When you want to help people, you tell them the truth

I sometimes think I should teach a course on how to create a popular blog that goes viral and conquers the world.

I would offer The Escape Artist as an example of how not to do it.

That’s because The Escape Artist blog remains obscure …let’s be generous…mostly undiscovered. In terms of changing the world, after 6 years of painstaking and regular(ish) posting, I would give myself a B+ for effort and a D- for achievement.

The Escape Artist has achieved several million page views (no great shakes in internet world). This blog has made me new friends and, at an individual level in my financial coaching, I’ve helped people change their lives. But, let’s be honest, I haven’t changed the world.

The Prison Camp system remains undefeated. The Media-Advertising Complex continues to puke out a strange mixture of fearmongering, consumerism and woke propaganda. Exhibit A: Multi-billion dollar food corporation Unilever (LON: ULVR) now offers wannabe Social Justice Warriors the opportunity to dismantle white supremacy by…errr…buying their ice cream (co-incidentally making them more profits).

Rrrrrrright….

It seems pandering to people works…in the short term at least. If you want to sell product and chase popularity, you tell people what they want to hear. You flatter them, you pander to them and their fantasies. You don’t challenge groupthink or ever call bullshit. In other words, you do the opposite of what I do here on The Escape Artist.

The phrase pandering to people (verb; to pander) is such a useful concept when understanding consumerism that it really merits a closer look. Here is a dictionary definition:

pandering: to gratify or indulge an immoral or distasteful desire or taste or a person with such a desire or taste. For example: “newspapers are pandering to people’s baser instincts”

The first rule of advertising is that pandering to the consumer works better than challenging them.

You know those TV cop shows where they run a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine to break a suspect? Well, The News plays Bad Cop; making people scared / angry / fearful. The adverts are then made as soothing as possible (that’s The Good Cop). The contrast is the point: The News makes you feel bad, the adverts make you feel good (or at least promise that if you buy their stuff, you’ll then feel good).

Writing this blog, it’s been fascinating to see the reactions to different subjects. I’ve learned along the way which posts get me instant praise and which get me into trouble. The problem with The Escape Artist (well one of them) is that he is like a naughty schoolboy. When told by a bossy teacher that he’s not allowed to smoke cigarettes behind the bike shed, The Escape Artist feels an overwhelming urge to do exactly that. And I don’t even like smoking.

Nope, The Escape Artist does not do pandering and somehow feels compelled to be like the child in the fairy tale that shouts out “Hey! The Emperor Is Not Wearing Any Clothes!“.

Commercially, this is a terrible sub-optimal strategy. When you want to go big, it’s good business to tell people what they want to hear and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, biases and prejudices. To make money, find the largest possible audience that is impulsive, aspirational and status conscious…and then tell them what they want to hear.

I always used to wonder why personal finance was so bland and never challenged the reader to raise their game. The answer is that telling the truth risks scaring away the customers (or blog readers) getting less clicks, less advertising revenue and making less money.

But speaking out and telling the truth can have other risks as well losing money. When you speak out, you risk annoying people and violating an invisible status hierarchy.

Have you ever wondered why most people find public speaking such a terrifying prospect? The fear is hard-wired into us because for most of human history if you challenged the authority of the chief, that would not end well for you. You might not get killed directly…but being expelled from the tribe would have been an effective death sentence.

There’s an important point here. Money is not always the villain; sometimes the culprit is the very human desire for acceptance and validation. If you are a blogger whose prime motivation is engagement and positive feedback (rather than monetisation) it’s still tempting to pander to your audience and avoid saying anything controversial.

I’ve spent the last 6 years finding out where people get uncomfortable with the truth. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t please all of the people all of the time…and you shouldn’t even try.

For the benefit of new bloggers, here’s a quick guide to the subjects that offend people:

  1. Anything to do with personal responsibility
  2. Anything to do with relationships, sex and gender relations
  3. Anything to do with parenting
  4. Anything to do with people’s health / lifestyle choices
  5. Anything to do with people’s spending (see point 4 above)
  6. Anything to do with politics
  7. Pretty much anything really

The highest compliments I’ve got is when readers email me privately to congratulate me for at least attempting to tackle more controversial subject areas and not writing the blog in the style of a cookery or sewing blog. We’re not on Mumsnet here, people.

If you are gonna walk the path to financial freedom then at some point you need to stop caring too much what other people think. In your spending, you should stop caring about what the Joneses think about your car. If you are a blogger you need to stop caring too much about never offending anyone. If you start a small business or side-hustle, you are gonna need to stop worrying about what people think if you “fail”. As Ed Latimore puts it: Not caring what other people think is a superpower.

Most of the best books about money are written by people who’ve already become wealthy themselves. This tends to mean i) they know what they’re talking about ii) they can afford to be honest. They’re written by people who care enough to make the effort to pay it forward but not so much that they worry about telling the truth. Probably because they don’t need our money or our approval.

People want to be told that it’s easy to get rich kwik. You can get rich slowly but there is no quick and easy route to being rich. You can work insanely hard and be insanely talented but it will still take time. I suggest you allow somewhere between 10 and 20 years for this venture. Most people over-estimate what is possible in one day or one week and greatly under-estimate what is possible in one decade.

It’s the percentage of your income that you save and invest that matters. If you could only measure one metric, it would be your % savings rate. You have to earn more, spend less and invest the difference wisely. That’s why I write about all 3 areas: all are important to get to financial freedom:

If you want to help people, it helps if i) you like people and ii) you talk to them, question and challenge their blind spots. Think of the areas of life where people get help to achieve peak performance. Sports coaching or teaching would be great examples. Some athletes may just lack some self-belief. For them, a good coach would offer praise and empathy. Others may respond better to being challenged. Good coaches use the tool that’s right for the job and for the person in front of them.

This is the opposite of the approach taken by mass media which often panders to the audience. Consider the BBC’s flagship personal finance radio programme Moneybox. Or rather Moaneybox as I call it. Whenever I listen to this they’re moaning about those evil banks, insurance companies, that evil government etc etc. Whatever the situation, the consumer is always blameless. That is what pandering looks (or sounds) like.

This week I’ve been watching The Tour de France highlights on ITV4. The downside is that I’ve been exposed to TV adverts which are even worse than I’d remembered. Everything is soft focus, the men look like they’re on tranquilisers, all the women are Mums with a heart of gold, all the old people are lovable grandparents. Welcome to Fake World where consumer frogs get slowly boiled in the pan.

We all want to make money…there’s nothing wrong with that. As someone smart once said: a man is never so innocently occupied as when he is making money. To sell is human. But pandering to people leads to ever more bullshit, not a resource in scarce supply today.

I will leave you with the words of Thomas Sowell, the American economist and philosopher:

“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear”

Thomas Sowell


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29 comments

  1. Interesting as ever. Thanks.

  2. Nice one…I can relate to most of the above!

    Could I suggest an addition to your list…#8. Anything to do with Climate Change.

    1. Gwen Hamer · · Reply

      Thomas Sowell’s books are well worth reading at this current time. A great intellectual and polymath who writes with such clarity, Sowell should be given far more coverage than he gets …so thank you for mentioning him.

      1. Thanks Gwen…yes, it does beg the question…why Thomas Sowell does not get more coverage / exposure / attention from mainstream media?

  3. i’ll try my comment again: barney, you hit the nail on the head saying the best and most useful material is written largely by people who have achieved something like financial independence. i enjoy paying forward what i can without asking for anything like the reader’s vote for mayor of victim-ville or a fee or sponsorship. all i hope for is the occasional intelligent commentary. i know lots of readers like absolutes for strategy but i like to credit the reader with some intelligence and put it more like “here are some things that worked for me and here are some failures.” you decide if any of that fits your life but mine has worked out pretty well.

    1. Thanks Freddy. Yes, we gotta assume the reader has a mind of their own

  4. Interesting comment about Moneybox on Radio 4. I was wondering myself if, a) it really is more “moaney” than it used to be, or b) I’ve changed, moving further towards taking personal responsibility for my own financial position and so struggle to sympathise for some of the people who seem to make very silly life choices.

    1. Yes, I may be being a tad ungrateful here as Moneybox did invite me on their program last year to be fair

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000b0c5

      1. I’ve just had a listen. Good effort trying to get the message out. It’s a shame the other guest spent so much of her air-time sowing seeds of doubt in the listeners minds!

    2. Hard to say…personally I notice now that in the past I used to moan more, think the government and business were against me, etc. Since discovering FI I’ve begun to see things differently. Sure, there are injustices out there, but the effect of e.g. being overcharged for electricity pales in comparison to the kind of financial transformation that can be achieved if you take more responsibility for what you do with your money.

  5. Hi,

    I think that the truth makes people realise the actual circumstance. No doubt, the truth may be cruel. However, this will make people know the actual situation and take necessary action to address the issues,

    WTK

  6. Trent Townsend · · Reply

    I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your Good Cop / Bad Cop analogy? I’ve not heard it put so well before. A great read.

    1. Thank you…pay it forward

  7. Great read, very true. Well done for saying what you feel to be true instead of pandering to our base instincts (clickbait titles being the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to personal finance blogging).

  8. I definitely do not agree with some of your views but enjoy your content so look forward hopefully to reading more in future.

  9. […] TEA on why telling people the honest truth won’t make your blog popular (24) […]

  10. Thomas Sowell, so many wise words. My favourite quote: “When people are presented with the alternatives of hating themselves for their failure or hating others for their success, they seldom choose to hate themselves.”

    Remember Thatcher’s “No such thing as society” interview, widely derided at the time (1987)? I only read the full transcript recently and it’s astonishing how such a good response was completely ignored because of the soundbite. Essentially it was all about taking personal responsibility and not relying on entitlements; hardly a radical idea.

    I used to love Moneybox years ago but now find myself shouting at the radio. We have changed as a nation and I think the population takes even less personal responsibility now than ever before.

    1. Thanks. I’m not sure to what extent we’ve changed as a nation. I’m pretty sure however that mainstream / legacy TV news and news related media (especially the BBC but also ITV, Ch 4, Sky) have changed rapidly in recent years and become so woke and so sensationalist as to be almost unwatchable (for me anyway).

      I would rather watch Novara Media on Youtube than the BBC…Novara Media are at least honest about where they are coming from politically (The Left) and don’t pretend to be unbiased.

  11. Hi Barney, I would rather live in the real world with you than La la land or should I say Zombie Land with the masses being duped, pampered and drugged up by the marketing machines and the politicians. I don’t watch the news or the BBC anymore because what can I do about it anyway and most of it is rubbish, lies and fear mongering and I have and do write to my MP regularly. We elect in good faith and pay people to sort it out and hand over our taxes for them to finance the changes required (although minimal if you do your investing via your ISA’s (yes I do)). Sadly they never do what is actually required to bring about real change. Its the biggest scam and fraud going on in this country and nobody ever talks about it. People read the papers at face value and think whatever is flavour of the month or the latest research or headline must be true.

    In the end the truth is only business and the wealthy rule. Not politics or politicians, or brexit agreements or the EU or minority groups or the colour of your skin or whatever is on the politically correct agenda today. Its all just a distraction from what is really going on. You could take a handful of the worlds leaders and some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs and put a stop to all the wars, feed the world, stop pollution, plant trees and sort climate change. But sadly the truth is all these human world problems make and create money and are just new or existing business markets to be exploited. Its all just one big human game of business. Most of the politicians are mixed up in contracts, companies and lobbying and playing the business game too so have no reason or desire to change things either.

    I may sound all doom and gloom but I am not. This planet from which I come from does not need me to save it. It will cast us all off one day like the little mushrooms we are and roll on for billions more years on its own course. We think we are driving this planet like a car and we are on it for the ride. But we are the planet and we will go back to it one way or another.

    I love reading your blog and it makes me happy to know that I am not alone and that their are some people out there who think like I do (even it is only a few in the grand scale of things right now). It has always been and always will be survival of the fittest and right now for those that have the common sense to get their sh*t together and invest with the wealthy of the world.

    So Don’t Ever Stop writing because I never will stop reading and come the revolution……….I’ll cast off my monks outfit and join you on the battle field or at the stock market at the very least…….. ha ha ha.

  12. Love that final quote!

    I don’t think I’ve been offended by any post of yours, keep up the good work, this is one of the few blogs I will read.

    It would be easier to blindly follow or to not care what people think about you or your motives, sadly being afflicted by both leads to a generally miserable life, you have to say something and you feel bad for days after doing so, the life of a sheep seems so much easier but my logical skeptical brain will not allow me to consume mountains of bs and never has.

    1. Just wanted to write from Australia. You have certainly helped me down here crystallise thoughts and intentions. I far prefer fewer, more thoughtful posts and please do continue ! And for the reader comment on joining you on the battlefield – suggest looking up The Epsilon theory. It is a bit like that uncomfortable truth you keep trying to avoid but somehow keeps popping up in your thoughts.

  13. Andrew Micklem · · Reply

    Maybe your blog hasn’t changed the world (yet) but it certainly changed ours. Yours, along with a handful of others, helped us along our way to FIRE, constantly reinforcing our knowledge and observing and reporting the world in such a clear and honest way to help us along.
    Thanks!
    Andrew & Toni

    1. Thank you for all the kind words!

  14. […] The Escape Artist reminded us that when you want to help someone, you tell them the truth […]

  15. I’m a fan of your writing and have recommended your blog to others. I agree with most of your observations in this post but I also think you could have a lot more impact without changing your message.

    Jordan Peterson offers a lot of uncomfortable views. Loads of people find him inspirational.

    1. Thanks…all (constructive) suggestions for having more impact are welcome!

  16. Sure. I need to preface my suggestions with a disclaimer: I’m rubbish at marketing and making an impact – I’ve published 3 books which haven’t sold particularly well, and no one ever looks at my website.

    I also want to say (again) that I’ve found your stuff very helpful – life changing, in fact, and I like what you write and the way you write it. But, if you want to have an impact on a larger audience I think you need to…..

    1. accept that the majority of people surfing the net have the attention span of a gnat,are drawn to Shiny Things, and want to feel good. You’ve highlighted this in your writing, but I don’t think you’ve really accepted its implications for your work. Your blog isn’t Shiny – it looks really dated – and your pieces are too long. Even the name ‘The Escape Artist’ is opaque. Take a look at https://www.thebodycoach.com/blog/. You could be TheMoneyCoach (yes I know someone’s nabbed the domain name already). Most people want bite-sized practical tips and inspirational stuff. Your pieces are like long broadsheet opinion pieces. Which I thoroughly approve of (but rarely read all the way through)

    2. Become young, attractive (and preferably female) Alternatively, if you’re going to do more video and/or media work then you could develop more of a persona that you can wheel out when you need to – be more ranty, have a more distinctive appearance (there’s room for another FIRE person with a big moustache), have a dog appear with you in every video….

    3. Clarify (sorry if I’m speaking out of turn here) who you are aiming your advice at (ie, the consumerist masses or the financial and personal freedom brigade). If you want more of the latter, are you prominent in the online circles those people move in?

    So, to summarise: dumb down and sell your soul to the devil. Or, to put it another way: accept that human primates are the way they are, and meet them where they are at, rather than where you think they should be.

  17. Sure. I need to preface my suggestions with a disclaimer: I’m rubbish at marketing and making an impact – I’ve published 3 books which haven’t sold particularly well, and no one ever looks at my website.

    I also want to say (again) that I’ve found your stuff very helpful – life changing, in fact, and I like what you write and the way you write it. But, if you want to have an impact on a larger audience I think you need to…..

    1. accept that the majority of people surfing the net have the attention span of a gnat,are drawn to Shiny Things, and want to feel good. You’ve highlighted this in your writing, but I don’t think you’ve really accepted its implications for your work. Your blog isn’t Shiny – it looks really dated – and your pieces are too long. Even the name ‘The Escape Artist’ is opaque. Take a look at https://www.thebodycoach.com/blog/. You could be TheMoneyCoach (yes I know someone’s nabbed the domain name already). Most people want bite-sized practical tips and inspirational stuff. Your pieces are like long broadsheet opinion pieces. Which I thoroughly approve of (but rarely read all the way through)

    2. Become young, attractive (and preferably female) Alternatively, if you’re going to do more video and/or media work then you could develop more of a persona that you can wheel out when you need to – be more ranty, have a more distinctive appearance (there’s room for another FIRE person with a big moustache), have a dog appear with you in every video….

    3. Clarify (sorry if I’m speaking out of turn here) who you are aiming your advice at (ie, the consumerist masses or the financial and personal freedom brigade). If you want more of the latter, are you prominent in the online circles those people move in?

    So, to summarise: dumb down and sell your soul to the devil. Or, to put it another way: accept that human primates are the way they are, and meet them where they are at, rather than where you think they should be.

  18. FI-FireFighter · · Reply

    I value your thoughts and look forward to reading your posts.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
    Great quote, I think I will use that in the future – as someone who has a tendency to say it at is, even if it’s a difficult conversation, sometimes you have to hold the mirror up to people to truly help them. Unfortunately it’s often not well received.

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