Consumerism, materialism, and excess.
All signs of our time.
But not because companies are evil and forcing anyone to buy more than they need.
Instead, it’s just the innate nature of who we are as human beings that leads to buying stuff we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know.
Indeed, it’s that last part that’s particularly important.
We want to impress people. We want our outward image to signal a certain sense of worthiness to others – be it any one from a friend to a potential romantic partner.
Our Need To Impress Others
This need to impress upon others a sense of worthiness is a powerful concept that continues to be underestimated by society at large.
Indeed, it even tripped up famed economist John Maynard Keynes.
In 1930, via his essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”, Keynes predicted that the work week could eventually be significantly cut down, perhaps to only 15 hours per week. Abundance would follow, and we’d enter into an age of chosen leisure.
He believed that technology would lead to major improvements in productivity over the coming decades, which would allow people to afford basic necessities on far fewer hours of work.
Well, his prediction on productivity came true: this graph from FRED on real output per hour of labor since 1947 says it all.
And with the continued rise of automation across practically every area of the economy, productivity will surely continue to improve.
Yet workers are most certainly not working 15 hours per week. Not even close.
Hours worked in a week per worker in the US are currently roughly the same as they were in 1950, even with the significant improvement in productivity. Ironically, the United States is one of the richest societies to ever exist, yet the average US worker works more hours per year than just about every other developed country’s worker.
There’s abundance. No doubt about it. Yet people continue to work long and hard for more.
More Money Leads To More Consumption
Where did Keynes go wrong?
Well, I think he made a number of miscalculations.
I’ve read some pieces out there that state that Keynes underestimated human greed. That’s part of the story.
Mahatma Gandhi may have said it best:
The world has enough for every man’s need, but not enough for every man’s greed.
I think it goes way deeper than this, however.
In my opinion, Keynes also underestimated the innate desire to signal worthiness to others.
This desire doesn’t change with productivity. It actually scales. Indefinitely. Just because you could work less, doesn’t mean you will.
In fact, an abundance of objects that one could once impress with at some point in the past, only makes them less coveted. And so more expensive, rarer, or larger products and/or services are demanded, which thus requires more work and more money to afford. More money simply means more consumption, on average.
We can see this idea play out with something as simple as the average American house.
The National Association of Home Builders says the average size of a new single-family residence in 1950 was 983 square feet. It’s now nearly 2,500 square feet – more than double.
People haven’t doubled in size. I don’t see 10-feet tall people walking around. The average US family hasn’t doubled in size.
Is it greed?
Sure. I think that’s part of it. If people can afford more, they buy more. People don’t start saving more because they get a raise at work; they start spending more. We all know this.
That comes down to the marginal propensity to consume. Give someone $100 to spend, and they’ll spend it. Give someone $120 to spend, and they’ll easily figure out a way to spend the extra 20 bucks.
But I also think this has a lot to do with our need to attract others by signaling worthiness.
I’ve been guilty of this myself.
I bought a Corvette when I was 21 years old.
It’s not like I needed to be able to travel at 150 miles per hour. The car had no additional utility at all. It didn’t make travel much different than a Toyota Corolla – both cars would get me from Point A to Point B safely and quickly, except the Corvette had less seating and space. But I bought the Corvette, in large part, because I wanted to impress women and be more attractive to them. That’s the truth of it.
Also, I’ve been exercising since I was 11 years old.
The original motivation was to defend myself from merciless bullying. But as I eventually entered and went through high school, that initial impetus gave way to vanity and trying to impress women with my physique. I wanted to signal strength and worthiness.
In a passage in Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that we buy things so that we can look good to others:
Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter — a fact that renders ‘materialism’ a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.
People don’t buy things for their materialistic value.
They instead buy things for their impressiveness value.
It goes beyond intrinsic value of a good against its price. Instead, it’s a decision based upon showing just how big and important you are to society.
Money is power. Money is strength. And there’s power and strength in showing your power and strength.
It’s Darwinism, no?
The strongest survive.
If small groups of humans evolved and stayed alive by promoting the strongest within them – such as a big and strong hunter getting the first chunk of meat from a kill, or getting first crack at the youngest women who were most fertile – then we evolved and stayed alive as individuals by going out of our way to signal to others our worthiness and strength. It’s climbing the career and social ladders in life.
So people don’t buy bigger houses because they need the extra space. That’s obvious.
They buy those bigger houses to signal to others that they’re a worthy and superior person who has power and strength. It shows society that you have enough to waste, thus making you attractive at a basic, evolutionary level.
Signaling The Right Things
However, some of us have learned to debunk this evolutionary coding.
That’s where a lot of concepts that I write about and personally use come into play.
Think minimalism, frugality, FIRE.
Is it because we have some kind of superpower?
I can say that I enjoy being unique. I look forward to thinking and acting unlike almost anyone else in society, which obviously yields far different results than what most people experience.
I didn’t become financially independent and retire abroad in my early 30s by buying a 2,500-square-foot house.
But I’d argue it’s not really some secret superpower; we actually play right into our evolutionary coding!
However – and this is the crux of it – those of us that chase after FIRE use signaling in a very different way than how most of society approaches it. This works to our advantage in a big way.
Moreover, I think almost anyone else can “retrain their brain” to do this very same thing.
We can still fulfill our innate need to signal, and we can simultaneously become far freer and happier in the process.
Instead of signaling your strength and power by showing off material objects that convey an ability to waste, signal your strength, power, attractiveness, and worthiness through financial independence.
FIRE should translate to more available time for those people in your life, greater intelligence, improved physical condition, less stress, and an overall happier life. It’s about the quality of your life, not the stuff in your life.
I couldn’t imagine wanting to own anything more than owning my own time. There’s no luxury that could be as appealing to me as the ability to set my own schedule.
And when you’re able to take advantage of the great gift that is total freedom, you’ll feel compelled to improve yourself across the board.
Likewise, that “new and better you” and the life that results from that will no doubt be impressive to others, signaling a great sense of worthiness.
Be praiseworthy instead of seeking praise. Be someone who actually has a great amount of worthiness, instead of being someone who can buy things that convey that.
Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe
You have to ask yourself a very important question.
What kind of people do I want to spend time with?
If you’re signaling worthiness to others through material excess, you’re attracting the very people who would be attracted to that.
If those are the kind of people you want in your life, go for it. But signals mean something. The signals you’re sending out will appeal to the people who are looking for those signals.
I certainly used that aforementioned Corvette to meet women when I was 21. It worked. And I was very happy about that.
Looking back on it, though, I was meeting the wrong kind of women. I was meeting women who judge a guy’s value by the car he drives, which is obviously not the kind of person I’d want to spend time with.
Hindsight is 20/20. And youth is wasted on the young. But I’ve grown.
Conversely, when I first started dating my current girlfriend Oh back in 2017, she was impressed with the breadth of my life.
I’ve never lavished her with gifts, nor have I ever spent a ton of money on our relationship. I have almost no material possessions with which to impress her.
Instead, I present myself as a well-spoken, thoughtful, intelligent, cheerful, respectful, responsible, honest, kind person who has figured out a way to live without a job.
When we’re together, we spend plenty of time with one another laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
I’m not perfect, and neither is she. But we find value in each other based on our merits as individuals.
I largely signal my worthiness to her by way of my financial freedom and the opportunities it’s given me to improve myself across the board.
I was an irresponsible child when I started my journey toward FIRE. I’m now a grown-ass man who’s responsible with resources.
To her, this is all quite impressive.
And I think that would be impressive to anyone. I can say it’s always impressive to me if/when I meet someone who has their life pretty well squared away. I start to see that person as a winner who I’d like to spend time with.
Meanwhile, however, I don’t see anything impressive about an overworked, overstressed individual who signals worthiness by their ability to spend a lot of money on material objects (like a house, car, etc.). I only see someone who’s chained to a job and a hill of bills.
Our DNA and evolution means we have an innate need to signal worthiness to others. It’s part of who we are.
I’m not saying we need to eliminate that.
Instead, I think we can use that innate need to our advantage. We can see it as an opportunity to seek out FIRE.
FIRE is, in and of itself, the ultimate thing to “show off” and impress people with, for you’ll no doubt become a far more impressive person through the journey to, and through, FIRE.
Tony Robbins said it best:
The purpose of a goal is not to get it. The purpose of a goal is who you become in pursuit of it.
So pursue FIRE and become a better person.
What do you think? Do you believe FIRE is the ultimate thing to “show off”? Is this the best way to signal worthiness?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: Vitaly Taranov on Unsplash.
P.S. If you’d like to impress people with FIRE, check out some awesome tools and services I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!