark and they can’t afford candles so you cant see the lice in the straw filled mattresses or filthy clothes.
If you think that inside the house is bad, outside is no better. Society is far more violent and the murder rate much higher than today’s. People accused of being witches are still being executed. It will be another 19 years before the 1735 Witchcraft Act is passed, outlawing this in Britain. I’m not joking.
Remember this the next time someone tells you things are going downhill and were better in the good old days etc etc. Life back then was often nasty, brutish and short and the sooner we get back into the DoLorean and the present, the better.
I try to bear this in mind when I’m a bit cold, hungry or tired. Because perspective is golden for your happiness as well as for your stash. Perspective reveals that for most of us, life today is staggeringly wealthy and ridiculously easy, stuffed more full of abundance than our ancestors could have imagined.
The secret to cutting your spending and getting out of debt is not just determination, discipline or denial. These things all run on willpower and, like a cheap battery, willpower runs out quickly and is then useless until recharged.
A more powerful tool is perspective. Perspective, once embedded in your operating system and your habits, can last forever and inform all your future spending decisions. Over time, this can save you a fortune via The Aggregation of Marginal Gains.
Think about the thousands of new consumer goods introduced over the last 25 years. How many do you really need? Are there any that you’d trade running water installed in your house for? Or access to antibiotics? Probably not.
Once you have perspective, you realise that the itsy bitsy, teeny weeny differences between most consumer goods are trivial. So we can choose how much we pay for most things and save the difference.
We’ve already established here that an Audi and a Skoda are essentially the same car. The biggest differences between them are the badge and the price tag. But even if they were made by different companies in different parts of the world to different designs…so what? What about the difference between a Skoda and a Lamborghini?
Don’t get me wrong, I like Lamborghinis as much as the next man. Its just that I know that if I had one, the speed limit would still be 70mph, the traffic would still be awful and it wouldn’t help me develop 6 pack abs either. With perspective, I realise I can get stuck in traffic or drive at 100mph just as well with my Skoda.
It’s not just cars: it’s most things sold in the modern economy. The differences in prices can be huge….even when the products are pretty much the same.
As another example, perspective matters when choosing a hotel room. If you want to stay in Central London somewhere clean and safe you can pay £16 a night at a Youth Hostel or you can pay 400x that amount, £6,400 and up, for a room in a hotel. These options are located just a few minutes walk away from each other.
I can’t help but be more struck by the similarities than by the differences between these two options. Both include great locations, beds, clean linen, showers, running water, heating…all included! To me, both seem pretty cushy compared to the real alternative which is sleeping rough.
When you think about it, even being born a human in England in 1716 wasn’t so bad compared to the alternatives. In the great lottery of life, the numbers suggest you were more likely to have been born an ant.
So let’s imagine that we are ants living in a community of about 50,000 ants situated next to a footpath.
You are a worker ant, with a job and a defined role in ant society. You know your place. You are a leaf cutter and carrier. You cut up bigger pieces of leaf into smaller pieces and carry them closer to the nest. There they are cut up by other ants into even smaller pieces to be used for food or building materials.
You are a hard worker and pretty good at your job. Yes, as jobs go it’s a bit repetitive and the Boss can be a bit grumpy sometimes. But you trained as a leaf cutter, this is an ant colony and what else are you going to do?
You are surrounded by other worker ants. For the most part, you co-operate reasonably well. As well as working, you and the other ants play a number of games to pass the time. These games include gossip, banter, grumbling, flirting, feuds and fallings out.
You have enough food and water and a place in the ant nest. True, this doesn’t stop the other ants from complaining and leaving angry comments on ant blogs but, for the most part, things tick along just fine.
But unfortunately today you are having a bad day. It rained last night and the leaves are wet and harder to carry. You are also a bit frustrated with the size of your place in the ant nest and, annoyingly, some of the other ants don’t show much respect for your collection of partially chewed leaf stems. These problems have been occupying your thoughts and, lets be honest, ants don’t have unlimited brain capacity.
But suddenly you are snapped out of your bad mood. The earth starts to shake. At first you think it might be an earthquake. Then, like a Godzilla movie, you realise that a giant creature, 6 feet tall is striding towards you, each footstep making the ground move beneath you.
You sprint towards the safety of the nest. The giant’s enormous foot comes down, throwing you into shadow as it blots out the sun. You are one of the fastest runners in the ant colony but sadly you aren’t quick enough.
You are squashed and instantly killed. Bacteria then get to work recycling your molecules into stuff that the universe deems more useful.
That ant is you and it is me. We are all just ants.
What I mean is that the universe has been around for about 13 billion years, its inconceivably vast and in comparison to the universe we are inconsequentially small.
In the bigger scheme of things, we are all nothing but ants (or monkeys if you prefer) temporarily scuttling around on a tiny rock, orbiting a small star in a backwater corner of a minor galaxy. That galaxy lies in one of the less fashionable parts of a vast universe which itself is part of an unimaginably vast multiverse. Or something like that.
This is not a reason to give up, its a reminder to focus on what we can control.
I try to keep this in the back of my mind for those times that life does not proceed exactly to plan. So whenever The Escape Artist is being oppressed by the Government (translation: I have to pay some tax) or double-crossed by my arch enemy (translation: my 9 year old boy won’t clean his teeth before bed), I try to remember this.
The ant did not have perspective. The ant was unaware of the possibility of giants, financial independence or that his life would be short. As a result, the ant spent too much of their limited time focusing on the wrong things.
We humans are different to ants in this sense: we have the ability to think about very small things (e.g. molecules) and very big things (e.g. the universe), consider the future and make smarter choices. And, although its not always easy, we can use perspective to remind ourselves of what’s important.
- We take ourselves too seriously sometimes
- Lots of things that we think matter, don’t really
- We are surrounded by abundance, try to enjoy it
- Focus on what you can control
- Unlike an ant, you can practice gratitude
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