Ever notice that most lead characters in movies and TV shows seem pretty care free when it comes to money? They move cross country to follow the love of their lives or to follow their dreams. They throw caution to the wind and start a business (Jerry Maguire). They live a double life as a super hero (Superman) or as something more sinister (Dexter). They take financial risks with real estate or the market (Five Flights Up). They put their career on the line to do the right thing (The Devil Wears Prada).
We crave their fiscal confidence, the freedom to do and have what they want. But, given that half of us don’t have enough to cover a $2,000 emergency, it’s unlikely the real life version of the best movie characters would make the same decisions we see them make on the silver screen. Despite this fact, we still want to watch tall tales, suspending our disbelief for a few hours' worth of this mental escape we call entertainment.
The Bait and Switch
Why is life not like the movies?
We’re mislead with ideas about life that make it impossible for reality to match what we think a perfect life would look and feel like.
We believe that once we have the perfect look, the perfect surroundings, the perfect partner, the perfect job, the perfect skills and abilities, the perfect passtimes, the perfect everything, we’ll be able to feel and behave like our favourite characters.
Perfection takes time, effort, and money. Excessive attention and resources go into every detail and, just when we think we have it right, the expectations about what perfect means changes.
The Bait: The illusion of happiness is the bait of the advertising world. The message: You’ll be happy when you get this part of your life in order and here’s what you need to buy to help you do that.
The Switch: When the solution we thought would make us happy falls flat, we blame ourselves for the failure and we double down by looking for something else that will—finally—make our lives complete.
The Big Lie
This bait and switch cycle is never ending because the big lie is that there’s an end game. There isn’t. There isn’t a final piece of the puzzle. There isn’t the perfect solution. The perfect life only grows more elusive when we try to emulate what we watch on the screen.
The only way to lead a successful life is to stop chasing perfection. We know deep down that that’s the answer, but it’s just not as sexy as the shortcuts we’re promised will get us there faster. We need to resist our appetite for the fast fix just as much as we do our appetite for fast food.
We do this by building ourselves from the inside out, not the outside in. Building our skills and abilities, our intellect, our physical and psychological strength, fundamentally changes how we see ourselves and how we view ourselves relative to the world in general. What defines us starts to have more to do with our internal assessment of personal progress than any external measure, reward or evaluation. We recognize and appreciate the change in our abilities because it wasn’t a quick fix.
And, when we invest in ourselves in non-monetary ways, money starts to fall to a lower rank in what matters in our lives. It loses its position as the end and becomes a means—what it should have been all along.
When the importance of stuff—and the money it takes to get it—are put in their proper place, saving is much easier because we don’t need it to build our house of cards anymore. What we build instead is the level of personal freedom to make the choices we once only dreamed of.
Paradoxically, living a life that's anything but what we see on the silver screen is the most likely way of becoming the lead in a pretty spectacular story: our own.
And the oscar goes to....?