The Utopia Trap


In Harry Browne’s book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, there is a chapter titled “The Utopia Trap” in which Harry discusses a common trap that many of us have a tendency to fall in:

The Utopia Trap is the belief that you must create better conditions in society before you can be free. It’s a very basic, very understandable belief. It’s easy to see that other people are arranging things incorrectly — passing the wrong laws, misinterpreting things, even maliciously arranging things to the detriment of others. You can see poverty, repression, prejudice, and other conditions that stifle creativity and happiness.

It’s easy to feel that society needs an overhaul (major or minor) before you’ll be able to live freely. As a result, you can devote a great deal of effort to attempts to make others understand what you see, to the passing of laws, to a quest for a better society.

Harry is pointing out a common mistake we’re prone to make. We often believe we must first change the circumstances around us – the people, the laws and conditions that impact us before we can truly gain freedom in our lives. This is the Utopia Trap. It’s the idea that we must work tirelessly to create a Utopia to live in because this is the only way we’ll be able to live how we desire.

Instead of creating a Utopia (which will never exist), Harry argues that we should simply make decisions that will create the most positive change in our own lives. Instead of fixing the system, accept the system for how it is and look for ways to create the best life possible within the current conditions:

“The only clear path to freedom is through direct alternatives — decisions that don’t require that you influence others. Direct alternatives always exist, and they’re almost always far more effective than indirect alternatives. There are hundreds — thousands! — of ways to be free when you concentrate upon the power you have. But you can’t see them if you’re occupied trying to change others.”

Instead of earnestly attempting to get your coworker or boss to agree with your point of view, it’s better to let them hold their own opinion and simply focus on what you can control. And if the circumstances are dire enough, look to change departments or move to a different company entirely. 

Instead of complaining about unfair tax rates and attempting to impact legislation, simply look for ways to pay less in taxes. A great example of this is Justin at Root of Good, who managed to pay only $150 in federal income tax on a $150,000 income.

If you run your own business and constantly deal with nagging, unreasonable customers then try raising your price for your services and only work with those customers who are willing to work well with you. Or start a side hustle and meet your income needs in a less stressful way. By side hustling, I have been able to make over $1,000 completely online from tutoring in only one month. The possibilities for earning money are endless in the gig economy.

If you think college is unreasonably expensive, find ways to pay for it more effectively. Look for grants, scholarships, pick up part-time jobs, find internships, live with roommates, live with your parents, etc. I used some of these techniques myself to graduate college with a positive net worth. Another option is to skip college altogether and find a profession that doesn’t require a degree to make good money. 

Shifting Focus

The point Harry is trying to make is that there are always choices we can make to gain more freedom and flexibility in our life if we’re only willing to focus on what we can do instead of the circumstances we face. This approach is not only more effective, but it’s far less stressful. 

Part of the reason we fall into this Utopia Trap is the fact that attempting to change other people and outside circumstances gives us permission to point fingers and say They are the problem, not me. That law is unfair. That rule isn’t right. I need to go change those people, those laws, and those rules. But when we decide that we must be the ones to change ourselves, we take full responsibility for our own situation. We give ourselves permission to be in control.

Simply put, let the world be as it is and find out how you can traverse it in a way that is most beneficial to you. Instead of setting out on a quest to change everything around you, change yourself first. 

In the age of the internet, we live in a time where it has never been easier to earn money, gain skills, and grow our own human capital without permission from anyone. You can go online right now and learn exactly how stocks and bonds work. You can learn how to become an effective investor just from reading Jim Collins’ stock series. Anything you want to learn is freely available on the internet.

Of course there will always be laws and limitations passed by government and corporations that impact you in some way, but there is virtually always a way to get around these restrictions.

Kicking the Utopia Trap

Blaming the world for our struggles – the government, our bosses, our neighbors – comes so naturally to most of us. But if we want to reach a place of freedom in life, it’s infinitely easier to accept the world how it is and simply make decisions that allow us to maximize our freedom within the world.

We don’t have to change the opinions of others. We don’t have to change the way the world operates to find freedom. There is a way to be free right now. We just have to be willing to focus on our own circle of control. The world will surely never be a Utopia, but there is a way to live an incredible, free life without living in a Utopia.

I strongly suggest using free financial tools like Personal Capital to track your net worth, spending habits, and cash flow to help keep an eye on your money. The more you track your finances, the better you get at growing your wealth!

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6 Replies to “The Utopia Trap”

  1. I think people (myself included) have spent or spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to change other people’s minds. Never going to happen. It’s exhausting and not worth the effort. It seems so simple, yet so hard! 🙂

    1. Tonya, I think we have all been there at some point in our lives where we think the most obvious and most effective way to get what we want is through changing the minds of others. Like you said, this is often far harder than we anticipate! I have learned over the years that it’s so much less stressful to just let others hold their own opinions and focus entirely on myself and what I can control. This makes everyone happy 🙂

  2. I was just thinking about this this morning. I started a new job today and I’ve been wondering how I’ll feel in this new position. No job is perfect, but in the past I’ve treated new jobs as a panacea for everything wrong in my life. Nowadays I’m seeing that I have to make my own happiness, even if everything isn’t perfect, because nothing will ever be perfect. And by accepting that, I think we can live more happily, and more affordably.

    1. You bring up a great point, it’s easy to think that a new job, new house, new car, etc. are all the solutions to making everything in our life better. I couldn’t agree more with you, it’s ultimately up to us to create our own happiness 🙂

  3. There are two most difficult tasks in the world. The first is to change other minds. The second is to put other’s money to your pocket.
    It is true we should change ourselves firstly, then we can resolve the above two difficult problems.

    1. Changing the minds of others is arguably the most difficult task in the world…and often a waste of time and energy for us. I like to think of the mantra “Live and let live” to remind myself that it’s okay to hold my own opinions and views of the world and let others hold theirs as well.

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