The standard economic narrative as applied to human history tells us that barter came first, then money, and then credit and debt. In actuality we know that these concepts developed in the opposite order. Debt and credit pre-date the use of money by thousands of years. Money, in the form of early coins, came into usage largely as a way of keeping track of debts. And finally, the human use of barter systems actually arose after money, not before. Barter is employed by people who’ve already learned about money, and barter systems often use an equivalent of money to manage trades, such as how cigarettes are used as a medium of exchange in prisons.
With the publication of Wealth of Nations in 1776, Adam Smith helped to popularize the notion that money was invented to be a superior replacement for barter. But anthropologists and historians found that no such barter-based cultures actually existed before money; barter came after money. Before money there were some simple forms of trade, often combined with complex social rituals, but they were extremely limited and normally used for trading between tribes on special occasions, not within existing groups and not on a daily basis.
Apparently humans didn’t have barter systems until after money came into play. One reason is that without money, a barter system would be way too complicated and unwieldy. Barter is typically used as a fallback system when formal currency isn’t available, and even then barter tends to be transacted with respect to a previously used currency. For hundreds of years after the Roman Empire fell, for instance, people engaged in barter exchanges, the value of which was translated into Roman currency. This was done even in areas that weren’t originally part of the Roman Empire. It was actually the concept of money that popularized barter.
So if people didn’t have barter until money came onto the scene, what did they do if they hadn’t been exposed to money? How did they exchange goods and services? They typically just shared freely with each other, or they gave each other gifts, sometimes upon request and often using rituals to do so. The notion of debt was only loosely and informally recorded in people’s minds, such as you might do today if you felt that a friend owed you a favor. This system worked quite well, and it still works well today. If you mooch off your friends or family too much, you may start noticing some resistance in their willingness to do future favors for you, along with some mounting pressure for you to start giving back now and then. If, on the other hand, you behaved generously with others, you might find that they’re fairly generous with you as well.
In truth there were lots of different cultures with different ways of trading. Some were quite imaginative in their rituals of exchange, such as having the equivalent of an inter-tribe swingers party that involved the exchange of goods as well as bodily fluids.
Born Into Debt
You could say that we’re are all born into debt. We depend on others for our survival, especially in our early years. We also benefit from all the knowledge and skills that were taught to us by others. When we come into this world, we receive value from others. Do we have an obligation to repay that value in some fashion, perhaps later in life when we’re capable of doing so?
How much did it cost your parents to raise you? Is that a debt you must repay, either to them or to society as a whole?
Look around you at all the things you’re able to use today that someone else created. Do you owe anyone anything for these gifts?
Do you owe the world anything at all for your existence? If you live strictly for yourself and choose not to contribute to others in any meaningful way, are you shirking your responsibilities?
These are interesting questions for you to explore on your path of growth. I encourage you to seek your own answers to them. I’ll share some thoughts about how I’ve explored them thus far.
In my earlier years, I was taught to believe in a God who seemed to feel I owed him something. I was supposed to worship him for my entire life. I was born a flawed human, and I would always be a flawed human. My very existence was a stain on God’s otherwise perfect world.
I learned from a young age that I was born into perpetual debt. I owed God my very existence, and thus I incurred a debt so great that I could never hope to repay it no matter what I did, but I still had to try. I was created in God’s image, but even though he was all powerful, he still wanted me to worship him and to glorify him for being so wonderful, and he’d be offended if I didn’t obey.
In my teenage years I began to slough off much of what I’d been taught growing up, mainly because it didn’t make much sense. I became an atheist. Without the burdensome notion of original sin on my back, I began thinking more objectively and open-mindedly about the idea of service to others.
After this shift the experience of helping people changed for me. I enjoyed it much more. It felt good to be able to choose to contribute as opposed to feeling that I had to do so in order to repay a debt or to glorify some petulant deity.
I had been taught that without God, I’d automatically become a deeply selfish person, but I found that I actually enjoyed giving a lot more when I felt free to choose it, not obligated to do so under threat.
The World Owes Me
And then, about a year later, I opted to push this exploration far to the other side. Shortly after I got to college, I tried out the philosophy of living mainly for myself. That led to lots of criminal behavior, drinking, gambling, and several arrests. I eventually straightened out and realized that wasn’t how I wanted to live. Looking back, I still appreciate that I explored that path, although I’m glad I didn’t do too much damage along the way.
My attitude during that time shifted from thinking that I owed my life to God and to society, to thinking that the world owed me and that I could take whatever I wanted to the extent that I was capable of doing so. I reveled in outsmarting systems to prevent theft. Anti-theft sensors were easy to overcome. Security cameras could be fooled via misdirection. I especially loved using social engineering tactics to steal things right under clerks’ noses. My gains were someone else’s loss. It was a competitive way of living.
I could have kept going down that path and often fantasized about escalating it in various ways, some of which I implemented. But eventually the world taught me that it didn’t agree with my thinking. I realized that if I kept living like that, I’d be in a perpetual state of conflict with the world, always wondering if and when I’d get caught again. A felony grand theft arrest finally convinced me to explore alternative ways of living.
My next phase was to progress to living with the mindset that I was debt-free. My philosophy during that time was live and let live.
I didn’t owe the world anything. The world didn’t owe me anything. You don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you. Let’s just keep to ourselves as best we can. That was my level of thinking during my early 20s.
This was a step up from a life of constant conflict, but I also endured a lot of hardship during this time, especially in the first few years of running my own business. My goals were largely for myself, not to substantially benefit the world. I found it very difficult to make my first business successful. It seemed like everything I did would backfire on me.
This was highly frustrating because I was better off financially when I was a criminal. During those years I had no financial debt, plenty of cash in the bank (usually around $10-20K, which was plenty for a 19-year old), and it was easy to cover my bills by selling stolen goods as needed.
When I tried to do what I felt was honest work, I sank into debt and went bankrupt. And it took six years to reach that point.
During that time I read books about making money, such as Think and Grow Rich. I may as well have read Think and Go Broke. The advice often sounded good — set clear goals, visualize having more wealth and abundance, make a plan, work the plan each day — but in practice my results at this level of thinking were dismal.
How come when I was just trying to maintain a neutral relationship with the world, did it seem like the world was constantly harshing on me and making my life a lot more difficult than it should have been? I felt there had to be an easier way to live.
Doing the Opposite
There’s a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza concludes that his default way of thinking never leads to good results, so he decides to try doing the opposite for a while. Whatever his natural instincts guide him to do, he commits to doing the exact opposite. While he tries this way of living, everything works out beautifully for him. Suddenly he starts getting terrific results across the board.
After having my fill of frustrating years, I decided to try something similar with my own version of the do the opposite philosophy. I would explore new options I hadn’t tried before, even if I couldn’t see how they would help. I could hardly do worse since my previous best thinking had led to bankruptcy. Since I was already broke, I didn’t have much to lose by experimenting.
Some of those do the opposite ideas didn’t pan out. But some absolutely did. One thing I tried during that time was to volunteer to serve in a software industry trade association. I had no idea where that would lead, but at least it would be something different than what I’d done in the past. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Within a month or two of getting involved, I was Vice President of the organization, then President the following year. And my income from selling my computer games went from $300 per month to $20,000 per month in a few years.
As a consequence of volunteering, I got to spend a lot of time interacting with other independent software developers, many of whom were quite successful. I also made contacts in the industry press. I learned how to improve my sales, and I learned how to get some free press coverage for my games as well. But when I volunteered, I did my best to focus on contributing to the association and its members. The benefits largely came about as side effects of volunteering.
This is also what got me started writing articles. I wrote my first article in 1999 for that trade association’s newsletter. For the next five years, I averaged about five articles per year. When I started blogging in 2004, it was a way to expand the occasional article writing I’d been doing since 1999. And it all started with a decision to trying doing the opposite of what I’d previously been doing.
I don’t think it was really the do the opposite philosophy that made the difference by itself. Sometimes doing the same worked just fine. I think what mattered most was that the energy signature I brought to my work after 1999 was totally different. I gave up on trying to succeed just for myself. I became more social within my industry and spent a lot of time helping others achieve their goals. I started thinking of my own success as being part of a larger social landscape.
I began speaking at industry conferences during that time. I hosted a roundtable for indie game developers at the annual Game Developers’ Conference. I launched an online discussion forum for indie game developers, kept it free of ads, and made sure it was intelligently moderated, so as to provide a valuable service to the community. I put in hundreds of hours per year on these types of service projects for others. All of this was unpaid.
During the years prior to 1999, my attention was focused mainly on my own goals. I wanted to become successful, grow my business, create hit computer games, and make lots of money. I also wanted to get out of debt. I really thought those were decent and intelligent goals.
I also figured that once I became rich, then I could focus on doing more to give back to the world if I wanted to, and I’d be in a better position to do so. What could I give to the world while I was broke and in debt? Surely I should focus on my own goals and get something going there first, right? Shouldn’t I create my own private victory before thinking about how to contribute to the world?
This strategy of working strictly on my own goals didn’t work out for me when I applied it to business and income generation. It had worked well for me in other areas of life though, such as school, which was probably why I stubbornly stuck with it for so long afterwards.
Paying the Debt
I discovered that I really liked doing acts of service for the community around me, especially writing articles. The feedback I received was encouraging because it told me that what I shared actually made a difference in people’s lives. My early articles for the trade association, which were printed in paper newsletters and mailed to about 1000 members, included a byline with my email address, so readers could send me feedback. I usually received a few emails for each article, including suggestions for new articles and some republishing requests.
I remember when one software developer wrote to me after I’d been writing for several years, thanking me that my ideas helped him build a business with more than $1 million in annual sales. That really got me thinking. I had never built my own business to that level, yet I was somehow able to help someone achieve even better financial results.
Some people might feel jealous upon receiving that kind of feedback, but I felt inspired and uplifted by it. I thought to myself… This is really cool. If I hadn’t written those articles, that guy’s business might not have done so well. I felt proud of his accomplishments, knowing that I played a role in helping him achieve his goals. I liked the idea that my lessons might actually be more valuable to other people than they were to me.
For years I had met with frustration after frustration and setback after setback while trying to achieve my goals for myself. Yet somehow I was able to help inspire others to do things that I’d never done. I have stacks of CDs that I’ve received in the mail from musicians that told me I inspired them to create a new album or song, some of which have lyrics inspired by my articles, but I’ve never composed an album myself. This encouraged me to keep discovering new lessons I could share. Even if a lesson only helped one person, I felt it justified taking the time to share it.
As people continued to share how I helped them in various ways, I began to revisit the idea of social debt again. At some point I realized that if I ever did have a debt to pay to the world for my existence, then surely I’ve long since repaid it by now. Even accounting for the criminal stuff I did during my late teens, I must be well past any reasonable standard of restitution that may be owed to society for my carelessness and my existence combined.
Consequently, I live each day with the feeling that I am officially out of existential debt. I can see that my existence is a net positive for the world with the various ripples I’ve created, not by my own accounting but by the sum of all the accounting that’s been reported to me by others. This includes the books people have written, the music that has been composed, the relationships that have formed, and the businesses and nonprofits that have been started that people have thanked me for helping them achieve.
Moreover, since I wrote most of my articles to be timeless, and since I’ve uncopyrighted them as well, and since they’ve been translated into many languages and republished in a variety of forms, I can reasonably expect that the ideas I’ve shared will continue to create positive ripples for many years to come. This gives me the sense that I’ve not only paid my existential debt for my life thus far, but I feel I’ve also paid more than enough for all my remaining years on earth as well.
So now I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back to feeling that I don’t owe the world anything for my existence. But this time it’s not because I don’t acknowledge the existence of the debt; it’s because I feel that if there ever was such a debt, then surely I’ve more than paid it off.
Overpaying the Debt
The feeling that I’ve overpaid the debt gives me a sense that I deserve to be supported by life. This doesn’t feel like entitlement but rather a natural reward that I’ve earned. I feel that I’ve contributed more than enough value to the world to cover the cost of my existence.
Sometimes I would think to myself, Hey, you’ve contributed so much already. Why not take it easy for a while? People can always read your older articles. Why keep writing so much? Surely you don’t have to. You have plenty of money. Go travel for a while. Take some time off. If anyone has earned some slack, surely you have.
But when I actually try to live that way, something feels off to me. I don’t feel as happy. I feel like I’ve lost the flow. The passive income keeps flowing, and my bills are still paid, but I feel out of sync with my path with a heart. Instead of enjoying more time off, I feel like my life fills up with trivialities and minor problems.
Taking some time off when I need a break feels good to me. But when I stop contributing or try to work strictly on my own personal goals for a while, I can tell that I’m not in the flow.
Simple Acts of Realignment
When I feel I’ve fallen out of sync with my path with a heart, I often remind myself to perform a simple act of realignment. This is a task I can do that I can reliably expect will bring me back in sync with the feeling of flow that I love so much.
My favorite act of realignment is to write and publish a new article. And I must write that article with the purest of intentions. I can’t be writing for selfish reasons or thinking about people’s reactions or web traffic effects or anything like that. My intention must be to write from inspiration and to help people grow.
Whenever I do that, I easily sync back up with my path with a heart.
This is a very empowering practice for me since I know that no matter how confused I get, how far off track I get, or how badly I screw up, I can always return to this simple act of realignment. I can always set a pure intention and write and publish a new article. It’s beautiful knowing that for the rest of my life, I’ll always have this simple practice that I can return to again and again to get back in tune with my flow.
Whenever I write a lot, which is my primary form of contribution, my life seems to flow with effortless ease.
Alignment vs. Debt
I think the idea of existential debt is a bit misguided. It’s a stab at understanding how to sync up with your path with a heart and to immerse yourself in that delightful feeling of flow, but the notion has been corrupted and turned into something that’s more likely to take you out of alignment.
Wrestling with the concept of whether or not I owe the world something for my existence was an important part of my path of growth. But these days I see contribution as an invitation, not an obligation.
I don’t feel obligated to pay back the world for anything, and I have good logical reasons for not feeling so obligated, if only because I feel I’ve already paid more than my fair share. But if I used this line of thinking to justify non-contribution henceforth, I’d still be missing the flow.
My path with a heart isn’t to pay off a debt from a place of duty or obligation. My path with a heart is to accept the invitation to create, to contribute, and to share. I don’t do this because I owe anyone anything. I don’t do this because I need money. I do it because I love being in the flow of inspiration. Writing, speaking, and other forms of sharing make me happy. When I write, I’m at peace.
People email me every week with message like, “I need money. Just tell me how I can make a lot of money quickly.” What can I say to someone who’s struggling with the type of mindset I succumbed to in my early 20s?
I can tell them how I solved similar money problems, which was basically to stop being needy, but they don’t like that answer at all. They want me to tell them how to solve those problems from their current level of thinking. That isn’t something I can tell them because I experienced only failure using that approach. I was never able to do it.
How do you tell someone that the solution is to stop being needy when they’re so addicted to feelings of neediness, debt, and obligation?
And how does one stop being needy anyway? Neediness is what you experience when you’ve fallen out of sync with your path with a heart. So to stop being needy, start doing something that’s incompatible with feeling needy. Start giving. Start contributing. Volunteer. Set a pure intention, listen to your inspiration, and act on your inspiration immediately.
Do the opposite of what needy people do. Do what you’d be doing if you were already in a place of abundance.
Purity of Intention
If you were to design your own simple act of realignment, what would it look like? When you fall off your path with a heart, what’s the quickest way to get back onto it?
Start with a pure intention. Set an intention to perform a selfless act of contribution and giving. Invite inspiration to come to you and to flow through you, like you’re tuning in to a radio station. Decide that you’ll act on inspiration without hesitation. Do your best to release any sense of neediness or expectation. Clear a few hours for this act, during which time you commit to rising above pettiness, selfishness, neediness, and fear. Let this be a time of elevation for you. You can always go back to feeling needy later.
Let your mind wander for a while. Don’t force or push yourself into action. When you feel ready, let the flow of inspiration energize and animate you. Allow it to speak through you, write through you, move through you.
Notice how good it feels to act from such a purity of intention. There is no neediness here, no debt, no obligation, no worry. Notice that you can always come back to this pure act of realignment again and again. Whatever form it takes, it’s yours to summon whenever you desire. No matter how far you stray from your path with a heart, you can always come back to it.
Alignment Is the Solution
You don’t have an existential debt to pay, but you do have an existence to experience. You can spend that experience wallowing in neediness, fear, and worry, or you can elevate that experience to a place of flow and alignment.
I think you’ll discover as I have that this experience of alignment is also a beautiful path out of debt, obligation, and scarcity.
You do not have to pay your existential debt or your financial debt first before you can start contributing. Your path with a heart is not something to be entertained at some future date when you’re finally in a place to do so. Your path with a heart is the ideal solution to your current problems. It is the very path that will lead you out of debt and into a place of contribution to the world.
There is nothing you need to do first before you can contribute. You can make a positive difference in people’s lives right where you are. I wrote my first article when I was going bankrupt. Living with lack seems like a distant memory now, and my path out of scarcity began with a purity of intention, combined with the seemingly silly decision to do the opposite of wallowing in neediness.
Is wallowing in neediness working for you anyway? Is it giving you the results you desire? Has it blessed you with a life of joy and abundance? If not, then maybe it’s time to try doing the opposite for a while.
If that answer doesn’t sit well with you, then my second best answer is to become a criminal. But having tried both myself, I think the path with a heart is easier.