Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Thinking about the world in a different way is almost impossible, especially as we get older.

By age 10, we’ve learned a lot about how to behave, who to trust, and what foods we like.

By age 20, we’ve learned a lot about what makes us anxious, the types of people we enjoy spending time with, and what we like to do on the weekends.

By age 30, we’ve learned a lot about our political opinions, the brands we prefer, and whether or not we’re the type of person who uses a turn signal when changing lanes.

All of these things are established in the context of the culture in which we are raised and the associated norms, mores, and social faux pas of that culture.

Which is why reading about totally different cultures can feel wild. We have almost no frame of reference for them. And “wild” is exactly how I’d describe Daniel Everett’s book, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes“.

It’s an exposé on a tribe of Amazon natives living deep in the Brazilian rain forest called the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN). Daniel and his family lived with this tribe off and on for 3 decades starting in 1977. His official work was as a missionary and a linguistics researcher. But due to a series of personal trials and vivid descriptions, the book is about so much more than this tribe’s unique method of speech (they only have 3 vowels and 8 consonants!).

Daniel writes with the perfect level of detail to make every story feel real, exciting, and memorable. At times it felt like happily bouncing through an adventure novel more than a non-fiction book about grammar and syntax.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaways:

The fact: The Pirahã live entirely in the present moment and don’t have words for abstract concepts. So, for example, words to express mathematics, the far future, and myths don’t exist. The immediate experience is all that matters. They weave baskets from tree leaves for the express purpose of a single trip, only to discard them after arrival at their destination. They forgive past insults quickly and don’t bring them up again.

The lesson: Planning for the future is great, but don’t move the goal posts once you get there. Pause often and reflect on how far you’ve come. It probably wasn’t too many years ago that you only dreamt of your exact circumstances as they are today. Be happy with what you have now. This helps temper your expectations. After all, true wealth is measured by the difference between your circumstances and your expectations.

The fact: The Pirahã don’t sleep at night like most societies. They sleep intermittently and in random locations around their small villages. This is necessary, not only because the heat of the Amazon jungle makes activity during the day less attractive, but as the title implies, there are quite literally poisonous snakes, panthers, mosquitos, tarantulas and every other creature imaginable constantly trying to kill humans. Additionally, river traders will dock in their villages to trade and these barge men don’t always have the best of intentions. It pays to keep an eye on them.

The lesson: the world is full of fraudsters, hustlers, charlatans, and thieves and they will all steal your money if you aren’t keeping a close eye on things like your credit score, the interest you’re earning (or not earning) on your savings account, and the hidden costs of “buy now, pay later” services. You can even be your own worst enemy in this regard. Don’t sleep on how many subscriptions you’re paying for, the expensive habits you’re accumulating, or the cost of your debt.

The fact: The Pirahã demand evidence for outlandish claims. Related to their culture’s high value placed on experiential immediacy is a tendency to put almost no stock in things that cannot be verified firsthand. Because Daniel joined their village as a missionary, he found it difficult to make progress on converting anyone to Christianity for this reason. They would often ask him if he had met Jesus or if he knew anyone who had. Daniel would answer honestly that he had not. Over the course of hundreds of years of visiting missionaries, not a single Pirahã has been converted.

The lesson: Reality can be very different from what it seems. You don’t have to go around demanding to see strangers’ bank account statements, but don’t put any value on outward displays of wealth by others without evidence. You have no idea how much debt, savings, or income a person has. You don’t know if they inherited a bunch of money or won the lottery. This is why keeping up with your friends, family, or neighbor’s purchases is a losing game.

The fact: the Pirahã don’t collect possessions like most people in the world. No cars, no savings accounts, no closets full of clothes, no laptops, no shoes. No maintenance. No dead weight. They don’t even collect extra food. They simply go get what they need when they need it. Often in the form of the men fishing and the women gathering. This leaves them ample time to relax, socialize, and play games. Researchers have described them as the happiest group of people they’ve ever studied based on average time spent smiling or laughing.

The lesson: every dollar you have now is a piece of freedom you can buy yourself in the future and a piece of your freedom you have sold in the past. Time is one of the best things you can buy with your money. Don’t collect possessions; collect memories.

The Pirahã are lean in appearance, fiercely independent and wary of outsiders and outsiders’ ways of life. They are also very reciprocative, incredibly joyful, and quite peaceful. And as this is a website devoted to words about money, they represent the best lesson in personal finance; wanting less is having more.

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