What does “Doing the Work” mean? (Part 2)


“Doing The Work” is a phrase that I only heard for the first time a couple of years ago on (American) self development podcasts.

At first, I wasn’t sure what it meant. They weren’t talking about coal mining, plumbing or accountancy…or other forms of paid work. No, they were talking about emotional work.

Yes, that’s an actual thing! It’s the process of understanding ourselves, our flaws and how emotions often cloud our ability to think and act rationally. The process of introspection, self awareness and changing for the better.

Reader: Hold on…isn’t this blog supposed to be about getting rich? Why is he banging on about self-development?


Doing The Work improves your ability to do 3 things:

  1. Earn more
  2. Spend less
  3. Invest the difference wisely

You earn more money by getting promoted (if you’re employed) or getting more sales (if self-employed). You won’t get promoted or more sales without Doing The Work. You won’t be put in charge of a team if you aren’t prepared to lead by example, work hard and manage your own emotions.

You spend less by realising that spending does not equal happiness. This involves understanding where our base urges to spend come from (ego, status, envy etc). Why does anyone feel the need to buy a new BMW or handbag…do they feel they’re not enough by themselves? If you can overcome those base urges, your spending will fall by a lot.

You learn to invest better by Doing The Work. This means learning to distrust your chimp brain emotions. You learn never to sell in panic. You learn to buy more stocks when they have gone down. You learn to run towards gunfire. That feels very counter-intuitive. That’s why it’s work.

What stops us Doing The Work?

Well, firstly laziness. Economy of effort is a fundamental principle of evolution. Work = effort. In an environment where food (energy) was scarce, laziness would often have been an effective survival strategy.

Secondly, the other thing that stops us from doing the work is our ego. The ego does not want us to do the work. But the ego has this cunning way of hiding this truth via the use of defences.

Recognise your defences

In What I’ve Learned In Therapy, I introduced the concept of defences. Defences are what we use to protect our emotions, our egos and our existing value system. We reject new information to avoid updating our cherished prior beliefs.

For example, when I stumbled across Mr Money Mustache back in 2013, my defences existing belief system told me that anyone on the internet telling you the secrets of how to get rich and retire by 30 MUST BE A LIAR.

I combed through the articles looking for the scam, but I couldn’t find it. To accept that it was possible to retire at 30, I had to update my previous belief system. If I hadn’t, I could have been like one of those angry commenters you see online under articles about financial independence: the new information is too much for them so they puke it up and scuttle back to their comfortingly familiar pre-existing beliefs.

We can see those defences in other people but avoid recognising them in ourselves when WE are wrong not quite as correct as we could be.

Doing The Work means having an awareness of your own defences: seeing your own excuses rationalisations. You don’t have to do this. It’s just that if you don’t do the work, life is going to be a lot harder than it needs to be.

This is on me

Whenever something goes wrong in our life, we naturally look for something or someone else to blame.

Our monkey minds usually revolve around the same sort of explanation: someone else sabotaged me out of spite. To shoulder the blame ourselves feels painful. It’s not my fault: larger forces were pitted against me.

This blame instinct is deeply ingrained in the human animal. In ancient times we blamed The Gods or evil spirits. In the modern west, such explanations have fallen from favour so we invent new names for the evil spirits: The Government, Big Corporations, the Patriarchy, The Media etc etc.

I understand the suspicion. Sometimes big organisations are out to get control us. That’s pretty much what advertising is. And yes, the system does often seem as if its set up to keep us imprisoned: that’s why I call it The Prison Camp.

But often the problem is with ourselves.

Where to start?

The first step towards being more rational is to understand our fundamental irrationality.

Our ancestors evolved over millions of years from lizards into monkeys…and then into modern humans only about 50,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in evolutionary time. My point is that we spent a LOT longer as reptiles and monkeys than we have as humans. And our brains reflect that. You can think of the brain as being composed of 3 elements:

  • The Lizard brain (instinctive, senses danger quickly, drives the freeze, fight or flight response, lashes out when threatened)
  • The Monkey brain (mammalian, emotional, likes babies, kittens and other cute things)
  • The Human brain (logical, analytical, capable of language and complex thought)

Doing the work means training up the human part of the brain and relying a little less on the monkey and the lizard.

Know yourself

Your first step towards a rational attitude to money (and to life) is to look at yourself.

If you want to become more effective, you need to see how you operate under stress. Look at your decisions….especially the ones that have ended badly, the decisions made in haste, in the heat of the moment. How does your emotional self react? What weaknesses come out in those moments? Are you a people-pleaser? Or do you try to control other people?

Then consider your strengths. Your strengths and weaknesses are just 2 sides of the same coin (or the same character trait). For example, if you are assertive other people will often perceive you as aggressive. If you are resolute, other people will often perceive you as inflexible.

Examine your emotions

Think of a time you got angry over something small. Perhaps the intensity of your emotional reaction surprised you? In other words, you got triggered.

Again…that’s normal. The question is what caused the over-reaction? Maybe someone said or did something that reminded you of an event from your past that made you feel bad?

The greatest obstacle to finding the truth is our own ego. Our minds cover up issues from the past, preferring to hastily bury the corpses under the patio rather than acknowledge them and give them a decent funeral.

Our ego also protects itself from difficult truths. This comes from the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We look for the easy way, for confirmation of our existing thought processes and validation from other people.

comforting lies

Increase the gap between stimulus and response

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains the concept of the gap between stimulus and response.

We don’t always get to choose what happens to us (the stimulus) but we can always choose our response. The stimulus could be a person, their actions, their words. It could be a random event. Maybe something angered or offended you but you can’t be sure as to the intent behind it. It could be down to luck or ill intent.

When some event or interaction seems to require a response, you train yourself to widen the gap between stimulus and response. Sleep on it and deal with it in the morning when things may look very different.

If you are dealing with a dispute at work, avoid responding hastily to angry emails. If you are considering a spending decision and buying something, use cooling off periods: the thing will still be available tomorrow. If you are considering an investment, remember that any investment product where a salesman tries to rush you is probably a scam.

Outwork the competition

All good advice is contextual. So I can’t tell you in this blogpost exactly how to get promoted at your particular workplace at this time.

But I do know from my own 20+ years working in a competitive field that the harder you work, the more likely you are to get promoted. Yes I know that should be so fucking obvious that it doesn’t need saying…but then again a lot of the stuff on this blog is just common sense that personal finance journalists are unwilling to say.

Don’t be bitter

That begs the question: what stops many people from working hard? Why are many employees coasting? [I realise there are also millions of people working hard, doing low paid work…it’s a big world and both statements are true]

One answer is that we have all experienced failure at some point in our lives. One big difference between those that thrive and those that fester is how we deal with these “failures”.

Bitter people have not dealt with their “failures” and moved on. They are still sulking like little toddlers. You can think about bitterness as failure denied (rather than processed and learnt from).

Seth Godin describes this as the “sour mindset”:

the sour mindset is the mindset of we are not getting what we deserve. The mindset of the world is not fair. The mindset of why should I even bother? It’s probably not going to work.

One thing those of us who are lucky enough to live in a world where we have enough and we have a roof and we have food, is we find ourselves caught in this cycle of keeping track of the wrong things. Keeping track of how many times we’ve been rejected. Keeping track of how many times it didn’t work. Keeping track of all the times someone has broken our heart or double-crossed us or let us down. Of course we can keep track of those things, but why?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep track of the other stuff? To keep track of all the times it worked?

If a narrative isn’t working, well then really, why are you using it?

Doing The Work does not mean you will end up a saint. But it does mean being a little more realistic about your own flaws. It means ending up a better person than you started.

I know that some people will see this self-development stuff as a bit airy-fairy and not directly relevant to money. But I ask you to consider the following. Why did Warren Buffett’s mentor Ben Graham say this?

“The investor’s chief problem – and even his worst enemy – is likely to be himself.”

Further reading:

What does “Doing The Work” mean (Part 1)

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

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  1. I’m running late for work now – it’s all your fault for writing such an interesting post. I couldn’t tear myself away when I realised what the time was.

    The human mind is an interesting thing, isn’t it? I work with teenagers and it’s fascinating seeing them mature as they get older. Things they’d say and do at 13 is often quite different when they’re 18.

  2. I will read this at work tomorrow where I coast. 🙂

  3. Really good stuff – I think a big part of why people (myself included) coast is to protect ourselves from possible failure. ‘If I didn’t really try’, the logic goes, ‘then the failure is ok. After all, if I give it my best and fail, then I’ve truly failed’.

    Robert Greene’s syntheses are always worth a read, good to see him referenced.

  4. cascadelaranja · · Reply

    I agree with the suggestion that getting to know your strengths (and weaknesses) is fundamental to getting your shit together. I like to use the VIA character strengths questionnaire at http://www.authentichappiness.com. You have to register but it’s free. It takes about 30 minutes and is a standardized trait measuring instrument. You get a list of 24 strengths in descending order. I’ve done it 5 times now and ‘Humility and Modesty’ remains nailed to the bottom of the table…

  5. Herr IGMR · · Reply

    Good stuff! Thanks!

  6. Really great article, thank you for that. Many of these concepts are the ones I discuss/learn about in therapy, and knowing they exist allow us to better manage ourselves by using more our human brain 🙂

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