Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Agency, Structure and Financial Independence.



This post was inspired when I read a Masters thesis from a fellow D&D player called Shao Han.

The central idea of his thesis is as follows : Some of us might feel constrained and alienated in some way in a modern meritocratic technocracy and table-top role-playing games can inculcate a sense of Agency in gamers. Given that a large part of my life ended up this way probably because I started playing D&D since I was 10 years old, I think I should a blog about how theories of Structure and Agency might be able to explain the genesis of my ideas and approach towards Financial Independence.

In sociology, Structure and Agency can be considered to be something akin to Yin and Yang. Structures provide a pattern by which we live. For example, a Chinese wedding custom is a Structure. Agency is the power that we have to act against the Structure that is constraining us. In this same example, Chinese wedding customs result in expensive weddings, that in turn pushes Chinese males to become more concerned about money making and subtly shifts his ambitions towards accumulating more assets ( because ultimately Chinese males wants sexual access too and this means expensive weddings ! ). A Chinese male who is voluntarily lazy and unambitious may develop a philosophical loathing for the Chinese ideal of family. We should at least, applaud his Agency to see beyond the Structure of a Chinese wedding.

[ This probably answers that question that financial bloggers have asked ourselves for ages when we gather for drinks and food. The question of why there is so little diversity amongst our numbers. But I digress... ]

How does one gain Agency ? I decided to reminisce about my own D&D experience to answer that question.

For me, my moment of awakening came when I joined a truly dysfunctional D&D group. I played with two Hong Kong RPGers who took a different approach to playing D&D. For most of us who still play D&D today, basically we create a character and then reacted to the whatever the Dungeon Master threw at us.

These Hong Kong guys played D&D differently. I suspected that it's probably due to their poorer grasp of English but it resulted in fascinating play situations.

These guys were not "rules lawyers" but were better classified as "rules rapists". They interpreted every rule in their own unique way. They took me under their wing and they taught me never to accept what the rules say what "can be done", but to do things that the rules did not explicitly say what "cannot be done".

For example, a Fire Trap spell in old school D&D can be cast on any closeable item by a 3rd level Druid. The design intent was to trap a chest or a box and create a fiery explosion when any thief were to attempt to open the box without uttering a password. My Hong Kong friend declared that his mouth is also closeable item so he cast a Fire Trap on his mouth and went around the dungeon biting Orcs. Needless to say,  our DM spent most of the session rolling on the floor and laughing his head off rather than running a proper game for us. From casting Stone to Flesh and then eating to through dungeon walls to suprise an opponent to using an Item spell to turn a pebble into a boulder, my games were worse than watching a bad episode of Rick and Morty while being on crack.

After years of gaming with Hong Kongers, I eventually became a "rules rapist" myself. These days, I still love tinkering with the D&D rules but I try to tone it down because I don't want to be a pariah in the gaming circles.

Back to financial independence.

One sure way of speeding towards your goal of Financial Independence is to understand the Structure that permeates our society. We're bound with golden handcuffs with an obligation to form families and put ourselves under expensive mortgages so as to look like some folks who are living the Singaporean Dream.

As what I have learned from Shao Han's Master's thesis. That is merely a Structure which can be overcome by our own Agency.

Why not ask ourselves this question :

Can we do something about our lives that is not strictly prohibited by the law or the Singaporean Dream ? You will find that living in Singapore is really not that restrictive.

For me :

  • My first breakthrough was that engineers can be rich in spite of  a humble income because unlike many other professions we're good with numbers and we're not afraid to use it. We just need to take these equations we have and use it in Finance.
  • The second breakthrough is that a person can save more than 100% of our paid income. Dividends hold the key to earning vastly beyond an engineer's salary.
  • The third breakthrough is that we do not need to be paid a salary to support a family. That's the job of the tenant who need our real estate holdings. Capital can even grow after 4 years of successive unemployment. ( Thomas Piketty's r > g inequality )
  • The fourth breakthrough I am currently working on is that there is nothing stopping an engineer from becoming a lawyer once he is fully decoupled from the paid wages economy. It's like a demilich becoming an archlich. Who said that you must retire ? I choose to pivot.

So in summary :

I started as a 10 year old struggling D&D player hanging out with DMs who were out to torment kids and teenagers.

I learnt the art of "rules raping" from a group of expatriate gamers.

I was changed by the experience and tried to broaden this act of gaining Agency to the broader world of personal finance.

Maybe there's a teachable lesson here.









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