I first heard the phrase about something is a good servant but a poor master in relation to money. “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” And it struck me in its simple truth.
People with money will be the first to say how little it matters, but anyone who has worried about how they’d pay the bills, or realising they’ve overdrawn their account trying to pay for the most basic of groceries, or driven their car on empty praying to make it home until they could get paid tomorrow, knows it matters a lot when you don’t have it.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can pay for a home you own instead of renting from a spendthrift landlord. It can pay for courses so you can retrain and leave the job you hate to do something you love. It can enable you to travel and see the world. It can buy paint and canvases or a computer on which to write your novel.
But the biggest thing money can buy is the ability not to think about it. Having enough money that you don’t have to worry about it but not so much that you think it means more than it does is the goldilocks zone.
This is the real meaning of good servant, poor master. When money serves your life and greater goals, it’s great; when your life revolves around getting more of it, it’s awful. Money, in and of itself, is quite neutral. It’s our relationship to it that makes it helpful or toxic.
And it struck me there are other things like this. What else makes for a good servant, but a poor master?
Mobile phones, social media, the world wide web of information all at our fingertips, what’s not to like?
A lot, obviously. Internet trolls come to mind. As do relentless notifications and a nagging sense of missing out on something whenever I step away from my phone.
On the one hand, it’s great, because social media sites have been built to give us a dopamine hit every like or retweet. Who doesn’t secretly enjoy when they get loads of likes to a comment or post, or whose post is shared and becomes viral? On a deeper level, as a US immigrant living in the UK, I know facebook has enabled me to keep in touch with people from old neighbourhoods, from across the Atlantic, from school, from old jobs, from phases long since gone from my life. It’s been nice reconnecting with old school friends or the person who was my best friend and idol for a few short years when we lived next door to each other.
But it also means getting caught up in an argument about Black Lives Matter with my (apparently, I’ve learnt) racist great Aunt. Or feeling bombarded by 57 messages from my son’s class parents Whatsapp group during a working day that was already overwhelming, wondering what bomb had befallen the school, only to find it was nothing remotely relevant to me.
So how to reap the rewards without the drawbacks?
It will vary for each of us, as each of us has a different relationship to our tech. For me, I’ve had to limit facebook and make sure I do more fulfilling and enriching things in those pockets of time throughout the day when I think, “I’ll just check facebook to kill time…”. Before I know it, twenty minutes will have passed and instead of feeling connected to old friends I feel aggravated by arguments about masks. So instead, I try to limit my facebook to certain times of the day, and never first thing upon waking or last thing before bed. I’ve also found I needed to switch off notifications on every. single. app. I. have. Warning: the apps do NOT like this, but once I find how to do this for each app (some more forthcoming than others), I’ve never once regretted it.
As soon as I realise I’m starting to get my news from facebook, or I’m scrolling further in the newsfeed *because* I’m bored, it’s time to switch it off. Since re-activating this rule (I fell off the wagon big time during lockdown), I’m reading and writing much more, and my life feels all the richer for it.
Speaking of news, another “good servant, poor master” area is the news. As Rutger Bregman writes in his most recent book, Humankind (which, along with Utopia for Realists, I highly recommend):
“Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the new drug causes, I quote, ‘a misinterpretation of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, [and] desensitisation.’
“Would we use this drug? Would our kids be allowed to try it? Would government legalise it? To all of the above: yes. Because what I’m talking about is already one of the ten biggest addictions of our times. A drug we use daily, that’s heavily subsidised and is distributed to our children on a massive scale.
“That drug is the news.”
Okay, so first off, I’m NOT talking about ‘mainstream media’ like it’s some great conspiracy. Nor am I suggesting it behoves any of us to stick our heads in the sand, especially with so much disruption to the norm at stake right now. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to pay attention to our governments, especially now as so many true colours are showing.
The daily news cycle, just like social media, knows what keeps our attention and will use that, even when doing so doesn’t align with our intentions for following the news. We may want to be informed citizens, but often the news coverage creates an unrealistic perception of the world. As violent crimes or airplane accidents have fallen in recent years, news coverage has increased significantly. 
The important thing then isn’t to swallow the news hook, line, and sinker, or to assume staying glued to the news will necessarily help you be a good citizen. What do you need to know more about in order to act – either to vote, or protest, or petition, or simply be aware of so when the time comes to act, you know where you stand? Focus on that, and let go of the rest.
Taking advice and listening to others is a real virtue. It’s one I’m not great at, myself, which puts me at risk of seeming like a real pain-in-the-ass know-it-all. I don’t think I am a know-it-all, but I have learned that I am reluctant to take advice and like to learn things for myself.
However, I remember a point in my life when I avidly sought out advice, and that was when my first son was born. I read the books that friends recommended. I devoured blog posts. I asked fellow new mums at coffee mornings and sing-along groups.
Then came the night my then-six-month-old couldn’t fall asleep and lay screaming in his cot, while my husband and I stood over him. I was in decision paralysis. Anything I did was going to damage him for life. Leave him to cry a few minutes? His cortisol levels will soar as he thinks he could be eaten by a tiger any minute. Pick him up and nurse him? He will never learn to self soothe. I turned to my husband, saying, “You’ll have to decide! I have read too much to know what to think anymore!”
So sometimes, advice can be useful. It broadens our horizons and helps us see other perspectives. It’s been so helpful to listen to others’ experiences during 2020 – to truly hear what my friends of colour have experienced, and what they would like their white friends to do to support BLM. To understand how my trans and non-binary friends feel about a Biden/Harris ticket. How my middle-aged cousins feel about rioting, the police, and the military. How my long-term Democrat friends feel about third-party voters when so much is at stake.
But when it tips beyond that, it can leave us either angry, disenfranchised, bullied, or paralysed. I know that no matter what I do, I will not please everyone. My vote in November will offend someone, who thinks I’ve either sold out or thrown it away. Speaking up about BLM may seem like whitesplaining, whereas being silent can easily be seen as complicity.
Ultimately, I can listen, hear, empathise, and understand. But my decisions will be my own. The advice is useful as it feeds that decision, but it cannot stifle the decision or take it away from me.
What to do when they start to become bad masters
We will all experience times when any of the above might start to overstep their usefulness and start to negatively impact our well-being and happiness. But what to do without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
As with most things, there’s no one answer of the ‘right’ way to deal with any of these issues. Not just that two people will have different solutions based on their lives and dispositions, but even the same person may find different approaches most helpful at different points in their life.
So instead of solutions, here are some questions to get you thinking.
How does this serve me?
What am I looking for when I turn to money/the news/technology/advice?
How else can I meet that need?