Don’t ignore the dragon
There are moments in life when exactly what you need falls serendipitously into your lap. Such was the case recently for me when I re-discovered the children’s book, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon by Jack Kent.
The story tells the tale of young Billy Bixee who awakens one morning to find a small dragon, "about the size of a kitten," in his bedroom. Billy has never seen a dragon before and, as any child would be, he is curious about the new visitor and pats its head. But when Billy goes downstairs and tells his mom about the dragon, she says “there’s no such thing as a dragon.” Confused, Billy returns to his room and ignores the dragon’s bid for a pat on the head. After all, there’s no sense patting something that doesn’t exist.
Over time, the dragon starts to grow. He gets as big as a dog and then as big as Billy’s mother. He starts to create havoc around the house and make a mess. But Billy’s mother continues to deny it exists.
Eventually, the dragon grows so big that it overwhelms the house. When a bakery truck drives down the road, the dragon follows…with the house on its back! It is only when Billy’s father returns home, discovers the house has been moved, and asks “what happened?” that Billy is finally able to say “it was the dragon.” And his mother concedes.
As the family acknowledges the dragon, it starts to shrink. Finally, it returns to kitten size, which Billy’s mom admits isn’t so bad. The story ends with little Billy remarking, “I think it just wanted to be noticed.”
I love this book. I first read it when I was young and recently rediscovered it in a podcast by Jordan Peterson. Its big lesson is that we must not ignore the dragons in our lives or they will grow bigger and bigger, until they are destabilizing. Acknowledging your dragons is necessary to keep them kitten-sized.
Clearly, we can see how this applies to the world of finance and investing. For many, getting their financial houses in order is uncomfortable. As an example, I sometimes talk to millennial friends and realize they have next to no savings. I know a shocking number of bright people for whom their main strategy towards retirement is ignoring it. Alarmingly, their “plan” appears to be the hope of coming into a rather miraculous windfall of money near forty.
There are also people in my life who simply refuse to think about writing a will. For them, the reality of impermanence is a very uncomfortable thought. Rather than be responsible and plan out their affairs, they avoid the important task. But they are simply ignoring the dragon, not making it go away.
Of course, the lesson of the dragon is much bigger than personal finances. You can pretty much look at any area of life where people struggle and see this phenomenon. It just happens that personal finance is an area that is very easy to ignore. This is especially true for those who grew up in households where money was a source of stress.
Now, beyond the need to acknowledge ones’ dragons, this book makes another profound point. As Peterson eloquently highlights in his podcast, most problems don’t just disappear in life and often, dragons just stay kitten-sized. And that is OK. Although it may seem like we should want a perfect world free of dragons, paradoxically this is not optimal because problems allow us to find meaning in life. We want to live in a world with manageable problems—the kitten-sized dragons.
A life with dragons and meaning is better than one without.
As I’ve said, this book comes at a fortuitous moment for me in my life. A copy of it now sits at my desk, reminding me to never ignore the dragon, and also, to be thankful for it.