Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
We have different “people” inside of us.
If you don’t understand what I mean, I recommend reading the delightful books Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D Wilson or Incognito by David Eagleman. Or spend a rewarding 45 minutes listening to Wilson expand on this topic here:
In short: we have different “modes” of thinking, which are more or less dominant at different moments and different situations.
Perhaps the most popular distinction is between “System 1” and “System 2”, popularised by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Another useful distinction is between “near mode” thinking and “far mode” thinking.
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I first came across this on Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias. He has discussed this on many occasions. I understand it’s covered more academically under “construal level theory”.
To simplify, “near mode” relates largely to the here-and-now. It’s very concrete. Most people spend most of their time in near mode.
“Far mode”, on the other hand, is more abstract. We’re in far mode when we step back and try to look at the bigger picture of our lives.
To me, near mode is pragmatic. Far mode is idealistic.
There are a couple of domains in life where I find this distinction striking, and a useful way of framing my thinking.
Both are influenced by my professional experience, firstly as a personal client lawyer and secondly as a financial planner/adviser, where I’ve had the privilege to speak with people about things they don’t necessarily speak about with their closest friends and family members.
One of these domains is money. The other is health.
I’ll start with health. I talk about clients about what they want to achieve in their lives, and about their values and priorities. But I also point out that it’s valuable to consider what you don’t want to happen.
When I ask people what they don’t want to happen, two themes recur. Neither relate directly to money.
Most people talk about losing important relationships. But almost everyone talks about something happening to their health.
I’ve spoken to enough people to reinforce to me the mantra that “your health is your wealth”.
The distinction between “near mode” and “far mode” plays out to me every day. And I’m sure it plays out for you as well.
I’ve read enough about the importance of lifestyle decisions, including incorporating movement and good nutrition, to maximise the likelihood of having a long lifespan and health span.
And I’m pretty motivated. One of my goals in life is to meet at least one of my great-grandchildren. In my heart of hearts, I want to live a long and healthy life.
But that is Sonnie Bailey in far mode.
I live most of my time in near mode.
The temptation to prepare the easy breakfast or lunch is often too great. The soft drink in the fridge is too attractive. I get busy, and exercise is one of the first things to fall off my agenda.
I don’t think I’ll ever live a perfectly healthy life. But as I try to improve, it’s not “near mode” Sonnie that will make it happen.
It’ll be Sonnie in “far mode”, who thinks abstractly and strategically. Who understands that it’s better to avoid temptation than resist it, and try to keep soft drinks and convenience foods out of reach. And who understands the importance of creating some bigger goals and external accountability to exercise, like playing tennis, entering fun runs, and working with a personal trainer.
The other domain is money.
Another question I often ask clients is what they’d do differently if they had all the money they’d ever need. I follow this up by asking what they’d do differently if they knew they only had another 5 or 10 healthy years left.
I’m certain that my sample is biased, because only a certain type of person decides they want to engage a financial adviser, and of that sample of the population, it seems like a certain type of person chooses to engage me.
(I wouldn’t say there are demographic qualities, but all of my clients are (a) switched on, (b) want to be engaged and in control of their finances, and are (c) nice. I feel extremely lucky to have the clients I have.)
The realisation they often come down to is that they wouldn’t change much at all.
Most clients might travel a little more, and they usually say they’d continue to work but would cut down or change their focus a little.
When I really push them, and ask about a $10 million lottery win, they come up with a few “materialistic” things. For my sample of clients, it often includes Teslas and passive houses.
But ultimately, they tell me they’d spend the extra money on the people they love.
They’d pay off mortgages for their children and siblings. They’d pay for shared experiences, like travel.
I try very hard not to treat my client meetings as a personal Rorschach test. But I think I attract clients who already share similar values to me because they usually read this blog before contacting me.
In which case, you’re probably not surprised that I’d do the same.
I feel a little more selfish and materialistic than most of my clients. If you gave me 5 minutes, I could rattle off a lot of “stuff” that I’d buy if I had all the money in the world.
There’s even a chance I’d cut down on providing financial advice. Instead, I’d become an insufferable full-time blogger and perhaps start an angel or venture capital business.
But I would definitely make sure that all of my loved ones were well supported. This would include my children. It’d include my parents and parents-in-law. It’d include my siblings and siblings-in-law, and my nephews and nieces. It would also include my closest friends.
(In fact, I’m reminded of George Clooney giving $1 million in cash to his closest friends at a dinner party. I’ve blogged about this as a clever risk management strategy. Since then, it has occurred to me that it’s similar to Putin’s strategy with his oligarchs. But I digress.)
I’d also contribute to causes I care about. (Not to mention ensure Kiwi consumers get treated well by financial services providers – which is a cause in itself, even if it’s a little idiosyncratic to me.)
The eternal contradiction
But when I think about these things, I’m often thinking about them when I’m in “far mode”. At the moment, you’re hearing from my more idealistic, abstract self.
“Near mode” is where the rubber hits the road.
Am I doing these things?
Do these things really reflect my true values?
Are they “aliefs” rather than “beliefs”?
Because in a sense, I’m already “there”. I’m not financially independent – that’s a long way off. (Although I might be close if I could convince my wife and kids to make some radical lifestyle changes…)
But I’ve done my flawcasting, and I’m confident that I’m on the right track. Something very wrong would have to happen to not be able to retire comfortably and continue enjoying my current lifestyle.
In which case, why aren’t I prioritising my health, and my relationships (outside of my direct family)?
Why aren’t I doing more to help my family members – especially those who might benefit from assistance in the meantime?
I don’t have answers. Because I struggle with this myself. But I hope that drawing this to your attention – and to my own attention, with perhaps some additional accountability by talking about it publicly, might be useful.
My question to you
Thanks for reading to this point. I started with a broader observation and ended up getting quite personal.
I hope it doesn’t come across like I’m navel-gazing. My goal is to demonstrate this near mode/far mode distinction with a practical example.
I’ve shown you some of my thinking.
My question to you is this:
If you step back, and try to think of your life in “far mode” rather than your everyday “near mode”, do the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis reflect your actual values and priorities in life?
If not, is this because they’re not actually your real values or priorities?
Or do you need to spend some time in “far mode” working out how to align the “near mode” version of yourself with what you actually care about?