Paying too much for the whistle

Everything you want in life has a price connected to it. There’s a price to pay if you want to make things better, a price to pay just for leaving things as they are, a price for everything.
Harry Browne
1933 – 2006

Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend, Madame Brillon, in 1779 and told a delightful story about himself. The following excerpt captures the essence of the story.

“When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.”

I think it’s a common problem today to overestimate the value we might get from some action and underestimate the cost of that action. It’s easy to find plenty of examples of “paying too much for the whistle” in everyday life.

Physical possessions are probably the most obvious area where people overpay for the satisfaction they gain. We have a neighbor who clearly spent a great deal of money to have a concrete patio with a brick fire pit installed in their backyard. This addition was made several years ago, but we’ve only seen them use the patio twice. Clearly, they overestimated how much enjoyment they’d receive from this upgrade.

Likewise, consider the person who pays a significant amount for concert tickets or a fancy meal. After a few hours, both the money and experience are gone, leaving only a memory that will rapidly fade (and perhaps a credit card bill that will linger). It’s likely that the same amount of enjoyment could have been had with a more modest expense and the extra money could be used for another outing or for a lasting possession. This person almost certainly overpaid for their “whistle”.

What about relationships? Do you have friends who regularly expect your time and attention but give little back? Or do they often lean on you for emotional support but never return the favor? If so, the cost of those friendships is too high.

Sadly, the most serious mistake is when someone compromises their principles for the sake of getting ahead in their career. There have been plenty of news stories about business executives, politicians, and others engaging in unethical behavior in pursuit of success, only to find themselves losing their jobs–and in some cases ending up in jail. You don’t need me to tell you that those people paid far too much for the benefits they got.

These are just a few examples of how we overestimate the long term benefits of some action and underestimate the long term cost of that action. Take the time to examine your current circumstances and consider where you might be paying too much for the whistle.

Some prices are just too high, no matter how much you may want the prize. The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.
Lois McMaster Bujold
1949 –

Copyright © 2019 John Chancellor and Cheryl Chancellor


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