For multiple decades, my mom did everything right, followed the script for success to a tee, and lived the American dream, until it became a nightmare.
She graduated high school a year early, graduated college early and eventually earned two master’s degrees. She took amazing care of my brother and me.
We went on vacations, had a stable home, and glided along on the middle-class track. She was even helping me pay for college during my freshman and sophomore years — Fall 2008–2010.
Certain events took place during that period.
After being wiped out of the job market, she never quite could get the same positions as she did post-crisis. Call it ageism, but she got priced out of the corporate market once the economy recovered.
She wasn’t any more irresponsible than any average middle-class person:
- Most middle-class people live paycheck to paycheck or … a couple of paychecks to paychecks. Turns out you don’t need to miss too many to fall into a nasty downward spiral
- Most middle-class people are in debt — consumer debt, mortgage, student loans, car notes, etc.
- The median retirement savings for people Age 60–69 is $62,000
I’ve talked about this problem, coined by Nassim Taleb, many times. Here it is once again:
“Consider a turkey that is fed every day,” Taleb writes. “Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race ‘looking out for its best interests,’ as a politician would say.
“On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”
I used this quote in an article I wrote about The Illusion of Safety: Why You Should Always Choose to Go Big. Here’s an excerpt from that post:
It’s funny. As any writer does, I get anything ranging from thoughtful criticisms to downright nasty comments about my ideas or … just about me as a human being.
People tell me that my writing is too direct, abrasive, or polarizing. Some people call it cruel.
I’m told I’m too much of an individualist and put too much of a negative lens on collectivist thinking.
Some people say I talk too much about making money, worldly success, and come off with a bit of an elitist air.
Some people have the misconception that I don’t understand the plight of the average person in society, that I don’t care, that I’m turning my nose down on these people. The truth is the opposite.
I care deeply.
Not only do I know about the injustices of society and the unfairness of it all, but I’m also probably more acutely aware of it all than you are. I don’t say that because I think I’m smarter than you, but because of the conclusions we draw from the situation. See many people think there’s a collectivist way out. I don’t.
I tell people to avoid watching the news because I’ve studied politics at a deep level for a long time. I know what’s going on and I see what they’re doing to such an extent that I can only come up with the conclusion to save yourself.
I don’t shun collectivist thinking because it’s morally wrong. I shun it because thinking that way, putting trust in your leaders, and following the American dream will mess up your life.
Make no mistake about it. This is bad. Let’s take the sheer loss of life out of the equation and just look at the economics.
I’m no finance expert by any means, but in short, the little person is going to get screwed in this entire situation, badly, and the rich will get a lot richer.
All the too big to fail companies will get bailed out — many of whom bought back their own stocks instead of saving their money. If you knew the depths of how this goes down, which some of you do, it’s sickening.
All the big corporations will not only get to invest in the bloodbath of a stock market we have right now (that rallied a ton as unemployment spiked, which makes zero logical sense without the fed finagling of course), but they’ll get to borrow tons of money, basically for free, and get even richer in the process. All on your dime by the way.
See, because most middle-class people aren’t savvy investors, all their money will get eaten up by inflation while people with cash will get to put it into a stock market that will rise because of the federal reserve just printing money out of thin air.
The government can take away your right to work, make you foot the bill for the economic recovery, and give you back pennies on the dollar — Trump Bux Baby.
Some people will have to work an extra decade just to make back the losses in their retirement account. Small businesses will get crushed. Many people are out of work (and some companies will realize they didn’t need that many employees in the first place).
The punchline — many people now realize, maybe you, that their entire sense of reality is a sham and The American Dream is really the American nightmare.
Right now you have a bunch of honest, hardworking, good people, many middle-class, who are shit out of luck through no real fault of their own.
I say no real fault of their own because it’s not as if people, you, just consciously chose to put yourself in a precarious position.
I’m a self-improvement writer, but I don’t believe in the idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” in a vacuum. Absolutely not.
In order to do many of the tactics I talk about — start a profitable side hustle and turn into a business, create income streams, learn the online money game, and develop better mental models to help you thrive in uncertainty — you first have to undo the conditioning caused by the most successful, beguiling, and powerful marketing campaign of all time.
They start spewing the spin when you’re five years old and then when trick people into convincing their own progeny to do the same thing! Get good grades Johnny, Jane. Go to college and get a ‘stable’ job.
Oh? That entrepreneurship stuff? Risky. $100,000 for a degree with an amortization table that’d make you shit yourself if you understood it, no big deal. But that $1,000 business course on affiliate marketing? Total scam.
Hey, 18-year-old Johnny, Jane, here’s a credit card for you — damn near comes to you in the mail on your birthday.
Don’t even have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex yet? No worries, we will loan you ten times the money we would a grown adult with a perfect credit score. Why can’t you declare bankruptcy on the debt? Who the fuck knows? Ha ha ha.
Maybe because it would crash the revenue of the government and keep colleges from skyrocketing tuition because, of course, this is the inevitable outcome of guaranteeing demand for a product. Ironically, many college students don’t even develop the sense to understand what I just said.
Next, you get to have an entry-level job. Don’t worry, you will get those golden handcuffs later, don’t worry. Being a single person on an entry-level salary is actually fun. You have a lot of money for your age. That’s the hook.
Next, you get married. Buying your lady that ring? It should be at least 3 months’ salary! The price? Seems expensive? No worries, throw it on a credit card. Wait, doesn’t De-Beers artificially limit the supply of diamonds to jack up the price? Shhhhh. This is the love of your life we’re talking about.
Next, you buy that house. The one within your means? Well, cmon now, this is your home we’re talking about — the core piece of your identity as a middle-class American — go big!
It’s your best investment, too — illiquid unless you take out a loan on your own equity, basically, zero gains above inflation on average, and break-even at best when you consider taxes, fees, and repairs. Don’t worry about those silly numbers. Your buddy Jim sold at the peak of the market and made a killing, so will you! And you’ll know what you’ll do with your profits? Put a down payment on another 30-year mortgage and pay more interest! Equity baby!. 2008? What?
All a sudden you have a family, a mortgage, a few credit cards (the wedding went a bit over budget and of course you had to do the Hawaii Honeymoon), and now you need the 2020 SUV because the safety ratings are off the charts.
Still, you kinda still sorta want to start that business, but you can’t quit your job because the healthcare system is such that you’re basically fucked if you don’t have said job. Yes, sure, they’ll get healthcare right, even though the largest Democratic super-majority in the entire country failed to pass single-payer in their state. No worries.
Just wait. Watch CNN, or Fox, whatever poison of your choice, pay careful attention, be informed, so that come November, you can vote for that candidate that will change your life.
Except…the candidate never changes your life. The calvary never comes. No one ever comes to save you.
Your favorite politicians and pundits bark at each other pretending to have a serious debate over the “issues” — seemingly appearing as if they hate each other — yet they party together behind your back…left, right, blue, red, all having a swanky soiree in the Hampton wearing designer clothes probably funded from insider trading.
Your overlords are having a blast behind the scenes, while they tell you they’re fighting for you, even though their own districts are rotting piles of shit.
All they have to do is keep pimping the American Dream.
All the powerful institutions have to do to keep you from upending the system is trick you into thinking that trying to fix the system is the answer.
Keep on staying woke. Keep on putting your faith in the system to somehow fix itself, even though every psychological bias, aspect of human nature, and incentive structure known to man, shows this is simply impossible.
Some people think I don’t care. Oh, I care. Some people think I don’t get it. Oh, I get it. I get it at a level so deep that I know the only answer is for you to save yourself.
There is a true American Dream. Even after everything I just laid out, I’m bullish on the opportunity for the individual. You don’t have to live this way, forever. Even if you’re caught in the trap of middle or working-class life right now, rife with pitfalls, you can still find your way out
But you’ll never do it if you keep playing their game and buying into their propaganda. I wrote about this in the opening chapter of my new book — Why Society Doesn’t Want You to Succeed.
See, the reason why you can’t defeat society is that society isn’t some fixed entity. It’s a combination of people and institutions. Like the mythical Hydra, cut off one head and it grows three new ones.
Society is an emergent property, the culmination of a bunch of problems:
- Agency problems — from bankers who look only to polish quarterly earnings in lieu of long-term sustainable strategies, to politicians who are incentivized to get elected in lieu of being civil servants, to managers of and CEOs companies who are incentivized to do more for their shareholders than the American people as a whole, to the series of institutions that rely on your lack of self-reliance to survive, to all the people in between who were just “following orders,” these individual instances of people ‘looking out for number one’ combine to fuck everyone ever.
- Confirmation bias — The general public probably does sincerely want to change, wants to be sovereign, wants to be free, but as I showed in the example of being sold the American dream, once you start to believe something deeply, it’s hard to change your mind, even if failing to change ruins your life. You’d rather be right than get it right, which is why you cling to your mirage of a worldview.
- Incentives — A corollary of agency problems. The right incentive structure damn near forces certain behaviors to happen. And let’s make a long story short and say the incentive structure of society as a whole is such that keeping you in the dark is a major priority.
Trust me. I’ve thought about this. For years. Hell, I started thinking about it when I saw what happened to my mom. And I always knew my only route to a happy life would be figuring out a way to circumvent the system altogether.
At a certain point, I realized the system just…is what it is. I didn’t arrive at that conclusion from an apathetic perspective, but a pragmatic one. Why waste energy screaming at the sky? You think your finger-wagging matters. It doesn’t. Your overlords love when you do it, too. Stay distracted. You’re doing their job for them.
The biggest middle-finger you can give to the system is choosing not to be a willing participant in the perpetuation of said system. In short, stop buying the societal bullshit and focus on leveling up your life.
Build that fuck you fund so no one can tell you what to do. Start those ‘risky’ projects so you can have real control over your life. Lead by example and show others the way out by focusing on your own development so you can save your life, save your family’s life, and maybe inspire other people to save theirs.
I’m hard on you because I care. I care enough to actually tell you the truth, The truth keeps you from being blindsided by a world that is much tougher and crueler than any words I can ever write.
Following the middle-class doctrine might not lead to some tragic existence.
No, in many ways, it’s great, enviable even. But you’ll always have to live your life on a tightrope. You’re always a sitting duck no matter how successful you think you are.
And you’re simply not free.
And that’s really all you want anyway. To feel free. To feel like your life isn’t just subjects to the whims of institutions and the tyranny of incompetent beaurocrats.
I take self-improvement extremely seriously because I know it’s a matter of life and death. When you understand this, too, you’ll start the journey you know you need to make.
Want to escape the shackles of society? Buy my book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement. I won’t coddle you or hold your hand, but I’ll show you the way out.