This week I have been thinking about a bunch of things: how we know who to trust, and what happens when we’re wrong; how much trust we put into people we follow online and the extent to which they are actually selling us something; and the impact all of this has on being able to follow our own journey with integrity.
I fear these internal conversations are also turning me into a bit of an asshole. I especially hate being sold to. One of my reasons for getting involved in the FIRE movement is because taking control of your money is an act of radical subversion and radical self care. Deciding what you want out of life; what you will spend and how that will impact your community / planet / sense of joy; what role you will play outside of being a Worker Bee: all these are closely linked to your finances, and are absolutely the liberation pathway to living your life on your own damn terms.
There seems to have been a lot of slippage in the FIRE movement toward focusing back on personal finance in a more standard way. This is necessary to a certain extent: getting all existential is not the only thing you need if you are waking up in a cold sweat about your inability to service your debts. But sharing tools isn’t the only thing we are here for. Realistically, and I can say this as someone who consumes a fair amount of media on personal finance, social or otherwise, the tools and tips on personal finance are not complicated. It is the job of assessing them, working out what is right for you, and putting them into play which is hard. And for me, I could only put them into play once the existentialist piece was clear in my heart.
A net result of this move back into the more standard world of personal finance is that I feel increasingly like I am being sold to by my peers. This isn’t to say that FIRE should exclusively be filled with people who have the time and resources to give away their advice for free, especially as this would mean only people who reach financial independence and then have that time – and who are disproportionately white, male and married, at least those who talk about it online – would share their stories. But I personally am not interested in buying an online course about real estate in the USA, or downloading a workbook which turns out to be ‘the world’s most basic questions ever.pdf’, or buying a product based on your ability to get commission on it.
It is more than that though. We have always been sold dreams, but these are usually other people’s. Surrounding yourself with these dreams, whether they are in the name of financial independence or in the name of being the kind of rich, flashy person who can buy up the bar, risks that you will drown out what you really want. The advertising industry is based on creating desires that can never be fulfilled: this year’s new iPhone that you might be lusting after will be out of date in a few months. Lifestyle envy leads to excessive consumption and waste, which is also leading to envirionmental degredation. We are trashing the planet for shit that doesn’t matter at all: for shit we probably don’t even want or get satisfaction from.
I am seeing a lot more of this combination in recent times. There is a Kenyan lifestyle and personal finance blogger who I have always liked (and is a friend of a friend, this Nairobi of ours has no chill). But I just can’t follow her anymore. There is the dual approach of selling through her personal brand, which is basically ‘you should strive to be pretty, well-dressed, and well made up, as I am – or you will not be interesting or taken seriously‘. The second approach is basically product placement, including MCing courses for other people, or pushing financial products. But there is literally no content. We are just invited to be voyeurs, buy what she recommends, and strive to be more like her. To be clear this is totally standard for an influencer so I am not singling her out, but it’s surprising to me (in ways it probably shouldn’t be) that so much of what was a vibrant and radical personal finance space is now full of this kind of approach.
Realistically, I am 42. It might literally be that I am too old for this shit, and whatever I strive for I am not going to be a hot girl. Probably I don’t fully appreciate the IG generation and therefore have no business getting all up in my feelings. Either way, honestly I am not eye-rollingly negative about people forging their path and doing well through hard work and passion, especially when they are clearly meeting a need with their audience. But I am concerned that we will find all we have left is our ability to be sold to, whether by the big companies or by our friends. And what it means when all this white noise is so loud that it drowns out our own truths.
What this means for me is being more thoughtful about who I surround myself with, in real life and in terms of what I consume media-wise. It’s ok to not want what you are told to want, and to give those things no time in your head. It’s ok to be aware of the impact your life and choices have on others and have that be part of how you live with integrity. It’s ok to want more: and for that wanting not to be about the kind of consumer crap that might impress the table at the bar but about forging a real life, for the long term.
And it’s ok to recognise where you are different to others, and to recognise that this doesn’t make you better or make them bad: it just makes you both individual, beautiful humans doing what you can to follow your own star.