Everything You Can’t Have

Nothing is as desired as much as the thing you want but can’t have.

In fact for most people there’s a hierarchy of wants that goes something like this:

A few years after leaving office, Richard Nixon mentioned that the richest people in the world are some of the unhappiest, because they can afford to never struggle.

“Drinking too much. Talking too much. Thinking too little. Retired. No purpose,” he said.

To ordinary people, it sounds amazing. To those who can afford to do anything, it often falls flat.

Nixon elaborated:

You feel that, gee, isn’t it just great to have enough money to afford to live in a very nice house, to be able to play golf, to have nice parties, to wear good clothes, to travel if you want to?

And the answer is: If you don’t have those things, then they can mean a great deal to you.

When you do have them, they mean nothing to you.

This is a little exaggerated. But the idea of valuing only what you’ve struggled for is real.

In 1905, author William Dawson wrote in his book *The Quest for The Simple Life* about how the hardest thing to understand about money is the thrill of the chase. Something you can easily afford brings less joy than something you must save and struggle for. “The man who can buy anything he covets values nothing that he buys,” Dawson wrote.

He went on:

There is a subtle pleasure … in the anxious debates which we hold with ourselves whether we can or cannot afford a certain thing; in our attempts to justify our wisdom; in the risk and recklessness of our operations; in the long deferred and final joy of our possession.

But this is a kind of pleasure which the man of boundless means never knows.

The buying of pictures affords us an excellent illustration on this point. [Ordinary people] … have to walk weary miles and wait long weeks to get upon the track of their treasure; to use all their knowledge of art and men to circumvent the malignity of dealers; to experience the extremes of trepidation and of hope; to deny themselves comforts, and perhaps food, that they may pay the price which has at last, after infinite dispute, reached an irreducible minimum; and the pleasure of their possession is in the ratio of their pains.

But the man who enters a sale-room with the knowledge that he can have everything he wishes by the signing of a cheque feels none of these emotions.

This all makes sense when you understand what your brain wants.

It doesn’t want nice cars or big homes.

It wants dopamine.

That’s it.

Your brain just wants dopamine.

I’ll leave it to the excellent book The Molecule of More to describe the process (emphasis mine):

Dopamine is the chemical of desire that always asks for more – more stuff, more stimulation, and more surprises.

In pursuit of these things, it is undeterred by emotion, fear, or morality.

From dopamine’s point of view, it’s not the having that matters; it’s getting something – anything – that’s new.

Your brain doesn’t want stuff. It doesn’t even want new stuff. It wants to engage in the process and anticipation of getting new stuff.

This is similar to Will Smith’s description of fame: Becoming famous is amazing. Being famous is a mixed bag. Losing fame is miserable.

Drake said something similar: “People like you more when you are working towards something, not when you have it.”

The change, not the amount, is what matters.

You can see this so often with money.

When you’re young you dream about having a car – any car.

When you get a $10,000 car you dream of the $20,000 car.

When you get a $20,000 car you dream of the $50,000 car.

If you get the 50,000 car you dream of the $100,000 car.

If you get the $100,000 car you dream of having several $100,000 cars.

There’s almost no end to this. The millionaires look at the centimillionaires, who look at the billionaires, who look at the decamillionaires, who look at the centibillionaires …

It’s always just what’s next? How can I get to the next level?

That’s what you do because that’s what your brain wants. It’s like Nixon said: Once you have something, it means nothing to you.

Some people are less susceptible to this than others. And I like author Ramit Sethi’s idea of trying to figure out your own rich life – discovering the little, peculiar, things money can buy that bring you sincere joy and happiness.

But the dopamine train is a common and powerful trap.

And it helps answer the question of, “What do you want out of money?” Do you want a new car? A new house? Better clothes?

For most people, no, you don’t actually want any of those things. At least not directly. You want everything you can’t have. And at various points in your life those are things you can’t have – yet, at least.

Once you get them – if you do – the goalpost moves, the dopamine takes over, and you immediately start to ask: What’s next?

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