Completely Rethinking The Comfort Ladder: I Was Wrong #1
Imagine you were the wealthiest person in a poor community.
You are well-known and everyone looks up to you. But you have a problem. Because of the gap between you and everyone else, you feel guilty.
You can afford to do whatever you want whenever you want, but the same is not true for everyone else. You want to maintain your position, as after all, your whole life has been focused on getting to this point. So what do you do to remove the guilt?
That’s when you have an idea!
You have more money than you need. You don’t care as much about the money. So you can give it away to other people in the community.
Doing this fills you with joy. It is meaningful and it builds you an even better reputation in the community. You have succeeded – your guilt is abated.
Does it matter that your first motivation was removing your guilt, rather than responding to a need?
That’s something for you to ponder. We will return to this idea.
Let’s talk about how I was wrong.
I feel like the only people we can really trust or who are qualified to give an opinion are those who are happy to put their hand up and say “I was wrong”.
This openness to correction, to challenge, or to improvement is invaluable. It manages the ego and protects us from rigid thinking – being wrong is integral to thinking ‘Without-the-Box’.
When a correction or update is required on an old idea I’ve discussed in writing or on the podcast, I will discuss the growth in this way instead of circling back and editing. Our learning is never done, and the flag is never firmly planted in the ground.
These important ideas need to update and develop over time for this work to have integrity. So let’s discuss a recent development, by recalling the Comfort Ladder
Remember the Comfort Ladder?
Observing the graphic, this idea was built on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Most people can have what we call a Minimum Viable Lifestyle once their physical and safety needs are met. Why then do people put so much energy into pursuing material things they don’t really need?
Not only that, but why do they pursue these things with such intensity, as if they truly need them? Why, when all these things deliver is more comfort?
This was the basis of the idea of the Comfort Ladder, which is a journey away from great rewards like love, belonging, and self-actualisation on higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s not that we can’t have luxuries and more material things, but rather, that by prioritising and over-valuing these, we make a self-defeating compromise.
But Comfort is not the Drive
The amendment to make of course is that neither more comfort nor more money is the real pursuit. This is not the trap we fall into.
We glorify and glamorise wealthy people in our culture but not if they are money-hungry, and not if they are overt about having materialistic or selfish interests. I mean, who grows up wanting to be the next Rupert Murdoch or Ken Lay (of Enron)?
Children are more likely to grow up idolising figures like Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates. Yet we do not know much objectively about the quality of their lives – we attend mainly to external information, the tip of the iceberg, without ever really knowing what the 90% beneath the surface is.
Instead of just extracting value from them we go further and idolise them. Why?
Because everything looks great from the outside
Why does everything in their lives look great from the outside? Why does wealth, fame and recognition appeal to us?
There may not be one single answer, but scarcity must be a factor; we are wired to value things that are rare, like luxury items and awards. Secondly, we are wired to value social proof. Have you ever read a book that bored you, just because it was a book read and respected by other intellectuals? Because you wanted to count yourself part of this intellectual group?
Being ultra-wealthy and high-influence is rare; only a few achieve such pedigree. Because it is rare, it becomes desirable. Because it is desirable, then thanks to social proof and conformity, it becomes even more desirable.
For a moment I thought that the Comfort Ladder had to be renamed as the ‘Comfort and Status Ladder’ – as Naval Ravikant points out, we are much more interested in playing status games than we are in playing money games. Money, as well as power, is a powerful signal of status.
What we can say of status is that it is more tightly held than money, and is more motivating.
People will donate their money but gain status.
Bill Gates founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an endeavour which is intended as a generous contribution to humanity. It is often reported to be the largest private foundation in the world.
As I’m sure the Gates would agree, this foundation improves their public image. It elevates the social status of Bill and Melinda Gates, though they may donate large sums of their wealth into the organisation.
Gates co-founded one of the most noteworthy companies of all time which has created impact all over the world, and it is called Microsoft. The foundation is however named after him and his wife. I apologise to Bill for picking on him, he is just a very high profile example of a pattern most materially-wealthy people follow in their lives.
It is some combination of building a legacy, improving one’s image of oneself, and helping more people. It is very hard to tell, especially by observing the tip of the iceberg, which of these three incentives is most pronounced, even in the case of Gates.
People will less often compromise status for money, than money for status.
Politicians don’t get paid much, but are depicted as fighting House of Cards-style to climb the political ladder. Their game is a status game.
As Ravikant points out, snarky reporters and journalists often attack and socially downgrade others, conveniently boosting their own social standing. Their game is a status game too.
How would we behave if asked to step down from a position of authority, even if it meant more money? It occurred to me today, few situations like this exist.
Is a status cut more impressive than a pay cut? It makes sense.
Ironically the people who might best use status are those who do not prioritise it.
Every time there is a crisis or natural disaster, there is no shortage of people who will happily donate to the cause, if for nothing but the opportunity to show how little they care about money, and how compassionate they are.
What if we donate silently?
In the Gospels, Jesus teaches his followers to give on the down-low, away from the public eye, without drawing attention and fuss. He criticises the hippocrites who make a fuss publicly about their generosity.
Seems like enough doesn’t it?
But there is one thing we are overlooking.
When I was a young man, I would often give spare change or a $20 note to a homeless person as I walked by them on the street. I would walk off with the idea that I was a good person, because I’d given without anyone seeing. Though I never saw or recognised any of those homeless people again.
I now look back at this as more of a transaction. I gave these people on the street money to eat, save, buy alcohol, drugs or whatever else they desired – in return I got to feel like I was a good person, regardless of the outcomes. I had no skin in their game.
I didn’t get any status points… but I did get a better image of myself.
For this reason, I realised that the Comfort Ladder is not to be renamed the Status Ladder. Because status is not an end-game – it is one tool for us to construct our image of ourselves. Even when we give anonymously, there is one person who we are never anonymous to.
We can never truly give anonymously to think we are giving selflessly, because we can never give or donate outside of our own awareness.
This is something I’ve never written about before. Ego. Though I hide it well at times, I believe I do still have quite an active ego. When I’ve researched into this famous term, the results seem to define ego as our inner drive for self-importance.
For so many people who do impactful work, the ‘need’ for self-importance is a powerful motivation, and it impacts their decision-making. If the interests of others align with what will deliver us self-importance, then there is no problem.
But what about when it doesn’t? More importantly, when does a desire to feel important obstruct us from acting in the best interests of others and ourselves?
Think back to Gates, and all the philanthropists and activists around the world who genuinely believe they’re engaged in doing good work – how can such people audit their egos?
Assuming for now that an active ego does more harm than good, how do we overcome our need for self-importance?
The answer may just be Self-Transcendence.
What is self-transcendence? The dictionary defines it as “the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization.”
In other words, viewing ourselves as part of a collective. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning, was a big champion of this idea. Notably, self-transcendence is not included on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is why this hierarchy might actually be limited and mere the shoulders of a Giant we need to stand on.
This model of Frankl’s analysed by Paul Wong and Timothy Riley offers a fascinating insight into Frankl’s model of self-transcendence.
Shift from self-centredness to valuing something more than oneself. Shift from the extrinsic to intrinsic (valuing something in its own right). Do what is responsible, ethical and virtuous. Be moved by emotions of awe and wonder, strive to become a better person.
This is definitely the opposite of feeling important.
Valuing things in their own right. Intrinsically.
Now we come back to the Comfort Ladder. When we buy a fancy house or a sports car for their actual enjoyment and value, we make a genuine purchase. When we purchase them for the status they give us, we are feeding into our ego.
When we send our children to fancy schools, is it for the quality of the experience, the education, or is it for the status it provides us as parents? Is it so we can have the image that we are giving our child the best, and does our interest stop there?
Do we hire our child a tutor just so we feel like we’re doing something to help, even if results don’t improve? Do we donate to charity and volunteer just to feel like we’re doing good, without paying attention to the results of our actions?
There is nothing wrong with doing any of these things. What matters is the reason, the motivation, because it will surely impact the outcome – how successful we are.
Most people are successful – at finding ways to reinforce the story they wish to tell themselves.
So let’s return to you in the community.
Remember, you felt guilty because you were the wealthiest person in the community – you could do what you wanted, when you wanted, with no consequences. You had complete freedom, but no one else did.
So you are attempting to remove that guilt by donating your excess wealth to others and into the community.
How can you feel guilty for being wealthy if you do not have an ego? If you are not deeply interested in your image of yourself? Have you acquired this wealth at the expense of helping others?
First, dissolve your ego. Look at yourself as part of the community, interested in what is best for the collective. Then you will ask the question, ‘what is the best thing I can do for the community?’ rather than, ‘what can I do to feel less guilty?’.
What you might find is that the best thing you can do for your community, for the whole, is firstly, not to harm others. Secondly, it might be to listen to others. Your money might not be required at all.
The best way to open a Thousand Doors for you is to concentrate on Opening Doors for Others.
This is true self-transcendence.