Following the rules vs being rational

BibleWhen I was a teenager, I had a few jobs.

I worked in a pub. I worked in a kitchen showroom. I worked in several departments of a bank.

I dipped my toe into the shallows of the working world at several different points along the shoreline, but the one thing all of these experiences had in common is that they involved having a job.

Why?

I remember the answer to this question distinctly. I wanted some money! Reflecting on the hopes and dreams of my teenage self, I probably wanted to buy some piece of musical equipment or to be able to go out drinking with my mates.

Anyway, I whined to my parents a bit and got responses along the lines of

Well you’d better go and get yourself a job then!

This message was always delivered with much apparent wisdom. My folks understood ‘how things work’ and they had faith that I would understand myself once I’d had enough opportunities to learn.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my mum and dad were using my desire for money as a teachable moment. They were introducing me (gently) to The Flowchart.

Most adults keep a copy of The Flowchart. I bet there’s a good chance you’ve got one in your bedside table underneath your glasses and that box of paracetamol. When I coach people, we usually perform a ritual burning of The Flowchart as an introductory exercise.

For those of you unacquainted with The Flowchart, here’s an excerpt*:

TheFlowchart

*The observant reader will notice that all of the decisions in the flowchart are completely meaningless which means that the ultimate answer is always to ‘get a job’.

A law of the universe?

Think about this for a minute. Consider just how deeply the assumption that jobs are a necessary part of adult life is ingrained in our culture.

Questions like

What do you want to be when you grow up?

and statements like

You need to choose an undergraduate degree which will maximise your job prospects

have that assumption built in. There is no prior consideration given to the possibility that you don’t need a job at all. It’s sort of like arguing about the nature of God without ever considering the possibility that there isn’t one.

But here’s a shocking fact: ‘Jobs’ are an entirely human construct. 

For most of human history, they didn’t exist. People were simultaneously alive and jobless for tens of thousands of years.

But then the industrial revolution very efficiently conditioned most of the population of the developed world to believe that having a job is just part of life like breathing or eating. And then those guys taught their kids about The Truth and so on until almost every descendant of an industrial revolution worker now believes wholeheartedly in the necessity of having a job.

You don’t need a job in the same way that you don’t need a Twitter account or an iPhone or a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. You might have problems to which, with the world in its current state, money is the best solution. But, and please remember this

‘I need money’ and ‘I need a job’ are NOT the same thing!

Unfortunately…

You fell for it

…and so did I, but then I saw the error of my ways.

I’d imagine that my little anecdote about my teenage Saturday/holiday jobs is familiar to many of you. Perhaps you were helped to see ‘the ways of the world’ by your family too.

But if you accepted that one tiny assumption (people need jobs and that’s just a fact of life) without questioning, then everything you’ve done since which relates to earning money was motivated by a misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

Whenever I talk to people about really small-time entrepreneurship (by which I mean things like being a fitness instructor or fixing computers), a lot of them say things like

I could never be an entrepreneur

or

I don’t know how to run a business

But they don’t realise what they’re doing. They’re implicitly saying that working independently is an aberration. That having a job is in some way ‘normal’. That to do so is follow some universal law of nature which only really special (or weird) people ever break.

This is clearly nonsense, but it’s what everybody else thinks. And we all know that it’s difficult to act against conventional wisdom!

It goes beyond jobs…

Regular income

If you’re thinking about jumping out of the ‘standard’ situation and into the scary world of freelancing or micro-business owning, I bet I know one of the things you’re scared of:

I won’t get money every month

But again, this is clearly ridiculous. Why on Earth is it sensible to think that you need to get new money on a monthly basis? You spend money every day, sometimes even 5 times in a day. You do your shopping weekly. You buy a car every 5 years.

What’s so special about monthly income? Would it be particularly difficult to budget if you got paid in cash at the end of every day? How about 3 times a year?

Well, if you’ve followed The Rules all your life, then yes it probably would because you’ve never learned any better. But rationally, if you have one year’s worth of living expenses saved up, all you need to guarantee is that more money appears in the next year and also that, averaged out over the rest of your life, you earn more than you spend.

The majority of people I talk to are completely blind to the fact they have unwittingly internalised these assumptions. They’ve not got what they want because they’re trying to solve problems which other people have told them that they have rather than problems which they actually have.

People! Stop it! Be rational!

Let’s go back to basics.

What do you need?

Here are some conditions that absolutely must be satisfied if you want to stay alive:

  • You need oxygen
  • You need to eat
  • You need water

Here are some things which, although you don’t strictly need them, having them will make life much more bearable

  • Clothes
  • A fixed shelter from the elements
  • Friendship/community

Life becomes more pleasant as we add in a few ‘nice to haves’:

  • A goal to work towards
  • Love and intimacy
  • A way to express our creativity

My lists are obviously pretty sparse but hopefully you can see that I’m drawing a picture of what it takes to build a life (from the bottom up)  which a human being will enjoy.

So…

You don’t need a job – you need to solve these problems.

It might be that having a job has been (or still is) the best solution you can find for problems like needing to eat or paying for your shelter. But, it’s not the only solution. It’s certainly not in any way the correct solution.

Perhaps now is the perfect time to have a think about some other possibilities. Let me know if you’d like me to help you.

What I want to teach my kids

My parents always had (have) my best interests at heart. I appreciate that much more now that I have my own kids.

However, if I could change one thing about the lessons I learned as a teenager, it would be the wisdom that ‘getting a job’ is the ‘correct’ answer to the money problem. I’m a fervent believer in the value of self-determination and I wish that I didn’t have to stumble into learning about other ways of feeding myself by trial and error during my 20s.

I’m really keen to make sure that my kids never unwittingly take on the ‘jobs are the way’ assumption as truth.

They’re only tiny at the moment so it would be a bit ambitious to start talking about economics and business, but I foresee many future opportunities to teach them about how to get what they want.

I don’t want them to learn about recipes like

  • Get a Saturday job when you’re 15 (because that’s what you do if you want to buy things)
  • Jump through some academic hoops (shunning all critical thinking)
  • Write a ‘killer’ CV (I’m sure somebody’s written a ’10 tips’ web page somewhere)
  • Get a job in a blue chip where they contribute 5% to your pension

I’d rather that when they come to me as teenagers and complain that the budget I’ve allocated for trainers isn’t enough to stay fashionable, I’m able to teach them skills like

  • Finding somebody with a problem and charging for a solution
  • Negotiating with me by appealing to my self-interest (because most things in life are negotiable!)
  • Pitching an alternative solution to me

In short, I’d like my kids to have the basic skills necessary to be small-time entrepreneurs by the time they’re old enough to look after themselves.

Of course, that might all be very romantic and idealistic. And obviously, they might just want to go and get jobs anyway. But I don’t want them to get stuck with the industrial revolution baggage that is still being handed down through the generations.

More importantly, I want them to learn to evaluate all of their options in life critically and rationally.

So, a bit of a short one (for a change ;-)) today. But the takeaway is this: Think critically, never follow recipes and make sure that you teach your kids to do the same!

Other resources

Here are a few links to other resources which you might find useful whilst you evaluate whether you might have inadvertently followed The Rules rather than weighing up your options rationally.

The 5 enemies of an independent life – acting in your rational self interest might involve swimming against the current

How I quit the rat race – my free 6 part course detailing how I transitioned away from life with a full-time job

The Fear (TM) – it’s difficult to act upon your logical decisions when you’re scared

If you would benefit from some one-to-one help to break The Rules, just get in touch.

If you want to keep up to date with the happenings in liberate.life land, please sign up to the email list and follow the blog on Twitter.

Your turn

I’ll keep it short: Do you have a job? Why? No…seriously, why? Best solution to the problem? Because everybody else does?

Please let me know in the comments.


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

25 thoughts on “Following the rules vs being rational

  1. I had the entrepreneurial spirit imprinted at an early age. My Dad took on a family business wholesaling footwear. While this was a business model that was slowly dying, he had a bloody good go at making it work, and succeeded for longer than he might have done. I’ll always remember his excitement when there was a heavy rainstorm forecast before a local agricultural show (that’s what passed for major entertainment round here). He suddenly decide to fill up a van and go sell wellie boots there (everyone would have daft shoes on and thus wet feet) and he would be delighted at the profits made! I was so envious when my big sister went with him one year but I was too little.
    I also remember discovering that food grown(or acquired for less than supermarket prices) ==food money that I don’t need to spend. It became a bit of an obsession, including disappearing mid-morning from my proper job to go to a local agricultural auction to buy pheasants “in the feather” for less than 50p each and being up half the night plucking and gutting them having got over excited at the bargains and bought ten. This saved far less per hour than my job made but I enjoyed it (unlike the job). I have become a little more rational about the use of time since, but not much.
    Still, despite all this I found giving up the monthly income terrifying, and I now having something more closely approximating a monthly income now, despite being self-employed. But I particularly enjoy unexpected additional income, it feels like Christmas come early!

  2. I realize that I am the one that you are talking about, always defaulting to finding a job. While i started my own side business, I am still trapped in the mindset that if I cannot sustain, I will go out and find a job to make up for it.

    Kyith

    1. Hey Kyith.

      Don’t beat yourself up. You still need to respect economic reality. If your business can’t sustain itself, it’s not in any way dishonourable to get a job so you can ‘return to fight another day’ with the business later.

      On the other hand, you definitely shouldn’t use this fear as a cop out or an excuse to allow you to procrastinate on making progress with the business.

      I wish you well with your entrepreneurial endeavours.

  3. Paid employment can be a very lucrative proposition, IF you sack all the middle men. As a director, you get to decide how much to pay, whether to pay in kind (e.g. pension-as-salary sacrifice), and when to pay, to minimise the tax bill.

    1. Hi Felice.

      Thanks for an interesting comment.

      By that logic, I’m an employee too. I’m a company director who fixes my own salary, decides what to contribute to my pension and when to pay dividends.

      Whilst I agree that getting to this position in an existing enterprise would be nice, it would be a tough slog and not quite as flexible as being to sole director of a company you founded personally.

      Also, it would be less likely that the company would be under your control to an adequate degree to do all of those things without having other people agree to them. For instance, it’s possible to be a Managing Director and still have no shareholding/voting rights. In this case, you may still have to convince shareholders to structure your compensation as you would like.

  4. Your parents did okay with advocating getting a job to your teenage self 😉

    Let’s face it, a teenager is basically unskilled. They’re also aristocrats in the sense that their needs are usually supplied, and you wanted the money for wants. All you had to offer was unskilled labour, well, go get a job 😉 For sure, some kids are entrepreneurs. Possibly I was – I used to fix tape recorders, radios and TVs as a teenager. Such things were a lot less reliable then, and used more general-purpose parts than now. Arguably I had a proto-skill. It wasn’t worth much – even in the 1970s people repaired TVs by swapping boards, not components, an if that wasn’t possible the set was deemed beyond economic repair. I picked these jobs up because people had nothing to lose and I didn’t charge out my time at a decent rate.

    > all you need to guarantee is that more money appears in the next year and also that, averaged out over the rest of your life, you earn more than you spend.

    That is a massive ask. In the years between quitting work and starting to draw pension savings trying to achieve that guarantee meant I underspent, quite significantly, because I couldn’t qualify it against a zero income. I had three years running costs in hand. I still have a year and a half, even though I have a regular income.

    It may be that I couldn’t adjust the mental switch because I learned to balance saving and spending across 30 years of regular income, and that is baggage people starting out now don’t have.

    > However, if I could change one thing about the lessons I learned as a teenager, it would be the wisdom that ‘getting a job’ is the ‘correct’ answer to the money problem. I’m a fervent believer in the value of self-determination and I wish that I didn’t have to stumble into learning about other ways of feeding myself by trial and error during my 20s.

    I’d venture you’re a little bit hard on your parents. They pointed you at the simplest and most common working model. And they taught you how to learn, and it is that second skill which you applied to good effect; within 10 years of starting working you’d discovered a better way of getting money. I’d say they did a great job 😉

    1. I definitely don’t want to imply that I was in any way sold short – quite the contrary. My parents gave a massive portion of their lives for me. I wasn’t able to quite appreciate that until our two little ones appeared on the scene.

      However, the point I was trying to make with this piece is that it’s almost seen as a law of nature that a job is the correct way to acquire money and those skills that they don’t have yet. For example, teenager comes to Dad and says ‘I need more pocket money than you give me’. Dad could (and most would) point teenager at the nearest town with instructions to ‘ask for application forms’ at all retail outlets until they get a Saturday job (which they can do with very little accrued human capital).

      On the other hand, Alternative Dad could hand said teenager a sponge and a bucket and tell them that some people like their cars to be particularly clean. Alternative Dad could also advise on where the people who like clean cars might live. Maybe AD could invest/lend some startup capital to help teenager get their little weekend car washing business (which they could also run with very little accrued human capital) off the ground. In this case, the teenager may end up acquiring far different skills than in the ‘get a job in Gap’ case.

      Who would you (as an employer/entrepreneur) rather give subsequent opportunities to? Kid who worked in retail every Saturday vs kid who has already failed/succeeded (it doesn’t matter which) at running a tiny business by the time they’re 16?

      I accept the ‘job as a way to cut your teeth’ logic (it’s how I got my engineering skills after all) but it has danger attached. It’s like finding a local maximum and then thinking you’ve solved an optimisation problem. Some people are independent-minded enough to see jobs as just one acceptable solution or as a stepping stone. However, many will quickly become dependent and blind to the alternatives.

      > That is a massive ask.

      …if you’ve not spent your entire life solving that problem. I agree that for Joe Average, it’s going to be really difficult to break the psychological dependence upon monthly income as it’s so deeply ingrained.

      >…they taught you how to learn

      Definitely true. I wouldn’t have my thirst for knowledge if I’d had a different dad and that’s for certain.

      As I said, I don’t mean to sound harsh in any way. My childhood experience just served a good pedagogical purpose (i.e. I was too lazy to dream up a different example!) 🙂 Unfortunately, the ‘simplest and most common working model’ could also be used to justify buying brand new cars on credit, spending everything you earn, liking football more than science etc.

      Do you remember me telling you about my first (worthless) degree (before becoming an engineer)? Doing that was a terrible decision. However, everybody else was doing it. It was a recipe. It was definitely a ‘simple and common’ working model. It didn’t stop it from falling victim to the argumentum ad populum fallacy.

      > I’d say they did a great job

      Aw shucks. *blush*

      1. I’m curious, what was the first useless degree?

        I did Saturday jobs too, and I am glad I did, though I was bored shitless at the time (the first was on the makeup counter in Boots, until a teenage experiment gone wrong saw my hair go a dirty grey green – at which point I was transferred to the warehouse). I made me determined to do something more interesting (initially I wanted to be an academic…) and have freedom.

        Don’t worry, it didn’t come across that you were having a go at your folks 🙂

        1. OK. You’ve forced me to say it in public…

          My name’s Andy and I’m a Sports Scientist. Well, my younger self was a Sports Science undergrad. That’s what makes me so well qualified to help people to avoid mistakes (I’ve made some ridiculous ones myself).

          1. Haha have to admit I was wondering as well 🙂

            I did music technology which also has similar very limited real world job getting abilities. Then had to start from scratch learning coding on the job. Would probably be earning 10k more now (or just have worked out the FI stuff Earlier) if I’d done the sensible thing and did computer science straight off the bat. But maybe i wouldn’t so it’s not really worth getting to caught up in. Uni was just an easy way to avoid getting a job for 3 years for me anyway if I’m honest – kind of like an early taster of FI

          2. I know what you mean about uni as an early taste of FI. When I was doing my engineering degree, I enjoyed the combination of doing things I found interesting almost entirely on my own terms.

          3. I think sport science still counts for something, abide it’s a hard to break in industry.
            It least it wasn’t something like IT (information technology) which many of us here got into during early 20’s. Collages boom like mushrooms offering IT course which is really just teaching you how to use Microsoft software and how to connect hardware and many people “graduate” with debt.

          4. I’m not saying that I didn’t get anything out of it – merely that it was a very stupid decision which was wholeheartedly supported by my teachers and the government of the day. I take 100% ownership for making that decision, young as I was.

            I noticed the ‘IT training’ boom too. It’s important to differentiate between (a) sensibly acquiring in-demand IT skills and (b) paying for any old education with ‘IT’ in the title. As a field, IT is very lucrative. However, learning to plug things and troubleshoot can much better be achieved by getting an entry-level job (or like in my case) teaching oneself about these things.

            On the other hand, I can’t see, for instance, anybody who did a proper computer science degree struggling to find work after university in the current climate.

  5. I do so enjoy spending time reading your posts; they’re a great reminder to think sideways to see if there’s another way to do things. While I’m not interested in having another business, it’s a good reminder that I’m enjoying the fruit of a personal choice when I am an employee!

    1. Hi Chris.

      Thanks for this. Happy to help!

      You’ve also highlighted a really important point which I might not have made explicit: I don’t think that having a job is the wrong way either. It really is the best way of getting money for a lot of people in a lot of circumstances. It sounds like you belong to that latter group and it’s great that you’re thinking about your employment in terms of (1) making a conscious choice and; (2) being in a position where you can’t be controlled too much by your employer.

  6. Sports Science actually sounds quite interesting (though I have little or no interest in sport itself). I was always fascinated by the psychology and physiology of physical training in the dim distant days when I actually did any. For a dark secret, you’re going to have to try harder Andy 😉

    That is a good point by Chris! As someone who runs my own small business I can well understand the appeal of a regular job, though I choose not to go down that route myself. And agreed that Andy is offering a “different from the default” perspective, rather than telling anyone what to do.

    1. > …psychology and physiology

      Funnily enough, I think I was the only one out of about 100 undergrads in my year who was there for the science rather than the sport. I was particularly interested in biomechanics. Not many jobs at that biomechanics factory down the road though! 🙂 Freelance biomechanics??

  7. Why I agree with the post in general, I believe that the ‘cutting the teeth’ logic that you mention in the comments is a vital part.

    Whilst I agree that finding a problem and making a solution to that problem is an excellent way to learn. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the five years I spent working for a number of banks. I left school and didn’t want to go to University as I knew the path I wanted to take.

    I spent five years working for someone else to acquire the skills necessary. Whilst I could of spent five years building a business and learning a great deal, I spent that five years gaining contacts, gaining knowledge and understanding of my industry whilst getting an excellent salary. That has allowed me to own my own house, own a second house mortgage free with my other half and now start my own business with excellent contacts and knowledge.

    My view is that it is great to give people the ‘entrepreneurial’ mindset, however, don’t mistake working for someone as an error, it is an excellent path to take for many young people.

    However, I would like to say I like the philosophy of this blog and I have enjoyed all of your posts so far!

    1. Just to reiterate again, I don’t see the ‘getting a job’ solution as being always wrong. I simply find it confusing that it is seen as ‘normal’ in some way.

      I’ve taken a lot from every single job I’ve ever had. I also think that having a ‘proper 9-5’ is a good form of inoculation in a way – a brief exposure to a way of living which might not suit you which then makes you strive to never need to be in that situation again.

      Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

  8. I have a per-diem “job” and then a few side gigs where I work for myself and bill people. I make some money doing yardwork and gardening for others. I also exercise with the elderly as a side gig. I hope to never enter the world for full time work again!

  9. Very inspiring post!

    I’ve grown up with “the rule”, like any Italian did. I followed all the steps and I’ve been never happy about that. Then I jumped into freelancing – kind of randomly – and everything changed, including my salary (that almost doubled).

    I’ve printed out the flowchart so I won’t forget 🙂

    1. Funny that isn’t it? If you have a marketable skill and you tell people about it, some of them are willing to give you quite a lot if money.

      Who knew it worked like that? 🙂

      I’m glad to hear that freelancing is working out for you. I wish you continued success!

      Thanks for the kind words Mr RIP.

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