• Nicholas Pihl

What's the REAL reason I want a Tesla?

Updated: Apr 19

One of my goals is to help people make financial decisions that increase their happiness and satisfaction in life. At times, this can almost resemble therapy. But there's something I've noticed in myself, which I believe is also present in other people. What I've observed is that my stated reasons for wanting something, or doing something, don't always offer a complete explanation of my behavior.

The problem, I think, is that we are usually comfortable attributing noble, practical purposes to our actions, but are less comfortable acknowledging more emotional impulses. This may not sound bad, but it actually becomes a problem when it limits our understanding of what will make us happy. Worse, denying these motivations doesn't seem to make them go away. It only causes them to show up elsewhere.


I recently talked this through with a friend who bought a Tesla. In particular, he expressed some ambivalence about how it felt driving this car around town. On one hand, he loves how it drives, love not paying for gas, and love the sense of comfort the car provides. Through this lens, his purchase represents a positive set of values, like environmentalism, appreciation for fine engineering and design, and fiscal practicality.

But he shared that there's a voice which says, "what matters isn't so much being an environmentalist, but being seen as such." It irks him that other people might see his Tesla as a misallocation of resources, a car payment that should have been put into savings. Even though, for him, it was a conscious decision to indulge in a justifiable luxury after having covered his financial bases. Yet he still worries about how other people see the decision, which suggests that part of his motivation was to gain external validation or status. And he worries about this too.

Recognizing this tendency shows remarkable self-awareness and maturity from my friend. Many people are governed by these feelings their whole lives, acting them out unconsciously, never gaining this self-awareness. That my friend is aware of it, and willing to explore it with me, is awesome.

While my friend's concerns are centered around his Tesla, this experience isn't limited to cars. And he's not the only one who struggles to parse out his motivations for his decisions.

Even something as seemingly benign as donating money to charity may conceal other motivations. This is something I struggle with.

In fact, I probably spend as much time fantasizing about this as most people spend fantasizing about cars. But it's not because I'm a good guy. No, if I'm being really honest with myself, the reason I want to give money away is because I want to feel like a "good guy."

The hidden goal, I think, is to gain status for myself by giving money away.

But rather than manifest my status through consumer purchases, I would to express my wealthiness and generosity through charity. I want to prove that I have nothing to prove, that I am beyond reproach. I also want to demonstrate that I am thoughtful and intelligent, by selecting charities that do the most good per dollar donated. And I also want to alleviate feelings of guilt at being afforded a set of opportunities that other people didn't have. It's a selfish question of worthiness.

Is that how I want to be? Probably not.

The kind of validation I'm describing is not something you should seek from money, or from anything extrinsic. The only validation that really matters, is self-validation. You only really get that from working on yourself, whether in therapy, through a spiritual practice, journaling, or just basic mindfulness. You need to acknowledge your desires, and integrate them with how you want to be. This is uncomfortable to do, and most people don't do it. It's kind of exhausting.

In the long run, though, you're much better off being honest with yourself, because once you acknowledge and incorporate these other emotions you can start to do some actual good, and avoid deadly mistakes.

Think about the scenario where I'm donating to charity for the sake of getting recognition from others. That might jeopardize my goal of donating to the most effective charities by giving an advantage to whatever charity is best at patting me on the back.

Likewise, a Tesla owner who doesn't acknowledge their other motivations may become less satisfied with their purchase when the things they focus on about it don't align with their real reasons for the purchase. They might find themselves stuck in boring conversations about global warming and saving money on gas, when what they really want to talk about is how it goes from 0-60 on their way home from work. Worse, they might convince themselves that they're really all about the environment and, to save on their consumption of rubber tires, never push their car to the limits of engineering that were so fun on the test drive.

This is subjective, I know, but isn't there a grain of truth here? What if, frustrated by not getting the payoffs they really wanted (a fun car, badassery, status), they became resentful of all the people who don't drive electric cars but nevertheless seem happy with their lives? What if, despite donating a ton of money to charity, people still don't see me as a good guy? That would disappointing, even if there's nothing that says I have any control over what other people think of me. That disappointment then turns into bitterness. And feeling bitter about the experience totally defeats the purpose, if you ask me.

Awareness is the antidote. It takes practice to develop this consciousness, but people who have developed it seem to approach life with a sense of harmony and vitality that I really admire. They have all this extra energy that they aren't using to fight with themselves. And they're HAPPY.

I'm still working out how to be more honest with myself about what I want, and what I value. This means taking responsibility for who I am and what I want. To that end, my counselor/coach Steve Sutton offered me this framework which has been really helpful for living a more satisfying life. Here's the exercise:

  1. First ask yourself, "what are you going to do?" (or 'what did you do', if examining a past decision). This should be one sentence, simple and factual.

  2. Next, ask, "why am I going to do that? (or 'why did I do that?'). This is where you delve into your own motivations and expectations for the situation.

  3. Then ask, "is my answer consistent with who I want to be?" If it is, great! Full steam ahead! If not, get to work.

  4. Evaluate. How do you feel about your actions and motivations? Is there anything you wish you'd have done instead? Is there something that would have aligned more closely with your values?

My hope is that this helps you develop a better sense of awareness when it comes to your decisions, financial and otherwise. From that awareness, hopefully you can cultivate actions that align better with who you want to be, and what you can feel proud of doing. And from that, I hope you can find satisfaction and contentment. Best of luck, I know it's hard to do. But it's worth it.

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