Almost a musing: 2/21/2022
The Monk, Cleopatra, Desires, Comfy Shoes
The monk’s riches
There is a wandering monk making his way through the forest who comes across a farmer.
The farmer tells the monk that he had a vision the night before that he would run into a monk carrying the biggest diamond in the world and that the monk would give it to him.
The monk proceeds to pull a massive diamond out of his bag and hand it to the farmer. With a gentle smile, the monk says, “Yes this one. I found it in the forest a few days ago. You’re welcome to have it.”
The farmer cannot believe his luck. He rushes home with his newfound riches, while the monk goes to meditate underneath a nearby tree.
Several hours later the farmer returns to the forest and finds the monk sitting under the very same tree, deep in meditation.
The farmer taps the monk on the shoulder and says, “Can you do me a favor?”
“What is it?” asks the monk.
Holding the diamond in his hand, the man says, “Can you give me the riches that make it possible for you to give this thing away so easily?”
Somewhere in Hawaii
Cleopatra lived closer in history to cellphones than to the Great Pyramids of Egypt. She was born around 69 B.C, the Great Pyramids were completed around 2560 B.C., and cell phones debuted in 1983 A.D.
This day in history
57 years ago today, on February 21st 1965, Malcom X was assassinated, at age 39, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.
“It is not the person who has too little, but the person who craves more, who is poor.” // Seneca
Something to ponder
“Social comparison is a game that can only be won by not playing.” // Morgan Housel
The story of the monk’s riches is one of my favorites. It gets at a truth that is overlooked in direct proportion to its importance. I’m starting to discover that many things in the world are this way. That is to say, the more important an idea is, the more often it tends to be overlooked. I would argue that is usually because these unbelievably important ideas are usually also so unbelievably simple that we mistake their lack of complexity for lack of utility.
“There is no way the cure to our collective ills could be so simple,” we assure ourselves, as we run around foolhardy looking for the “real answers.”
A few weeks back, I came across a thought experiment that pairs well with the story of the monk’s riches. It gets at the same truth.
The highest form of wealth—happiness (the genuine and sustainable kind)—always comes from within.
The thought experiment goes like this.
You wake up tomorrow and find that you are the only person on earth. Any car, watch, pair of shoes, jacket, NFT, and mansion you could have ever wanted is there for the taking. What would you do?
Now of course it’s impossible for you to know how this would actually play out (and hopefully you never have to find out), but for the purpose of this thought experiment, I encourage you to try your best to imagine what it might be like (hence the term “thought experiment”).
I would imagine for many of us, this is what would unfold:
We would slip on that jacket and pair of shoes we’ve had our eye on for months, latch on a diamond Rolex, drive a cherry red Ferrari to the most lavish mansion we can find, mosey inside, and proceed to download some JPEGs of rocks.
I’m sure that would all be terrifically fun, (and a much-needed distraction from the fact that we now inhabit the earth on our own). And as much as I would love to discuss the pros and cons of choosing a Ferrari vs. a Lamborghini or a mansion on the beach vs. a cabin in the mountains, that is not the interesting part of this hypothetical. The interesting part is thinking about what would happen after we had our initial fun—what our life would look like a year down the road.
Are we driving a car that looks flashy or a car that we have to fuel up less often and offers a smoother ride? Are we staring at our computer screen for hours trying to find the next hot NFT or taking a walk in the park? Are we wearing designer clothes and shoes or are we clad in more comfortable garb? Are we stationed in a palace or a more modest home that is easier to maintain?
Our answer to each individual question does not particularly matter. The purpose of the thought experiment is to highlight that many of our lifestyle decisions are made (often entirely subconsciously) in an effort to impress others. A losing strategy that costs us more than we could ever imagine (or calculate).
How many years of our lives do we spend at jobs (that we often hate) so we can buy things (that we can barely afford) to impress people (who we don’t like).
Of course, it seems silly when I put it that way. I am admittedly oversimplifying many of the nuances that exist in the world, but I think the main point holds.
I won’t claim to be the arbiter of what is and what is not a “worthy” desire. I believe that, by and large, people should think for themselves and do whatever makes them happy. I am not explicitly encouraging anyone to renounce their belongings and become an ascetic (although if that is the route you decide to go after reading this, I fully support you).
I am however encouraging everyone (including myself) to question the root of our desires. To draw a distinction between what we think makes us happy and what actually makes us happy. And then to do the bravest thing of all. Do less of the former and more of the latter, no matter what other people think.
With some deliberate thought, maybe we can discover for ourselves that there is nothing inherent in wealth (or the things it can buy us) that will ultimately make us happy.
Maybe we can discover that wealth is just the modern proxy for status and that in 50,000 B.C. (when we lived in hunter-gatherer tribes) the more status we had, the more likely we were to survive.
Maybe we can discover that the majority of our brain still thinks we are in 50,000 B.C. fighting for survival and that (despite our deepest instincts) spending the entirety of our most recent paycheck on a Ferragamo belt is not the most effective way to ensure the longevity of our genes.
The first step is to recognize that we are hardwired to optimize for survival in a world that no longer exists. We default to buying things that signal our status rather than our true preferences and desires. I can’t think of a less optimal (or less interesting) way to exist.
Here’s to doing things that make us happy, not things that we hope will make other people think we’re cool.
Here’s to being honest with ourselves.
Here’s to wearing comfy shoes.
Until next week,
 Like a French Sauvignon Blanc and Mild White Fish.
 So long as it isn’t net negative to you or society—but that’s another conversation for another day.
 Although if what you desire truly accomplishes both, more power to you.
 As a disclaimer, I am not a proponent of total disregard for what other people think of us. That being said, I think many of us tend to err on the side of caring too much, especially about the opinions of people we don’t even know / particularly like.
Thanks for reading! New here? Subscribe to be amused every Monday.