The following is an excerpt (Chapter 1) from my new book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement
You’ve heard a chest-thumping guru or two say something along the lines of “the man is trying to keep you down!” They’re right, in a way, but this way of thinking goes much deeper than that platitude. In more ways than one, society is actually designed for you to be average. But it isn’t some evil conspiracy to keep you down.
McDonald’s doesn’t pay people less than a living wage because they’re evil but because they’re allowed to, within the current system. Not only that, the company has every incentive to pay you as little as possible.
The student loan debt bubble isn’t a grand conspiracy to stifle the innovation of entire generations. It’s a natural consequence of loans being subsidized by the government to make both the government and universities more money.
People in power have many incentives to keep the total number of people in power low.
This has been true throughout history. Power corrupts, but it’s not as if the idea of power concentration was concocted on purpose. It’s a simple consequence of human nature.
There are tangible, pragmatic, and even financial reasons for these situations to occur. When you understand the chessboard, you can navigate it. This isn’t another self-help treatise telling you to “escape cubicle hell” because corporations are evil. They’re not evil. They just are.
I’m trying to paint a picture of how the world really works in the most honest and straightforward way possible. I’m not trying to fire you up or make you frustrated with “the man.” I want you to have clarity.
The biggest obstacle to clarity is focusing on the way things should work as opposed to how they do work.
Instead, accept the idea that society has incentives to keep you from improving. Get over it, and move forward with the proper understanding.
So what the hell am I talking about?
How We Organize Societies
Let’s say we had a system where all of us were encouraged to be unique individuals who all followed their highest pursuits. Society likely wouldn’t be able to function the way it currently does. I mean the top-down structure it currently has, like one giant pyramid with a few powerful people at the top and many people at the bottom.
A bottom-heavy corporatist-style society requires many people to do things they don’t enjoy for a living. The larger the companies and institutions, the more people with low levels of agency are required to keep these structures running. We could have a more decentralized society where more people were their own “little islands,” shop owners, freelancers, and owners of their own little territories who all traded with each other.
This version would allow many people to have a moderate amount of power instead of it all being concentrated at the top. There is a pocket of society that does live this way. I live this way. But it’s not feasible for everyone to live this way with the way the current system is set up.
On the whole, society will continue to be a bottom-heavy machine, but you, as the individual, can escape — a few cogs missing from the machine are fine. You want to escape the machine and do your own thing. That’s the goal.
Keep in mind, society is an emergent property. This means that certain incentives just caused the system to be this way. There’s no grand conspiratorial plan. Over time, certain institutions formed, technologies were invented, and industries were created. These changes necessitated certain types of companies, which necessitated certain requirements of the people, and many different variables came together to create the world we live in today. All of this just sort of happened.
The Industrial Revolution was the catalyst for all of this.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was formal education only for the middle and upper classes who could pay for it or had enough income to allow children time for learning rather than working. After its inception, we made the public school system mandatory for most children.
With this, we needed to train teachers to educate the students, and we created “normal schools” to do just that. These normal schools not only taught teachers to teach, but they also taught them societal norms and doctrines to pass on to the students. The norms and doctrines aligned with the goals society needed to reach at the time. To expand industry, you needed many compliant workers.
It’s not a coincidence that classrooms are very regimented, similar to a factory. You sit in the same spot every day, the class periods are all the same length, and you learn to be still and relatively silent for hours on end.
The public education system and societal norms we have learned from it weren’t a direct result of the factories. The Industrial Revolution certainly played a part in it, but many different variables came together in a patchwork way.
After the Industrial Revolution, and a time where the majority of people worked in factories, white-collar corporations eventually came along. The corporations shared the themes of obedience and conformity found in the factories. The “company man” was born. If you worked hard, played office politics the right way, and shuffled papers correctly for a few decades, you could take care of your family and climb the ladder.
It’s not that corporations and society’s standards are going away any time soon. They’re not. The only difference now is that the route of certainty is actually less reliable and fulfilling than striking out on your own. This wasn’t always true.
So why don’t people take the road less traveled? They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. We have many incentives to “play by the rules,” while companies and society have many incentives to enforce them.
Employers Aren’t “Out To Get You.” They Just Need You To Be Compliant
In a very real sense, employers need to create a situation with a lot of downsides to keep you compliant. Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains this well in an excerpt from his book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life1, specifically an essay titled How to Legally Own Another Person:
“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game …”
He goes on to say:
“Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you the evidence of submission.
“Evidence of submission is displayed by having gone through years of the ritual of depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day, punctual arrival at an office, denying himself his own schedule, and not having beaten up anyone. You have an obedient, housebroken dog.
Employees are more risk-averse, they fear being fired more than contractors do being sued.”
His tongue is a little sharp for my taste, but he does hit the right nerve here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone tell me they would follow a dream but they have to pay their bills, pay off their debt, keep their health insurance, etc.
Do you think the system was designed with this many strings tied to you by accident? There’s no Illuminati. Don’t picture Homer Simpson attending the Stonecutters meeting. Societies become more and more restrictive because they have to. We live in a “free country,” and you have “free will,” but not really.
On top of this, employers can’t run their businesses without giving you much less than you’re worth. Your company has employees, supervisors, supervisors to supervisors, owners, shareholders, equipment, supplies, etc. When they price the services or products you help them provide, they have to account for all of those expenses and make sure everyone above you gets their cut. You’d be surprised at how much your services might be worth if you just sold them directly — often 10x what a business pays you as an employee.
That doesn’t seem fair, does it? But think about this: What other choice do they have? In 2018, Amazon paid zero dollars in federal income taxes2. Companies like Walmart actually provide information to new employees about how to apply for food stamps and government assistance3. These practices seem immoral, but as it stands, every incentive points to these obvious outcomes. Public companies have shareholders. If you give ownership of your business to other people, you have bosses.
Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world at a net worth of about $170 billion, doesn’t have free will. His board and shareholders want the company to be as profitable as possible because they want to make as much money as possible. Going even further into incentives, rich shareholders have expenses, tastes, and lifestyles of their own, as well.
Combine this with the fact that companies are currently allowed to get, for lack of a better word, welfare from the government, and it would make sense for them to pay low wages and let the government foot the bill.
Be honest, if you were Jeff Bezos, would you do anything differently? Maybe you would. But company founders are usually extremely Type A, self-centered personalities who have no problem with confrontation or making less-than-ethically-optimal decisions. In their minds, they put skin in the game and sacrificed their own future to create companies with no guarantee of success, and plenty of possibility for financial ruin. They earned that money, no matter how much it is.
If you owned a company that profitable, would you just avoid jumping through tax loopholes, give your shareholders the middle finger, and put your business and personal relationships on the line for the sake of benevolence? Maybe. But it’s really easy to picture yourself acting a certain way when, in reality, you might act differently if you were in the position itself.
There Are No Easy Answers
The point of this isn’t to shower praise and love on CEOs and company founders. I’m telling you how things are. This isn’t a political book, but sure, laws could be changed, and the people could rise up to undermine these incentive structures. But people like us, who are just trying to navigate life and make things a little better for ourselves and the people we care about, might not have time to fight the system.
If you want to spend the time you could be using toward activities that move the needle for your life on “occupying Wall Street,” then do that. Seriously, I’m not knocking you for it. If you want to wait for the minimum wage — and all wages — to increase again, be my guest. But by definition, that means you’re waiting for a longshot (to say the least); and it probably wouldn’t dramatically improve your situation if it was successful! If you’re a true freedom fighter and that is your mission, then making these changes happen and getting these laws passed would make you happy. But are you an activist, really? You tell me.
Make no mistake about it: Escaping the rat race is no easy feat. Nor is it something everyone should chase. It has a lot of downsides. With employment, you do get some security even if it’s somewhat shaky. You do have plenty of justifiable reasons to keep everything as is. A roof over your head, food for your family, and insurance to keep a health catastrophe from ruining your life are all very good reasons to stay employed even if you hate your job.
Stepping outside of your employment comfort zone may not work. You can definitely fail, go broke, and create even more problems than you had before. In a later chapter, I’ll tell you about low-risk ways to do things like start a side business while you have a job, and launch ventures you don’t have to go into debt to fund. You have options, but you can’t exercise the options correctly until you understand the truth.
I genuinely wish the systems were different. I wish employment was the only hurdle. I’d be totally down for utopia, and I’d wait for it if I thought there was even a remote possibility of it happening. I just don’t see it.
And I have to live my life. I want to live it well, and I don’t have time to wait for the scales of society to tip evenly. Do you? I chose to create my own path, and for better or worse, I bet on myself instead of a system that has shown zero evidence of the ability to raise the tides for the masses.
To get ahead in life, you have to “pull back” like a bow and arrow. Only when you understand the game can you propel forward.
So, yeah, I am going to spill a bit more ice water on your dreams. But it’s for good reason. You’ll be stronger for it. Let’s keep going.
Your Friends and Family Kind of Suck (I’m Sorry)
Try an experiment for me. Over the next week, tell a bunch of family and friends you’re going to take your savings and start a restaurant (or literally any other business for that matter). Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.
They’re not going to outright tell you not to do it (well, some will). Instead, they’ll “concern troll” you:
“Gee, I don’t know Bob. I heard most new restaurants fail.”
“You’re going to spend all your savings? Is that practical?”
There are a few exceptions, of course, but by and large, this is the reaction. It’s not that your loved ones don’t want you to succeed. It’s that they don’t want you to succeed, but don’t really know they don’t want you to succeed. It’s a deep subconscious level that’s based on a lot of different factors.
On top of our genetic wiring to envy others who are more successful than we are, we have to deal with, for lack of a better term, the conditioning we’ve learned from society. And no, this isn’t me calling other people “sheeple” or claiming that anyone is out to get you. None of this is malicious. It just is.
Human beings are status-comparing machines. Social status is a big part of our evolution. Your pecking order in the tribe had real consequences. So, deep down, when those around you see that you’re starting to improve, it tickles your lizard brain into sending a subtle message that someone is rising up the totem pole.
Others will try to tear you down to make themselves feel better, without even meaning to. Don’t blame them. Treat it like a physiological trait because it kind of is. Deal with it. This is the motto that saves your sanity.
In Part Two, where I discuss the process of overcoming the obstacles in your way, I’ll go in-depth on strategies you can use to deal with this, but here’s a short synopsis:
- Keep Your Mouth Shut — Working on your dreams in silence is a lot easier than exposing yourself to judgment while you’re trying to change your life.
- Be Normal Around Others — Don’t try to evangelize and spread the good word about your new self-improvement journey. Nobody wants to hear it, and you’ll get resistance for trying to “convert” people. Just engage in small talk, let people complain, and pretend like you’re maintaining the status quo just like everyone else.
- Stop Taking Shit Personally — Reread the section above if you have to. People have no choice but to behave the way they do. Don’t take it to heart. Use Robert Greene’s rule for dealing with people, and “treat fools around you as a normal part of life, like rocks or furniture.”
These tips all tie into the theme of accepting the forces at work instead of trying to change them. These forces are woven together seamlessly.
The Media Wants You To Be Depressed, Sad, and Angry (Because It Helps Them Make Money)
Charlie Munger, one of the smartest people in the world, has a quote that permanently stuck with me since I first read it:
“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”5
He often says “If you know the incentive, you know the outcome.”
Let’s take a look at the different ingredients in the “incentive recipe” for the media:
- Media companies need to make money.
- To do this, media companies need eyeballs. They sell this attention to advertisers.
- Many claim that high arousal emotions, particularly negative ones, drive the most engagement.6
I used to get upset with the media for trying to gaslight me until I realized they have no other choice. Reflecting life, society, and the world accurately would cost them money. Taleb has a saying, “To cure yourself of the news, read last week’s news.”
It’s all a giant heaping pile of bullshit. It’s not malicious. It’s just the obvious outcome of a perverse incentive structure.
And I just touched on media companies like news websites. Social media is another 300-pound gorilla of psychological engineering. I’m just as hooked as you, and I don’t have a great solution for this, other than to get smarter and somewhat curb your social media use. It’s hard.
These companies employ not just a few, but thousands of the world’s smartest people, such as psychologists, engineers, and programmers, for the sole purpose of trying to figure out how to make social media more addictive. It makes sense. All the incentives point there.
Don’t believe me? Look at this direct quote in The Guardian from Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive:
“Your behaviors, you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you’re going to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”7
See, it’s not as if these companies concocted a plan to get everyone hooked and controlled by their technology. Social media companies did start with the genuine intention to connect people, but as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” These companies need to make money, and as soon as they saw the neon green incentive sign telling them negative social engineering was the best route to profit, acting on it was a foregone conclusion.
Make no mistake about it. You are being gaslighted on a daily basis. Imagine news companies and social media devoid of spun narratives. Pretend they used an accurate portrayal of the world that focused on the positive instead of the negative.
They wouldn’t make money, and you wouldn’t engage.
Yes, the blame lies with us, too. We love negativity and drama. We want the “sky is falling” narrative to be true because that means our problems aren’t our fault. Incentives drive all of us to make counterproductive decisions.
Knowing all of this doesn’t make you immune to deception, but you’ll start taking what you read, hear, and see with a massive grain of salt. The media cherry picks stories and narratives. It’s not so much what they tell you as much as it’s what they don’t. Again, no grand conspiracy. Just simple incentives.
When you start to see the different incentives stacked on top of one another, it’s no wonder why change is so difficult. You’re trying to become a sovereign and self-actualized individual when all the outside forces around you are trying to make you the exact opposite.
If you want to change, you need to understand not only how this is all happening, but why. When you realize that much of what society does to you doesn’t have much to do with you, you start to become free. They’re not out to get you. You’re just a cog in their machine.
Fortunately, if you decide to escape, they won’t even know you’re missing.
Food and Drink Companies Want You To Be out of Shape, and Big Pharma Wants You To Be Sick
If healthy organic food were cheaper to produce and more profitable to sell, more companies would try to sell it to you. When you look at fast food companies, soda manufacturers, and all other peddlers of unhealthy garbage, look at the incentives to create these products.
They’re much cheaper to produce. Also, these foods are highly addictive. Food companies know this. Not only do they know this, but they actively research your specific tastes and cravings down to the finest details.
Howard Moskowitz has a Ph.D. in psychology, and he has worked with several food companies to help them create the tastiest and most addictive foods. When asked about how moral his work was in The New York Times, he had this to say:
“There’s no moral issue for me. I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”8
Behind the stories of companies and institutions “trying to keep you down,” you’ll find hundreds and thousands of people who were just doing what they had to do.
This quote came from details the process food companies follow when creating drug-like foodstuffs:
“In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers.”
They literally have that shit down to a science. Those damn incentives.
When it comes to health care, the incentive structure that keeps the gears turning is pharmaceutical companies. The goal is to always “make more profit” because profit is the incentive that drives businesses. If it were more profitable to provide alternative medicines, they’d do it. Hell, if it were more profitable to provide general nutrition advice to help you avoid preventable illnesses, they’d do that. Instead, they work in concert with other institutions to keep you sick.
It’s not as if these companies are all directly talking together and colluding, but think about it. Do you think a heart health and hypertension pill company necessarily minds that thousands of people have heart issues that are completely preventable? Maybe they don’t want things to be exactly this way, but they’re not in a rush for the population to get healthy at once.
You can imagine these companies and institutions all being involved in a giant “wink and nod” scheme with one another. The politicians and media companies make you sad, angry, and depressed. When you’re sad, angry, and depressed, you work out less and eat more. When you work out less and eat more, you get sick, and someone is there to provide the perfect pill to cure you just enough for you to go through the entire cycle all over again.
Make No Mistake About It, You’re Fighting an Uphill Battle
I hate when self-help books try to make it seem like these problems are easy to solve.
Picture the prototypical John or Jane Doe in society. They’re either depressed or experiencing constant low-level anxiety, out of shape, working in a job they hate, and hooked on some sort of substance, be it caffeine or oxycontin. Everywhere they look they’re being reinforced to believe they have no agency over their lives.
To ask that person to just undo decades of conditioning and to self-actualize in one fell swoop is a hell of a lot to ask.
Maybe you fit this description. Or pieces of it. Enough of it to know something’s wrong. I understand how hard it is to just “lift yourself up by the bootstraps,” because society doesn’t want you to, at least not all of us at once.
Again, this isn’t meant to piss you off or get you fired up. It’s about understanding reality.
Whenever you try to “succeed” or “follow your dreams,” you’re going to have to do so in a world that will indirectly and directly attempt to stop you. It’s a natural consequence of how things work, not a planned conspiracy.
Keeping this in mind will increase your odds of success because you can be less emotional about the process. It does no good to shout into the sky. The game is rigged. What are you going to do about it?
The only fighting chance you have comes through personal responsibility and self-reliance, with the full understanding that you have to be at an above-average effort level to play a rigged game.
The good news, though, is once you understand the game is somewhat rigged, you navigate differently, which dramatically increases your odds of “escaping the Matrix.” I see so many people fail, not because of a lack of information, but because of an improper understanding of how the world works.
You don’t need to be super optimistic to succeed. You don’t need me to get you fired up, jumping up and down like you’re at a Tony Robbins seminar. Inspiration and motivation are fine, but they pale in comparison to realism and wisdom.
You don’t need a chip on your shoulder. Come back to this section when you feel frustrated. It’s the cornerstone for the rest of the mindset techniques I’m going to give you.
The minute I stopped fighting back against an imaginary enemy and started fighting for myself, my life changed. Embrace this attitude so yours can, too.
Ayodeji is the author of Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement
- Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Penguin Books Ltd., 2019, Amazon Kindle.
- Davis, Andrew. “Why Amazon Paid No 2018 US Federal Income Tax.” CNBC, CNBC, 4 Apr. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/04/03/why-amazon-paid-no-federal-income-tax.html.
- Clark, Krissy. “Are Walmart’s Prices So Low Because Its Employees Are on Food Stamps?” Slate Magazine, 2 Apr. 2014, www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2014/04/walmart_employees_on_food_stamps_their_wages_aren_t_enough_to_get_by.html.
- Greene, Robert. Mastery. Penguin USA, 2013, Amazon Kindle.
- Kaufman, Peter D., and Charles T. Munger. Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition. Donning Co. Pub., 2005, Amazon Kindle.
- Berger, Jonah. “Media.” Jonah Berger, 2013, www.jonahberger.com/contagious-framework-stepps/.
- Wong, Julia Carrie. “Former Facebook Executive: Social Media Is Ripping Society Apart.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Dec. 2017, www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/11/facebook-former-executive-ripping-society-apart
- Moss, Michael. “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html.