The first thing I can remember buying on my own dollar was a 1kg block of chocolate. I had recently taken up my first job – picking up dog turds in our neighbor’s gardens. They would pay $2 a day and I would shovel their dog crap up, taking it home to make compost. I guess I would have been about 14 at the time, living with my parents and not doing much of anything. I grew up on the border of Sydney and “the bush” – a last post before you climbed over the mountains and headed into the farming towns on the lee side of the Blue Mountains. It was a dozy kind of place, where a large proportion of the people live their entire lives without really venturing out into the world beyond.
After collecting a couple of weeks of payment, I suddenly felt in control of my world. I think I had about $20 on me, and after being picked up from school I went shopping with my mum. I had seen the 1kg block of chocolate before, but I could never convince my mum to spend her money on it. So, armed with a handful of dollar coins, I grabbed the chocolate and bought it. Feels good man.
It took a long time to eat, and I think I ended up giving a bit away. I know that I put a lot into little portions and froze them so that that would last. I also imagine that my parents forced me to not eat it all at once.
This little taste of freedom was great, and I think that was when I realised the power of money. It didn’t matter if your parents told you that you couldn’t have something; the people at the register didn’t give a shit what you did so long as you paid the bill. It’s that freedom that probably explains a lot of that rebellion that comes from having those first few forays into the working world, and why some people eschew further education so that they can start earning earlier (of course, there are some people that don’t even have that choice – and I’m pretty grateful that I’ve had the chances that I’ve had).
The shit-shoveling managed to fund my addiction to Warhammer 40K and Battletech figures, but the lustre wore off quickly. I moved through delivering pamphlets to delivering Chinese food and finally off to Uni and into the real world of work. I won’t lie; there were times of excess – buying new cars instead of second hand, drinking my body weight in alcohol, and so many anime figures…
But there were down times as well. I’m writing this post partly because of a reddit threat that made me remember one particularly low point in my life (probably not long before finding 4LS, I guess….). I was freelancing, which is great for freedom of time and work, but really bad when it comes to actually getting paid. There were a few times where I had to get creative in order to get to work. One time I didn’t have enough money for a train ticket, but I had enough petrol in the car to drive. So I got as close as I could to the job where I could park the car for free, then walked the remaining 5 miles or so into town, did a 14 hour shift, then walked back. Another time I was so low on cash that I went to a pawn shop and sold my work tools so that I could by a train ticket.
There was also a point where I blew up with one of my employers and “quit” (the word has a different meaning to a freelancer), and thought that I would be fine. This lead to no work for about 6 weeks, eating nothing but rice (and then maybe only once a day) and struggling to find some more gigs. When I did finally start working again, I was told that the particular venue where I was working only paid freelancers at the end of the month, extending the rice diet by another two weeks…
Thankfully, my luck changed, and I managed to work my way out of the hole. I had some lucky breaks and the bad times spurred me into working my arse off; I remember one particularly grueling week where I did about 100 hours of work; including two days straight of bouncing between events.
After a few years of freelancing, I managed to land some full-time jobs. The new security made me explode again. I bought a Mazda RX-8 (a very fun car – I called her Triela) and my audio equipment and resin figure collection exploded. But it was then that I realised – the more money you have, the more you want. When you’re eating rice and dodging your rent, it’s very easy to avoid wanting anything. But once you have a camera, for example, you start researching how to best use it – and find out that you’re right at the bottom of the pile. Same for headphones, or art, or cars, or watches.
Pretty much anything you’re interested in will have a luxury version of the same thing that is just slightly out of reach. Your lunch-box snack is nothing compared to a 1kg block of chocolate. But once you have that $10 block of chocolate, you can then see that there are better things. Your brain had a reticulation cortex; basically a part of it that looks for the same thing over and over again. So once you buy a chocolate bar, you automatically start looking for more chocolate, and you notice that nice box of Belgian chocolates for $15. Or the party pack for $16. Or the individually crafted Swiss chocolates that look like penguins for $5 each. And each step gets you closer to the next more luxurious thing. Pretty soon you’re thinking that it’s reasonable to pay $20 for a single chocolate (and yes, they are awesome).
I’m not saying that greed is good. Far from it. Greed is insidious, and whilst you might start off pure of heart, once you start treating yourself to nice things, you want more of them. I recall a couple of years back where I as looking at business people lining up in the business class line at the airport, and thinking “man, that is the kind of person I want to be – a jet-setting business guy.” But, at that point, I already was that guy; I just was too focused on their luggage, or their frequent flyer tags, or their watches to notice.
But a few weeks ago, I saw this interview with one of the Rick and Morty creators. I’ve never watched the show, but I liked the message of this interview; mostly because it reminded me of some “deep” thoughts I had as a teenager, high on chocolate and gazing at the stars.
The message is pretty simple. If you look at the whole universe, then all of mankind is not even a speck. I did a quick though experiment, and if the known universe was the size of a football stadium, then the Milky Way would be about 4 atoms wide. So at that scale, we are nothing.
And yet, in our own lives, owning the latest luxury watch, paying the rent on time, or paying that last student loan payment seem like earth-shattering moments.
In the end, it’s all a matter of scale. Things are only as important as you make them – and too much is never enough.