This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 26, 2022 - January 1, 2023
“This is your life. And it’s ending one minute at a time.”
If you are an angsty millennial like me who grew up in the 1990s, these memorable words spoken by Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club have probably been seared into your memory. Played by the effortlessly cool Brad Pitt, the anti-capitalist, anti-hero is unapologetic and unconcerned about the traditional roles and societal norms that the modern world forces upon us.
The movie, which is adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, probably ranks among my favourite films of all time. Beyond its hypermasculine portrayal of men beating each other up in underground “fight clubs”, there are deeply profound themes about rebelling against the status quo, self-identity and enlightenment.
If you dig even deeper, the film also contains a plethora of wealth witticisms that we can take heed of, especially in our current dystopian reality. Here are some of my favourites:
‘We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.’
Functioning as a critique of mindless consumerism, Durden’s minimalist philosophy rings true in today’s highly commercialised era. Stuff has become our new religion and we the consumers are its devoted followers.
Everywhere we turn, whether it is on our mobile phones or the streets, we are confronted with images of gorgeous humans with chiselled features beaming next to their worldly possessions.
The underlying message is always the same: You need this car, this designer bag, this fancy furniture to tell the world you have arrived and, by extension, deserve to be showered with the same level of admiration and attention.
But the truth is that the façade crumbles over time and does not last.
With a clear disdain for the artificial, Durden challenges us to live our lives more authentically by rejecting our obsession with the material. Because what ultimately gains us respect and esteem is not the things we have or own; it is our character, inner qualities and values.
‘The things you own end up owning you.’
We live in a world that is addicted to debt. In fact, it is “freely” given even without your asking for it.
Think of how many times you have received a cold call from someone asking whether you needed a new credit card or loan. Now, with the emergence of various buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) platforms, it is even easier to get into debt for your online purchases.
Whether it is your house, car, smartphone, clothes or even groceries, almost everything can be bought on credit these days. The danger is that we fall into a debt spiral and end up working our entire lives just to pay off these bunch of things that we accumulate in our brief, but precious, time here.
Our possessions, which are supposed to offer us comfort and security, end up becoming a burden and limiting our freedom.
Durden, who lives in a dilapidated building with persistent water leaks and power failures, is not bothered by the comforts of modern civilisation. Instead, he chooses a life that is unencumbered by the massive weight of social expectations and communal norms.
Like a Zen Buddhist monk, he implores us to detach ourselves from the material world and search inward to find out what really completes us as individuals. Chances are these are things that will not cost you much or, indeed, anything at all.
‘You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not your pair of khakis.’
Defining one’s sense of self is a recurring theme throughout Fight Club as a nameless protagonist known only as the “Narrator” (played by a compelling Edward Norton) wanders alone and contemplates his mundane existence as a corporate drone.
He fills his apartment with IKEA furniture, wears designer clothing and drinks Starbucks, but it cannot fill the void inside and he has to attend support groups under false pretences to numb the pain and cure his insomnia.
In a world devoid of meaning, many of us carve our identity through our social status and the things we own. But we are so much more than the brands we wear, the job we hold or the contents of our wallet. These things may seem significant, but they do not define us in the end.
When the Narrator meets Durden, who is the complete antithesis of himself, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery to completely dismantle and then rebuild himself. Along the way, anarchy ensues as they lead a merry band of misfits called “Project Mayhem” to abolish all authority and hierarchical structures to create a new world order.
So, what if for once we all became rebels and break the rules? Forget about conforming and following the herd just to fit in. We can create our own set of rules and goals to self-actualise on our own terms.
At the end of the movie (spoiler alert), Durden uses explosives to destroy all the banks and credit card headquarters in the city, supposedly in an attempt to reset the system by wiping out all financial and credit records.
We probably do not need to resort to such a dramatic measure to start on a clean slate.
But, with a new year approaching, maybe we can all embrace our inner Durden to reclaim our financial lives and make more purposeful decisions that really matter to us in the long run. Wishing all readers of Wealth a Happy New Year!
Lee Sheung Un is an assistant manager of content and communication at AHAM Capital (formerly known as Affin Hwang Asset Management). A millennial, he is still finding the balance between wealth, purpose and passion. The views expressed are his own.
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