This post was first published in 2016 and updated in January 2021
Do you remember those health & safety briefings on aeroplanes just before take off?
The ones where they told you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping the people around you?
I was reminded of this reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.
Adams suggests that, if we start by getting our own act together we end up being able to give more help to others.
When you start the journey to financial independence, you take a decision to put yourself and your immediate family first. That means before the interests of advertisers, companies, salespeople, bosses, colleagues, neighbours etc. Here’s what Scott Adams says about this:
During your journey to success you will find yourself continually trying to balance your own needs with the needs of others.
You will always wonder if you are being too selfish or not selfish enough…When it comes to the topic of generosity, there are three kinds of people in the world:
3. Burden on others
That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone.
Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.Scott Adams
Adams exaggerates for effect perhaps but is surely right that being a financial burden on other people is not what we want. Bad things happen but if we are debt-free and have an emergency fund in place, our chances of coping with the inevitable bumps in the road are much better.
He also has a point that even intelligent people sometimes do stupid things (I speak from personal experience) especially when we’re run down or under pressure. Real life is not like the Catholic Church: there are no sainthoods awarded for martyrdom.
The Prison Camp has a way of wearing us down. It’s easy to go through life on autopilot following the path laid out for us by companies, employers and advertisers. If we’re not careful, we end up watching their adverts, buying their crap and stuck doing their jobs.
We all want to belong but which tribe should we choose? Companies are not your friends. The Media are not your friends. Why would you give unconditional loyalty to an employer that one day will probably make you redundant? Or to a brand or a TV channel or a political party? They never love you back.
Choosing to pursue financial independence means choosing yourself and your own tribe. It means listening to your inner voice and trying to figure out your purpose: what should you do with your life?
Adams joins the dots between small changes to lifestyle (e.g. diet, exercise, control over your schedule) and big improvements in your happiness. It’s not necessary to be rich or even 100% financially independent to be happy. But you do need some control over your schedule:
Normally when you feel unhappy, you blame your mood on whatever your environment is serving up to you.
It’s easy to blame your environment because you can interpret everything as bad news or potentially bad news. Just add pessimism or cynicism to any observation and you can manufacture bad news out of thin air.
I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet and exercise.
No one wants to believe that the formula for happiness is as simple as daydreaming, controlling your schedule, napping, eating right, and being active every day. You’d feel like an idiot for suffering so many unhappy days while not knowing the cure was so accessible.Scott Adams
Sadly, you don’t make big money from telling people to get more sleep and go for a walk. Which is a shame because exercise…and, in particular, exercising outdoors in nature (e.g. walking, cycling, swimming, rock climbing, running) is a more effective health intervention than any anti-depressant drug.
Adams’ theory is that if we take care of our own financial security, we’ll be more likely to help other people. Here’s Adams again:
One of the more interesting surprises for me when I started making more money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided.
Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own.
Apparently humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country and the world, roughly in that order.Scott Adams
This resonates with my own experience and is also consistent with Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Maslow suggested that basic needs must be met before we focus on higher needs. This makes sense. When we’re cold and hungry, we focus on shelter and food – not so much on writing novels (or volunteering to help other people).
It’s also consistent with what we see from Bill Gates who has, via The Gates Foundation, probably done more to fight world poverty than any politician, bureaucrat or social justice warrior. Gates was able to do that because:
- He focussed on himself and his business for the first half of his life
- He created a huge amount of value for the rest of the world and got rich in the process
- He realised it would be pointless to try to spend all his money on himself
It’s not just Bill Gates. Other billionaire benefactors like Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk and Richard Branson seem to have a strange compulsion to help the world once they’ve bought their own islands and then asked themselves: now what?
For those people that want to be generous on a larger scale, there’s a bit of a paradox here: its sometimes the people that are selfish in the first half of their life that are able to be the most generous over their whole lifespan.
Trying to change the world without any money is a fools errand. You know who really influences the world we live in? People with money. Make money first, change the world later.Someone smart
The good news is that you don’t have to be super rich to help others. These principles also work on a smaller scale. If you are healthy and optimistic, you’re more capable of helping the people around you: your family, friends and local community. And maybe the wider world via the internet? This blog is my contribution.
On this blog I share with other people what worked for me. I’m not trying to tell anyone else what they must do. So please take the message of this blog in the spirit that I’m trying to help people learn and get better with money. It’s up to you what you do with that information.
I’m not here to host political debates. We had enough politics from 2016 to 2020 to last a lifetime. We live in a world where activists and journalists cram their pet beliefs down our throats. Social justice warriors and other political activists may start out telling themselves they’re helping people but they usually end up trying to boss the rest of us around.
So I’m not a fan of student activists demanding that the world change to suit their agenda. It’s even worse when those people have not demonstrated any track record of success in their own life. Talk is cheap. If you want to boss other people around (I don’t, that’s why I quit my job managing a team in a large firm) then you should do the work to improve yourself and earn that privilege.
It’s better to focus on what we can control: ourselves and our own actions. We can’t control other people. We can’t control most stuff on The News.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard enough to control ourselves (as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or quit drinking will know). We should put our own house in order first. Once we’ve achieved that, we’re better able to help other people.
Apply own oxygen mask before helping others.
Get extra content (and first sight of new articles) by joining my email list: