Find Your Own Tribe

A lot of advice for succeeding involves being different. Avoiding blending in. Not following the crowd.

Just be yourself! Be weird! People will appreciate it!

And that may all be true. But it doesn’t make it easy.

Even if being different makes sense and is logical, our brains are not built for it.

We have an evolutionary need to fit in.

The History of the Brain

When we think in terms of human history, we think in hundreds of years. Maybe thousands of years. But this is actually only a tiny fragment of the time that we have spent becoming who we are. Our brains have evolved over millions of years.

For most of that evolution, we needed to fit in. We needed to maintain relationships at all costs. An individual out in the wild alone was not going to do so well.

Having people like and respect you was a matter of life and death. It was a life or death imperative to avoid angering your group. In order to survive, the safest route was to signal that we were part of the in group. That we belong. That we are just like the people around us.

Because otherwise, we’d be dead.

The Righteous Mind

I was thinking about this recently when reading notes that I had taken when I read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle of the book defines its focus: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Haidt discusses this history of fitting in in the context of political tribes and as part of a much larger (and more nuanced) exploration of why people sometimes vote against their apparent interests.

But this rationale applies well beyond politics.

We all feel that natural desire to fit in. To blend into the crowd.

And we have that feeling because for millions of years we needed to blend in to survive. This explains why many people have their heart rate shoot up when they need to give a speech. It is the fight or flight response. Your body is saying, “If you screw up this speech the listeners will cast us out and we will die!”

Today we probably won’t die from giving a bad speech. But our brain hasn’t caught up yet. We’re not really built for the modern world and it is hard to shake instincts built over millions of years.

Survival of the Richest

When you think about it, keeping up with the Joneses is really just a form of fitting in with your tribe. You are buying a sense of belonging.

This is not usually a conscious decision. You are not saying, “Steve got a BMW, so I need to get a nice car so that people don’t think Steve is better than me.” But your subconscious is saying “People like us have nice cars. We should get one before we get thrown out of the group.”

This is why we see keeping up with the Joneses in visible assets rather than invisible assets. We keep up with our neighbors’ home renovations and cars, but not their 401(k)s or bank account balances.

Our brain knows we don’t actually need to be wealthier and more successful. We just need appear wealthier and more successful to gain the respect of our peers.

My primitive brain thinks that if Steve has a nicer car and house and lawn than me, then he must be more in control of his life and more successful. He must be more worthy of being a respected leader.

Your brain doesn’t want you to be the weakest person in the neighborhood. More specifically, it doesn’t want you to appear to be the weakest. This means that if you need to take on credit card debt so that you can fit in and have the same luxuries as those around you, so be it.

And of course your point of comparison shifts when your tribe shifts. This means that when you move into a more expensive neighborhood, you have more expensive neighbors to keep up with.

Finding Your Own Tribe

The advice in the personal finance community often is some variation of “Hey! Stop it!” If we stop and think about it, we recognize that our spending is affected by those around us (and studies have shown that, as well). We also know that if we want to build wealth we need to be saving more and spending less. So why not just stop spending on status symbols? Just stop keeping up with the Joneses.

The problem is that the rational brain has had a lot less time to develop than the part of our brain that thinks we’re going to die if we look poorer than our tribe.

Instead of trying to overpower millions of years of instincts, maybe we should be trying to redirect them.

If our tribe is making us poor, why not pick a new tribe?

The Internet is a powerful tool for a lot of reasons, but one is that it connects us to people that we never would have known in the real world. We can read from our choice of millions of blogs. We can connect with billions of people. We can find people with any interest under the sun.

And we can find a community with a different benchmark to define ourselves.

You can delve into the financial independence blogosphere and find a tribe that focuses on savings and investments behind the scenes rather than visible assets.

You can join a community of frugality bloggers who are constantly publicly sharing ways to cut costs and save money.

You can find places that discuss minimalism or real estate investing or debt repayment.

You can find a new tribe to fit into. A tribe that fits your values. A tribe that pushes your subconscious brain into the direction that your rational brain wants to go anyway.

Your brain wants you to fit in. But geography doesn’t need to determine your benchmark. Do some research and choose your own tribe.

15 thoughts on “Find Your Own Tribe”

  1. Interesting points you make here Matt. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to find my tribe, both online and offline. I think I’ve done a decent job online by starting a community through my blog, but offline I’m still struggling a little bit.

    Thanks for sharing. Have you read Tribes, by Seth Godin?
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…For One More DayMy Profile

  2. Great points. The internet is indeed a powerful tool. It was definitely a lot more difficult in the past before technology when you were pretty much stuck in the tribe which was the one in the area where you lived. You want to surround yourself with people who will bring you up not drag you down. And your comments about the evolution of fitting in was interesting and made me think of this post from Wait but Why: http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/06/taming-mammoth-let-peoples-opinions-run-life.html
    Pretty interest read if you have the time.

    1. I love Wait but Why. Tim is always so good at capturing really complex ideas in really easy to understand writing. I don’t recall this article, so I opened it in a tab and will read it at some point before the end of the day.

      Thanks, Andrew!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  3. I love the online community for keeping me focused, but I think you have to find a non-virtual tribe, too. Or at least a clan. Proximity to like-minded others is important, both for reassurance and for inspiration, and for the safe space of not having your values questioned.

    One thing I’ve also noticed is that when I start talking, there are people who are part of the frugality tribe who I never would have guessed were proud members. My buddy in her Lily skirts and Apple Watch? She’s a second-hand-loving coupon ninja. The lady whose incredible travel pictures awe me? Grows half her own food and only eats out when she travels.We can only connect if we put ourselves out there.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Troy’s Investing Story: Lessons from a Teenaged InvestorMy Profile

    1. This is true for sure. My approach has mostly been to find online tribes for more topic-specific focus. There are a few people in my real life that I can talk to about saving and investing, for example, but not necessarily many that I can get into the level of detail that I can with the online community.

      Thanks for stopping by, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  4. What’s the saying, surround yourself with good company, or positive people. Mom would always say who you surround yourself with, you become, so stay away from those bad influences, like the Jones. So important to be around like minded people if you are susceptible to being influenced easily. I do like to have some balance to hear other’s POVs on things, life, money, etc. It all helps shape our own journey.
    Brian recently posted…Financial Literacy for MillennialsMy Profile

    1. The balance is a great point. If we close ourselves off to outside ideas we miss opportunities to improve ourselves and our lots in life. We need to be able to hear other points of view, but not follow them blindly.

      Thanks, Brian!
      Matt recently posted…The Things We Cannot ChangeMy Profile

  5. That’s a novel way to look at it. I always assumed it might be tied o competition but more from the attract a mate aspect. Similar to in he wild where certain animals try to attract mates by being more showy, perhaps subconsciously we all do the same thing. Even once your married it could be some subconscious backup method from a time long forgot. It’s an interesting point to theorize.
    FullTimeFinance recently posted…The Cost of Failure is usually less then the cost of not trying.My Profile

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