Too many people spend money they haven’t earned
To buy things they don’t want
To impress people they don’t like
Even though many ascribe this quote to Will Smith, it was Robert Quillen who first said this. And he had a good point.
But rather than putting the quote, together with a photo of Mr. Quillen, in a meme generator and sharing it on my Facebook timeline, I would like to explore it a bit more in depth and nitpick the thinking underlying the quote.
What I think Mr. Quillen was trying to convey here, is that too many people around him were too focused on their image rather than their needs, which does not only apply to spending unearned money or buying unwanted things but to virtually any choice we face on a daily basis.
Let me explain.
Being human means that you have certain needs. These needs are hierarchical; some are more important than others. You need to get your daily portion of calories more than having social contact and you need social contact more than to achieve something important in your life and so on. When it comes to basic needs , ones that are necessary for survival, this hierarchy is pretty much the same for everyone (any person starving would, if it was a binary choice, prefer to have a plate of rice over having an interesting conversation partner).
Beyond these basic needs, the order of importance becomes different for each person and defines each person’s individuality. So, for example, an outgoing person, in most situations, has a stronger need to talk with people than to read a book while a more reserved person has a stronger need for a good book than a loud party. This does not, as some might suggest, mean that an outgoing person resents reading books or a reserved person does not like parties – it just means that they like the one more than the other.
Thus, each person has their own, let’s say, ‘hierarchy of needs’. This hierarchy of needs can change over time and per situation and might not always be clear, but in most situations you’ll have a good idea of what you need (sometimes, when faced with a choice, just asking yourself the question what do I need? can clarify your needs).
But being human also means that you are a social animal who has the ability to form an image, and constantly does so, of oneself and of how others perceive you. The outgoing person, for example, might prefer talking to people over reading a book most of the time and therefore people start forming an image of the person as ‘outgoing’. This image feeds back to the person because of what others tell her. This than reinforces itself through the others’ expectations; ‘Wow, you’re such an outgoing person, you must be partying every other day of the week!’.
So, in short, by needs I refer to what one needs in a certain situation and by image I refer to how one is perceived and perceives oneself.
One’s image and needs are often in conflict with one another: It is Friday night and the outgoing person doesn’t really feel like going out but would rather read a book or watch a TV show, on her own. Yet her friends expect her to come to the party tonight because she is the ‘party animal’ and, on top of that, she internalized an image of herself as an outgoing person that never skips parties.
Clearly the two are in conflict with one another; the outgoing person has a need to stay at home and read a book yet perceives herself as someone that should go out and party. I would state the obvious when I say that, if she lets her actions be guided by her needs and stay at home over conforming to her (self-) image, she would be a happier person and more in control of her life.
That’s why I think the idea expressed in the quote I began with is liberating. Liberating because it makes life easier – whenever you face a choice you just ask yourself ‘what do I need?’, and base your choice on the answer of that question, instead of ‘what should I do?’ or ‘what do others think I should do?’.
This applies to many, many choices everyone faces on a daily basis.
It applies to choosing to be more punctual because you have a need to achieve something rather than adhering to your rebellious image of the ‘free spirit’.
It applies to choosing to go to that concert, vacation or museum on your own because you have a need to see artist A, painting B or country C rather than staying at home and maintaining an image of ‘that-person-who-is-never-alone’.
It applies to choosing to save up money for your rent instead of spending your first salary on new clothes because you need a roof over your head rather than looking stylish.
Basically, it involves taking a more rational, practical approach to one’s life.
Come to think of it, this sounds like common sense and something your grandparents could have told you as well.
Still, it is not going to be easy.
We’re hard-wired to care about our image and social position because, in a different time and place, social status was a guarantee for survival. Furthermore, identity-based consumerism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism) plays into this human tendency by means of ingenious marketing ploys, reinforcing it even though its original purpose, a guarantee for survival, has become obsolete.
But difficult is not impossible. Bad habits can be replaced and human tendencies can be overcome.