The Baboon and the Salt

Earlier this month, I watched a wonderful excerpt from an interview with the semi-retired comedian Dave Chapelle (I think semi-retired is the best description, having read up on him a little). Chapelle walked away from his hugely popular Comedy Central program Chapelle’s Show at the height of his popularity, leaving $50 million on the table. People questioned his sanity at the time.

After the interviewer asked him about how his decision to quit really wasn’t about the money, Chapelle offers this anecdote.

I watched one of these nature shows one time and they were talking about how a bushman finds water when it’s scarce, and they do what is called a ‘salt trap.’ I didn’t know this, but apparently baboons love salt. So, they put a lump of salt in a hole and they wait for the baboon. The baboon comes, sticks his hand in the hole, grabs the salt, the salt makes his hand bigger, and he’s trapped and can’t get his hand out. Now, if he’s smart, all he does is let go of the salt. The baboon doesn’t want to let go of the salt. Then the bushman comes, grabs the baboon, throws him in a cage, and gives him all the salt he wants! And then the baboon gets thirsty, the bushman lets him out of the cage, the first place the baboon runs to is water, the bushman follows him, and they both drink to their fill. And in that analogy, I felt like the baboon, but I was smart enough to let go of the salt.

Let’s break down this wonderful analogy a little bit.

Dave sees himself as the baboon, obviously.

The salt represents short-term pleasures – a burst of money and wealth and so on. It sits in the hole and he wants it and reaches in for it.

The television executives are the bushman in this analogy – his bosses at the time, in other words.

The cage is the contract that Chapelle would have to place himself under. His creative choices, his personal freedom, all of that would trap him – but he’d have plenty of salt (short-term pleasures)!

The water is what they both want – long-term security.

Dave makes the astute point that he was the baboon, but he saw the bushman and the cage and he chose to drop the salt. He reached in for some short-term pleasures and rewards, but he saw that if he didn’t let go of it, he was going to wind up in a cage for a very long time. Sure, he might eventually get to the water, but he’d have to be in a cage for a long while to get there and he didn’t want to do that.

So he dropped the salt lump. He walked away from his popular show and the all-encompassing fame and the prospect of wealth to forge a path with a lot more freedom. He’ll get to the water eventually, but on his own terms, without being trapped in a cage.

I Am the Baboon, Too

I could not help but see myself in this story, too.

Much like Dave, there was a point in my life where I was the baboon, so let’s start there.

The salt was the short-term pleasures of the world, all of the stuff I kept spending my money on that was bringing me short-term pleasure but almost no long-term joy. Things like the latest gadgets or new clothes or going out for drinks or playing golf… on and on and on like that.

The cage, of course, was the career track that I would likely have been on had I kept holding onto the salt. I would have likely worked until I was in my seventies at a job with crushing bureaucracy. I did enjoy my actual work, but there was so much bureaucracy around it that it was soul-crushing. But I could have pretty much all the salt I wanted!

The bushman represents all of the forces that wanted me to be in that cage. In a broad sense, it represents society in general, of course, which encourages people to follow traditional career paths and nudges people to want an endless train of short-term pleasures. Think of all of the companies out there that exist to encourage people to buy things for the short term.

The water is what we actually want out of life, our long-term goals. We gorge ourselves on salt (the short-term stuff), thinking that’s what we want, but we end up thirsty for water, the long-term stuff.

I am the baboon. You are the baboon.

The Trick Is Letting Go of the Salt Before You Find Yourself in a Cage

When I look back to where I was before our financial turnaround, I was definitely the baboon standing there with my hand in the hole, fiercely gripping the salt and refusing to let go.

It’s not that I was unaware that I was well on my way to being tossed in a cage by the bushman and find myself stuck on a career path of debt and financial dependence on constant employment at a high salary. I knew that it was going to happen.

It’s that I could not bring myself to let go of the salt, and that went on for years. I kept holding onto an expensive standard of living, one where I outspent my income and added to the debt load I already had from my student loans and my car loan.

I wanted the salt. I felt like I needed the salt. The salt made me feel good. Buying things made me feel good. Going out for dinner made me feel good. Having nice things made me feel good.

The thing was, those good feelings were fleeting. I might feel good buying three books at the bookstore, but then I was left late at night feeling worried about my financial future. I didn’t see a clear path to owning a home. I didn’t see a clear path to providing for my son or for any other children I might have. I certainly didn’t see a bright path to retirement or to the other big goals I had in life.

All I could really see was the short term and those short-term bursts of pleasure. So I gripped that salt with all of my might and I stood there with my hand in the hole, watching the bushman build my cage.

One day, I realized that I was going to soon be in that cage, if I wasn’t already.

I realized that those big dreams I had for the future were actually fading away and becoming even more distant.

I realized that all of the stuff I’d accumulated and all of the little expensive experiences I’d had didn’t bring me any real lasting happiness.

What I wanted from that salt – and what I thought it was bringing me – was lasting happiness, but what it was actually bringing me was short, smaller bursts of happiness that would fade.

I was holding onto that salt, but what I really wanted was water.

Water is lasting happiness. Water is a sense of financial security. Water is a life that bubbles up consistent joy without having to spend money for it. Water is a life filled with possibilities.

The salt I was holding onto? It was delicious, but only for the first lick or two, and it didn’t quench my thirst. It only made it worse.

So, I dropped the salt. I stood up and stretched and began the journey toward water.

It wasn’t easy. The journey was long. I often missed the salt. Along the way, however, I found little puddles of water here and there to sate me and keep me going. My immediate thirst was quenched and I felt better without the salt at all.

In other words, I began to discover that I didn’t need pleasures or expensive things or costly experiences to have a joyful life. Joy comes far more reliably from good relationships, from time spent on things you’re passionate about, from having some semblance of security in your life, from living a virtuous life. Fill your life with those things – the real water of life – and you’ll find happiness bubbles up naturally.

Now, I see that river before me. The bushman and his cage are long behind me. A little salt once in a while is nice, but I know it’s easy to drop it whenever I feel trapped by it and I also know it’s not the real source of happiness. A bit of salt enhances the flavor of life, but too much of it ceases to be a good thing.

May you find the courage to let go of the salt and to walk away from the bushman’s cage.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.