There’s something you need to know about fairness…

playingOne criticism of financial independence I sometimes see is that we FIers don’t realise how lucky we are and how privileged our upbringing has been.

This may sometimes be true…but often not in the way that the commenter meant.

For example, I never inherited any money, never went to an elite private school, never got a job because I was mates with Nathaniel “Squiffy” Rothschild.

The Escape Artist does not own a top hat or a monocle. Nor shiny black tap shoes to wear when dancing on the graves of poor people. That would be wrong.

But it IS true that I had a privileged upbringing.

I was born healthy, during peacetime in a wealthy country (if provincial Britain in the 1970s counts). I lived in the countryside and was allowed to roam feral free making dams in streams, climbing haystacks and building fires in the woods.

Yes, I was lucky. I didn’t suffer from racism or sexism. I never worked down a pit or up a chimney.  I never had it as tough as Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen.

But my biggest privilege was probably to be born to parents who worked hard, stayed together and tried their best to give me and my brother a good start in life.

The Escape Artist was not featherbedded. Independence was encouraged so my parents didn’t chauffeur me by limo to clarinet lessons etc…no, I cycled several miles on my own in the dark to boy scouts on winter evenings….stuff that these days would probably be thought of as dangerous neglect.

An important part of my parent’s approach was not sheltering us from the realities of life. Even when those realities were uncomfortable.  Even when they violated The Young Escape Artist’s highly developed sense of entitlement fairness.

For example, on special occasions when we had a bottle of Coke to share, me and my brother spent ages arguing about who had been short-changed.  Nothing seemed more unfair than your brother getting more Coke than you.

Tantrums ensued because, like everyone, I’d come into this world believing that life should be fair. And when I say fair, I obviously mean fair to me.  This went beyond Coke distribution.  There were disputes over what TV channel to watch, what toys we could play with and on and on. Appeals would be made to our Mum with a wail of “WAAAAHH!….ITS NOT FAIR!!!!”

If you have children of your own, you’ll know kids love to use the “fairness” argument to get whatever their siblings already got. Most parents probably cave in and try to balance things right away. Soon the kid learns to roll out the fairness argument at every opportunity.

But my Mum was made of sterner stuff.  The response was always the same. She would just say:

Life isn’t fair!

That was it…end of argument.

I can’t tell you how many times that mini-drama played out in my childhood years…but it was A LOT.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I got conditioned over the years to expect that the world would often be unfair.  The message got repeated until I absorbed it.  It came to form part of my Money Blueprint, the way that I saw the world.

My mother was (is) politically left-leaning.  She believed (and still believes) in feminism, fighting for social justice and trying to achieve greater fairness in society, through her job as a teacher in a state school.  But she was never naive enough to let her political views interfere with equipping children for the real world.

The truth is that the World has never been fair. Not even close. The world is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology and those laws of science don’t give a shit about our feelings nor our quaint ideas of what is and isn’t fair.

Learning to invest helped me understand this.  Thinking about the stockmarket in terms of fairness or unfairness is like thinking about The Ocean.  The Ocean is not out to drown you nor save you…it’s vast, powerful and indifferent to you.

Yes, fairness is a thing. But its a concept invented by humans and one that we’ve mostly ignored for the past 100,000 years or so.

Get some historical perspective. The Escape Artist’s peasant ancestors in East Anglia in the Middle Ages did not expect life to be fair. They expected life to be nasty, brutish and short. They knew their place. They worked for The Man (the Lord of The Manor) ploughing fields (without a tractor) up to their knees in shit.

Why am I telling you this?

It’s not because I want to rain on anyone’s barbeque. But I do want you to keep going when you come up against roadblocks on The Path to getting wealthy. And that’s why you need to hear this.

Forewarned is forearmed. One of the techniques of stoicism is thinking ahead about all the stuff that could go wrong and what you could usefully do in response.

The world is random and unfair. Bad things will happen.  If you understand this, you’ll be more resilient. You’ll be more ready for the hard times when they come (and they will).  Then better able to bounce back. These are The Inestimable Advantages of Hardening The Fuck Up.

If you believe that the world is fair, you’re cruising for a bruising.  Your expectations will get dashed on the rocks of reality (perhaps at your next pay / promotion review?).  Its the element of surprise that triggers the emotional reaction of panic, shock, anger, anguish, denial etc.

Imagine you’re driving a car.  If you believe the road conditions will always be good, then you’re gonna be shocked when you hit an ice patch and the car starts to skid.

Once the car is sliding you have a problem. What happens next depends on your response.  An experienced driver stays calm and steers into the slide to regain control. But a learner driver panics.  If you panic, you now have 2 problems. You still have the sliding car problem…but now you’ve panicked and are unable to think straight and correct the skid. Welcome to the ditch.

Yes, we should keep looking for ways to make the world fairer.  My contribution is to put the best free personal finance content that I can out into the world.  This gives people from modest backgrounds a chance to learn what the 1% have always known.

True fairness comes from equality of opportunity (not equality of outcome).  We should aim for equality of opportunity…but without any silly illusions about it being easy.  The easy wins have already been had.  These days the causes of inequality are more subtle. For example, intelligent people, tall people and good looking people earn more on average. Should we force good looking people to have cosmetic surgery to make them uglier?

Where do our misunderstandings about fairness come from? Well, maybe your parents forgot to tell you that life isn’t fair? Or maybe you’ve been influenced by the media, whose coverage of inequality of outcomes is mostly bullshit designed to trigger an emotional reaction in you. Fear, anger and envy are the sales tools of newspapers and TV news, hungry for ratings and advertising.

Life has got a zillion times fairer in the last 500 years.  But we seem to have lost perspective. One of the reasons, I find media debate on the gender pay gap so strange is that a ~9% difference in earnings between sexes (who have different priorities and make different choices) in a developed country is hardly the greatest source of unfairness in the world today.

What about the difference in life chances between a child born in the Congo versus one born in Switzerland? The difference in child mortality? The difference in income?  I’m guessing its more than 9%.  Is that fair???

Of course not. That’s because life is fundamentally unfair.

Is it fair that Jennifer Aniston won’t return my phone calls? No, of course not. Screw her, her lawyers and their stupid restraining orders.

Inside every one of us is a toddler.  The toddler thinks that life should be fair. The toddler stamps their foot and wails everytime the unfairness of the world reveals itself.  The toddler spits out their dummy and heads over to their keyboard to leave an angry comment on the internet.

offended

It takes conscious choice to cultivate gratitude for all the things go right every day. Each time you turn on the tap and clean, running hot or cold water comes into your home. Its a fucking miracle.

You are allowed to have your own views about fairness.  You might even be right.  But obsessing about fairness is a massive distraction from becoming wealthy.

And if your money blueprint has left you with any lingering guilt about wealth accumulation, you won’t succeed.  That would be a shame because everyone can get richer.  There is no fixed stock of money…wealth grows when people co-operate and trade.  If I make a spade and sell it to you for £10, we’ll both be better off (assuming you actually needed a spade and we’re both acting rationally with free choice).

Remember: no one can make the world fair. You can only control what you can control. Pretending otherwise is vanity, ego and virtue signalling (i.e. showing off).

Accepting (not celebrating) the essential unfairness of the world helped me keep my shit together through some difficult times.  It helped me get to financial independence. I want the same for you.

And if your difficult times are more difficult than mine, then you’ll need this understanding even more.  I wish you all the best.


fin-coaching-widgetFurther reading:

  1. Understanding Your Money Blueprint
  2. Financial coaching

23 comments

  1. Jimmy boy · · Reply

    Well said!! I think the luxury of our lives have become a bit of a downfall for us. Love the NO clips. Keep up the good work!!

  2. The Millionaire Educator · · Reply

    Reblogged this on The Millionaire Educator

  3. The Four Yorkshiremen; Virtue Signaling from a previous decade.

  4. Thanks…one of the best articles I have read this year!

  5. Agreed.
    Also, I think if parents nowadays tried raising children the way I was raised, neighbours might call social services. My aunt, at whose farm I spent many a summer, once told me and my cousins off after she saw us holding a hayjumping tournament – we’d climb on the barn roof to jump down on the hay stacked behind it. After that they became our *secret* hayjumping tournaments. These days parents won’t let their child get on a pony without a helmet. ROFL. Forget the helmet, sometimes we used to ride without saddles… our stomachs were our curfew, and what our parents didn’t know couldn’t hurt them 😉 But they say kids are smarter now than they were 30 years ago, so it can’t be all bad…

  6. Perfect reminder of why this is one of the few blogs I subscribe to! You have a mature outlook, and it’s probably due in large part to your mother’s retort: Life isn’t fair!

  7. Your mum sounds badass – what a great role model!

    I do subscribe to the life isn’t fair mantra, but I also believe in doing everything I can to break down barriers and call out discrimination.

  8. TEA – why the ongoing fascination with the gender pay gap? I find it strange that you would dedicate swathes of a second post to it. Fellow chap here – standing back politely until affected female colleagues negotiate a resolution with our large public sector employer.

    On that note, if women can demonstrate pay structures that are fundamentally imbalanced against them and fight their case (whether through collective action/bargaining, lawyers (or both)), why wouldn’t they? Campaign groups for some of the larger organisations of women affected represent tens of thousands of potential claimants.

    Surely doing something about it is as viable an option as saying “life’s not fair” and moving on with their lives?

    I am a big fan of your writing (and reasoning) on most other topics, but I politely disagree with the thrust of this post. Unlike the WASPII women (who seem very unlikely to gain anything for their effort as it would require new legislation), there would seem to be plenty of practical opportunities to right this historical wrong.

    1. “Why the ongoing fascination with the gender pay gap?”

      Do you realise that you’ve written more about the gender pay gap in your comment than I did in my article? Objectively, the article is more about social class…do a word count! 🙂

    2. L,

      It’s worth writing about because the gender pay gap is both a major talking point and policies are being decided and enacted based on it. These policies impact on all employees, on customers and on shareholders. So when the Gender Pay Gap is demonstrably based on a flawed ideology and statistical illiteracy or, worse, dishonest self-interest, everyone has a right to object.

      I’m female and could benefit from discriminatory promotion or leadership schemes, but why would I want to have that unfair advantage over colleagues? That’s the unfairness I couldn’t live with. Even if it did go in for that advantage, what do I do when we do more collectivist analysis along other demographic lines, and suddenly I’m the oppressive, advantage class and I need to be held back because of factors I can’t control? No thanks, I’d rather compete on my own merit.

      We absolutely had discriminatory legal barriers and structural barriers and there are some remnants of those around. We have some new ones too, in the form of special hiring programs, etc. Those Campaign Groups have shown themselves to push shallow analysis with a strong bias, pointing at differences in averages across huge groups and declaring discrimination to be the cause. They aren’t writing a neutral statistical analysis – they’re campaigning from their viewpoint. That is why people write against the wage gap – it’s wrong and it will unfairly disadvantage them.

  9. A fantastic article.
    Nothing will improve your lot better than abandoning collectivist ideas of fairness and thinking about what action you can take improve things.

  10. You fuc**ng nailed it. One of your best posts.🍻

  11. Survivor · · Reply

    Yup, good article dude. I think that the times you get a bit of grief in the commentary here or snide ones on another FI sites is because of the tall poppy syndrome – if you eschew all excuses for failure, put in the pain & fully accept responsibility for your lot in life, then it indirectly shows up others. So it’s far easier to slyly carp that you/others who’re FI are just dishonest in not revealing some leg-up that explains it all – otherwise the feckless would have to pull their finger out…..

    Ah, about Jen, sorry man, she said she’s a material girl & you wont be a walking wallet, so given that incompatibility, it’s a non-starter …….& also since you just mentioned it here, the restraining order’s extended to the end of summer; I know, I know, that’s the best part of the stalking season.

    🙂

    1. Ha-ha…thanks Survivor…the Keyboard Commandos don’t realise they’re helping me write more stuff that contravenes The Authorised Narrative…second order effects and unintended consequences… 🙂

  12. David Kennedy · · Reply

    A wonderful article. Thank you.
    Accepting that life in unfair shouldn’t stop up us trying to make it more fair though.
    Otherwise most of us would still be dying of the Black Plague…

    1. David – Thanks, & good point that it shouldn’t stop us trying to make life more fair. That was implicit but I’ve now added it into the article to make it explicit. My editorial policy is that when I’ve missed something, I always try to add it (including after publication) to make the articles as good as they can be.

      1. David Kennedy · ·

        Marvellous..!😊

  13. Fabulous article. I think its a fair assessment of today’s society that when someone has worked hard to get were they have that the “unfair” label comes out. I find the majority of FI’ers were not born with silver spoons and top hats. Each and everyone of them has been victims of the 9 – 5 until the “veil” has been removed from their eyes and they have struggles, saved and strived towards FI.

    1. Thank you LMF…p.s. I was impressed with your blogpost on The Shopfloor Mentality 🙂

  14. Great article TEA,

    Your blog has been an inspiration to me and this article was spot on, thank you for sharing

  15. Nice post TEA – Jordan Peterson says there are several factors contributing to the gender pay gap. This interview went viral, but for those of you that missed it, it’s a classic:

  16. Hk Expat · · Reply

    I’ve not seen the whole Peterson interview before. Fascinating. Way to go from the interviewer- stick to the script and continually ask simplistic questions designed to get simplistic answers supporting the desired narrative, without listening to or acknowledging the more detailed and sophisticated answers repeatedly being given, and debating them, or adjusting the questioning accordingly.
    No wonder I watch less and less TV, although I must now find his book!

    1. I would also recommend his podcast – just search Jordan B Peterson podcast

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