Last Thursday evening, a very strange thing happened.
A whole bunch of strangers talked to each other!….in London! I know!
It was the first Financial Independence meet up that I had attended…at The Old Bank of England pub, Fleet St.
In the USA, they have conferences like Fincon and MMM meet-ups. But in the UK, we’re a long way behind the US in terms of a real (not just an online) FI community. And meeting people face to face is to real community what oxygen is to breathing.
Its matters (a lot) who you surround yourself with in life. There’s an old saying that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend most time with. So choose wisely.
I was curious about the people that would turn up for a FI meet up organised under an informal cell structure (a bit like Al Quaeda). Would anyone show up? What would the people be like? Would anyone buy a drink? Or would everyone sit and nurse a glass of warm tap water all night whilst swapping tips on how to knit your own socks?
But, as it turned out, there was a great turnout and everyone I met was lovely.
Beers were purchased (at London prices!), people met, had fun, swapped stories, banter and jokes. No one sat in the corner angrily muttering over their spreadsheets. No one got into a fight in the pub car park over whether Vanguard ETFs were better than Lifestrategy funds or the correct level of the safe withdrawal rate.
Being London, there was a great range of people there. There were people working in the private sector and people in the public sector. There were people in their early 20s (one explained to The Escape Artist that you could save money by not buying Starbucks lattes every day…who knew?!) and people in their…well, let’s just say no longer in their 20s. There were cosmopolitan world citizens from other countries including the USA, South Africa and Europe…as well as provincial types from rural East Anglia (to be honest, that was just me).
I also had the pleasure of meeting my fellow blogger The FIREstarter…it turns out that, like The Escape Artist, he exists in real life and is not making shit up on his blog!
Just by showing up, everyone had shown faith in the basic decency of humanity. Everyone there had got over the fear that humans often have about other people…and particularly strangers. Crime and violence have been falling for centuries to the point where, these days, western society is incredibly safe. We can go and meet people we’ve not met before in a public place and be pretty confident we’ll not be hacked to death.
Its easy for us humans to get paranoid and scared of other people. We’re not very well equipped to analyse risk objectively in the modern world. This, plus the constant stream of misinformation served up by the news media may explain some of the absurdities of life that we see around us.
Things like parents driving armored SUVs as if their children were at risk of assassination. Scared old people retreating into gated private estates. People spending a fortune on home alarm systems, panic rooms, CCTV, pointless insurance etc.
As ever, there is a good evolutionary explanation of why we are terrified of strangers. Our current living conditions are a million miles from the African Savannah where we evolved as hunter gatherers, competing with other tribes and other species for food and living space.
For most of history, the arrival of strangers on your territory was bad news. In East Anglia in the Dark Ages (pre 1979), when Scandinavian visitors turned up in Longships, it was best not to offer them coffee and pastries but rather lock up your daughters and get the crossbow down from the attic.
As Matt Ridley explains so well in The Rational Optimist, the progress of the human race took off as we gradually figured out over time that it’s generally easier (and safer) to get rich by co-operating and trading ideas, goods (beads, surplus food, wine etc) and services than by waging genocidal wars of conquest and annihilation.
As someone smart once said, man is never so harmlessly occupied as when he (or she) is making money. The problem with communism, corporatism and statism etc is that when people stop focusing on co-operation, trade and building wealth, they start focusing on power, regulation and status hierarchies. This applies as much within big companies as it does within The Ministry of Tractors in Communist Albania.
The benefits of human scale, entrepreneurial capitalism are greater today than ever. The last 40 years have seen a wave of start ups with its epicentre in Silicon Valley but with secondary clusters around the world in places like Bangalore, Berlin, Beijing, Colorado and London. Over time those start ups get bought or listed on stock exchanges and we get to share in the value created as shareholders and customers. This big picture is what matters for sensible long term investing, not the shit on the news.
Small scale capitalism fosters courtesy, personal relationships and mutual gain. This is why you don’t hear about your local newsagent punching their customers in the face or injecting cyanide into the chocolate bars. Apart from the fact that most newsagents are lovely people, its bad for business.
Other people are a rich source of connection, information, love, support, ideas, products, services etc etc. One way or another, all your income comes from other people. It comes from bosses, customers, clients, colleagues, employees, contacts and friends. The better you can deal with other people, the better your chances of increasing your income.
For me, escaping The Prison Camp is not about turning your back on other people and living in isolation. The Escape Artist believes in the concept of leaving the drawbridge down. So, after you’ve built your financial “castle”, rather than isolate yourself and raising the drawbridge against imaginary threats, why not invite others to the party? Why not share what you’ve learned along the way to help other people?
The Prison Camp has ways of isolating the inmates…if the inmates have too much time to think and to mix freely and share ideas with other people, they may co-operate, innovate and encourage each other to do things like dig a tunnel out.
I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons that large corporations spend so much time, effort and money on retreats, away-days and strategy offsites is that during those times the inmates are fully occupied and unable to think dangerous thoughts like what do they want from life? And are they likely to find it in the minibar at the Ramada Inn at Heathrow Airport?
I think that men struggle more than women with connection and maintaining good social networks outside work. Men like Tim often seem to have given up on life outside the narrow confines of a 9 – 5 (or 8-8) job and the nuclear family.
I also think that frugality can go hand in hand with building social capital. Frugal solutions often need a bit more thought, co-operation and social connection than expensive convenience….but require a lot less money.
As an example, one summer day I was in my back garden and could see my neighbour trying to cut his lawn with a mini-strimmer thingy. It wasn’t the right tool for the job and he was clearly struggling, so The Escape Artist decided to stage an intervention.
I called over the fence and offered him the use of my lawnmower. Which he accepted with thanks. A few months later, I noticed he’d bought his own new lawnmower. Which made me think about the inherent inefficiency of everyone in our street having their own lawnmower sat unused 99% of the time.
Why couldn’t we have just a couple of lawnmowers for the entire road either shared on a communal basis or rented out by someone as a side hustle? Either of these solutions would allow the whole street of say 100 houses to be serviced by 2 or 3 lawnmowers instead of 100. That would be a more efficient solution…if this were replicated across Suburbia, that’s a load of lawnmowers that never need to be paid for and ultimately sent to landfill.
Obviously there is an information / co-ordination challenge in the shared lawnmower idea. Before that could work, some one would need to invent some sort of network linking everyone’s computers. Hold on…I’ve just googled this and it turns out it already exists!
Perhaps part of the problem is the idea promoted by advertising that everyone has to own everything themselves. But maybe another part of the problem lies within the fear we have of other people?
Let me wrap up with a story that happened on the train home after the FI meet up.
At London Waterloo, I sat down on a double-seat, subconsciously hoping no one would sit next to me. I then saw my worst case scenario play out as a drunk bloke in a suit with a smelly MacDonalds takeaway hoved into view and wobbled towards me. He sat down.
I decided to break public transport etiquette and call out the comedy of the situation by observing (aloud) that it looked like I’d drawn the short straw and got the drunk, smelly guy next to me. Its amazing what you can get away with if you smile 😉
We got chatting and MacDonalds Man turned out to be a good guy, father to 2 young children, and high-powered IT consultant. He was also a near neighbour, having recently bought a family home near me, no doubt with a whopping mortgage. He’d had a tough day and, from what he told me about his schedule, it sounded like everyday was a tough day.
I felt his pain. He then asked what I did for a living. At first I ducked the question but he asked again later and seemed genuinely interested.
So I decided to show him The Matrix. I introduced him to the rabbit hole that is Financial Independence, sending him off with instructions to read www.mrmoneymustache.com. I’d like to think that maybe in 10 years time, he’ll look back as that moment as being when he got started on The Path.
Image credit: The Old Bank of England