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Faustian Bargains: How To Avoid Trading Your True Life Away for Even Worse Outcomes

The following is an excerpt of my book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement

The devil exists, but not in the form you imagine. No, there is no red-skinned, horn-headed, fire and brimstone lair ruler, but there is an insidious force that exists to kill your dreams. Steven Pressfield calls this force Resistance — a more apt name than something benign like self-doubt.

Here’s Pressfield’s definition of it, straight from his classic book The War of Art:

And another one:

You’re a smart person, which means you won’t just make any old deal with the devil. If you knew and understood the direness of your choices upfront, you’d make different ones. Instead, you make these choices because of a beguiling inner-voice that convinces you subtly.

Resistance takes any form it needs to. It can come in the form of self-talk, from the messages society uses to condition you to comments from your well-meaning family and friends. The goal? To convince you to trade life, purpose, and meaning for peanuts, or even worse, an outcome that spirals your life out of control even further than you intended.

The Faustian Bargain

The Bible tells the story of the first ever Faustian bargain. Even if you don’t believe in God, the story itself is telling. The serpent doesn’t just convince Adam and Eve to eat the apple all at once. He first goes to Eve and convinces her, which causes her to convince Adam as well.

He uses the perfect medium to get his message across: a loved one. That’s lesson №1. It’s often better to use a mental side door to get you to make a bad deal instead of approaching you directly.

Next, he makes a promise for greener pastures.

If Adam and Eve eat the apple from the tree of knowledge, they will have the wisdom of God himself. There’s lesson №2. If you want to convince someone to make a bad trade, speak to their ego, because humans will do anything to feed their child-like need for self-centeredness.

The moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for because you might get it. Adam and Eve do, in fact, receive the wisdom of God, but they get the baby and the bathwater. They now know the nature of the world, but they also learn about their own mortality. They realize they’re naked, and come to know shame.

In exchange for wisdom, they get cold hard reality.

Satan attempts another Faustian bargain on Jesus himself. Alone and hungry in the wilderness, Lucifer tries to convince Jesus to use His powers. “If you are the son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

He tries to play on another feature of human nature , that is, the need for power. He also plays on the need for satisfaction and instant gratification. You’re hungry, and you have the ability not to be. Why not make yourself happy and fulfilled right now?

Jesus resisted because he knows better. He’s the son of God after all. Still, in that moment, he was tempted. The story is supposed to teach you how to avoid temptation yourself. You’re supposed to look at that example and follow suit, but it’s not easy. And the “devil” is quite convincing.

I’m sure you didn’t come here for a Bible lesson. The point is that the idea of trading something of great value for something trivial, or an even worse outcome, is a feature of human nature that stretches back thousands of years.

Is it at work in your life? Have you accepted a Faustian bargain? Undoubtedly.

What should you do about this?

First, if you’ve accepted a raw deal, understand you do have time to improve your situation. In later chapters, I’ll show you ways to reinvent yourself and make up for past mistakes by pursuing a new purpose in life. Second, pay attention to this chapter, and avoid making any of these “bad trades,” if you haven’t already.

Last, understand that every decision you make has a trade-off. Whenever making a choice think to yourself, “What are the consequences of this decision, both good and bad? What am I giving up by making this choice. What’s the opportunity cost?” The examples below will illustrate exactly what I mean.

The LinkedIn Trade

Is it just me, or does everyone on LinkedIn look like a hostage who’s being forced to smile for a photo? You can tell these people don’t want to be there, pimping themselves out for paychecks, “being practical,” and carefully curating a CV in lieu of doing what they want with their life.

Let me preface this by saying some people do love their jobs. Some people enjoy the corporate lifestyle and being an employee. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Still, the vast majority of people either aren’t engaged in or hate their jobs.

Peter Theil touches on this beautifully in his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future:

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why trade a fulfilling career for burdensome debt and limited prospects?

You fell for the subtle messaging. At some point, it just became a given that you were supposed to go to college and live the corporate life. Or if you didn’t go the college route, it became a bedrock truth that your prospects were limited at best. All of it became canon without any evidence of truth.

How? The best way to make someone believe a lie is to assert it repeatedly. Our brains recognize repeated assertions as truth. You’ve been told this lie about 1,000 times since you were in kindergarten.

Why was this lie told to you? I discussed this earlier in the chapter “Why Society Doesn’t Want You to Succeed.” The structure of society emerged into one that needed compliant and, most importantly, dependent people. White collar crooks rob you without a gun. If the carrot — “Life will be great after college!” — doesn’t work, the stick comes next: “Don’t go to college, and you’ll flip burgers!”

The entire narrative also omits the fact that you can test and try different careers and businesses at a low cost. It doesn’t “fit.” The point isn’t simply to rail against corporatism or write another book about “escaping the cubicle,” but rather to point out that most of us haven’t accurately looked at the whole playing field and examined all the options.

You’re not a fool, but you’ve been fooled, simply because you made these decisions and trades lightly. If you do feel duped, don’t become resentful. Use the feeling of being used to your advantage, and say no the next time you’re offered a bargain like this.

The Time Trade

Someone posted a Twitter poll that asked to choose between these options:

  • Live the rest of Warren Buffett’s life: Become an uber-billionaire, but be 88 years old.
  • Live a broke 18-year-old’s life: not ideal, but plenty of time left.

You can guess which one most people chose. What good is money when you have little time left to spend it?

In the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, one of the regrets was wasting too much time on work.13 Keep in mind, the regret wasn’t over having a vocation, but rather a job that only carried meanings of status, money, and prestige.

Work is a third of your life. Why trade it for the materials of this world and status among people you don’t even like? Why waste all that precious time?

Lies You’re Told To Steal Your Time

To get you to waste your time, all you need are a few convincing lies that cater to your ego and fear:

  • The “security” lie — If you start a business, you’ll put your family at risk. Entrepreneurship can be seen as riskier than being employed. You want to spend your hard-earned time on a sure bet, not a pipe dream. The truth? You can test many side-projects or businesses for low cost. Also, job security doesn’t really exist. Ask people who’ve gone through recessions.
  • The “what will people think of me” lie — You’re convinced the world is watching you, waiting for you to fall on your face in embarrassment. The truth? Nobody cares about you, your dreams, your behavior, none of it.
  • The “you have more time” lie — There is a reason so many products are catered to making you look and feel younger. They help you believe you can get time back and reclaim a youth you’ve spent, and give you the illusion that you’re immortal.
  • The “I owe people” lie — You’re made to feel guilty if you don’t honor every request, drop everything for any reason to help someone, or set boundaries on your schedule. You don’t owe anything, especially time, to anyone but yourself. If you give time to others, it’s a choice, not an obligation.

Time is easy to waste because you can’t see it, touch it, or conceptualize it in a tangible way. You can’t save time at all. In fact, it’s slipping away fast.

Other people, and society at large, need to consume your time because the more time you spend working on yourself, the more aware you become about the nature of the world.

We tend to believe in the ironic notion of “wasting time.” We don’t want to waste time pursuing something that might not work. But we’re more than happy to waste time doing things that will either keep us stagnant or move us backward.

This notion makes no sense because even if you do spend time pursuing a path that doesn’t work, you still gain valuable experience. Ask any entrepreneur who failed at their first or multiple businesses before one stuck. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you actually move closer to your goal because of them.

The People Trade

One of the hardest things to do is have an accurate perception of other people. Human beings have great qualities. They’re creative, adaptable, resilient, and cooperative. They also have many negative qualities. They’re conniving, jealous, self-interested, vain, energy-sucking, and sometimes downright malicious.

If it seems Machiavellian to carefully guard your inner-circle, consider some of the worst scenarios people find themselves in when they give their trust and love to the wrong person. No one can hurt you more than someone you love or thought you knew.

When it comes to the people in your life, consider the cost of associating with them. A theme of this book has been understanding the downsides and consequences of your actions. You can do everything right in terms of improving yourself. You can get in perfect health, find a career you love, and genuinely care for others, but if you get the people part wrong, it’s hard to live a good life.

In the end, we all realize relationships are everything.

So why do we trade better futures for toxic people? Love, acceptance, and certainty. Having someone who seemingly accepts you causes you to ignore their flaws. We crave acceptance from others. As much as you want an adventure, you want safety and security even more.

This is why people stay in loveless, sexless, joyless relationships. In a way, it’s still better than being alone. “The devil you know …”

Here’s a hard truth pill to swallow: You are born alone and will essentially die alone. Even with family members by your side, you will revert back to oneness and loneliness, afraid to leave the world just as you were afraid to enter it: naked, weeping, confused, lost.

That is unless you lived life well as an individual.

If you learn to first live well on your own, and then allow the right people to come into your life by vetting them instead of just letting them in, you’ll develop an inner-fortitude rarely afforded to most.

The Economics of Life

When you buy a cup of coffee, a new jacket, a car, a home, you don’t just trade away your money. You trade away everything else you could’ve done with that money. In economics, this is known as an “opportunity cost.”

Nothing is free in this world. Nothing. You pay a price for what you spend — time, money, love, etc.

Before fields like behavioral economics emerged, there was an idea of the rational human being called “homo economicus,” someone who always made perfectly optimized decisions, weighed the pros and cons of each choice, and always opted to make the decision that benefited them most.

On its face, it seems like a solid premise. Humans are self-interested, so why wouldn’t they do everything that’s in their best interests?

But pioneers in the field like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed us that people are largely irrational, or at least not “perfectly optimized.” We are self-interested, but to a fault. Driven by our “fast-brain,” the ego-centric, automatic, cave-man foundation our brain is built on, we almost always make the choice that feeds the darkest nature of our self-interest: instant gratification, greed, discomfort avoidance, and our lust for familiarity.

What do we end up with after repeatedly making these Faustian bargains?

Shit we don’t need, entertainment to dull our pain, useless pieces of paper, a false sense of security (see: the 2008 financial crisis), and people who don’t always have our best interests at heart.

Going back to Theil’s quote earlier, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” — why are you doing it to yourself?

Sometimes, bad choices can simply be a result of inexperience. It’s easier to make mistakes when encountering something new. Still, in most cases and for most people, it’s simply because we’re afraid of making the right trade. The success equation comes down to trading safety, certainty, security, fake love, distraction, and ego-stroking in favor of greatness, adventure, sanity, and joy.

Stop believing the greatest myth, namely that you don’t pay a price for staying in your comfort zone.

Stasis doesn’t exist. If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward. Each minute you spend in contemplation and procrastination trades your wonderful miracle of existence for … nothing, really.

Or, again, a compounding bad decision that makes it even harder to succeed.

Aren’t you tired of it? Aren’t you ready for something different? It’s time for you to go on your adventure and create your own fate instead of the one you were sold.

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