Remember the “Man in the Car Paradox” When You’re About to Make an Expensive Mistake

Imagine you’ve decided to eat at a really fancy restaurant. You pull up to the front, and it turns out they have a valet service. Handing your keys to the attendant, you turn to walk into the establishment, but something captures your attention from the corner of your eye.

A beautiful, shiny red Ferrari has just pulled up. Normally you aren’t impressed by fancy cars, but this one is the perfect blend of timeless design and modern aesthetics. It’s that perfectly bold shade of hot rod red.

In spite of yourself, you start daydreaming about what it would be like to own a car like that.

Surely, if you owned a car like that, you would be the center of attention when you pulled up. Every eye would be on you as you effortlessly commanded admiration and respect. Everyone would know that you are someone special.

You might not have spotted the problem yet. Here it is: Did you notice that I never once mentioned the driver?

The man in the car probably believes all the same things about the car that you do. He thinks the car is earning him attention, respect, and admiration. He thinks it makes him come across as effortlessly cool.

But you aren’t thinking about him at all.

The truth is, no one cares about the man (or woman) in the car.

The paradox of the man in the car is that you believe if you were the one in the car, people would notice you. But you believe this while ignoring the man in the car.

I learned about this paradox from Morgan Housel, author of The Psychology of Money. He had actually spent some time working as a valet attendant. He recounts that during this period he spent a lot of time admiring nice cars…and virtually no time noticing the people driving them.

Housel recognizes that humans often buy things to impress people, but this approach usually backfires. As he says in one memorable quote:

No one is more impressed with your stuff than you are.

Morgan Housel, Episode 659 of The Art of Manliness Podcast

This isn’t to say that you should never buy a nice car or try to impress people. But it is a reminder that buying expensive things to impress people is a costly risk to take. Even in the best cases, the people you impress won’t be admiring you, they’ll just be imagining themselves with your stuff.

Human beings have a deep desire to acquire status. That’s fine. But maybe instead of buying it you can try earning it. Consistently showing up, serving, helping, and recognizing the value of other people is hard work. But it will earn you a lot more real status in your community than buying a car will.

The money you save by not trying to impress people can be invested with the goal of acquiring something more rare and valuable: Freedom.

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