The Trouble With Want vs. Need in Investing

In his early movie "The Jerk," Steve Martin throws a tantrum and wanders around saying he needs nothing, and then starts to grab things including his ashtray, his paddle game, his remote control, and on and on, as he continues to proclaim, "That's all I need." It would be funny, except many of us wander around declaring what we don't really need and then disproving that declaration by grabbing it anyway.

In Luke Burgis' book "Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life," he postulates that "Humans learn — through imitation — to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules." We often think of this applying to things we consume. But we measure ourselves in our jobs, our families, even our piety. Wanting may temporarily motivate us, but it often leaves us lacking.

Burgis describes how rivalries come from our similarities, not our differences. We can end up resenting someone who has what we want. Here are a couple of ideas to curb mimesis.

Focus on helping others get what they want. The rule is, though, you can't help people get what they want and then resent them for having it. Focusing on others means you are less focused on yourself. Burgis writes, "The fastest way to humility is not thinking more about humility but thinking less frequently of oneself."

Rate the things that you value and see how your time spent matches enjoying or accomplishing those things. While wanting what you have may be the ultimate goal, it may be unrealistic given your stage in life.

One good way to understand what is important to you is by looking backward rather than forward. We are unreliable narrators of our future desires, but we can certainly reflect on the past choices we have made and what we have gained and lost from them. I often see clients follow patterns that they claim they wish to break but feel challenged to do so. Reflection can make you pause long enough to bring congruity between your actions and values.

When you take the time to discover all you really need, you may be surprised by what you leave behind — including that ashtray.

Related: The True Benefits of Diversifying Your Portfolio To Allot for Risk