The Adaptation Principle

4/21/12 The day I bought my Sexy2K.

4/21/12 The day I bought my Sexy2K.

During my time in LA, I made enough money to live a comfortable life. Go out for lunch even though I brought lunch? I'm in. Go to San Diego to buy a 2006 Grand Prix White S2000 AND get some beers at Stone Brewing? I'm in. Over the years I steadily made more money, but for some reason, I never felt like I had more money. Even though I was enjoying more luxuries than ever before, I never felt any happier. I couldn't understand why.

Enter the Adaptation Principle.

the human ability to adapt is our greatest asset.
— Aimee Mullins

Remember when you got your wisdom teeth pulled out? You still ate food. Remember when gas prices skyrocketed? You still got around town. Remember when Trump was elected president? You still chose to live in the U.S.

Humans are able to adjust to new situations. For evolutionary purposes, it's the difference between life and death. For financial purposes, it keeps people in a hamster wheel of misery.

I thought earning more money would make me happier. I could afford nicer things, eat fancier food, buy a house. I could set myself up for the future. But as Dan Gilbert says, "people almost always overestimate the intensity and duration of their future emotional reactions."

What was really happening was I was adapting to each increase in income. My "baseline level of happiness" would adapt. The more money I made, the more my state of happiness adapted to stay the same. Looking back, I wasn't very happy and money clearly wasn't doing anything to help.

To better explain this, let me bring in a treadmill.


The Hedonic Treadmill

The Hedonic Treadmill is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
— Stephanie Rosenbloom
Running on a treadmill shows how people adapt to more money. 

Running on a treadmill shows how people adapt to more money. 

As with running on a treadmill, even though your income (i.e. speed) increases, you're not getting ahead (i.e. running in place). Your baseline of happiness stays the same no matter how much money you make.

You can’t change your natural and usual state of tranquility, the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before
— Jonathan Haidt

The shitty thing is that over time, you build tolerance to increases in income. $50k is satisfying for a year, then next year it's $100k, then $200k the year after that. You have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. You have to make more money, buy nicer clothes, a newer car, and a bigger house just to keep your head above water. It's a zero-sum game.

You want to chase money? You better keep up.

You want to chase money? You better keep up.


Adaptation is the reason why:

  • More money and possessions won't bring long-term happiness. It's why winning the lottery won't make your life that much better.
  • No amount of money will ever be enough.
  • The more you have, the more you want. As your tolerance increases, so does your need to satisfy your cravings. This is why you want to frequently upgrade your phone, wardrobe, or lifestyle even if there is nothing wrong with them.

By always adapting to increasing income, it proves lack of money isn't the issue. For me, the real issue is that chasing money hid my real problems.

  • Complacency: Chasing money is the easy way out. A goal I could always rationalize and fall back on. Getting trapped in a dead end job was easy and socially acceptable no matter how miserable it made me.
  • Fear: Chasing money kept me from growing. It was "too risky" to try something new, something that would challenge me. I couldn't jeopardize my steady income from my dead end job.
  • Insecurity: I lacked confidence. I used to believe that having money could make me feel better about myself. But in reality, money gave me fake confidence. You can't trade money for confidence because real confidence comes from being comfortable with failure.

Chasing money hid my issues for far too long. It was only a couple years ago when I stopped chasing money and started fixing my real problems. It's been slow and challenging but it's worth it because fixing my real problems is what has made me happy.

Today, I make enough money to live a simple life. A life where money doesn't distract me from more important things. A life that can't improve much by chasing more money because I am human: My ability to adapt won't let it.










Learning to want less

purged my closet down to my basic needs

purged my closet down to my basic needs


lux·u·ry (noun) the state of great comfort and extravagant living.


Defining what my needs were (link) made me realize that the things I deemed as wants were typically luxury items. I had 14 pairs of shoes but only 2 feet, an Xbox that I've only played for 5 hours, and I frequently consumed $5 lattes. The constant purchasing of my wants had a cancerous effect on the rest of my life. Most of my time was spent making money just so that I could afford things that I didn't need.

When I realized I had a problem, I knew my first step was to figure out the root cause behind my excessive spending. Why the hell did I have no money?



I was an emotional consumer


bag of trying to feel cool

bag of trying to feel cool

INSECURE: Conspicuous consumption (link) was prevalent in my life. Subconsciously, I frequently compared myself to others. I would hesitate to buy a t-shirt that everyone else was wearing. I had to wear something that had a bit of exclusivity to stand out. Typically, that exclusivity came with a higher price tag that drained my bank account causing me financial stress. Bye, bye money.


XBOX ONE that I've only used for 5 hours.

XBOX ONE that I've only used for 5 hours.

ADDICTED: I bought things just to buy things. If I didn't buy something expensive for a while, I got withdrawals; an "itch" to buy something big. Buying things gave me a tiny, but all too temporary boost of excitement in a life that ran on cruise control. Tempted by the itch of my addiction, I usually relented and splurged. All it did was drain my bank account and cause me financial stress. Bye, bye money.


A mattebox I've only used for one shoot 9 years ago.

A mattebox I've only used for one shoot 9 years ago.

IRRATIONAL: My mind was very good at rationalizing the irrational. Its success rate was as automatic as a Steph Curry free throw. I would often buy the latest camera gear that I'd only use for a couple hours before storing it away for years. Irrationally, I thought having the latest camera equipment would make me a better filmmaker - I was a fool. And I paid for it. Literally and figuratively. I bent over backwards to make more money just to buy equipment that would give me a false sense of skill. All it did was drain my bank account and cause me financial stress. Bye, bye money.


There was one shared reason behind these purchases: I thought they would make me happy. The happiness was always short lived, maybe only lasting a couple days tops. I wasn't happy and I couldn't get out of debt. I couldn't figure it out. Then, I came across a theory from Adyashanti, an American spiritual teacher, that blew my mind. 


"When we make a purchase and/or get what we want, we are temporarily happy and fulfilled. But the reason for happiness is not because we got what we wanted, but because for a brief period of time, we stopped wanting, and thus we experience peace and happiness." - Adyashanti


Suddenly, everything made sense. I, now, understood why that feeling of happiness was so fleeting. The idea of wanting is what drove me to spend irrationally. I wanted to feel secure, I wanted to satisfy my withdrawals, I wanted to be happy.

Looking back, I'm embarrassed that was why I got myself in debt, why I had no real savings for the future, why I was insecure, and why I was addicted. I foolishly believed that fulfilling these wants led to security. Achieving that momentary peace from not wanting drove me to continuously fill my wants. It fed my addiction and rationalized my impulses. It made me ashamed of myself.

Once I realized why I spent money on things I didn't need, it made it easy for me to stop wanting them.

An interesting thing happens when you want less: a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders.

  • I have more time
  • I have more money
  • I have less financial stress
  • I don't compare myself to others
  • I don't have to work a dead end job motivated only by money
  • I'm enjoying life more


Paulina and I took a guilt-free spontaneous trip to Zion in September.

Paulina and I took a guilt-free spontaneous trip to Zion in September.


It's been 4 months now and I haven't missed indulging in my wants. Every now and then, I'll treat myself to something special, but nowhere near as frequently as I used to. Since experiences give me more joy than luxurious items, I'll gladly spend the money to take a vacation. I've learned to appreciate what I already have and I'm more logical when it comes to spending.

The main thing is that I have more time and money to invest in things I value the most: health, family, and Paulina.



How much money is enough?


"We're living in a Culture of More versus a Culture of Enough." - Neil Pasricha


Up until 2 years ago, I made sure I was always making money. Never calculating how much I actually needed, my default was set to more. Mo money meant mo progress. The amount of money in my bank account didn't matter. If it wasn't growing, then it wasn't enough. I'd often work day and night on multiple projects at the same time. The result? I was perpetually stressed. I burnt myself out prioritizing money over health. Boy, was I dumb.


"The desire for money consumes our time, wastes our energy, compromises our values, and limits our potential." - Joshua Becker


Lately, I've been learning about minimalism: how to live more with less. It's not about owning only 20 things or living in a tiny house, it's about pursuing what you value the most by removing anything that distracts you from it. In my case, the endless pursuit of money was distracting me from living the life I wanted. Money had power over my life. It dictated where I lived (far away from loved ones), how much I worked (50 - 70 hours per week), and my health (lack of sleep due to work). Giving money that kind power was foolish.

Money is just a tool. It's meant to help me survive, not be my life's purpose.

I used to tell myself that chasing money wasn't important, but my actions proved otherwise. If I didn't change my relationship with money now, I'd continue to let it control my life.

I thought a good first step would be to define my needs and, within that, figuring out how much money would be required to maintain a minimum standard of living. Confronting my finances has always been uncomfortable, which is why I was financially irresponsible. After winning a battle with procrastination, I got out a pen, paper, and calculator and finally figured out my basic needs:

- Rent

- Food

- Transportation (gas + insurance)

- Health (insurance + monthly fees)

- Subscriptions (phone, web hosting, Adobe CC)

The first thing I noticed was that I spent a lot of money on things I didn't need. Eating out, coffee, and new clothing just to name a few. After calculating the annual costs of my needs, I was surprised to find that I needed far less money than I thought.


"I don't need to make a million dollars, I just need to make a living."


Numbers don't lie. I thought I had to make a lot of money to live. It turns out I've been making enough to live this entire time. It helps that I have no debt, no kids, and no mortgage. The knowledge that I have enough has erased most of my financial stress like a Lebron block on Andre Iguodala.



Adopting a minimalistic mindset, I'm cutting back on the luxuries in life; I'm spending less money eating out, going out with friends, and watching films in the theater. It hasn't been the most enjoyable experience, but I know future Phil will thank me.

All things considered, it's a relief to know that, as of today, I don't have to prioritize money over everything else in my life. I can pursue new challenges like camera operating or writing purely out of curiosity and joy rather than worrying about how much money each pursuit will generate.

Defining how much is enough doesn't set me up to never worry about money again. What it has done is lay the groundwork towards financial independence. It's changed my relationship with money forever. Money doesn't control me anymore. It's just a tool I use to survive. Nothing more, nothing less.