Is it possible that what you want, isn’t really what you want?
About 10 years ago, I really wanted a 1970s Corvette Stingray.
Cars are not a trivial purchase decision for most people, and I was no exception. As someone that needs to think about $50 purchases, I was certainly going to need to think about this $100,000+ decision. And I was going to think a lot. Sure, the car was nice to look at, and sounded great. However, looking below the surface, was a somewhat self-defeating motivation.
In this article, I’ll get vulnerable and share my personal experiences from a time I thought I could become cool by spending a lot of money. I hope my temporary lack of awareness inspires you to reflect on your own desires and the pursuit of genuine satisfaction.
the rich (hu)man in the car paradox
Morgan Housel first presented to me the Rich Man in the Car Paradox . To make this more generalisable, let’s replace “Man” with “Human” and “Car” with “Status Indicator.”
The paradox is that we often buy status indicators to improve our status in the eyes of others. However, whenever we see someone with a high status indicator, we generally forget about the person and instead think “How high status would I look if I had that status indicator?”
To make this more concrete, I’ll pick on myself. If I saw someone driving the car of my dreams, I don’t think “Wow, that person looks really cool.” Instead, I think “Wow, I would look really cool if I had that car!”
A car’s utility is mainly getting someone or a group of people from A to B. Anything I pay on top of that utility is trying to send a message about some part of my identity. This process is called impression management.
Impression management is not associated only with cars. It’s the clothes you wear, the facade of your home.
And some people may protest with “I like having pretty things.”
However, why do you care how it looks? You rarely get to see it! You’re in it!
This need for impression management can even stretch to the art on your walls, the music in your ears and the company you keep. However, art, music and social circles are more complex than mere impression management, so let’s focus on the more material aspects.
the smart person’s silence speaks volumes
We all have that friend that is constantly trying to show how smart they are by trying to one up you in an argument. Not only can it get irritating, but, how smart do they actually appear?
Let’s consider another friend: You may be lucky enough to have someone that listens intently to what you have to say, clarifies what you say to make sure they understand what you’re asking and only then volunteers their advice which is a single, pithy sentence of wisdom that shifts your perspective. How smart does this friend appear?
I’m guessing the friend that constantly tried to show you that they’re smart, probably looked like they were insecure about their intelligence. The other friend that was willing to wait until they were invited to give advice probably appeared so much more intelligent.
Restraint in imposing the ideal image of yourself on others can speak volumes.
The above example shows that a smart person doesn’t need to tell you they’re smart. If they have a strong need to do so, they probably have some insecurities around how smart they think they are.
Generally, it’s the same with any other facet of our impressions that we try to manage. The more we appear to express a certain quality, the more people might question if we’re overcompensating.
I told myself that I wanted a Stingray because I loved the way it looked, loved the way the it sounded and loved that it would stand out. But really, would I have wanted it as much if I was the only person that would get to see me in it? I doubt it.
It might be an oversimplification, but, I wanted other people to see me as “that cool guy with the Stingray.” However, I probably would have looked like I was overcompensating for some insecurity — whether that insecurity was known or unknown is something that can be explored in a different post!
So, how can we uncover our authentic desires amid the clamour of external influences?
It begins with self-reflection and a willingness to question our motivations. The car, the clothes, the art – do we genuinely enjoy them for our sake, or do we use them as tools to impress others?
There’s no shame in wanting recognition or approval; it’s part of human nature. The key is to strike a balance between those desires and our true passions, avoiding the allure of external validation.
The Rich Human with the Status Indicator Paradox can lead us to spend our resources on indicators that don’t change the way people think about us. In fact, these efforts to manage our impression can be counterproductive as seen when comparing the two friends above.
This need to appear as “that cool guy with the Stingray” would have led me to spend a whole lot of money on a depreciating asset that would have made me look more insecure than if I passed on the car and took the bus instead.
Remember, the best version of yourself is the one that embraces vulnerability, lives authentically, and seeks meaning beyond the confines of external judgment.
As for the Stingray? After a few years of deliberation, I realised that it wasn’t necessarily the car that I wanted, but the status I thought it might bring me in the eyes of others. At the time, I realised the money I would save on not leasing the Stingray could buy me freedom to not have to work for a while and pursue genuine satisfaction.
No regrets there!
That Cool Guy On The Bus
 Technically, I was planning on leasing the Stingray. Still, it felt equivalent to taking on a $100k mortgage on a depreciating asset! And that’s not even considering the ongoing costs for such an expensive car.
If you enjoyed this gem, you may like these:
The Simple Way to Unbloat Your Downtime
Stepping off the Treadmill: How to Break Free from the Hedonic Grind